Guarding the Galaxy: Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 3, 2016.

Rocket-Raccoon-and-Groot-4-Cover

Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett has been working his way through Marvel Comic’s biggest franchises since the publisher relaunched (don’t dare use the word “reboot” anywhere Tom Brevoort can see it) their superhero line in the wake of Secret Wars. From the X-Men to the Avengers to the Inhumans, he has tackled five comics in a single week to check up on these big teams along with their individual members. There was at least one big gap left in his series of expeditions though: the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the last few years the Guardians of the Galaxy have gone from Marvel’s unloved 80s space series and a second-rate knock off of the Suicide Squad to one of the most precious properties in publication thanks to the surprising success of a single movie. Instead of having only one or two series, if any, in publication, now the team has a reliable ongoing and a solo series for almost every one of its members. That’s not to mention other tangential titles that can’t be squeezed into this week. So has the success of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy translated into some quality comics? Let’s find out…

Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4

Written by Skottie Young

Art by Aaron Conley

Colors by Jean-Francois Beaulieu

Letters by Jeff Eckleberry

Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4 is a gigantic exaggeration. It takes recognizable characters, concepts, and humor, then plugs an air compressor directly into their ass to see how large they can be inflated. The superheroes, specifically Tony Stark, become cartoonish caricatures. The games of Dungeons & Dragons and Fantasy Football are rendered into almost unrecognizable forms packed with absurdist violence. And amidst it all there are spittle-filled speeches and bigger-than-life leaps of logic. All of that is to say, this comic gets that it’s a superhero spectacle and has as much fun as possible being just that.

While writer Skottie Young may be Marvel’s sales pitch to wary readers, it’s artist Aaron Conley that makes this bombastic comic function. From enormous spreads of alien football players to over-the-top cuteness marking the best joke of the issue at the end, Conley gets what it means to exaggerate form. That exaggeration never comes at the cost of storytelling though, which is key. These figures have shoulderpads wider than the Potomac and Rocket’s fangs growl outward from his jaws in an obscene fashion, yet each push for expansion gets to a point. Things are bigger in space, but Rocket is the fiercest fellow out there no matter his size.

Rocket-Raccoon-and-Groot-4-Fantasy-Football

Watching the action unfold in Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4 is a delight. Conley conceives each page as its own unit designed to pack some sort of punch. Whether it’s the purely visceral revelation of figures or the heightened action of fantasy and football scenes, there’s something to revel in at every step along the way. Simply put, this is fun in the way Immonen and Ellis conceived of Marvel comics being fun in the pages of Nextwave. Caution is discarded, but impact never is within this comic. Each joke lands as it ought to thanks to the tone-setting of these loose pencils and the bouncy, buoyant colors of Jean-Francois Beaulieu.

None of this is meant to undermine Young’s contributions on script. While the art team is absolutely necessary in delivering the punchlines, a firm understanding of what is being lovingly mocked is required to make these joke function on any level. Young appears to be someone who has some experience with role-playing games whether they involve D20s or football stats. As someone who has extensively played both, it was a delight to see them torn to shreds in technicolor without being mocked or diminished.

Rocket-Raccoon-and-Groot-4-Coach

The high point of the issue comes in the form of a coach who most likely serves no purpose. He’s a combination of cinematic speech givers and over-exuberant sports dads, screaming and wailing, pitching sound and fury, but signifying nothing. His passion reminds fans of either game of their own, the joy of experience without the need for meaningful results. This is what is meant by loving mockery. Even if there’s is fun to be poked, it’s clear that this Coach and his words are laughing with readers and not at them. Some of his tirade may invade the momentum of the story and feel overfilled, but it also sets the tone that is all-important for this comic.

There are more than enough superhero comics that take themselves far too seriously, but Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4 go the opposite direction and takes itself with no seriousness at all. Conley, Beaulieu, and Young are a team that want to go big and go big they do. It’s broad strokes that aim to ram every joke directly down your throat. Even if a few may cause coughing fits on the way down, most will dissipate like cotton candy leaving the desired sugary residue one would expect from a comic about a wisecracking rodent and sentient piece of flora.

Posted in Comics, Comic Reviews, Wednesday Checkup, Comics Bulletin | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Guarding the Galaxy: Guardians of the Galaxy #7

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 2, 2016.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-7-Cover

Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett has been working his way through Marvel Comic’s biggest franchises since the publisher relaunched (don’t dare use the word “reboot” anywhere Tom Brevoort can see it) their superhero line in the wake of Secret Wars. From the X-Men to the Avengers to the Inhumans, he has tackled five comics in a single week to check up on these big teams along with their individual members. There was at least one big gap left in his series of expeditions though: the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the last few years the Guardians of the Galaxy have gone from Marvel’s unloved 80s space series and a second-rate knock off of the Suicide Squad to one of the most precious properties in publication thanks to the surprising success of a single movie. Instead of having only one or two series, if any, in publication, now the team has a reliable ongoing and a solo series for almost every one of its members. That’s not to mention other tangential titles that can’t be squeezed into this week. So has the success of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy translated into some quality comics? Let’s find out…

Guardians of the Galaxy #7

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Valerio Schiti

Colors by Richard Isanove

Letters by Cory Petit

This series of reviews is starting to feel like an abattoir. I’m not sure if it’s accidental or intentional, but all of the franchise anchoring team comics published by Marvel resemble the blandest, most unremarkable version of superhero stories possible. Extraordinary X-Men, All-New, All-Different Avengers, and Uncanny Avengers are all titles without notable ideas or creative input being sold as the most important elements of the biggest publisher in American comics. Guardians of the Galaxy is no different. If this is what is being sold to the mythical movie-turned-comics fan crowd, then it’s no surprise that box office is growing while comics remain a niche.

Guardians of the Galaxy #7 is unremarkable on its most fundamental levels. This is a plot that has been played out one to two dozen times with very little fluctuation in superhero comics over the past year. Some heroes fall into enemy hands only to turn the tide with their plan and save the day. That’s not to say that this very well-trodden series of plot beats and twists can’t be changed to something new, but that is not the case here. The Thing and Rocket Raccoon run roughshod over Badoon (a villain no reader has any reason to care about) to save random aliens (victims no reader has any reason to care about). It’s almost like this is a comic no reader has any reason to care about.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-7-Badoon

What about the charm and style of Bendis’ Mamet-influenced scripting though? If Guardians of the Galaxy and his other series published over the past couple years are any indication, the last of Bendis’ charm died a painful death in the early phases of his X-Men run. Both the humorous and romantic elements included in Guardians of the Galaxy #7 are painful to read. Rocket goes off on aliens speaking in an untranslated language in a series of non sequitur jabs made to sound funny by a lack of context. They lead nowhere and are not particularly funny, unless you’re a five-year-old who finds animals making vulgar references funny on basic principle. That’s understandable, if you’re five years old.

The equivalent of bottom-tier Simpsons shit-posting coming from Rocket isn’t as troublesome as Ben Grimm’s odd love story jammed into this issue to give it some sort of… drama? Maybe this is what is considered drama at Marvel Comics these days. The Thing isn’t very enthused about saving a planet stacked with slaves until a particularly attractive slave woman approaches him. He starts to act like a randy wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon, minus all of the charm of a Tex Avery cartoon. Not only is this disturbing based on the context of him coming onto a slave who is just now being rescued from years of servitude, but how the comic presents her returning his affection. She is not even given a voice within the issue. Instead a child translates some things for her, and just makes faces at the dirty talk. This enslaved woman, the only woman in Guardians of the Galaxy #7, is reduced to being a sex object and reward for one of two male heroes. It’s pretty fucked up.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-7-Thing-Fight

I won’t discount artist Valerio Schiti’s style, which sets a high-bar for the house efforts at Marvel Comics, but it doesn’t add much to the issue or diminish these problems. The Thing’s enslaved sex toy is visually treated like a… sex toy. It’s meant to be rewarding for male readers to see big tits and thick hips wander across the page with no real range of emotion. The violence on display doesn’t satisfy any more than the hollow sexuality does either.

Most of the big panels showing The Thing trading blows with over-sized Badoon warriors could be pulled back more than two decades to the “Death of Superman” event. He puts his fists together to crack them in the jaw. It’s big action with wide swings, but there’s absolutely no impact or visceral connection. There is only violence carbon copied so many times that the result is a blue you stare at hoping to feel something. The lines are crisp and the colors sharp (although not additive), but there’s nothing to care about here. You will not be shocked or awed, even if you’ve never picked up a superhero comic before.

