Archive for the Comic Books Category

What (and Why) I’m Reading Before ‘Man of Steel’

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by pbiris

Image(Crossposted from my Tumblr.)
There’s a ton of fanboy buzz, but no need to take it at face value: Warner Bros Pictures is so confident that Man of Steel will make a splash—$100-million-in-three-days worth of splash—that the studio’s already ordered a sequel with the same writer and director. It’s a good thing for the Superman franchise, which last made it to the big screen in 2006 with Superman Returns, an underwhelming talky in tights that also disappointed financially. Fans should be excited, too: This is the original superhero, an inspirational figure of nearly mythic proportions that sorely deserves a new chance on the silver screen.

Of course, it seems unlikely that a movie should everperfectly capture the essence of a comic book—and that’s neither a slight against film adaptations nor a neck-beardy exaltation of floppy newsprint. Perhaps the best (and sometimes, I’ll grant, the overcomplicated worst) thing about big-time superhero comic books is their inherent mythology: The idea that decades of stories formed the basis of the book in your hands makes conflicts more dramatic, settings richer, and characters more substantial.  The fact of the matter is that movies can’t quite pull upon that mythology in the same way. In the best cases (e.g. The Dark Knight), the best portions of comic book lore are used to lend gravitas to a film or otherwise inform key portions of plot, but the constrictions of Hollywood (a two-hour structure with carefully arranged action sequences, obvious villains and time for yuks) mean that they cannot do much else. It’s part of the reason why director Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation of Watchmen was so reviled.

(The unique aesthetic qualities you get in a comic book are, of course, another reason why a movie won’t ever quite nail it, but that’s a thought for another time.)

All of this to say: I am very excited for Man of Steel, but I’m enjoying even more my pre-viewing reading material. I have a hunger for Superman comics that’s been absent for some time, and that’s great. It occurs to me that others might, too, and so I wanted to write about the books I’m reading this week to get geared up: Love or hate Man of Steel (and indeed it seems that critics are split), these are wonderful stories that very much deserve to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, especially if we’re all riding the high of Supermania anyway.

Here’s my list: Continue reading

Final Words, Before “Before Watchmen”

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , , , , on May 31, 2012 by pbiris

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A critical piece published on Slate this morning, written by Noah Berlatsky, got me thinking about “Before Watchmen,” the prequel project to Alan Moore’s classic miniseries that will expand upon what I guess is now a “mythos” with seven related limited series penned and illustrated by some of the more recognizable talents in the comic book industry. There’s been venomous criticism of this idea from the moments it was announced, and it’s been given more weight due in large part to Moore’s own harsh words for the concept and the company that birthed it.

And certainly, “Before Watchmen” deserves to be criticized, though I’m not so sure Moore ought to be lionized to quite the extent he is as a result. In the Slate piece linked above, commenter Jordan Lund helpfully (though somewhat problematically) points out the following:

Moore didn’t create the Watchmen characters. His original pitch to DC was to use the Charlton heroes that DC had then just bought the rights to. When he was told they had other plans for Captain Atom (Doctor Manhattan), Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) and The Question (Rorscharch), Moore then created thinly veiled variations on the characters he wasn’t allowed to use.

It’s ridiculous to ask the rhetorical question “After the third or fourth Before Watchmen movie, which iteration of the characters will be most familiar to the public?” when most folks have already forgotten or never knew that Moore’s characters are already a 2nd or 3rd iteration to begin with.

Moore built his career writing other peoples characters and in the case of Terra Obscura he even did so without any kind of attribution or acknowledgement of the original creators. It’s disingenuous to take the argument Watchmen is somehow above the same sort of creative additions that Moore spent decades benefiting from.

The problem is that these characters really are, strictly speaking, Moore’s, even if they were largely inspired by the Charlton characters. But the point should be taken all the same: Moore’s reputation (and whatever wealth he has) has largely been built on the backs of other creators. He didn’t invent Swamp Thing, though he is very famous for reinventing him. He didn’t invent Superman, though he put him to great use in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is basically a literary Justice League. While he’s a vastly talented, innovative writer, he simply did not set the world ablaze with his 1996 novel “Voice of the Fire,” say, or the recent “Neonomicon.” He owes a great debt to the creators of characters that he later put to great use in groundbreaking, powerful stories like the above. And while the whole “Before Watchmen” exercise is by leaps and bounds more crass and cynical than those examples, it isn’t so far divorced on paper: over 20 years after their invention, creators are attempting new stories with comic book characters that still belong to DC Comics.

