Leading Questions: Keep On Rocking in The Direct Market

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 25, 2016.

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Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why do the good (comics) die young?

Oh boy, I feel like your question comes back to a topic that has become a regular feature in this column: The Direct Market.

We’ve discussed how certain properties dominate the market for decades by staying the same, how the market is driven by scarcity as much as quality, how many modern successes mimic the episodic nature of television, hownew publishing model mimic old ones with a fresh coat of paint, how many publishers are pushing what they already have with more force, how most of what’s available isn’t very good, and how unfriendly the market is to new readers, especially children. Of course, there’s more to discuss still, like the limited role of journalism and criticism for comics and the massive risk placed on retailers. It’s a long list that boils down to the same problem every time.

The Direct Market is a system that does not support ideal, or even vaguely good, outcomes for consumers and suppliers of comics in America. It doesn’t help create quality or potentially popular comics by limiting its own outlets and buyers. And to top it all off, there’s no easy or immediate source of change as distributors, the two biggest publishers, and some retailers do everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

Whenever we question the whys and wherefores of comics niche place in American culture and the problems facing the medium on an economic level, the core of the answer will remain unchanged. The Direct Market sucks.

As much as I like how you phrased this week’s question in the most romantic terms possible, it really does boil down to a question of economics. Some great comics may disappear due to a creator being unable to continue the project for a variety of reasons. People die, legal issues can cause big problems, and sometimes people just lose interest. But the most common reason by far is financial in nature.

You won’t find many artists who are happy to leave a meaningful and well received project. However, you are even more likely to find artists who appreciate being able to put a roof over their heads and food on their plates. When life makes you choose between necessities, most of us are drawn as if by gravity to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s damn hard to create a comic if you’re starving.

However much we like to discuss art as a higher calling, a passion, a necessity, it’s naive to ignore the necessity of commerce in life. People have to buy good comics in order for good comics to continue. Why do we get multiple revivals of the much-maligned Red Hood and the Outlaws at DC Comics, but barely manage to receive 12 issues ofThe Omega Men? A lot more people bought the former than the latter. That’s what it boils down to.

Does that mean people just have terrible taste? Absolutely not. There’s a sentiment you come across in comics that nobody can recognize what’s good. Even for a snob like me, that comes off as being a bit too snobbish. People like what they like and there’s nothing wrong with that. You shouldn’t feel ashamed if Red Hood and the Outlaws is your thing. I’m really into Batman ‘66; it’s all good. However, I don’t think that is a comic that would appeal to a wide audience. It’s steeped in associations with characters and a very specific style that appeals to an incredibly narrow market of entertainment consumers. It just so happens that this aligns with the segment of the population that the Direct Market targets.

Try selling that comics and, again, something like The Omega Men in a bookstore to readers unfamiliar with decades of DC Comics history and I bet you’ll get significantly different results. That’s not how comics are sold though. Instead of being treated like complete works like a novel or film, they are sold at an obtusely high rate every month to a very limited set of people. The odds of interesting, new concepts succeeding in that sort of arrangement is a lot less likely than in something like the current book or film market.

That’s not to say that these other mediums don’t have their problems either. Plenty of great works of art in prose or film fail to find an audience all of the time, and some of these problems can be traced to economic issues as well. I’m willing to say they are nowhere near as detrimental as those found in comics though. Considering how cheap it is to produce a comic compared to other media, there’s no reason it should be so difficult in comparison to succeed, but it is.

The problem ultimately comes back to having a market with a very limited number of consumers concentrated in very specific segment of the population. You put a movie in front of the eyes of every American in trailers and commercials, and the odds of people “discovering” it are much higher, than those of any given comic finding its audience in Previews or the shelves of a comic book store. That’s the reason creative, compelling new series likeThe Omega Men and C.O.W.L. wind up sinking in the sales charts. The people being sold to aren’t interested in meditations on violence or the failures of organized labor, even when dressed up in the excitement of superhero stories.

Of course there are alternatives to the Direct Market. There are lots of great webcomics being published everyday, some of which are eventually finding their way into the Direct Market as an alternative outlet. Image Comics is publishing Tom Parkinson-Morgan’s Six Billion Demons, providing a physical alternative to this great digital story. It’s not perfect, but it certainly helps to expand the potential audience by lowering barriers of price and discovery.

Some comic and book stores are also doing a lot of work to help expand the audience for Direct Market comics. Creating attractive storefronts, engaging in community and educational outreach, and promoting a diverse set of comics help these good comics survive longer. None of this is a permanent solution to the problems created by the Direct Market, but it helps.

You may want to ask what we can do to permanently fix the problems created by the Direct Market over the past couple of decades, but my honest answer would be “I don’t know.” You have to expand interest in comics, integrate them into more retail outlets, alter the standard selling packages (e.g. from monthly installments to complete stories), and promote higher standards of quality. How you do all of that is a question for someone far smarter than me.

For now we’re stuck in the current tradition of selling comics. It’s not even close to ideal, but very few markets in capitalism are no matter how much you may hear about the free market being a perfect solution to most ills. It’s a sad state of affairs with no easy fix. So we’ll see lots of good comics go before their time, leaving us with thoughts of what might have been.

What we can do is support the good comics we do find though. In addition to purchasing these comics we love, we can recommend them to friends, talk about them online, and promote them. It’s not our responsibility and it’s not a solution to these larger problems, but it may help us save one or two of the good ones. It can be the difference between something like The Omega Men ending at #7 or arriving at its conclusion at #12.

That’s not nothing.

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Review: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 is Mathematically Awesome

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 25, 2016.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 Cover

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 is an odd issue, but no more than the rest of the series. Afterall, this is a comic that embraces the oddities of both the superhero genre and comics medium to be one of the most fun, quirkiest, and accessible books being published by Marvel Comics today. That doesn’t make the premise any easier to sell as Squirrel Girl uses computer science skills in an extended dream sequence. You just have to trust that this is way more enjoyable than it may sound.

Writer Ryan North has made plenty of references to Squirrel Girl’s study of computer science with lots of college-educated gags, but it has never been the focus of an issue. Here he builds the story around a three-part lesson (each with its own villain!) to teach readers some rudimentary coding knowledge. What’s shocking is how successfully he implements this plan. Each new lesson plays into the defeat of a bad guy in ways that are both funny and exciting. Featuring logic at the center of a battle with Doc Ock doesn’t preclude plenty of punching. Squirrel Girl also makes for an excellent teacher as her boundless enthusiasm transforms exposition into the sort of dialogue that can be endlessly re-read with a smile on your face.

Compared to other issues of Squirrel Girl the most expository panels do seem dry, but they are well paced so as to never last too long. North includes brief bursts of knowledge, then allows readers to utilize them later in order to better appreciate a joke or particular plan. The humor itself along with the action is everything fans of this series will have come to expect (i.e. excellent).

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 Interior

Another delightful aspect of this premise is how it naturally utilizes a guest artist without disrupting the cohesive whole of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Jacob Chabot is a natural fit for this tone of story. The exuberant energy of his figures and expressions match those of regular artist Erica Henderson. It’s easy to imagine Chabot as the standard artist for the series in a world where Henderson has chosen to move on to other projects. In this issue it functions as a reflection, contrasting Squirrel Girl’s dreams to the “reality” of her life as highlighted late in the story.