Whether or not this is your first exposure to superhero comics, it’s one that cannot be recommended. People who loved the Guardians of the Galaxy movie won’t find any of the quick wit, fast action, or oddities they may have loved about the movie here. People who love comics won’t find anything they haven’t seen hundreds of times before. The only thing Guardians of the Galaxy #7 might be useful for is as a case study for the concept of “corporate superhero comics”. It’s a thing produced because it must be produced, meeting a set of standards and expectations not concerned with anything close to art or storytelling. It is digestible, but that also means it belongs in your bowels.

Posted in Comic Reviews, Comics, Comics Bulletin, Wednesday Checkup | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Review: 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 Squanders Its Promise

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 29, 2016.

4-Kids-Walk-Into-A-Bank-Cover

Comics readers walk into 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank with high expectations. The cover and title of this series are the best marketing campaign any comic book could ask for. It’s an absolutely killer title that beautifully simple premise packed with opportunities for thrills, drama, humor, and fun. Those are six words that when strung together make you want to say, “Tell me more.” The cover only enhances that very basic, but very compelling hook. Squirt guns, dice, a beater of a car give you pictures in your head that you want to confirm with this pamphlet. On top of all that, the very first few pages put artist Tyler Boss on display at the top of his form. He’s someone whose style and storytelling exhibits a heavy influence from Aja, as well as other current greats like Lieber and Kindt. You know this is the kind of artist you want to start watching now before they explode, taking the lessons learned from those I just mentioned and leaving their own stamp on American comics.

All of that promise is what makes 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank not just disappointing, but downright frustrating. There’s no excuse for this comic to be as bad as it is, but by the time that last page is turned it’s very clear this is not simply different from the comic being promised at the start, but something that lacks the merits to promise much of anything.

4-Kids-Walk-Into-A-Bank-Arrow

The first half of the issue is a showcase for Boss. He displays a deft hand at panel layouts, regularly combining 7 to 13 in a single page without making it feel dense or overwhelming. There is a rhythm to these early pages as well, moving from a tightly packed string of action and humor panels to something wider, never stringing the most information-heavy pages together. The craftsmanship is clear in these early moments as the titular four kids play Dungeons & Dragons and break the game up over spilt Fanta.

Boss also exhibits a clear grasp of the most effective element in writer Matthew Rosenberg’s script, the relationship between these four children. There’s a smart alecky nature to them that only 11 and 12 year old possess in this certain way. They possess camaraderie based in geographic circumstance, but that forms into a much deeper loyalty. These are the only friends they have, so they will damn well stand by one another. It’s these implied connections and jovial mish-mash of rivalries and affection that make these opening pages tick. Boss doesn’t overplay emotions or moments, instead utilizing the fewest lines possible to convey each action and reaction effectively. It’s crisp and it works.

At least, until it doesn’t.

As the concept heightens and the criminals arrive, the cracks begin to appear. The use of humorous captions with D&D style stats to introduce the heroes of the story twice already are used again, and then again to introduce the villains. Words fill up the page and cover up a brief moment of action in an attempt for humor in what should be a very tense moment. Writing begins to cover up what was most effective about Boss’ storytelling, while adding nothing of value to the story.

4-Kids-Walk-Into-A-Bank-Slingshot

Rosenberg’s script pushes itself to be more clever than it is. Three distinct elements add up to a slingshot to the eye in a funny sequence, but each element is overwritten with descriptions that are far too precious. Rather than allowing the story to be told sequentially, the script attempts to catch the reader in each moment of what is designed to function as a rapid fire joke. There’s so much dialogue on these pages that small bits of style and nuance are lost in effectively moving through the exchange. A panel of three kids shouting “Cool!” while the fourth vomits is placed at the center of a page, but there is not enough space for Boss to effectively provide reactions outside of the speech bubbles or vomit.

This bit is troubled, but it isn’t broken like the second half of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank. All of the bad tendencies surfacing in this scene become a pace-breaking, plot-destroying, art-wrecking whirlwind of disaster throughout the final 13 pages of the issue. There are no less than five pages that function as static shots of talking heads for anywhere between 9 and 24 panels. The amount of dialogue packed into the back half of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1weighs so heavily on the issue that it reads as though it were a vast majority of the 28-page comic book. What was once fun and fast becomes a slog to get through with none of the visual hooks to precede it.

4-Kids-Walk-Into-A-Bank-Talking-Forever

Three of the densest page rely on a 24 panel grid that features only shots of different heads as they go back and forth (although one opens with six of the panels merged). These create an interminable reading experience. Two character use an entire page to sling single-word insults at one another in a joke that goes from unfunny to exasperating and never gets any better. Not only is it a waste of valuable page space, but it brings the comic to a sudden halt. The manner in which these insults are slung doesn’t even bother to imitate the actual language or behavior of children. It’s like a joke invented by George Lucas, where plenty of people must have realized it only appealed to the man writing it, but no one had the nerve to point out it ought to be cut.

All of the other talking heads pages are just as crushing. They reject not only the values of this comic in Boss’ art, but the benefits of working in the comics medium. It is the heavy-handed work of Rosenberg trying to exert his presence and value, not realizing that in achieving the former he is eliminating the latter. The dialogue fails to drive the story forward at more than a snail’s pace and feels clever in the same way high schoolers imitating Pulp Fictionmight be. In focusing on the cursing, bickering, and repartees, Rosenberg loses focus on what makes 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank special: the relationships.

Even the pages between these particularly painful ones function as essentially long strings of dialogue. Boss is able to do more than tweak an expression or focus on different parts of anatomy, but there is none of the panache or cleverness earlier displayed. So much is being said that there is no room left to show anything.

Perhaps this series of disastrous choices would be more forgivable if the second half of the issue delivered on a plot-driven level or provided an irresistible hook. It does not manage that though, failing to suggest the very premise emblazoned on its cover. There is no big plan, no driving force, no next step for this series. There is barely a cliffhanger. While some things happen throughout 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1, none of it adds up to a compelling plot. The question of why someone should continue is left hanging like a latchkey kid without a ride home.

From the basic idea to the crisp visual notes, whatever you imagine based on that cover is bound to be better than what is inside. Boss is a real talent with great promise, one to be watched as he refines some of the skills and influences on display here. Yet the script squanders what he and the other visual collaborators bring to the table. There is no pushing back against the rigid grids and dense dialogue of the comic as it continues, and it collapses under its own weight. No matter how good 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank may sound, it’s better to wait for the next thing.

Posted in Comic Reviews, Comics, Comics Bulletin, Friday Follow Up | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Donny Cates is Ready for the Return of The Paybacks

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on April 28, 2016.

the-paybacks-5-176942

When the final issue of The Paybacks was released by Dark Horse, it read like a cliffhanger rather than a finale. Writers Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal and artist Geoff Shaw never intended for the series to end at issue number 4 either. Just as it appeared that the story of The Paybacks might never be completed though, these creators and their story of superpowered repo men working for a mysterious stranger found a new home at Heavy Metal.

It was only recently announced that The Paybacks will resume later this year picking up directly where 4 left readers hanging. This is both an exciting announcement for fans of the series and a great opportunity for those who missed out initially to jump aboard. The Paybacks is one of the funniest and strangest takes on the superhero genre in comics today and we were lucky enough to speak with Cates about where it might go next.

The Paybacks is officially returning. What got Heavy Metal interested in continuing the story?

Donny Cates: They were fans of it when it first started coming out. Before The Paybacksstarted coming out I sent them a PDF of it and I don’t think they understood I was showing it to them as our new book. I think they thought it was a pitch and someone e-mailed me back saying they’d be happy to do it and that it looked great. I had to apologize and explain this is a Dark Horse thing.

So they liked it and have been fans of it. When the chance came up and we made a decision that we wanted to keep telling the story, we brought it to Jeremy Atkins, the marketing guy at Heavy Metal, and within a week we had it in the catalog.

It’s really been great for us over there. The freedom and support has been crazy.

It feels like they’re interested in back passion projects and making visions that appeal to them happen.

Cates: The creator-owned side of their company is still very new. I think they’re still very interested in getting people they know can produce cool stories and cutting them loose.Interceptor, the last book I did with Heavy Metal, was approved based on the art alone. I asked their CEO if he wanted me to send him a pitch document or anything else, and I got an email I had never seen in this industry before where he said “I’ve read all of your stuff. I trust you.”