As an incidental point to what I’m ultimately getting at here, I’m tempted to say that I’m a little surprised at how aghast the community of Internet comic critics seems to be at Moore’s treatment by DC. It’s tied into some harsh contractual stuff spotlighted by the great David Brothers over at Comics Alliance, and while I would 100%, totally disagree with Brothers that the business side of things can be really, truly “gross” … I just can’t quite get behind the core of the argument. Things become murky, I suppose, in a creative business where fictions are being churned out and characters birthed, but as someone who makes a living editing and writing, I can’t pretend to have any disillusions about who my work ultimately belongs to no matter where it’s been published over the years.

Regardless, “Before Watchmen” still makes my stomach churn – I just don’t have too much personal sympathy for Alan Moore. I do, however, have a whole lot of respect for “Watchmen.”

The main objection I have – and it’s a major one – is to the process of harvesting characters, plot points, and ideas from a wholly complete, perhaps masterful artistic work with the singular intent to stitch them together as a Frankenstein monster with seven heads – a monster that will stumble around, stuffed to its eyeballs with advertisements, in a vain attempt to capture the grace of its originator, now practically worshipped by generations of fanboys and hipsters. It’s a cash-grab in the way the “Watchmen” movie was. That movie and these comics diminish the relevance (and appeal) of the original work simply by existing as inferior products and being impossible to ignore. Just as you can no longer have a conversation about “The Dark Knight Returns” without eventually turning to its not-so-acclaimed sequel, “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” you can’t really sit down and chat about “Watchmen” now without at least glancing at the elephant in the room (and the Watchmen-branded toaster sitting on the counter next to it).

How can anyone judge seven distinct “Before Watchmen” miniseries that haven’t come out yet? It’s simple: these series cannot, will not be as good as “Watchmen.” Cultural circumstances decide that. These things are being born into a market that’s already saturated with serious, intellectual comic work and substantial super hero films like “The Dark Knight.” The zeitgeist was altogether different back in 1986, when “Watchmen” was published. It’s not just that there isn’t a void to fill in 2012, it’s that the thinking people of our cultural sphere already know to reject this series just as the leading thinkers of the Renaissance panned Botticelli’s “BEFORE SISTINE,” which Michelangelo himself condemned.

“Before Watchmen” will almost certainly be a tremendous commercial success, and many, if not all, of the comics might even be pretty good. Still, the damage is already done. There will be inevitable deluxe “COMPLETE WATCHMEN” box sets. The classic will be shelved with the prequels and director’s cut Blu-rays at Barnes and Noble. And new readers won’t be able to avoid back-of-book ads for “BEFORE WATCHMEN: SILK SPECTRE,” etcetera, following Moore’s masterwork, nor getting way more than they want or bargained for in Google searches for “Nite Owl.” That’s the shame of the whole thing: that one perfect, or near perfect, or even “very good,” single book couldn’t be left alone – a book that continues to be a cash cow for DC Comics without all of these nasty appendages grafted on. Do these times prevent us from letting art be art any longer?

Say what you will about fans being able to avoid “Before Watchmen” if they want to: Our culture makes any sort of ignorance as to its existence (or motives) all but impossible. “Watchmen” is now irreparably changed. And maybe you’re someone who likes all of these new products, who relishes the very idea of them: I’m not out to yuck any yums, here, but the discourse sure feels different when “J. Michael Straczynski,” “Zack Snyder,” and “Patrick Wilson’s humping ass” are uttered in the same breath as “Alan Moore,” doesn’t it? A little cheaper, maybe?

I have no illusions about the nature of comic books. My all-time favorite writer Grant Morrison has done staggering work for DC Comics with old characters and repurposed ideas – that’s essentially all there is to the (dare I say) miraculous “Seven Soldiers of Victory” series. But there is a reverence in his words and actions, a delicate touch, that is not to be found here. Plus, Morrison’s characters and plots almost always come from what are very distinctly shared (corporate) universes. “Watchmen” was tight, complete, alone. A true graphic novel despite its original serialized form.