Chabot is not attempting to mimic Henderson’s artwork though. He utilizes more finely detailed lines and denser backgrounds in a less distinctive style that still leans heavily on exaggerated elements. The delivery of comedy shows Chabot to have a top-notch sense of timing. North writes most pages to deliver a punchline in the final panel; Chabot excels in making these land with both facial expressions and slapstick. Every word balloon is significantly enhanced by the face behind it with furrowed eyebrows or an stuck-out tongue creating a clear tone.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 is a surprising one-shot. It’s the rare instance in which a comic includes a lesson plan in its DNA and succeeds. That and the inclusion of a guest artists could have made this issue an exception to the rest of the series, but instead it’s another excellent issue. You could take The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #11 and place it in anyone’s hands, confident that it shows the best of what this series has to offer. And this is a series that has a lot to offer.

Rating: 1001/0101 (that’s 9/10 in binary!)

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5 Essential Deathstroke Stories

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 25, 2016.

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Deathstroke is appearing in the official debut of his new Rebirth series this week (not counting the Rebirth special). Slade Wilson has received a variety of ongoing series since Rob Liefeld reintroduced him during the New 52 relaunch, but nothing has stuck so far. Lots of different writers and artists have provided their unique flair to the character, and none have come close to the epic runs of someone like Marv Wolfman. This new series seems particularly promising though with a potential clean slate of opportunities for this complex and morally ambiguous ne’er-do-well.

While it’s exciting enough to have DC’s number one mercenary helming a new series, that’s only half of the reason to get excited about this debut. Writer Christopher Priest and artist Carlo Pagulayan are helming the series as a truly all-star pairing. Many will be familiar with Priest from his time writing Black Panther and Quantum and Woody who is bringing his unique style back to comics after a long hiatus. Pagulayan can be expected to deftly deliver some of the best action at DC with some of the sharpest lines in superhero comics enhanced by colors from Jeromy Cox.

The return of Deathstroke is exciting, but it’s never too late to take a look back at what made this character great to begin with. We’ve collected five essential Deathstroke stories and appearances that any fan of the character should consider reading. Whether you know him from Arrow, are just learning about him in Rebirth, or are a long-time fan, be sure to give these comics a read.

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The Judas Contract

Creators: Marv Wolfman and George Perez

Issues: Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44, Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3

There’s no way any list of Deathstroke stories shouldn’t contain “The Judas Contract”, so we’re tackling it first to add some suspense. While Deathstroke appeared early in New Teen Titans (more on that later) and quickly became the defining villain of this iconic comic, this was the story that made him the definitive Titans villain. It’s here that he not only managed to brutalize the Titans in combat, but break their hearts as well. Manipulating the young woman Terra to infiltrate the team and betray them, leading to her own death, created a situation the team would take years to recover from. This tale also provided some additional insight into Deathstroke’s own past and just how bad he could be. The Teen Titans may have escaped in the end, but there’s no question that they were both beaten and permanently changed by Deathstroke the Terminator in this story.

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Villains United

Creators: Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham, and Val Semekis

Issues: Villains United #1-6

Deathstroke played a key role in the Infinite Crisis event as one of six leaders in the new Secret Society of Super-Villains. He was one of the more quiet members on the team, especially compared to Dr. Psycho, but his presence was a constant threat with each comment denoting his wisdom and ferocity. The best story to get a sense of his place in this grander epic is the mini-series Villains United. It focuses on six villains who oppose the Society, and it’s Slade who leads overwhelming forces against them in the end. This battle shows off just how far above his super-powered peers Deathstroke rests, providing as much impact as ten of his incompetent troops. It also delivers a showdown between Deathstroke and Deadshot, two of the absolute best assassins in the DC Universe, that cannot be missed.

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City of Assassins

Creators: Marv Wolfman and Steve Erwin

Issues: Deathstroke (vol. 1) #6-9

Deathstroke vs. Deadshot is one great face-off, but there’s one matchup that is better in everyway: Deathstroke vs. Batman. Slade Wilson is better known for facing off against Batman’s first ward Nightwing, but Batman is a perfect match for the mercenary in every way. They are both masters of strategy trained in a variety of martial arts and weapons who keep their bodies in peak condition. The biggest differentiator between the two is their moral compass with Deathstroke dedicating all of his talents towards self-interest instead of the public good. This story about hitmen, assassinations, and surprising allies pits Deathstroke and Batman against one another for the first time. It’s a battle worthy of the two characters involved and brutally depicted by Steve Erwin. They use everything in their respective bags of tricks to make this one fight you definitely cannot miss.

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Today… The Terminator

Creators: Marv Wolfman and George Perez

Issues: The New Teen Titans #2

“Today… The Terminator” is notable simply for being the very first appearance of Deathstroke in DC Comics (as seen above), but it’s on this list because it’s also essential to the character. Everything you need to know in order to understand who Deathstroke is can be found in this issue. He’s the super-powered, hyper-vigilant, self-interested mercenary that we all know and love (or love to hate). But he is also driven by something more here: his family. It’s his son Grant who gets him involved with the Teen Titans and whose death in this issue drives him to seek revenge. In spite of his tough exterior, there’s more to Deathstroke and you can see all of it in this issue of The New Teen Titans. While Marv Wolfman and future writers would continue to delve into Deathstroke’s history and personality, all of the broad strokes are here. It’s clear that Deathstroke came into comics fully formed, a villain who looked incredible and had chops to match from his very first fight.

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Identity Crisis: Serial Killer

Creators: Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

Issues: Identity Crisis #3

This is bound to be the controversial choice of this list. Identity Crisis has faced a lot of well-deserved criticism, but we’re not ranking the mini-series for its strengths or faults, we’re just concerned about Deathstroke. And Deathstroke’s brief appearance in Identity Crisis? It’s one for the history books. In Identity Crisis #3 Deathstroke is hired by Doctor Light to protect him from the Justice League and he almost manages to pull it off. It’s a massive brawl featuring Slade at his absolute best, showing how all of the training and planning in the world can put one man on the same level as gods in superhero comics. He’s an amoral Batman in this issue proving why he really is the best mercenary in the entire DC Universe. This story also help to set up the rivalry between Deathstroke and Green Arrow, as a particularly nasty move from Green Arrow helps the team stop Deathstroke. That makes this essential reading for Arrow fans and lovers of big, bad superhero brawls alike.

What are some of your favorite Deathstroke stories? Did we miss any big ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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“The Omega Men: The End is Here” Marks the Start of a Soon-To-Be Classic Collection

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 24, 2016.

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This is not a review of The Omega Men. If you’ve been paying attention to comics over the past year and a half, then you already know this series is great. Comics Bulletin manga editor and critic-you-should-definitely-be-paying-attention-to J. A. Micheline has written a lot on how much she loves this series elsewhere, and I was sure to include it in my 2015 “Best Of” list. If you’re just hearing about The Omega Men now, then you’re in luck. It’s a truly excellent comic book, and both of those links make the case. This review is not about what an excellent series The Omega Men is though, it’s about what an excellent collection it has made.

There are certain collections of comics that have come to be considered essential superhero reading. I’m talking about the likes of Watchmen, All-Star Superman, and Nextwave. These big volumes provides lots of material that can be enjoyed on repeat readings and really show off what comics are capable of. They also suspiciously seem to always collect 12 issues. While those examples present vastly different tones, styles, and themes, they are books most comics fans cherish.