The first time he ever heard what the story was about was at San Diego Comic-Con when I was on a panel with him and Grant Morrison. Grant Morrison is two seats down from me while I’m hogging the mic and telling everyone the story. This is my favorite moment in comics so far. Grant, who had been relatively quiet the whole panel leaned into the mic and said “That sounds fuckin’ great! “

It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.

It’s one helluva compliment.

Cates: Right? I’ll take it. I wish I could write his Scottish brogue out and put it on a cover as a blurb.

the-paybacks---team-177387

I think that passion project element shows on both The Paybacks andInterceptor because they’re idea-heavy books where you guys are leaving it all on those pages.

Cates: It’s bananas, y’know? Those are sometimes stories where a lot of companies out there who might not want to do them, and for good marketing reasons I completely understand, especially with something like Ghost Fleet. Buzzkill was very easy to distill down into a tagline. It’s a guy who gets powers from drinking alcohol and doing drugs, then goes into AA.Ghost Fleet was more esoteric because it had that big surprise ending. You can’t just say it’s about a man hauling the horseman Death of the Apocalypse across the country in the back of a big rig.

With Interceptor and The Paybacks, to a certain degree, you get to a point where you just want to go to a company and say “Trust me. I got this. I know what this story is about.” It’s tough for me to distill into a soundbite what it’s about. Interceptor is totally bananas and I pitched it to a lot of other companies. I got a greenlight from a company, but their note back asked if we could get rid of the vampires. That’s just a no. It’s kind of the whole point of the book. I brought it to Heavy Metal and their response was “Sure, okay.. Let’s do it.”

The Paybacks sneaks its complexity in through the backdoor. It has a nice, easy elevator pitch, but once you start reading you quickly realize it has a whole lot more going on than superpowered repo men.

Cates: It got bandied around a lot as a parody and that’s a word that never came up in our conversations until critics started calling it that.

Parody implies some level of meanness. The Paybacks is a love letter.

Cates: It’s a love letter! It’s everything we love about superhero comics. We got it in our heads that we’re probably still four or five years away from being let loose on a Marvel or DC book, so we decided to build our own. Buzzkill already had this rich superhero world in the background and we could go play in that world. It’s a good hook, but without the other stuff it just becomes about what are we going to repo next week and that gets old.

The thing I like about The Paybacks is that in mainstream superhero comics you get a first act and then you’re perpetually in the second act. Spider-Man is always in his second act forever. The thing I like about The Paybacks and Buzzkill is that you’re going to get that third act.

From page one, panel one all of these superheroes have already lost. It’s over. How do you carry on and become a hero again when you’re a slave to the system?

When you have a character that can’t reach an ending, that’s trapped in the second act, stories stop being character-driven too. It’s plot-driven. That’s also why I don’t think it makes sense to call The Paybacks a parody because everyone of these characters is nuanced and defined by personal failings and hidden motives.

Cates: People pointed out the similarities, like we have a Batman-type guy and a Liefeld-type guy. But the idea is they’re failed. Night Knight failed because we already have a Batman. You’re schtick wasn’t going to work out stupid because we already got one of those and he’s successful. When you look at The Paybacks there are already more successful versions of whatever they are.

Night Knight as an example only has surface level similarities to Batman. He’s not Bruce Wayne at all.

Cates: And everyone on the team hates him. He’s just not as good, and he has a unicorn. It never made it into the book because you try to ride certain thematic lines, but there was a whole arc about why he became Night Knight. It’s so dark. The basic idea was something happened to him when he was a little boy that shouldn’t happen to little boys. It happened in the dark. From that moment on he was going to defend the weak and the sleeping so they won’t be awoken by something dangerous. He protects the night.

I don’t know if that makes him more likable, but it makes him a whole lot more sympathetic.

Cates: It’s really dark. If you look closely, any time you see him in his bedroom at night it’s all lit. His lights are on all the time and he’s afraid of the dark all of the time. His whole mission in life is to not let that happen to anyone else.

Are you hoping you get a chance to explore these sorts of stories now that there is going to be more of The Paybacks, or is there a hard ending coming down the pipe?

Cates: We’re going to try and do a Hellboy model with mini-series. This next one is very finite, and self contained. It has a definite beginning and end but obviously keeps things open for more stories, you know? It’s funny because, the way issue four ended it’s this crazy cliffhanger where all is revealed…and i promise it wasn’t meant to be a big cliffhanger of an ending, we were counting on that next issue coming out! So…sorry everyone!

the-paybacks---heavy-metal---new-177385

The final issue at Dark Horse, as an ending, reads like a middle finger to the audience.

Cates: Yeah, its pretty self contained, but the ending only makes perfect sense if you get to read the next issue 30 days later though.

We always structured arc two as an introduction. In issue four they gain The Matador, so arc 2 was always going to start with The Matador getting a tour of the van. It’s set up perfectly for a new beginning. It starts with him in a movie theater and Doctor Blacq is on screen like the classic 1960s “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow” film reels. You get to meet Jacob Destruction’s parents in it. It lends itself very nicely to a new beginning.

That definitely seems like a moment of good fortune.

Cates: It definitely worked out. We’re really excited about it. It’ll be a four-issue mini-series, but really five since the last issue is like 40 pages long. It wraps up the second arc really. We have much more planned. Like, two years worth planned. But we’ll see how this new arc goes first. But yeah, we have some bananas stuff planned, There’s a big spacey cosmic thing. Anyone who remembers Panteradactyl and likes “The Dark Phoenix Saga will dig it. It’s fun!

Sounds awesome.

Cates: We’re really excited about it and to bring it back. It’s very rare that series get to jump from their first publisher and the fact that TWO publishers thought this wacky idea was cool enough to put their name on it is so cool. We are very happy to get to continue this tale! I hope you all love it and order a million copies.

Posted in ComicBook.Com, Comics, Creator Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice, and DC Comics in 1997?

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 28, 2016.

Wally-West-Kyle-Rayner-DC-Comics

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own 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…

In 1997, The Flash was Wally West, Green Arrow was Connor Hawke, Green Lantern was Kyle Rayner, and Superman was electric blue. DC Comics had become a publisher willing to challenge and change their roster of characters in a way that Marvel Comics has/had never really attempted. Why?

While I suspect some people may see this question as being oriented towards the classic battle of “Marvel Vs. DC”, one that we kicked off this column with, I don’t really see it that way. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting conversation to be had about where these characters originate from and how they function best, what assets each publisher has cultivated over the years and where their unique strengths lie, but that doesn’t explain 1997. No, in order to explain 1997, you have to go a full decade into the past. You have to start with what happened after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis is something we’ve covered extensively at Comics Bulletin, and I’ll just leave it alone as the tire fire with some very nice Perez drawings that it is. However, what it provided DC Comics with was a clean-ish slate to start telling new stories. While Legion of Super-Heroes and the various Hawk-people at DC would never really find a defining continuity or hook in the aftermath of this mega-event, it’s where DC Comics began to flourish in many ways. Beyond the obvious examples, some of which have aged well like “Batman: Year One” and others not so much (*cough* Byrne *cough* Superman *cough*), there was a bastion of experiments occurring at DC Comics.

JLI-DC-Comics

In addition to reinvigorating all of their most iconic characters, the company wanted to create new ones and popularize B- and C-listers as well. This effort began in the follow up event to Crisis in 1986-87 called Legends. WhileLegends itself was nothing to write home about, it spun out some of the best series ever published by the company. The two most notable series beginning in 1987 being the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis Justice League (later renamed Justice League International or JLI) and John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad. Others like a new Flash, Wonder Woman, and Shazam title are all notable, but often became more significant as the years advanced. Justice League and Suicide Squad were perfect launching pads from their very first issues.

While these two series focused on opposite ends of the spectrum of DC Comics characters, the heroes vs. the villains, the big-time vs. the low-life, they accomplished remarkably similar things. Both incorporated lots of characters that had previously been relegated to supporting roles or were completely ignored, while helping to create enduring new identities as well. They cobbled together unlikely teams into books that would last more than five years each in consistent creative runs, ones continually focused on these characters rather than headline-grabbers like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Both of these series grew new characters from a place of quality rather than market-oriented content too. They featured big action, excellent illustrations, and a dynamite sense of humor. The stories were being told by some of the absolute best talent in the DC Comics stable of the day, and they were telling stories that mattered to them. Even almost three decades later, these series are still regularly championed and reprinted, with dedicated fan followings born well after they debuted. It’s the quality of these series that ensured so many of their characters would become lasting fixtures within the DC Universe.

