Archive for Comic Books

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

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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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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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Comic Books: Going Digital, Going Under

Posted in Columns, Comic Books with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by pbiris

Despite the fact that I’m a journalism major and declarations of print-implosion are in vogue, I try not to overextend myself to take part in any sort of debate as to whether or not CNN’s Twitter is a harbinger of the industry’s doom, or that The New York Times’ iPod application is, like, totally the worst thing. I know that journalism is going to exist in one form or another, barring some global takeover by a totalitarian alien force, and my ability to get a news brief on my phone doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t also want long, thick, juicy (mm) investigative pieces like Michael Moss’ recent expose on the meat industry. These things have ups and downs, and it’s just not productive to speculate. The wheels are turning anyway!

But. Those pro-digital fuckers just got to my comic books. And we have a problem now.

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Batman: Reborn and Fixing DC Comics (UPDATED 07/02)

Posted in Comic Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by pbiris

(Writer’s note 12/03/10: You may find this piece to be somewhat more relevant now that Grant Morrison has concluded his stint on Batman & Robin. Feel free to read both, and thanks for visiting!)

Batman comics are just about all I buy anymore. Marvel forfeited my business – completely, irrevocably – after the plodding mediocrity of Secret Invasion and unimpressive early entries to Dark Avengers (“pick up Invincible Iron Man,” they coo, vainly). DC, unable to unify its disparate brands after the brilliant psychedelia of Final Crisis (ultimately insignificant, save for DC’s predictable “Final Crisis Aftermath” schlock and Batman, but more on that later), pretty much has me in the bag for this summer’s “blockbuster event” Blackest Night, but has me less and less interested in some of my previously favorite books like Justice Society of America, Action Comics, Green Arrow/Black Canary, and The Outsiders; they’re just too all over the place. Will I pick them up on occasion? Sure. But can I really find it within myself to actually care about the supposed importance of, say, Deathstroke’s most recent dip into the bleeding rumps of the Teen Titans? Not really. Because half the time, these stories aren’t even fun anymore, and they almost never have any impact whatsoever on the rest of the “DC Universe,” which now seems a collection of galaxies with light year upon light year between them.

It’s cynical, but it’s also mostly true. DC understands how to provide excellent standalone stories, based on the preview material for Wednesday Comics – which looks stunning – and their major events like Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis (mentioned above) and Geoff Johns’ Sinestro Corps War (which, despite spanning several issues across a number of series, is collected in two very digestible trade paperbacks), yet its monthlies exist in some sort of horrible limbo between those and the admirable cohesion of the Marvel Universe. The monthlies share characters, vague references to “big ideas” (Martian Manhunter and Batman getting incinerated are about the only two things that DC’s writers seem to be getting out of Morrison’s sprawling opus), but generally fail miserably in attaining any sort of dramatic weight. The Spectre can suffer and rampage all he wants in the Revelations mini-series, but then a seemingly different character altogether is featured a few months later in Justice Society under the same name, which makes both exercises seem pretty insignificant. Similarly, Mary Marvel, forced to change her look and become an insane force of lust and violence after being possessed by an evil God in Final Crisis, should, presumably, be back to sorts after Darkseid is crushed and good prevails, but she’s strangely present in her S&M form in Johns’ recent JSA arc; is this supposed to take place during Final Crisis, when all of these characters were united against a force beyond all reckoning and the skies were raining fucking blood, or is it set afterwords in a DCU that is seemingly – bewilderingly – unaffected by the cataclysm, save for Mary Marvel’s ass-hideous haircut and exposed Shazam-boobies? Readers can’t enjoy these stories on their own, as they would be able to with the aforementioned events or Wednesday Comics, because the editors insist on pushing the concept that these threads are all connected when they just aren’t.

It’s difficult territory to navigate, I’m sure. Marvel’s Universe feels like a cohesive whole, but that can make it kind of boring and one-note from time to time. And we wouldn’t want DC to forget continuity completely, because then the comics would feel less essential and the science fiction tapestry would collapse altogether. So what should they do?

If the last month of Batman is any indication: reboot.

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