“The Omega Men: The End is Here”, the complete collection of all 12 issues along with the 8-page preview chapter and various other materials, joins these rarified ranks as it launches into comic stores this week.

The Omega Men makes for such an excellent collection because it is a self-contained story. From the very start writer Tom King and artist Barnaby Bagenda intended for the series to be told in 12 issues. That plan was almost disrupted when DC announced The Omega Men #7 would be the series’ final issue. However, a massive outcry from fans helped lead to a reprieve for the series and the successful completion of this plan. As a result the collection reads in a novelistic fashion with a clearly planned beginning, middle, and end. While readers may seek out another Kyle Rayner story after reading it, everything they need to appreciate this story can be found here.

I said before that I would avoid delving into a review of the series itself, and the popular opinion speaks for itself.The Omega Men functions as both entertainment and scholarly study. Critics have consistently praised both the sympathetic roster of characters and the propulsive action, as well as complex formalist elements built into every page. Whether you’re seeking a rip-roaring space opera or poignant meditation on violence, The Omega Mendelivers.

It’s that mix of entertainment, craft, and complexity that makes it a perfect comic for both new and experienced readers. Place this in a classroom setting and high school students can discover the potential of comics without being bored out of their minds. Give it to someone who has given grown cynical towards the “Big Two” and you may reignite their interest. There are still some people I might not consider giving The Omega Men to (like my grandmother), but there aren’t many.

On top of all that, “The Omega Men: The End is Here” is simply a great deal. It is almost 300 pages for only $24.99. In a market where many individual issues with only 20 pages of material cost $3.99 or more, this collection gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Some of those pages are composed of backmatter, including character design sketches from Bagenda. These are not slapdash in nature. Notes from the creators reveal the careful thought that went into much of the series, and some ideas of what might have been. Changes made to fan favorite character Doc was altered from a more humanistic design in order to encompass a key plot twist.

If you’re looking for a holiday or birthday present for someone, or something to introduce yourself to comics or remind yourself why you love them, “The Omega Men: The End is Here” is a collection I recommend wholeheartedly. It’s about to join a lot of comics libraries and for good reason. The Omega Men is a comic that delivers on the promise so many of us comics critics constantly talk about, and it’s now available to be read in a single setting. All that’s left is to enjoy.

 

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Suicide Squad #4: The Return of William Hell and Racism as an Ongoing Force in American Politics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 24, 2016.

William Hell Suicide Squad #4

A powerful businessman enters politics in order to promote his own agenda. He rallies lower-class white Americans around his demagoguery as a vibrant, crime fighting alter-ego armed with a crossbow. It is through his exuberant personality that he channels people towards racial hatred and provokes riots. A local team of superpowered individuals gets involved to undermine his dangerous antics and stop his rise to power.

This probably sounds like a comic riffing on the Trump campaign. It’s actually the plot of Suicide Squad #4,published almost 30 years ago. What was once an unremarkable one-shot (at least in comparison to the rest of this consistently remarkable series)  of this seminal series has found new meaning as modern allegory.

William Heller White Supremacist

The antagonist of this piece is W. James Heller, who has taken on the uninspired alter-ego of William Hell to recruit white criminals while capturing those that do not meet his Aryan ideals (ie, black people). His speech in front of police and news cameras does not directly acknowledge those racist ideals though. He applies a populist sensibility instead. Language is a code where “common man” stands in for “white man” and “those who would destroy… our way of life” replaces “minorities.”

This sort of coded language makes William Hell seem like a subtle beast in comparison to Donald Trump. Hell does not speak directly to his hatred of non-Aryan men and women, but instead crafts situations that make his case for him. Trump, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to find codewords for those he despises; Mexicans are accused as an entire group of being “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”

As James Heller, the curtain between his language and meaning is somewhat dropped. He uses the same coded jargon as William Hell at what is essentially a white power rally, referring to his allies as the “common man.” However, he also uses more direct and insulting terms in obvious reference to non-Aryan Americans. There is a direct connection between the highlights of his speech and the arguments made by Americans even at the time of this comic’s publication against the advance of Civil Rights.

William Heller Speech

Heller specifically points to the construction of a welfare state as being a pervasive problem, along with the spread of drugs and inclusion of “the uneducable” in universities. Each of these topics unfairly targets minorities while cloaked in language that claims to be about fairness and ability. The closest Heller comes to drawing the “us vs. them” line based on race is to speak to “our society” in front of only white supporters and black protestors.

Deadshot dresses as William Hell and arrives to stop Heller’s speech with one written by Rick Flag. This speech does not appeal to brotherhood or equality, but instead redirects the hate. Deadshot shouts at the gathered supremacists that they are being used by Heller and driven by irrational animosity. Rather than attempt to persuade them with peace, he redirects their hate towards the wealthy man using them to prop up his own career.

William Hell Deadshot Speech

Deadshot’s speech is cynical in nature, but it’s not wrong. Parallels can be drawn between the manner in which Heller has manipulated working-class white Americans (his “common man”) to how the GOP promotes values voting while pushing economic policy that harms poor members of its own voting base. By utilizing fear and hate, Heller prompts these people to work against their best self-interest. Deadshot appeals to self-interest with a speech every bit as callous as his own personality.

After the rally ends and Heller has been discredited by a plan that can best be described as “time travel shenanigans,” Flag discusses his intent in writing the speech. Challenged by Nightshade for not appealing to a higher ideal, he points out that what he spoke to was a sense of democracy, a higher ideal in and of itself. The common enemy and pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” are not too different than what drove many revolutionaries to found the United States. It is not romantic, but it exposes a belief that a democratic system is bound to eliminate men like William Heller eventually.

What is most striking about this issue is not how much resemblance it bears to the political reality of America in 2016, but that it treats these issues with so little seriousness.

William Hell Punk

The William Hell alter-ego is a parody. The very fact that a man named William James Heller chooses William Hell as an alter-ego is enough to expose that this character is not to be taken too seriously. His speech patterns also highlight Ostrander’s take on ultra-conservative America. He adds the word “punk” to the end of almost every sentence addressing a set of robbers in a poor imitation of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan.

This treatment of Heller is revelatory. The greatest threat he poses to the team is when Deadshot encourages him to shoot Boomerang. Heller is a one-and-done villain designed to highlight a successful caper story more than anything else. He is made into an even greater joke later in the series when he hires Deadshot to assassinate Amanda Waller in a revenge plot, only to have The Wall tell Deadshot to kill Heller instead for $1 more.

This may be partially due to the makeup of the Suicide Squad creative team, at this point entirely composed of white men. While they acknowledge racism as a threat to the peace, it is relatively minor compared to other realistic threats like the crumbling USSR and American involvement in the Middle East. While they address racial tensions in America throughout the series, most notably in the form of Amanda Waller’s origin, they appear confident that the problem was one in the process of being resolved by the forces of time.

William Heller is not a Presidential candidate or even a statewide force in Louisiana. He is involved with local New Orleans politics in Suicide Squad #4; that is where his career ends. While he may have the potential, due to his wealth and personality, to one day target higher office, Heller is exposed and ended before that ever occurs.