Without Justice League Guy Gardner never becomes the lovable boor and mainstay in a sector packed with far too many Green Lanterns. The Blue and The Gold never become a standard duo and the high-watermark of superhero bromance that still make fans thrill at the thought. Fire and Ice barely even exist as characters, much less ones making regular appearances in animated series. And the greatest Justice League member of all-time, the Martian Manhunter, never receives his defining role as the heart and soul of this team forever more (no matter what Geoff Johns has to say about it).

Suicide-Squad-DC-Comics-1

As much as I love that Justice League though, I think the accomplishments of Suicide Squad  are even more remarkable. You only need look at a handful of characters from this vast team to recognize its impact. Let’s start with Amanda Waller a.k.a. The Wall. While she technically debuted in Legends #3, The Wall is really an original character of Suicide Squad. It’s here that she was defined as the most unexpected anti-hero in superhero comics of the 1980s and 90s. A squat, middle-aged, professional, black woman, The Wall ran roughshod over a group of the meanest, ugliest, and toughest supervillains around. She’s a woman that stood up to Batman and made him back down (see: Suicide Squad #9). Not only was she a great character, wonderfully presented over the course of the series, but she’s shown remarkable staying power. She has been played by different actresses in a total of four live-action adaptations to date, in addition to various animated series and many comics appearances since Suicide Squad concluded in 1992.

The second most obvious example is Floyd Lawton a.k.a. Deadshot. Unlike The Wall, Deadshot had already been around since 1950 when Suicide Squad finished the job begun by a much needed costume redesign in the 1970s. It’s here that Ostrander and Yale created a rich background and troublesome internal life that would transform Deadshot from one-trick pony to one of the most compelling anti-heroes in the DC Universe. He has appeared regularly since then in a variety of mini-series as well as in plenty of adaptations. People have long since ceased to think of him as a gimmicky Bat-villain and begun to consider Deadshot one of the great villains of this universe on par with Deathstroke or Black Adam.

You can continue down the list looking at Vixen, Captain Boomerang, Count Vertigo, Rick Flagg, and so many others to see how good creative talent and faith in new or unpopular characters led to a potential goldmine of IP for DC Comics. It’s these discarded characters that are now the backbone of a major blockbuster picture on which Warner Bros. seems to be hanging their hopes after the box office debacle that is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Focusing on comics again though, the success of these series and other down the road continued to creep into the consciousness and working philosophy behind DC Comics. Future successes, like James Robinson and Tony Harris’Starman and Mark Waid’s The Flash, that played on the legacy and inventing new characters in familiar or sort-of-familiar roles, only emboldened the company. Now you may want to stop and point out that Wally West, the one crystallized in Mark Waid’s work, was part of your portrait of DC Comics in 1997. Except Wally West as The Flash was nothing new in 1997. By then he had been The Flash for over a decade having been passed the role in 1986 during Crisis on Infinite Earths. As much as series like Justice League and Suicide Squad paved the way for this more innovative, legacy-driven, and changing look to the DC Universe, so did the existence of Wally West as The Flash.

While 1997 may appear to be a flashpoint in retrospect, it was really the result of a decade of proud work being done in a genre that is much maligned during this decade. But while the X-Men titles were churning out infinite crossover and holographic covers led to a dangerous speculator market, DC Comics was producing some of the most exciting and innovative shared continuity, superhero comics ever. The world of Connor Hawke and Kyle Rayner and Red/Blue Superman, these icons with new faces, was built on the success of Amanda Waller, Booster and Beetle, Jack Knight, and most importantly Wally West.

These characters and the very talented creators who told their stories during this decade made it clear that the superhero readership didn’t need to grow stagnant. They showed that these shared universes could keep moving forward, growing more diverse and telling a wide array of stories, without losing readers. It was a great time for superhero comics, one that may very well have have peaked in 1997 or soon after.

Now, we could go into why things reverted the status quo in the decades to follow, but that’s another question for another time.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Industry Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo Discuss What Batman Means to Them

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on April 26, 2016.

batman-51-cover-interview-180191

After almost five years on the title beginning with the very first issue at the start of the New 52, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are leaving Batman. This Wednesday Batman #51 will be released marking the end of their already iconic stint on the title. From “The Court of Owls” to “Zero Year” to “Superheavy”, their epic stories have set the tone for Batman comics since 2011 and a high bar for other DC Comics to aspire to.

Both Snyder and Capullo sat down with ComicBook.Com correspondent Chase Magnett for the very last interview of their time on Batman this weekend. Together they discussed the legacy of the series, the impact it has had on both fans and the creative team, and what Batman means to a pair of men who have had their lives changed by the character.

Your run on Batman has really been defined by epic 6 to 12 issue stories with very high stakes. Batman #51 stands out because it’s the opposite of that, working as a relatively quiet one-shot. What was it like switching gears to provide this ending for such an impressive run on Batman?

Snyder: My roots are in short stories, so I actually love doing one-shots and shorter stuff. It’s that Batman, the character and the book itself, demand you swing for the fences. As much as I love those shorter pieces and try to do them now and then, I feel like the ideas I’ve had for the character demanded more room. I would go for these big, blockbuster 6 or 10 or 12 issue arcs.

At heart, I love these kinds of stories. It was a joy to get to do it and you get to flex different muscles. One of the things we’ve tried to do every time was something you wouldn’t have expected from us in one way or another. Hopefully this is a good note to end on in that regard. It’s something you don’t see from the two of us very often, and it gives us a chance to say thank you in a different way.

Greg, this issue also packs a lot into a little space and shows you touching on a lot of things that you may not be able to revisit for a while. What was your approach going into this story and ending on a high note?

Capullo: Scott and I are doing a lot of nods to everything we had done previously. I didn’t change anything or any of my work process. I do what I do. I follow my instincts and I draw what I think is the right thing to draw and I put my time in to hit the deadline. The thing that was different though was that it was great to revisit all of these things I had done before, like “The Court of Owls” and the big scene in Arkham,.

Scott did it for the fans, but he also did it for me, I think, and for himself. We wanted to go through everything that we had done and hit all of these high moments that were so much fun and stood out in our minds. That was great because it countered some of the sadness knowing that this was the last issue of Batman.

There’s a sense of melancholy to the issue as you’re working to both set things up for the next team of creators to step in, but also remembering everything you’ve added to this character and world. What have been some of your favorite things to reflect on in this issue about your work on Batman?

Snyder: The funny thing for me is there’s a separate history to the book. Fans experience it one way in that they pick up an issue or arc and read through it. For us it’s all about the creative relationships, the back-and-forth, the meetings at cons and talking about a story idea, the fighting with DC to get an idea through. In addition to all of the Easter eggs in these stories, there are personal Easter eggs to me that let’s me walk down memory lane. I get to see everything Greg and I have gone through together, and Danny [Miki], Jonathan [Glapion], and FCO [Plascencia].

Picking a favorite is hard because “The Court of Owls” will always have a very special place in my heart. It was the story I wrote when I was thinking, “If I only had one chance at Batmanand had these guys with me…” That made it so more special to me and hopefully to them. In terms of different nods, “Zero Year” was the one where it was the hardest and it really caused me a lot of anxiety and depression because I was so nervous. Once I got into it, it was the one that really redefined my sense of ownership, and for us as a team, on the character. It gave me a sense of how to do him for now and that I wanted him to be a different sort of Batman than had come before. It was much more about inspiring people to be brave in the face of modern, contemporary sorts of issues, as opposed to the ones I grew up with. The Red Hood helmet, the purple cape, the Riddler, all of that stuff brought back a lot of really fun memories.

batman-51-interview-purple-cape-180192

Capullo: For me, all of that stuff was great fun. I got into this as a young kid, absolutely loving it, and wanting to do the big, cool superhero stuff. But for me, I really, really love the character moments, getting to make characters act. The scene with Al and Bruce in the caves, and Al examining Bruce’s back, that was my favorite to draw. It was so personally sad for me because Scott in the previous arc had Al basically daydreaming about the life he could have had, loving that life with a wife and children, getting to turn grey and be happy. Now he actually got to witness it; it wasn’t a dream, it was there, it was happening!

So you think about it from a father’s perspective and think there would be no greater joy than to watch your son enjoy his life like this. Then you see Al look at Bruce’s back. Bruce was aware that he was Batman before, but he hasn’t really lived it. Al lived every moment of it, every stitch, every bit of shrapnel plucked out, all of it. When he looks at that pristine back Bruce now has, all he’s seeing is the stitches he’s going to have to put in it and the stuff he’s going to have to pry out of there. That’s you looking at your kid and knowing this is his fate. That was the most meaningful scene and the one I really put my heart and soul into.