Make no mistake: We’re all losing something here as fans. So why all the worry over Alan Moore?

(Note: This piece is also available on Tumblr!)

Bravo, Geoff Johns. Bravo. (Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 Reviewed!)

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2011 by pbiris

(Note: crossposted from my Tumblr.)


I’ve blasted Geoff Johns in the past
, but what can I say? He deserves nothing but the highest praise for Flashpoint and the first issue of the new Justice League comic. They’ve made me giddy for the monthlies again.

Last night wasn’t quite like the good ol’ days, when I was some 40 pounds heavier, a couple of inches shorter, eight years younger, walking to Graham Crackers Comics on Clark Street. But when the clock struck 11:50, man, I was damn ready to head out to buy some comic books. (Also, I’d had some of this, some of that — excitement was in the air!)

So I practically ran downstairs and across two streets to St. Mark’s Comics, where owner Mitch Cutler was quietly placing Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 on the shelves.

“Are these ready to come down?” I asked.

“In 30 seconds,” he said.

It was like God damn nerd Christmas.

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Reading 2011’s Batman

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2010 by pbiris

Batman Incorporated J.H. Williams Cover

Interesting things are afoot in the realm of the Bat, dear reader.

(Side note: did you know that most of my blog’s traffic comes from Batman-related content and links from comic blogs? These things are important to me, insofar as that little counter in the right-hand column counting up to “30,000” is important to me, like some real-world Galaga score accrued in direct proportion to my writing output — sorry, I’ve been reading this.)

Yesterday, Comic Vine posted a rather good (though purposefully incomplete, as of right now) article that aims to “break down the secrets of Grant Morrison’s Batman.” It’s a worthy read, especially if you’re interested in Morrison’s veritable Batman epic, spanning (gulp) four years now, but not the sort of fanatical interested, yet, that has you literally foaming at the words “ZUR EN ARRH.” Also, the always-worth-listening-to David Brothers wrote a nice little guide on the new Batman books for Comics Alliance that should serve well as a sort of road map for comic book readers that want to jump in but are kind of intimidated by the fact that there are 10 monthly Batman-related books right now, not counting specials and upcoming books like David Finch’s Batman: The Dark Knight ongoing.

Whew.

Anyway, I’ve had bats on the brain, and in the spirit of a now somewhat embarrassing post I made two and a half years ago (“Reading Today’s Batman“), I wanted to weigh in on some of the goings on in this massive corner of the DC Universe.

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Return of Bruce Wayne and a Comics Manifesto

Posted in Columns, Comic Books, reviews with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2010 by pbiris

DC’s “Return of Bruce Wayne” was released yesterday. It exceeded my expectations, and expectations were high.

This is a difficult comic to write about. It’s something like the beginning of a new age for Grant Morrison’s Batman epic that began nearly four entire years ago with issue #655. (His run on that title went on for nearly 30 issues, then weaved into the “Final Crisis” mini-series, then onto the now 12-issue long “Batman & Robin.”) “Return of Bruce Wayne” is also kind of a pseudo-sequel to “Final Crisis,” which means it’s sort of a prequel to every story ever written (anywhere). It’s a story that takes place back in time, beginning with prehistory, that has its most immediate repercussions at exactly this point in time (being issues #10-12 of the ongoing “Batman & Robin”). It’s, you know, involved.

Here’s the problem with “involved”: comic books don’t really have a vanguard of critics like films do. Readers may look to niche figures like Douglas Wolk for intellectual input, but for every one of said figures, there are thousands of fanboys that post online and serve as a kind of governing body, excreting loud opinions en masse and muddying the discourse. Sometimes these fanboys find professional work and have their birdbrained critiques elevated on a major platform, but that never serves to develop their writing to anything more than kneejerk yammering.