Captain Boomerang Racist

Racism in Suicide Squad #4 is not limited to the antagonist of the issue. In a briefing for the mission Captain Boomerang reminds reader that he is an open racist. He refers to African Americans with an Australian slur for the country’s native population of Aborigines (previously seen in Suicide Squad #1-3 as well). What is even more disconcerting is his reference to an argument still made today: that higher arrest rates among minorities reflect a greater inclination toward criminal activity, rather than improper or biased policing. Boomerang, a thief and murderer himself, even excuses the fact that every criminal on the Suicide Squad is white by claiming that what he and Chronos do is more like art.

All of this highlights a belief that in 1988, 23 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, an open racist could not successfully seek national office. Heller is a nuisance through and through. It is this mindset that may explain why instead of becoming a relic, Suicide Squad #4 has only become more relevant. Ignoring the divisions within the American populace and the dangers presented by hate groups has allowed these wounds to fester and grow. A personality useful for a gag in a superhero comic has become one of two souls prepared to assume the Presidency in January 2017.

Suicide Squad #4 remains an entertaining comic and highlight of the storytelling compression found in this series. But, the passage of time has elevated its status. It is now an artifact of optimism in American history and how that perspective might have led us to folly.

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Saying Goodbye to Childhood in Goodnight Punpun

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 22, 2016.

Punpun and Aiko

The first collection of Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano is a tale of growing up that is equal parts humorous and tragic, dense and simple, sincere and exaggerated. When writing children, adults often create characters and voices that read like playacting. While we were all once children, our memories and understanding of that period are warped through the veil of time. Goodnight Punpun ignores the negative connotations of this genre in a medium and presents a thoughtful story that still embraces youthful affectations. Asano makes a study of the changes that end childhood and reveals them through a series of dualities in his own work.

The first volume of Goodnight Punpun follows Punpun Punyama, a grade school student represented as a simple, two-dimensional bird in a photo-realistic setting. As he approaches middle school, Punpun is confronted with a variety of common challenges: his parents’ crumbling marriage, budding sexuality, the existence of death, and young love. Many of these center on his relationship with Aiko, a girl from an equally troubled family.

What is most striking about Asano’s artwork in Punpun is not his attention to detail or sense of realism, but when he chooses to discard both. Punpun and his immediate family are all rendered as childish birds, floating like sheet-wrapped ghosts with stick limbs, two dots for eyes and a beak. Only height and one or two additional features (e.g. glasses) distinguish Punpun from his uncle or mother. This is never remarked upon within the story; they are simply designed differently and rest upon the page like a doodle in a Renaissance painting.

This choice is purposeful and effective. Punpun has the appearance of a blank slate upon which readers may project themselves. He is a specific character though, introverted and warm-hearted; he is as lovable and odd as any child. Unlike his friends and teachers, Punpun lacks in visual specificity. This removes a large barrier and encourages us to see ourselves as Punpun while reading. It also reveals the plasticity of childhood, wherein Punpun can be shaped to become almost anything or anyone. Punpun can be made cruel with a bent eyebrow or cowardly with a simple shiver, but is still reverts to his base form just as quickly as he changes. While his family of similarly-drawn birds are sometimes shown with some intensely-detailed aspect (e.g. his uncle’s bloodshot eyes), Punpun is pure. Phallic imagery and Punpun’s erections provide one of the only challenges to this process as Asano emphasizes Punpun’s gender and sexuality. It is in this aspect that Punpun begins to lose both the visual and thematic purity of childhood.

Goodnight Punpun Friends

The rest of Asano’s characters are sharp and filled with detail. The supporting cast of children and adults alike are easily-recognizable without ever becoming caricatures. Slight changes in age feel as natural as watching a cousin grow, with small adjustments around a very clear center. The comic’s backgrounds are particularly engrossing, often based on photographs to expose the history-rich landscape of Japanese cities and rendered by Yuki Toribuchi and Satsuki Sato, Asano’s background assistants on the comic. Vine-covered walls show every leaf and every building, even in a city-wide spread, is distinct. It is a delight to immerse yourself in these settings and consistency of characters. The contrast between Punpun and this world exposes that while children may become many things, their impact on the world is negligible. Punpun does not affect his surroundings, sturdily constructed in dense line work, as they affect him.

Asano’s dialogue also manages to walk the line between two distinct tones brilliantly—another of the many dichotomies found in the work. On the one hand, he captures the naivete and pure romanticism of childhood love. At the end of chapter three when Punpun says, “ I may not be able to save everyone from extinction. But no matter what happens I want to protect you, Aiko.” This statement reveals Punpun’s commitment to the sentimental, even as he accepts his lack of power in the world. He is sincere and dedicated.However, a few chapters later, Asano provides a madcap approach to Punpun’s first wet dream. His thoughts fill two panels and an entire page in bold letters: “My brain! My brain squirted out of my wiener!” No matter how romantic Punpun is capable of being at time, he is still a child and given to flights of fancy. His understanding of the world is bizarre when viewed through adult eyes and his emotions spike in unexpected direction. It’s both funny and honest. That sincerity is the constant in Punpun’s speech.

Meanwhile, the gulf between Punpun and adulthood is further emphasized by the actual content of his conversations. Punpun’s conversations with his uncle often veer to the very serious matters of his father’s abusive behavior, mother’s attempted suicide, and human sexuality. The subtext of what his uncle fails to tell him speaks volumes that could not be contained in a single word balloon. He deflects some questions by teaching Punpun a prayer (e.g. Dear God, dead god, tinkle tinkle hoy) and handing him a book on human anatomy when asked about a wet dream. Answers of science and religion are presented on a superficial level, but they are clearly disingenuous in not answering questions Punpun does not know how to phrase. Then as Punpun and his friends discuss porn and adventures, like when they march down the street chanting “PWC” (Porn Watchers Club), the story reassumes the innocence and unfettered joy of childhood.

Goodnight Punpun Kiss

Asano’s structuring of these two distinct tones—both in art and in dialogue—alongside one another is not without reason. They are a reflection of the fraught existence of childhood. Long days of wandering your hometown and obsessing over silly games quickly give way to revelations of how the world works. A pleasant afternoon spent with a crush can become deathly serious with only a few sentences. The whiplash of moving from the farcical to the life-changing is not just effective entertainment, it is an effective reproduction of the learning process of childhood. When we are given so much new information as if fed by a firehose, it only makes sense that so many conflicting moments would exist side-by-side.

The combination of plainly spoken narration and earnest dialogue construct apt metaphors and descriptions for feelings that can only be felt at a certain time. Punpun states his emotions bluntly and each of them seems enormous, untempered by experience and cynicism. All of this work recreating the experience of childhood serves to make its transitory nature more clear. The duality of childhood is formed by the strain between what was and what will be. When Punpun loses the idealized image of his father or has his first wet dream, it is a unique moment. They pull at the seams of his life and the story itself as it fluctuates in artistic and written styles.