I think that really shows in the issue too. Looking at all of these stories you’re talking about from “The Court of Owls” to “Zero Year”, you’ve done a lot over the past five years in one of the longest runs on Batman ever. Now that you’re getting to step away from it, is there something you hope to leave behind as your own legacy with the character?

Snyder: We’re so close to it still that I still feel very myopic about it, like my face is still pressed right against it. It’s hard to even process that. What I really hope we’ve done is make Batman a figure that could inspire my kids to be braver when it comes to the things facing them. We’ve tried to have villains and monsters that were nightmarish extensions of contemporary worries and fears, whether it was personal about being a dad in “Death of the Family” or much bigger issues like what the Red Hood gang represents in “Zero Year”. Instead of being a figure of intimidation driven by personal demons in a pathological way, which I always loved stories with that version of him, we tried to spin him to be a bit brighter and a bit more human. Batman should inspire someone that even when their personal problems seem insurmountable, you can fight your way out and make baby steps. If I can fight this huge kaiju destroying your city, then you can too.

Greg, same question for you, is there something you hope to leave as a legacy with this run on Batman?

Capullo: As with everything that you do, you do the best you can and hope people like it and don’t hate it. The fact that fans have said so many kind things and throw the word legacy out at us, I just hope they’ll continue to love it. It’s the ultimate reward and honor and flattery to be mentioned in the same breath as the great writers and artists and creators that came before us. I hope it stands the test of time. I hope it is true that Scott and I did create a legacy, because what a great story that would be for your grandkids when you get old.

You’ve both mentioned how personal your work on Batman has been in the last ten minutes, and how much of yourselves have gone into it. Are you looking forward to getting a little bit of distance to reflect on it?

Capullo: I just started putting art for sale. So much time has passed and I’m going through “The Court of Owls” pages and it has been five years. I don’t remember it; it’s almost like a different artist did it. Now I can look back and appreciate the power of that story. All of the fans have been saying how great it is since day one, and you say “Thank you. Thank you very much.” But you don’t really soak that in; it’s your job. Now I’m looking back at all of these different scenes I had forgotten about and think, “Wow. That really is a powerful scene.” It’s really cool to look back with some distance because you can appreciate it from a fan’s perspective because it’s almost like somebody else did it.

Snyder: I like looking back, forgetting I did something, and going, “Oh yeah, that was good.” Then I start to get worried that I used to be better.

Even looking back with a fan’s perspective, it’s really apparent how much your careers and work have evolved. Reflecting on the past five years on Batmanare their certain takeaways or key lessons learned that stand out to you?

Capullo: I don’t know if it’s affected me as an artist and how I approach my work. I do what I was trained to do when I was trying to get work. The only thing that Scott and I might agree on, because Scott has said it before, is that when you’re taking on something as big and entrenched in the public’s heart as Batman there is a fear factor where you worry about ruining it. You might start to listen to the chatter that’s on an Internet forum and that will be your undoing, if you do that. The lesson I learned was to avoid that kind of social media because it will muck you up. You have to approach it the way you believe it should be approached. Scott has to write the stories that matter to him and that he believes are powerful in his own life. I have to draw it in the way I envision it and feel about those characters. The only thing you can do is do the best you can and hope for the best. You really can’t pay attention to every little bump in the road that might come your way on the ride; you just have to keep riding.

Snyder: I couldn’t agree more. Batman, like Greg said, loomed so large and is so terrifying. For me having up and downs with anxiety and depression, there were those moments where I was terrified to begin. Greg always pushed me to do stories that mattered to me and were personal, even if we were worried we would jump the shark on them. The fact that we ran the book that way and the fans supported us made me realize how generous the reading community is and how true they are and how supportive they are when you try to do something you care about.

My belief is that if you’re doing something that matters to you and makes you vulnerable, they’ll support you, even if it isn’t perfect. That means a lot to have a community that’s that supportive and enthusiastic for creators. I think that’s why there’s so much support for different indie stuff and the projects both Greg and I have on the side, as well as for Batman. The creative community seems to really support when you go out there and try to do something that is yours and different. There’s no way to say thank you enough to them.

batman-51-interview-batcave-180193

I think one of the lessons learned from an outside perspective is that the shared passion of this creative team and your support of one another has helped to create a much more ambitious and quality comic book. How do you help foster that sort of positive creative environment in a collaborative medium?

Capullo: I assembled the art team, working with guys I know and trust and are talented. They’re guys I believe can be differentiated from the rest of the pack. I mean, what’s the point in having a bunch of guys who look like a bunch of other guys? From day one it’s, how do I assemble a team who is unique and will create something that’s of good quality?

The other thing that I’ve told to editors and Scott along the way, who would try to get in the kitchen sometimes and go “What if we did it this way? Or what about that way?”, I said you can’t be like that. What the other guys might turn in might not be your absolute favorite every single time, but it’s important to give every player on that team the space to do what you hired them to do. You hired them because you like them, so let them do what you like. Everyone needs their space. Part of our success together is nobody really got in anybody’s way and stepped on their toes and elbowed them and told them how to do their job. We trusted each other and we know that everybody shared the same passion towards making the best product. Everybody should learn that lesson. Trust your players. You’re playing on the team together for a reason, so let them do their job.

Snyder: I’ve never learned more creatively than I have from this guy here. He made me a better writer. The incredible talent of the art team with guys like FCO and Jonathan and Danny in not just bringing the story to life, but making it better on every level made me realize that you have to let things go. You have to say here’s the story, here’s the emotional framework of the scene, here’s what it’s about, now make it yours. That has been the joy of collaborating with these guys. I’ll hand something in that I care about and believe it’s the best I can do, then it’ll come back and it’ll be ten times better for the way they imagine it.

It was a real crash course for me. Greg had a really long career before he ever came onBatman and I had been writing comics just over a year or so. Even though I had worked with different collaborators, I still came in with a different sense of how important it was to maintain your territory and do what you were hired to do. I feel like I came out of it a better creator, a better person, and all of it. It has been a privilege and an honor to not just work onBatman, but knowing Greg and having a creative partner for life. It’s a book I can be really proud of because it’s a testament to our relationship as creators and to our fans who got to grow up with us. They saw us not get along and then get to be as close as we are.

We’re already running over on time, but I have one last question for you both. After having put so much of yourself into this series and character, both personally and professionally: What does Batman mean to you?

Capullo: To me, and I think this is the success of Batman, we all have horrible things and tragedies that happen to us. A lot of people will point to those negative things in their life as an excuse to why they’re a failure in other parts of their life. You have a choice every time and there are two roads you can choose: to be a victor or a victim. Bruce Wayne had the most horrific tragedy happen to him as a young boy, and he could have easily been the guy who gets strung out on drugs and alcohol or turns to criminal activity, whatever. It could have been very bad for him, but he took that and he chose to be a victor in that situation. I think that’s the message that underlies Batman, to have that indomitable spirit and to never give up ever and to push for victory even when all of the odds are stacked against you. That’s what he symbolizes for me.

Snyder: Honestly, I couldn’t have said it any better. Batman says that we’re all in it together. He gets out there and fights these giant, nightmarish projections of the things we’re afraid of in real life and says, “If I can do this and make my life better, if I can take this event that was all about meaningless violence and turn it into an engine of meaning to make my life matter to other people, then you should get out and make your life matter.” No matter what you’re facing, no matter what the odds seem like, whether it’s a personal demon or an international issue, get out there and be Batman.

It’s an inspiring message to me. I grew up with a Batman that was very dark, but he’s not that dark. In other ways he’s incredibly bright and I love him for that. That’s what he means to me. The weird thing is I think about it sometimes and Batman really has helped me through some very difficult times. As a child with books like The Dark Knight Returns he taught me he could inspire something in a context that was very realistic. Now as an adult he has helped me work through issues that have given me a lot of trouble in life, on this book with Greg as a partner. He has always been a hero that says, “Put me in coach. I’ll fight that thing or I’ll show you how not to be afraid of it.” That’s what he means to me.