To put this in a more direct perspective, one of the first things I came upon while Googling “Return of Bruce Wayne” was this review, posted on a blog I’ve never heard of but for all intents and purposes no different than those I know and respect as legitimate, smart institutions. The problem is this: the aforementioned review was genuinely stupid, in the most literal sense of the word. And sure, there’s a conflict of interest here, you might think (I liked the comic, Jay Galette didn’t), but that difference in taste is not what bothers me: it’s the utter inability for many who write about this medium to do much beyond taking a work at face value and panning it. (Or, by that token, taking a work at face value and blindly praising it; these are equally horrible and ubiquitous phenomena.) Though most of my ilk love to do things like write thousand-word blog essays about how “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” legitimized the comic book to the American mainstream, we seem unable to advance our own thoughts to match the work on display. It’s why comics don’t really get a prominent place in our media, why seeing a story in The New York Times about “Seven Soldiers of Victory” is so wild; even when people do want to do journalistic work about the funny pages, the right people and the right stories are hard to find. Comic book fans cherish a medium that is niche to begin with, and we further bury it with our inanity.

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Final Crisis vs. Blackest Night, in better words than mine

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , on April 8, 2010 by pbiris

I just came across an entry on Mindless Ones that basically nutshells the shit out of my Blackest Night post while simultaneously embracing more of an intellectual tone. (Then again, it is my belief that a silly comic deserves a silly post.)

In any case, check this out:

If Final Crisis is a story about DCU stories, which it undeniably is, then of course Earth is the most important place in the universe. Also, whether or not you like Final Crisis, whether or not the series succeeds, Morrison was undoubtedly trying to say interesting stuff with his mythological noodlings: about genre conventions, about art and about life. It’s striving to be bigger than the sum of its parts,  and at the very least provides us with some fun, internally consistent, higher order game playing.

Johns on the other hand, he’s not saying anything that isn’t written on the tin and what’s written on the tin is genuinely weird*. The Green Lantern concept allows Johns to quite literally reify just about anything he likes and so he has: Life? Check. Death? Check. Avarice? Check. Rage? Yup. Everything is reduced to spandex and glowing energy. In that way he’s not entirely unlike Kirby or indeed any number of other writers, but unlike some of those writers Johns has none of Kirby’s wild creative energy, add that to the very particular world view that comes through in his comics (love=the Predator remember) and the overall deficit of broader, non-DCU, non Green Lantern orientated concerns gives Johns’ mythology a parochial and bizarrely concrete feel… Morrison doesn’t need to worry over much about things like physics because he understands and he wants you to understand – as he explicitly demonstrates in Final Crisis – that the history of the DCU is the history of a fiction, and within fiction things are more flexible, ambiguous and open to interpretation. Johns mythology is modelled rather more on the history of real places, it’s an unambiguously physical history of life the universe and everything. The consequence being that the reader – even the reader disinterested in big C Continuity – is tempted if not quite compelled to start asking really awkward questions like: is DCU Earth older than the Sun?

Frankly, it’s pretty obvious that Final Crisis and Blackest Night are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit if DC’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Dan DiDio approached writer Geoff Johns midway through Final Crisis’ publication and said, “Listen, people aren’t getting this, Blackest Night needs to blow shit up.”And that would be fine if it didn’t also blow ass.

Even fellow die hard Grant Morrison fans probably think I’m a bit loony when I say that Final Crisis is probably one of the most important mainstream comic works of the 21st century and that the entire thing is a manic meta-textual experiment that just works, at least as read in the collected hardcover edition, but most would probably agree that Blackest Night is a big stupid rag that we all ought to be very, very disappointed in DC for releasing as a follow-up. Hell, I’m disappointed in it as a direct sequel to the Sinestro Corps War storyline, also by Johns, which was much more grounded, tense, and – mm – crisp.

I’ve said that I understand why people like Blackest Night. It’s a flashy turn-your-brain-off blockbuster that basically has a direct analogue in things like Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie. But, uh, you know, what’s there to applaud in an intellectually void story when DC had just shown us its biggest events can go above and beyond the artistic merit of even the most revered creator-owned works?

Surely I’m not the only one that wonders about this?

Grand Finale: Blackest Night in Review

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , on March 31, 2010 by pbiris

Today saw the release of the final entry in the eight-part Blackest Night crossover, DC’s epic tale of emotion and space zombies.

Perhaps not so surprising for a book that gives a fair bit of attention to an army of hideous anger-powered aliens that battle their enemies primarily by VOMITING BLOOD, it was pretty messy.

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