Asano emphasizes a child’s fear of these changes with adults depicted as horrifying monsters. Besides Punpun’s immediate family, every fully grown character possesses a face constantly tilted and fixed in a state of rictus. This presents adults as a separate entity and one to be feared and studied like carnival grotesqueries; they are an incomprehensible other. Punpun only finds understanding and solace in his cohorts, who fail him or he fails. The most central example of this comes in the broken promises made to Aiko. The construction of these promises is natural and comes from a place of goodwill, but they are impossible things to keep. That dilution of purity is the path to adulthood in Asano’s work where all good things become corrupted eventually. Reading Punpun’s thoughts on the nature of honesty and promise-keeping, and seeing the emotional impact of these pure ideals being lessened is intensely painful. It is in these moments that the ideal is drawn to the real and Punpun moves further from childhood.

Asano’s craft is impeccable. The images and words on the page are those of an artist in complete control of his craft. What makes Goodnight Punpun transition from being technically accomplished to a truly great work of art is the honesty with which it portrays the world. Adult readers look on this comic and see the dualities that compose childhood – the battle between the silly and deathly serious, between romance and realism. We carry these conflicts into adulthood, but we can never retain the innocence or optimism of what once was.

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Crocked Critics: Suicide Squad #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 19, 2016.

Suicide-Squad-1-Rebirth

In “Crocked Critics” two comics critics are joined by their favorite companions: booze and sequential art. With minimal editing and maximal drinking, a pair of typically insightful writers take a serious look at a new comic while putting back drinks. For this particular journey we are joined by Alison Baker accompanied by Hell-Cat Maggie Irish Whiskey (which traces its roots to the same lore as Gangs of New York) and Chase Magnett sipping on Mt. Defiance Amber Rum (aged in whiskey barrels for a unique Virginian flavor). They are taking a look at Suicide Squad #1 from writer Rob Williams, artist Jim Lee with inker Scott Williams, and colorist Alex Sinclair to see how this fares in comparison to the critically-panned film from earlier this month.

Chase Magnett: Where do we start? There’s a million things I have to say, but there’s too much hate.

Alison Baker: 1. The cover is a mystery. Who is that black lady in the glasses? Is Enchantress not white? Where is Floyd’s facial hair? 2. Amanda’s narration is a mess. It’s not consistent, and the elevation of these C-list idiots to “Evil” is completely counter to the Suicide Squad idea. Either they’re a bunch of expendable losers, OR they are ultra badass. Not both. 3. I cannot believe there are 4+ pages devoted to diarrhea and barf. WHY.

Magnett: I’m glad we have an itinerary for this particular journey into darkness. Let’s start at the beginning and tackle the cover. In spite of it being created by the interior artist, it is wildly inconsistent from the story being told inside. June Moone is of a different race. One character is not present in the story, while team leader Rick Flag is absent from the cover. You’re right that Deadshot doesn’t look the same as he does inside and neither does Boomerang with those lovely locks no longer curling on his shoulder.

One of my biggest beefs is Killer Croc. He is set apart from the team as if he is an alien presence, a more animalistic force than his comrades. Inside he’s the most reasonable person of the lot. The worst part for me though is his lower jaw which hangs about a full head length below his upper teeth. Even if he can unhinge his jaw, these proportions are a stretch. That purposeless lack of consideration to consistency or anatomy is not just present on the cover. It’s the defining characteristic of his work in Suicide Squad #1. But what did you think of the interior artwork on this issue?

Baker: Well, Jim Lee brought enough hash lines for everyone, so that was nice of him. There’s a lot of inconsistency in the main story – June Moone’s look changes panel to panel, along with Harley’s breast size and the details of Deadshot’s hideous outfit – and I’m going to be upfront, I have hated the Deadshot redesign since day one.

Suicide-Squad-1-Introductions

Honestly, the biggest flaw for me is a lack of any sort of emotional acting. Lee doesn’t do well with faces; they all feel static. Combine his static art with Rob Williams erratic voices, and it’s hard to feel a real connection to the characters. Beyond their initial introductions (which feel DEAD ON and WONDERFUL), they’re all over the place. Maybe because we spend the last half of the main story falling from space in a sea of bodily fluids.

Fabok does a better job on the back up, but the layouts and the writing make the story clunky and thin. We can dive more into that later.

Magnett: I want to go back-and-forth with you on Deadshot’s costume, but that’s honestly an essay unto itself. Let’s leave it at this: It’s an absolute, incoherent mess that makes him look like he’s wearing a parka from Hot Topic the one moment his face is shown in Lee’s section of the comic. These problems run throughout the issue though and visual coherency is generally absent. Lee seems to have resumed some of the worst tendencies from his work at Marvel in the 90s (e.g. waistlines that cannot contain organs) while losing the refined lines that made his work in “Hush” work so well as posters. It’s difficult to discern how much of this may be down to inker Scott Williams who tends to blur any facial expressions not focused in a close up.

I’m reluctant to throw too much of this at Lee’s footsteps though. The man has a style and, while he’s not at his best, this is what he does. My biggest problems with Suicide Squad lie with the plotting of the story. I look at this comic and wonder exactly what this version of Suicide Squad is supposed to be about. You mentioned earlier that there are two divergent visions of what this team is: expendable losers or incredible black ops. It goes for both and that mix seems to ruin any success with either. Do you think the first issue manages to succeed going one way or another?

Baker: No. Most Suicide Squad stories come together around one key point: Amanda Waller. Amanda is just as incoherent as everyone else in this comic. Not only that, she’s unlikeable. The characterization is so uneven that it completely obscures the point of the book – hard ass lady leads misfit team on suicide missions. It seems more like “horrid bitch drops sick folks from space, maybe they die, oh well.”

Suicide-Squad-1-Deadshot-Shoot-a-Snake

Even the Deadshot backup lacks any kind of focus, which is disappointing given it’s a smaller playing field, so to speak. Lawton’s motivations are paper thin, and his voice drowns in a flood of plot-driven bat-punching. Oh, and he straight up murders a snake. Do you know what sound that makes? BANG – apparently.

Magnett: Amanda Waller’s characterization is upsetting. She is a brutally incompetent sociopath in this comic, and both of those descriptors deserve to be broken out. It’s clear that she has an insane number of resources. Belle Reve is a masterpiece of technology with incredible cells that can be swapped out like those super cool new garages. The Suicide Squad has a spaceship in this comic. What does Waller do with this? Ask for five randos who almost all of whom would be less effective than a well-trained black ops soldier, throws them in space when she is aware more than one will be dangerously ill, and drops them down with orders to find a thing whatever it is, sure, whatever. The American government isn’t well-respected for budgeting, but this is beyond the pale.

Suicide-Squad-1-Space-Vomit

In the meanwhile, we are exposed to her internal monologue where she continually refers to this group of thieves and mentally ill individuals as “evil”. She is obsessed with how evil they are, but she is the one dropping Killer Croc from outer space and allowing him to drown in his own spacesuit. Not only does this speech make no sense in the context of the story being told, but it makes Waller out to be sadistic. While she feels compelled to use these men and women to achieve good ends, every action she takes makes them more likely to die. It’s a borderline ruinous turn for someone who has typically been a nuanced, morally grey character.

My question at this point is: Where is this coming from? Why would you make the Squad seem like the most hyper-vigilant and well-funded military organization in existence, then fill the team with horrifically incompetent characters who regularly make mistakes that could have been avoided by asking one pertinent question or using Goggle?