Posted in ComicBook.Com, Comics, Creator Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Civil War Crimes: Civil War #5

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

Civil War #5 Cover

Civil War #5 continues all of the bad traditions of the miniseries we’ve discussed so far, while hinting at how it could have succeeded where it fails. The biggest and most consistent problem throughout Civil War is one of structure. Things happen, events are mentioned, character go places, but it never appears to be a coherent story. This is a stew of different moments that are expected to add up to a story, and it sure tastes like a Mark Millar stew. At the center of Civil War #5 though is a plot following a single character that touches upon multiple story threads and ideas. It’s capped on both ends by more events that just happen, but the story of Peter Parker switching sides in the 15 pages at the center of this comic actually possesses a structure. It’s the most coherent storytelling of Civil War thus far.

It functions on a basic plotting level where there is a clear cause-and-effect to the events on the page. Even the opening of this story in which Nighthawk and Stature are having their meeting with Tony Stark delayed because he’s distracted by Spider-Man works to remind the readers of heroes switching sides before delivering a big reveal on the next page. Every twist of fate can be connected with a “therefore”. Even though the return of the Thunderbolts or Punisher had only been hinted at previously, within the context of this major defection these big surprises being revealed make sense. Everything is grounded in Peter Parker’s choice to leave.

On paper this seems like a pretty solid idea. Imagine if each issue had been centered on a single character, moving readers through the big moments while providing a unique perspective and philosophy on what was happening. So many of the problems of Civil War stem from a complete lack of character with dialogue and outfits being haphazardly strewn about the page with no clear narrative arcs to follow.

Civil War #5 Police Shooting

The focus on Spider-Man in Civil War #5 doesn’t actually fix those problems though. Dialogue is still about delivering exposition and choices are driven by plot rather than character. The exchange Spider-Man has with Iron Man when explaining why he is choosing to leave is a perfect example. Spider-Man lays out a series of horrific choices, the mad scientist style options of the past couple issues that have put the Pro-Registration heroes beyond the veil of reason. It doesn’t read naturally, functioning like a recap, but it at least makes sense.

Iron Man’s response is baffling though. He stumbles through a variety of response moving from denial to justification to self-martyrdom. For being one of the world’s smartest men, he is incapable of composing a semi-coherent response. His line about what Clone Thor did to Bill Foster seems insane when you consider an Aryan law officer murdered a black man for shoving someone. It might be what a police officer would do and that’s the problem.

Civil War #5 Thunderbolts

Portraying that particular incident as being justified law enforcement is just the tip of this immoral iceberg though. The reveal of the Thunderbolts is another maddening step toward super villain-dom for the Pro-Registration, especially when you look at the spread of monsters on display, many of whom have committed mass murder in the same streets they’re being released to. Capturing Spider-Man is so important that unleashing hell is the best possible solution. There’s no world in which these characters or their actions make sense, not even in the heightened reality of the Marvel Universe.

This wouldn’t be so troubling if Civil War #5 was interested in saying anything with these reveals and bad decisions. The series claims to have political themes at its core, evoking school shootings, terrorism, and mass surveillance as core elements of the plot. Yet neither side is any better than the other. After the Pro-Registration heroes do everything in their power to look like the bad guys, Captain America embraces The Punisher (the only person inCivil War #5 to have killed more people than Bullseye) with open arms. The only thing Millar is interested in saying is that both sides are bad and ought to feel bad. This isn’t a moral comic, it’s a nihilistic one, only concerned with making a buck.

Civil War #5 Sue Storm Incest 1

The Punisher’s introduction in Civil War #5 is just one more moment of missed opportunities and low writing standards. Spider-Man has been left intoxicated by a villain’s airborne toxin and is not registering the world around him. He sees Punisher as a horrible shadow of death and responds in fear, but the words he uses undercut the potency of this moment. There is an acknowledgement of who this is, stating that he is the “skull-face guy”, but he can’t remember the Punisher’s name despite being a significant part of Spider-Man and Marvel lore for decades. It’s a bizarre conflict of information. McNiven’s depiction of Spider-Man’s perspective creates a great moment thatCivil War #5 is incapable of sustaining.

That surfaces again at the end of the issue when Daredevil gives Iron Man a silver coin and call him Judas with 31 pieces. Except there’s only one piece. It’s a bit of dialogue that touches on something that sort of makes sense and that could be easily refined. Instead it is left alone to make anyone who is doing more than skim the word bubbles scratch their heads. The most interesting things about this issue really lie in what is unintentional, but clearly exists on the page. It’s fascinating how many ideas are thrown down and walked away from without any effort being put into them. The core conversation to be had about this issue lies in what could have been.

As for what actually is, there’s a whole lot of first draft-level storytelling, McNiven’s artwork (which we’ve discussed for better and worse at this point), and a bizarre incestuous connection between Sue and Johnny Storm. That’s right.

Civil War #5 Sue Storm Incest 2

McNiven is incapable of drawing attractive characters in any way that isn’t sexy, and whenever two of them are together they appear that way… together. At the start of Civil War #5, the very attractive Storm siblings are teamed up to flee the Capekillers and thrust at one another as they fly into the night. It’s an uncomfortable position that borders on being Greg Land influenced in its facial expressions and modeling. When they reappear together later on, McNiven draws Sue draped on Johnny like a very comfortable girlfriend adding to these uncomfortable vibes They even acknowledge working under a cover story of a couple, which Johnny remarks is ridiculous because his slightly older sister would be the grandmother of most of his conquests. Is this a matter of protesting too much? Is Jonathan Storm a pedophile? Are the sexual semiotics of these two in Civil War #5 not worth actually discussing.

Probably.

Posted in Comic Reviews, Comics, Comics Bulletin, Friday Follow Up | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Get Me Endings of Spider-Man!

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 21, 2016.

Spider-Man-Pictures

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own 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…

What makes an ending in superhero comics satisfying to you?

My gut instinct is to simply say that it’s the same things that make any ending to a story satisfying. That answer could be narrowed down to a few general things (e.g. clear character arcs, thematic resolution, a dramatic climax), all of which would feature notable exceptions. Endings, like any major component of writing, has lots of loose rules surrounding it which can be broken when done well.

Giving you that response wouldn’t just require me to write a textbook on writing, one that I’m not entirely qualified to compose, but it also wouldn’t really answer your question. You’re a writer both of and about comics, and a pretty ravenous reader. You know what makes a good ending in general and what a big answer that is. You provided a big qualifier to the “ending” portion of this question, you asked about endings in “superhero comics”.

Obviously what makes a good ending in other stories can also make a good ending in superhero comics. Take a look at recent series like Secret Avengers (vol. 3) and Batman Inc. (vol. 2) that both concluded brilliantly. These are exceptions to the rule though. Both were formed from the start with an ending in mind and even if that ending evolved through the process of production, like in Secret Avengers, they were still meant to end. In this regard they are much comparable to other stories than many superhero comics.

This unstated miniseries style design for creating comics at superhero publishers like Marvel and DC Comics is becoming increasingly popular, but it also isn’t the norm for superhero comics. What we talk about when we talk about superhero comics are narratives designed to never end. Spider-Man was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, but his story has not ended in the more than five decades since they told his first story in Amazing Fantasy #15, and it has been more than 40 years since either man had much impact on that story.

Superhero comics aren’t just a serialized format of storytelling, they’re one designed to never end and not rely on the people who created them. In this regard they’re almost entirely unique. Television depends on maintaining some semblance of a cast and core group of writers, where major shifts can be devastating. Eventually even The Simpsons will end because James L. Brooks will decide it’s time to close up shop or a key member of their voice cast will pass. It may not end at that exact moment, but it won’t last forever.

The same cannot be said of Spider-Man. Marvel Comics will continue publishing the stories of Peter Parker as long as they exist. There may be a brief hiatus during an event like Secret Wars (vol. 2) or a change in lead like in Superior Spider-Man, but ultimately we’ll have the same boy bitten by a radioactive spider back in his tights continuing the story began so many years ago. Superhero stories are based in a strong first act, a compelling origin story, followed by a second act that goes on as long as it’s financially sustainable.

The concept of a never-ending second act is not a great formula for endings. It’s opposed to their very existence. So focused on that aspect of superhero comics, how do we get any ending much less a good one?

I think the key to this is taking your endings where you can find them. We both know what can make a good ending elsewhere, and that doesn’t stop us from identifying them in superhero comics, even if there is another issue right after that ending. Robert Kirkman pitched The Walking Dead as a Romero movie that never ends. Even though those movies had conclusions, they could have kept going because there were still a lot of characters and world to explore. We can argue about the results of this particular experiment, but it does show how endings don’t have to be immutable stopping points. In the same way that Kirkman looked at what came next, we can look for how a great conclusion even if there’s more to follow.

Let’s look for a specific example. I don’t want to get artsy or obvious with this either. It would be easy to point out how “Batman: Year One” has a great conclusion even though it’s embedded into Batman #404 – 407. That comic essentially functions as a mini-series. It would be easy to talk about how those miniseries style series like Secret Avengers and Batman Inc. from earlier do the same. Again, those comics don’t function like superhero comics in the way we’ve been discussing them. For this example, let’s tackle one of the longest running series of all time and narrative “endings” that build on the extended second act, rather than starting from a place of planning the complete story. Let’s talk about some stories in Amazing Spider-Man.

First up: Amazing Spider-Man #31-33, “If This Be My Destiny”. This is one of my favorite superhero comics of all time and it’s the pinnacle of Ditko’s time on the series, even though he wouldn’t actually leave until #38. I won’t recap the entire thing, but the plot of the story itself doesn’t suggest itself as an ending. It’s another battle with Doctor Octopus and another time when Peter has to save Aunt May. These are not new plot elements to the series even at only 31 issues, and there’s no major death or status quo shift at the end to mark it as a conclusion. Aunt May is fine, Doctor Octopus is beaten, Spider-Man lives to fight another day.

Amazing-Spider-Man-33

The reason that this story acts as a really spectacular ending to the Ditko/Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man is how it addresses the themes of the series so far and how its lead character has changed. We all know the heart of Spider-Man is the heart of basically all teen superhero comics to one degree or another. It’s a story about growing into adulthood and accepting responsibility no matter what life throws your way. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker is a selfish adolescent out to get his and ignore any potential costs. It’s an immature and completely understandable outlook given he’s all of 15. That first issue ends with him learning there are consequences for his actions; it’s functionally a horror story with his father-figure dead and him left to decide what to do now.

What he does is become Spider-Man. From there on out he confronts evil where he finds it, strives to support himself and Aunt May, and to do well in school and by his friends. He still has lapses and failures, but it quickly transitions into superhero genre elements. When we arrive at “If This Be My Destiny” we get a battle with very high stakes against an iconic nemesis. Never has it been clearer that the life of Peter Parker’s remaining parent relies on him and Ditko makes that pressure and responsibility a visual element of the story at the end. As Peter is trapped under tons of steel and water, he must work harder than he ever has before to overcome and live up to his responsibility. He might have failed Uncle Ben, but now he can stand up for Aunt May. We are told that it is impossible, but Spider-Man lifts the beams anyway in one of the most groundbreaking sequences of the time. It’s something to behold and represents the transition of Peter Parker from adolescence to adulthood.

There’s still a lot of life to be lived and adventures to be had after this victory, but the coming of age story that Ditko and Lee began a few years earlier finds its climax at this moment. Spider-Man will learn more lessons, but he’ll learn them as a grown ass man. If you’re interested in reading a teen superhero comic, you can pick upAmazing Spider-Man #1-33 (plus Annual #1 and #2, if you feel like it) and have a complete story with a great conclusion. There’s more to be had, but it’s far from necessary.

Way down the road in Amazing Spider-Man #700 a very different team of creators, including writer Dan Slott and penciler Humberto Ramos, provided Peter with a much more definitive ending. They killed him.

Obviously, this is superhero comics and Spider-Man will return. That’s one of our assumptions walking into these examples, but that doesn’t make death any less of a stopping point. It’s a significant change and when utilized well can still mean something even with the assumption of resurrection in place. You can go as far back as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and be reminded of great stories that utilize death to create catharsis and meaning in superhero comics. Amazing Spider-Man #700 isn’t a good example because Slott and Ramos kill Peter though, it’s because they make it mean something.

Slott had spent the several years before this issue walking Spider-Man to being a fully functioning adult. By the time this issue rolled around he was successful at work, in relationships, with his family, and as a superhero. Peter Parker had become the Fully-Realized Spider-Man. This showed that the lessons begun in Amazing Fantasy #15 had been well-learned and put to good use. Uncle Ben and Aunt May had raised a good young man who became an amazing adult. So with everything going right and all of his radioactive ducks in a row, Peter found that Doctor Octopus had swapped bodies with him.

Amazing-Spider-Man-700

It’s a tragic ending, one that mirrors the beginning of this very long story. Just like Uncle Ben who passed along one key lesson before he died, Peter does the same. This time it doesn’t go from parent to child though, but from hero to villain. Peter forces Doctor Octopus to effectively live his life, experiencing all of his memories, and coming to understand the meaning of great power and great responsibility. Even as he is finally conquered by his arch-nemesis, Peter manages to leave the world a better place and take care of those he loves in his final moments. It’s a good ending to both Slott’s work with the character Spider-Man and a solid cap to 700 issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

Ultimately, the quality of their conclusion, temporary as it may be, meant that readers could step into the next chapter of Superior Spider-Man featuring Dr. Otto Octavius satisfied with the ending they had been given. That’s why this follow-up series was able to exist on its own for as long as it did. Peter had an ending for a while and it’s still a fine ending now that he has returned.

As readers of superhero comics we get new iterations of Spider-Man and different minds filling the same body; we don’t get the closure of knowing there will be an ending to our favorite stories. That’s part of this publishing model and it definitely turns some people off. I don’t think it means that there aren’t really endings though, simply that endings are never definitive or absolute. That’s okay.

We can get an ending to a particular run, or a specific character’s arc, or even a long-running plot thread. We may also receive temporary endings to the whole thing, like the two examples from Amazing Spider-Man I gave. None of these will last forever, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feature the key elements of an ending or disallow us from discussing them as such. It’s on us as readers to find these endings and discuss them as what they are. It doesn’t matter that so many creators continued to handle Spider-Man after Ditko left the series behind because Ditko provided a conclusion to his work with the character. That’s enough for me, at least.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Critical Analysis | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crocked Critics: Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 14, 2016.

C-3PO-1-Cover

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 comics critics Daniel Elkin accompanied by Gin Gimlets (Spring is HERE) and Chase Magnett accompanied by a 2013 Three Thieves Cabernet Sauvignon (gifted to him by one his absolute favorite co-workers) as they take a look at Star Wars Special: C-3P0 #1 from writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris.

Chase Magnett: I’m upset, Elkin. I’m really not pleased right now.

After last week’s Crocked Critics we decided to pick an easy target for the both of us like shooting empty bottles off an old fence. Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 was just that sort of target. It’s a comic book that really shouldn’t be any good.

To start with it takes the most unlikeable subject from Marvel’s Star Wars comics franchise and makes him the hero. Nobody has ever gone to the toy store and looked for a C-3PO action figure, or waited for him to show his shiny face in the movies, or asked for a spin-off comic book featuring the golden killjoy.

On top of featuring this unloved spoilsport, this comic is focused on the one loose plot thread of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that nobody really cared about: What happened to C-3PO’s arm? Even in the movie it’s a joke as the droid raises the question and is promptly ignored by everyone who actually matters to the audience. Yet that’s the central premise of this comic book, simply telling us how his golden arm was replaced by a red one.

The icing on this particular cake comes in the form of the creative team of writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris. This pairing is best-known for their character defining run on Starman, one of the true all-time great comics stints at DC Comics. Yet recent years have not been kind to either creator with Robinson’s break from DC Comics and maligned Image mini-series Airboy, and Harris’ uninspiring work on series like Ex Machina and impassioned rants against young women in cosplay. Giving this once widely renowned team a C-3PO one-shot felt like Marvel poking fun at their distinguished competition’s fallen fortunes.

But then you read Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 and discover that it’s actually quite good. There’s an enjoyable story at its core, it raises some haunting concepts and themes, and there are some pretty great page layouts. This issue even manages to make C-3PO himself a compelling character. It’s a pretty good Star Wars comic, perhaps the best single issue of Marvel’s relaunched Star Wars line. It’s everything that I didn’t expect it to be.

Damn it, how did this comic turn out better than it had any right to?

Daniel Elkin: Because at his core, C-3PO is all of us. In the Star Wars films, he’s always been the one who mouths the words that most of us would be saying. Sure we like to think of ourselves as the swashbuckling leading characters, the one’s who have passion and grit and are fighting for the cause, but really, deep down, we know that given the situation, we’d be whining and correcting and pointing out and trying to save our own asses.

And we’re embarrassed by this face in the mirror, and so our embarrassment leads to our slagging of 3PO, because that’s what we do in order to justify ourselves.

So thank goodness James Robinson and Tony Harris have finally put the proper spin on this character and give us access in which to relate. Finally, C-3PO is given the opportunity to show empathy, understanding, and sacrifice. Finally, C-3PO allows us to be heroes too.