Baker:  Honestly, I think this comic was written about 3 weeks ago. Between the Pokemon Go reference and the close hew to the Suicide Squad film (at least as far as roster and aesthetic), I don’t get the sense that this was a long term plan. Parts of the comics feel like they were taped to other parts – which, based on my viewing of the movie, is appropriate. The cinematic Suicide Squad also felt like a bunch of disparate scenes stapled together.

It’s a shameful waste all around. Suicide Squad has one of the most impressive critical pedigrees in DC Comics history, and with the new movie, there is an opportunity to hook an entirely new audience. Plus, DC already rebooted the the title twice since 2011, so you’d think they’d have had ample time to work out the kinks. AND YET. We have barely ⅔ of a main story, and during most of it we’re falling from space. The characterization sporadically matches up with what we saw from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but most of the dialogue is explaining what we’re looking at.

Also: a lot of the layouts look like straight rips from the storyboards of the animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham. Specifically, the drop scene. Assault on Arkham has an entire sequence where Waller drops the Squad out of a plane, and they scream and panic and beg for mercy. Also, Killer Croc has a panic attack re: heights.

No one poops themselves though.

Magnett: Captain Boomerang pooping himself was funny when it was first published in Suicide Squad #15. At least there it was based on characterization and relationships that make the humor more natural than a one-off, gross-out line of dialogue. You’re comparisons to the film and animated movie seem apt though. A lot of this reads like it was based on instructions from a higher source. It doesn’t matter whether or not that is true because that is exactly how it reads.

Suicide-Squad-1-Belle-Reve

Characters are rough sketches based on this sort of external media. Setting and plot feel like a bizarre mashup ofCall of Duty mission intro scenes and things that seem cool only as a sketch of an idea. Nothing really coheres here and it’s impossible to pinpoint why that is. Deadshot illustrates this in an interesting way. At one point he comments “about time” on the team’s impending death. It’s shorthand for characterization mimicking a deathwish. Then in the backup we get the same sob story of Deadshot wanting to be a hero and loving his daughter conjoined with him being a serial killer and no acknowledgement of the cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a nice word for a lot of what happens in this issue. There’s a lot there, but none of it works together and it ultimately induces madness in us, the readers. I fear for what may happen if we keep discussing this comic.

Baker:  Yeah, I don’t really want to expend more energy on this garbage fire of a relaunch. It’s truly unfortunate, because DC has the spotlight and the means to do a proper revamp of the Suicide Squad as a brand. It’s so damn lazy. Like, we nitpicked George Harkness’s poop and Harley Quinn’s boobs, but the entire comic is an incomplete vignette, with no thematic anchor and a very “we’ll sort this out next issue” vibe. I don’t particularly like that – a Rebirth issue should nail down its premise and its tone, at least in a perfunctory way. Instead they’re literally making readers wait until next time to figure out if this was worth it. If we’re judging the book on its single-issue merits….I hope the direct market kills it. Preferably in a Rancor pit.

Magnett: I’m in complete agreement. While there are technically a few ways this could have been worse that’s like comparing the quality of life between North Korean fishing villages. No one is a winner here and I don’t perceive any genuine redeeming qualities.

I give this comic a rating of drowning in your own vomit while falling to Earth. How about you?

Baker: I’ll get back to you when I recover from the runny shit smell. Which is apparently a fun narrative device now!

SUICIDE SQUAD! Super fun adventures in space! BUT ALSO WITH POOP!

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Leading Questions: The Killer Inside Batman

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 18, 2016.

Batman-Murderer

Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why is it in fact totally okay for Batman to kill people?

Some Marks just want to watch the comics internet burn. I suppose it’s time to light a fire then.

To understand this question and its answer, I think it’s important to start with why people would believe Batman absolutely should not kill under any circumstance. It’s more difficult to prove something should never occur, then to allow for its existence, but among superhero fans the idea of Batman killing is absolutely verboten.

The prohibition on superhero murder is far from unique to Batman though. It’s a view shared about many characters, especially the most popular ones, the paragons. Superheroes like Spider-Man, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter should preserve life at any cost to themselves. That’s accepted like a fact in many circles, but why?

If we’re going to discuss paragons, then we should go to the root of that word and the genre: Superman. There’s no one character more revered or iconic in superhero comics than Superman. Honestly, it’s that status that seems to be the character’s real greatest weakness at this point as the pressure of writing him overwhelms many creators and results in milquetoast narratives. If the film Man of Steel taught us anything, it’s that fans place a tremendous amount of importance on this character and many of them absolutely, definitively believe he should never kill.

I am not going to get into that discussion; it’s really not worth having for the millionth time and anyone who still cares about it should probably attend a class or something. What’s interesting isn’t the two sides of that argument, but what inspires people to believe that Superman should never kill in such an intense manner. What is it about Superman that makes this belief absolute and inspires such passion about it?

Batman-Superman

A lot of that passion comes from the fact that Superman means a lot to a lot of people. He’s a figure that men and women get tattooed on their bodies with some regularity and whose emblem covers untold numbers of t-shirts, baseball caps, and other paraphernalia. Superman is a character many of us grew up with and who features prominently in how we look at concepts like heroism, self-sacrifice, and decency. As one young man from Kansas, I can attest that Superman means a whole heckuva lot to me.

The ferocity with which many fans reject the notion of Superman ever killing suggests that the act of killing runs contrary to some intrinsic component of the character. While lots of things about a character can be adjusted, especially in something like superhero comics, there are always pieces that remain constant in telling us who a particular hero is. “Not killing” is not a core characteristic, but it does point to one that can be traced all the way to Superman’s roots in Action Comics #1.

Superman is a utopian ideal. He is not only the “Man of Steel”, he’s also the “Man of Tomorrow”. For many readers, myself included, Superman’s story is not meant to remind us of the moral and social compromises we must make in order to survive. He is both an inspirational and aspirational figure who offers the vision of a world where these compromises may not be necessary. It’s a dream, a fantasy, an imaginary story, but aren’t they all? What’s valuable is that these fantasies encourage us to keep dreaming and striving to find the better world Superman offers.

Killing is a rejection of that ideal. Homicide is to many people the original sin and still widely considered to be the greatest. While there are circumstances where taking another life is inevitable and even contributes to the greater good, that does not make the act itself any less regrettable. In an ideal society there is always a way to avoid taking any human life. Superman represents that path forward. He is the hero who always finds the better way and encourages us to seek the same. While we may be forced to live in a world where taking human life is necessitated by circumstances of crime and war, Superman gives us hope that tomorrow may be better.

Spider-Man-Kills-Charlie

This is true of many other superheroes as well. Both Spider-Man and The Flash are heroes who aspire to make the world better and realize their better selves. Spider-Man’s declaration of “No one dies” in Amazing Spider-Man #656 is both incredibly naive and brave. He commits himself to the notion that nobody, even an irredeemable mass murderer, needs to die under any circumstance. It’s this commitment that ultimately leads to him losing his own life and Doctor Octopus’ heroic transformation in Superior Spider-Man. Even Spider-Man has committed murder, or at least manslaughter, before. In the pages of Spider-Man Vs. Wolverine he accidentally kills Wolverine’s girlfriend Charlie. Spider-Man’s journey is about him becoming better and that is clearly illustrated in stories like this.

Among the paragons of superhero fiction, there are two very notable exceptions to this “no killing” rule: Wonder Woman and Captain America. The reason for this exception is pretty obvious too. Both of these characters are soldiers (or at least of a martial background for Wonder Woman) tracing their roots to World War II and the battle against fascism. When we talk about the unfortunate necessity of killing, no heroes better expose this than these two. They are the brave soldiers who take this incredible burden upon themselves in order to protect innocents and battle unimaginable terrors. It is through superheroes like these that we can see our military reflected and avoid the absolute demonization of any killing in the superhero genre.

Other heroes like Green Lantern and Aquaman may be led to kill as well. This can be justified by looking at what it reflects about their roles as an officer of the peace or a monarch. It can make sense in their stories. There is no real hard and fast “no killing” rule in superhero stories. It’s always a question of what makes sense for the characters and story being told. While some characters like Superman and Spider-Man can be perceived as being ruined by an action like premeditated homicide, others like Wonder Woman and Captain America fit perfectly with that concept in a well-told and carefully considered narrative.

So what about Batman?

Batman is not a utopian figure like Superman. His origin and continued existence is predicated on the world being an unjust place. At the same time he is not a soldier like Captain America or Wonder Woman. He is not tasked by necessity to fight global conflicts, but is focused on local and very personal issues. This has not stopped writers from following in the footsteps of Frank Miller referring to Batman’s fight against crime as a “war” and Robin’s like Jason Todd as being a “good soldier”. Altering rhetoric does not change what is actually occurring on the page though.

Batman-Good-Soldier

When I look at Batman and question what the immutable core of his character is, I think it has to do with the dystopian state of reality. He acknowledges the world as an imperfect place and does his best to impose order and justice upon it. The task is gargantuan, but he is able to have an impact.

This is rooted in Batman’s origin when as a child he is irrevocably altered by the worst possible event a child could endure. The death of the Waynes reveals the world to be a cold, cruel place. That this family has immense wealth, power, and status but can still be shattered further shows that there is no real protection from factors like crime and violence.

Everything he does, in every iteration of his story, follows an attempt to rectify this imbalance. He seeks to punish the wicked and protect the innocent. Batman is not guided by a legal sense of justice either, as he is regularly pursued by the police and labeled a vigilante. His actions only operate alongside the law when his own internal sense of right aligns with that of legal actors. This quest is often expanded to the point of him creating his own forces to create order, whether they are in the form of the Bat Family, the Justice League, the Outsiders, or some other group. Every iteration sees him as a leader and he grooms his protégés and molds his peers to pursue his goal.

Batman is a force for order in a chaotic world. He seeks to return power to the powerless. He aims to create justice where there is none. He reveals the potential of one human being to make the world just a little bit better.

There’s no part of this character that is inherently at odds with the act of killing.

Consider each of the core themes found within the character of Batman and how they have been expressed in other media. Related characters, those that fill roles like vigilante, police officer, and detective, are often forced to kill in their pursuit of the truth and what is right. Tangential genres to Batman’s breed of superhero story like noir and crime fiction do not shy away from the necessity of taking a life as the least bad option. Even Batman’s own genre does not disallow killing. While the concept that superheroes do not kill is occasionally expressed, it is far from a truism of the entire genre in an idealized or practiced form.

Superheroes do kill. What makes this action stand out is that when it occurs it is almost always treated with a great deal of gravitas. Murder stands contrary to many ideals which is why even when a soldier like Wonder Woman has to kill a foe, it has a cost. But there is a difference between saying that an action should be taken seriously and that an action should never be taken. What really matters isn’t whether Batman kills or not, but that if it does so it should be a carefully considered part of the story that aligns with the presentation of both character and themes.

Batman-Zero-Year

In some Batman stories, the act of killing would run contrary to both that specific presentation of the character and the aims of the story. We’ve been discussing Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year”, their magnum opus on Batman, recently. It’s a story the specifically confronts the greatest fears for the future confronting post-9/11 America and offers Batman as a hopeful alternative. Like much of Snyder’s work on Batman and Detective Comics, it transforms the character into an aspirational figure with a striking thematic resemblance to Superman. This is a Batman haunted by demons, but one that is able to regularly overcome them to find the best possible solution. He is a character that discovers a third way and his arc in “Zero Year” follows him on a quest that is as much about becoming an inspiration for Gotham City as it is about him saving the city.

For Batman to kill The Riddler or another foe in a story like this would run contrary to what is on the page. It would represent a catastrophic failure in the effort to become something greater than Bruce Wayne. In this case I would argue that Batman committing murder would not be okay, but this is only one case, not a universal truth.

The Christopher Nolan films were criticized by some fans for having Batman kill his villains or at least be complicit in their deaths. At the end of Batman Begins he allows Ra’s al Ghul to die by abandoning him on a doomed train. In The Dark Knight he tackles Harvey Dent from a height that causes his death. In The Dark Knight Rises he watches Catwoman murder Bane without so much as a reprisal.

The-Dark-Knight-Two-Face-Dead

None of these actions are at odds with the Batman shown in these films though. Nolan’s Batman still adheres to the core origins and characteristics of Bruce Wayne, but his quest for justice is not limited by an arbitrary line between intense, physical violence, and murder. In each of these films he accepts the death of a foe as a necessary component of creating the most good outcome. Whether it allows him to save the life of Jim Gordon’s son or end an ongoing terrorist threat to Gotham City, Batman takes the course of action that saves the most lives and creates the best possible world in his eyes.

There is an importance to these actions too. The abandonment of Ra’s is the climax of the film and clearly taxing for Batman. The death of Harvey Dent effectively ruins his life and the public image of Batman. There are consequences to what is done that makes sense within the morality of these stories.

Hes-Young-Hell-Walk-Again

Furthermore, it is hypocritical to place many Batman stories as being opposed to murder. The actions Batman takes in many comics, cartoons, and movies are incredibly brutal. While he does not claim to kill anyone in some of these stories, he often permanently cripples individuals and causes lifelong medical issues. Moments in which The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman says of a brutalized criminal, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again.” have become a trope in Batman comics. The line between savage physical violence and actual murder becomes increasingly blurred as more instances show off just how destructive Batman’s actions are.

While drawing this line in comics targeted at a younger audience makes sense, it seems fewer Batman comics are actually intended for a young audience than ever before. The current Batman series features suicide bombers and horrifying imagery of gore. Death and destruction are the order of the day in this series and Batman is a contributor. To claim that his unwillingness to purposefully take human life gives him a moral high ground is tenuous at best. I would go so far as to say that in some instances it is not only okay for Batman to kill, it’s farcical to pretend that he does not.

Batman is a hero. Batman is a superhero. But Batman is also a man. His is the story of one man tasked with taming a chaotic universe to save others from the cruelty and violence that shaped his own life. Violence is one of his key tools in this battle against the entropy of the universe and violence inevitably leads to death. While it is not to be praised or admired, heroes sometimes have to kill given the constraints of a dystopian world and the restrictions of confronting real-world violence. These are all key components of who Batman is.

Like it or not, Batman is an inherently flawed hero fighting for a tomorrow in which he is not necessary, because where Batman is needed death cannot be far behind.

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Wizard World Allows Gun Dealer on Show Floor

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 16, 2016.

Wizard World Gun Dealer

DS Arms, a firearm manufacturer and retailer, will exhibit at Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago, taking place this weekend, August 18 through 21.

Yesterday comics reporter Tom Spurgeon reported the exhibitor had been dis-invited from the event after fans and other exhibitors raised concerns. Wizard spokesperson Jerry Milani said, “we have elected to not retain them as an exhibitor at the event.” Since then it appears that Wizard has reversed their position as uncovered by Bleeding Cool writer Rich Johnston. Milani told Johnston, “this exhibitor will not be displaying or selling any real guns at the show.”

DS Arms’ inclusion in the pop culture expo comes after numerous attendees objected to the inclusion of this exhibitor based on concerns for safety, a family-friendly atmosphere, and Chicago’s ongoing issue with gun violence. The inclusion of DS Arms on the show floor by Wizard represents a dangerous precedent that is both disrespectful and potentially harmful to the families and children attending an event focused on entertainment and pop culture.

Wizard did not follow up with Spurgeon after their original statement claiming DS Arms would not be allowed to attend.

DS Arms will attend in their original space alongside comics vendors and toy sellers. The company will only display and sell replicas of real firearms, but will still advertise for firearms that may be purchased off of the show floor.  DS Arms was selected as a vendor for the convention through the use of a third-party service. They registered with this service as a “Fan Car” exhibitor, a factually untrue categorization usually reserved for replica vehicles. The company also plans to sell at other conventions including Dragon Con in Atlanta, according to posts on their Facebook page.

Both Wizard and DS Arms are creating a dangerous situation in what is generally considered a safe and fun environment. Even if DS Arms is not allowed to bring actual firearms onto a show floor, their inclusion still represents a dangerous precedent in the growing business of pop culture conventions. Show floors present themselves as places to discover and explore entertainment merchandise. Placing a gun vendor on that floor presents guns as entertainment. Setting them alongside toy vendors creates an additonal awful association. Some conventions, such as this weekend’s Flame Con in New York City, have banned the presence of firearms outright.

Even in the hands of trained professionals or used in a recreational manner like hunting, guns are never an entertainment or toy. They are dangerous weapons at all times and should be treated with respect.

Wizard’s response to this situation has been almost as troubling as their choice to include DS Arms. The original statement to Spurgeon was misleading and poorly informed, at best. Milani did not follow up with those previously given misinformation when it became clear DS Arms would attend the show. This decision expresses disrespect for the press and a willingness to mislead and bury a story that directly affects attendees of their events. It is dishonest and disrespectful behavior.

Some attendees have already responded to Wizard’s decision to go back on their previous statement and host DS Arms. Comicosity Senior Editor Matt Santori-Griffith, a Chicagoan and press invitee to Wizard World Comic Con e-mailed the company. After registering his disagreement with the decision and choice not to attend the event this year, Santori-Griffith was promptly told his name had been removed the company’s press list.

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Neither Wizard nor DS Arms looks good for their behavior in creating this story. Both companies have exhibited untrustworthy conduct, and have neglected the purposes and audience of a pop culture convention. Now guns will be sold, albeit indirectly, side-by-side with issues of Captain America and figurines of Star Wars characters. In a city struggling with gun violence, replicas of weapons ready to be sold will be propped up alongside toys. The only motives for these actions are mercenary in nature. Both companies stand to make a quick buck this weekend, even if it comes at the cost of their integrity and the safety of those paying to attend. Simply put, their choices are disgraceful.

There are no winners in this story. But there is plenty of shame to go around.

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Singles Going Steady 8/10/2016: Up, Up, and Thud

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 13, 2016.

Superwoman #1

Superwoman #1 (DC Comics)

(W) Phil Jiminez (A) Phil Jiminez and Matt Santorelli (C) Stephen Downer (L) Rob Leigh

Earlier this week I wrote about how All-Star Batman #1 managed to both embrace the superhero genre without stumbling over too-familiar tropes, managing to somehow feel fresh and familiar. It is a best case scenario for a DC Rebirth comic in many ways. Superwoman #1 is an example of the worst. While technically proficient, Superwoman #1 manages to offer nothing of note or interest and sells itself entirely on its title.

That is not to say Superwoman is without potential. The characters, plot machinations, and action set pieces all have the faint whiff of being new, but read like a million other Superman comics. Writer Jiminez relies on tropes that are not only familiar but already being hammered in other comics across the Rebirth Superman line. Distrust of Lex Luthor, mixed feelings on a new superhero, and what Superman means are all there in the most expectable fashion. The big twist of a cliffhanger in Superwoman #1 may provide fodder for rumors sites, but it’s hardly notable in presentation or meaning. It’s a cheap spin to give readers any reason to return for #2.

All of this story is packed into dense pages, but the layouts do not support that density in a visually pleasing manner. While every page is readable with clear work from letterer Rob Leigh, action is rarely exciting. Much ofSuperwoman #1 is dedicated to large swaths of expository dialogue that packs in pages with nine or ten panels. When planes begin to fall and the story speeds up, these same small, disjointed panel provide plenty of moments that fail to land.

The one moment where Superwoman #1 really soars comes in a heroic teamup to rescue a ship. Rather than homaging Superman, it discovers a moment that feels unique and makes the heroes of the comic soar. But it is an exception to a field of mediocrity. While dialogue, layouts, and plotting may all be deemed proficient, that may be a worse curse than inadequacy. As it stands Superwoman #1 is just another superhero comic in a field filled with more interesting work that is only memorable so long as it is directly in front of you.

–Chase Magnett


Detective Comics Some Big Number

Detective Comics #938 (DC Comics)

(W) James Tynion IV (A) Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez, and Al Barrionuevo (C) Brad Anderson and Adriano Lucas (L) Marilyn Patrizio

The Batman line under editor Mark Doyle is setting the bar for DC Comics under the Rebirth initiative and Detective Comics is its premiere team book. The story so far has been building to a final showdown between a militarized group of Batmen and Batman’s own team of aspiring heroes. In Detective Comics #938 that build reaches a climax and it is one that reveals the promise of this title as an ongoing series.

There are plenty of climaxes in this issue that pay off well, but the action itself serves as the weak link. It’s regularly difficult to understand how actions connect between panels with bodies moving so far in space as to suggest five or more seconds have elapsed in what should be quick beat-to-beat moments. Not much attention is paid to setting or antagonists as the Bat-army rolls across panels like the ocean with no continuity. There is a much greater focus on individual moments that look cool, but never add up to a real sense of momentum. Even the details in these moments take away from the joy of speeding ahead in a comic like this as bullet holes magically disappear around Orphan rather than just barely missing her.

Most of the moments themselves do function though. Each character on the team is given a triumph that fits with their personality. The payoff for Orphan going “upstairs” is a great splash panel and Clayface is able to let loose in a really delightful series of images. This team is diverse enough that each character could be someone’s favorite (while Batman remains a stick in the mud) and Detective Comics #938 gives them all their due. It also continues a strong trend of building stakes and tensions. The final moments turn a victory into an entirely new battle that could be far worse; it provides a reason to keep reading without robbing this issue of its own import.

There is nothing being done in Detective Comics that has not been done before or better, but it is delivering an entertaining combination of elements. The mix of characters, regular delivery of exciting moments, and inclusion of sympathetic villains provides plenty to chew on. This isn’t a comic that soars, but it does fulfill its promise as a Batman-team-up comic.

–Chase Magnett

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