I just don’t understand why the fuck they had to put it in a comic book…

Magnett: Not only a comic book, but a one-shot. There’s a lot going on in this one issue and the damnable truth of the matter is that I want more. At the heart of this comic is a heroic journey and romance that I think has swept you away. That’s something I want to hear more about because it really nails the joy of a fun Star Wars story, but the thing at the forefront of my mind walking away from reading this book twice is something a bit more philosophical.

The issue is subtitled “The Phantom Limb”, which on the surface is a joke on the loathed “The Phantom Menace”. Yet as it goes on this title takes on a greater meaning. C-3PO and his frenemy Omri discuss their status as protocol droids, focusing on longevity, servitude, memory wipes, and higher consciousness. Both of these two characters know they have lived longer than any of their companions, but are unsure as to just how long due to being continually wiped by their masters.

Yet their personhood is clear. Both have distinct personalities and retain fragments of their past life, in spite of their owner’s best efforts to create a clean slate. Their memories remain with them like a phantom limb, haunting them. C-3PO has a much more pleasant attitude compared to dour Omri, but when asked about this topic he retreats into a state of uncertainty as he hints at the life-defining events readers will recall from the prequel trilogy. Those are part of him and they were taken away.

It’s a lot to take in and contemplate, evoking thoughts of slavery and mental unwellness that are too big to unpack in this one comic, but it still gives readers plenty to chew on in a concise manner.

C-3PO-1-Omri

Elkin: There’s this exchange early on between C-3PO and Omri in which Omri talks about how fascinating it is that their programming makes them like humans yet they are not actually “alive” (whatever the hell that means, really). Omri then says, “…yet thanks to programming we’re all so ready to fight for this side or that.” The fundamental existential questions that are raised in this book are kinda outta nowhere — yet, because of this, they end up being all that much more profound.

C-3PO talks about their memories being in the hands of “their creators” later on. Omri talks about the necessity of protocol droids having “an extra degree of sentience”. And then, given that they have these “Phantom” memories of which you alluded to, Chase, he then wonders “How important have I been?

Which hits right to the core of all of us. Right? As we are essentially the summation of our experiences (sprinkled, as it were, with a fine dusting of genetics), it stands to reason that the ultimate human question is “How important have I been?” To have these words come out of a construct, a droid, throws so much sand in the eyes of philosophy that I kind of went weak in the knees when I read it.

What the hell is James Robinson’s end-game here? How much of this is pre-ordained by the corporate concerns of Marvel/Lucas Films/Disney — and how much of this is the expression of an artist who, given the simple task of explaining how C-3PO got his fucking red arm, takes that narrow conceit and shows his true artistry?

Magnett: This really feels like an example of someone being given an inch and taking a mile. I’m sure when Marvel Comics was given the task of filling in the smallest of gaps in the new Star Wars universe, it was because the folks at Disney didn’t believe they could do any damage. Most of the big universe building outside of the films seems to occur in novelizations and cartoons, two vastly more profitable and wide-reaching forms of media. Yet when Robinson and Harris were told they had a few dozen pages to make something up, they expanded on the Star Wars concept in a more profound way than anyone could have anticipated.

Not only did they make it clear why C-3PO is a great character (something I’m just accepting now), but they added a philosophical depth unseen in any individual story since George Lucas let the Mouse take over. Robinson and Harris may have been down, but it’s clear they are not out. Even if they don’t win any awards or get an ongoing series, they delivered something special here. It’s like Rocky in that even though the Italian Stallion doesn’t win the fight, he keeps going to the very end. Given a nothing shot, these two creators made a statement. They aren’t done with comics yet.

I was already excited about the ideas and narrative of this comic, but what it means for these two old pros adds another layer on top of all that. You ask these two how C-3PO got a red arm and they’ll look you in the eye and make you question not only the underpinnings of morality regarding droids in the Star Wars universe, but what exactly makes you a man. Well done, gentlemen. I’m sorry for doubting you.

Speaking of that artistry, I know we both went into this comic acting very skeptical to say the least. What was that first hooked you into what’s being done here?

Elkin:“Skeptical” is an understatement, Chase. I was expecting to have to eviscerate this book in ways I haven’t torn something apart in a long time. As I started reading this book I felt assured that this was the book worthy of bile, too. From the opening page with the “space goat” and the rather phallic looking rocket careening through the all-too convenient hole in a rock formation, to the rather ham-fisted way in which the six characters were introduced, I was juiced for loathing. But then came Omri’s talk of “programming”…. and I started to let off the gas.

Thankfully there was the introduction of “Spice Spiders” and I got to self-righteously climb up on my high horse again… only to be dismounted by C-3PO saying something about one of the droids sacrificing himself for the others, and Omri saying “He was programmed to.” From then on out, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a bigger picture, a larger sense of artistry going on here.

Sure, at the end, I felt that the whole “red primer” being immune to acid thing was Robinson trying to fulfill his corporate duty, but even that was just a grass seed in the larger meadow of thought going on in this book.

On top of that, being given the opportunity to watch these characters actually develop over the course of this story was impressive. The line, “I’m not choosing sides, I’m choosing friendship” could be sappy as fuck in any other context, but I honestly believe that Robinson earned the right to use it given all the work he had done prior.

This book was redemptive in so many ways. It redeems C-3PO as a character, allowing him to finally be silent in all the right ways. It redeems us for being the C-3PO in this whole fucked up scheme that is the Star Wars universe. It redeems Robinson after his missteps in Air Boy. It almost redeems Harris after his missteps into misogyny.

This fucking C-3PO comic may be the ultimate validation of the idea of “second chances” I have read in a long time.

And I soooooo wanted to get all crocked and be mean, too.

Magnett: I don’t know if one good comic redeems Tony Harris being an asshole towards women, but I do think you’re onto something here. You pointed out the introductory scene as being ham-fisted and it absolutely is. As someone that has read a lot of James Robinson and who really adores his writing on Starman, I’ll be the first to admit that he has a peculiar way with words. His dialogue is unlike anything else in comics, but once it starts to work for you it can really work.

Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 is an example of Robinson really working. Even when he hits on notes of sappiness or fist-to-face exposition, after you get adjusted they all click into place. I think it might be the forthright manner in which he expresses the big concepts underlying the drama and the purity of the drama that make all of this land for me. Let’s just look at that red primer scene for one moment.

When Omri walks into the acid rain, sacrificing himself to save his friend, he looks at his forearm, quickly turning from gray to red, and says “Red primer… I never knew. When was it applied? How long ago?” It’s a quiet reverie, a brief moment of reflection before his impending death. Even under his lifeless, orb eyes, it’s possible to imagine a mind thinking about what experiences he has had and which of those he will never even remember.

C-3PO-1-Red-Arm

Looking at it now, I’m reminded of the “C-Beams Speech” from the end of Blade Runner, as someone previously seen as being villainous displays the depth of their humanity and self in a very direct manner. Not only does this brief moment make us think of Omri as a person, not just a mechanical object, dying for his friend, but it forces us to consider once again the troublesome nature of existence and how droids are treated in this world.

Is it blunt? Is it melodramatic? Yes on both counts. But the more important question is: Does it work? Again, the answer is yes. Robinson and Harris pull this moment off perfectly and it makes the following page when Harris details Omri’s collapse all the more affecting and tragic.

Elkin: I totally agree with you on this, Chase. And it speaks to Harris’ work a great deal in this book. Talk about Harris’ art now, Chase, as you are apparently more lucid than I at this point. His layouts, especially.

Magnett: My lucidity increases as I drink right up until the moment it plummets into an abyss, let’s hope that moment isn’t now.

Harris is someone who I run hot and cold on. His painterly style certainly appeals to the sort of folk who believe Alex Ross to be the second coming of comics artists. But he definitely has a leg up on Ross in that he actually strives to tell a sequential story rather than string together beautifully composed paintings of nostalgia in a comprehensible fashion. Harris is a guy who seems to want to work in comics, not covers. Even when his work appears unmoving and framed, as was often the case in Ex Machina, it’s clear that he’s here to connect panels.

That’s definitely the case in Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1, and I think the arrangement of this comic plays to his strengths. The most panels Harris ever includes in a single page is six and these often feel jam-packed with close ups. He understands that his work needs room to breathe and arranges the pages in a format to suit this need.

I really love how he looks for symbols and shapes to sort heads and landscapes, making each new page turn feel like a step forward. The layouts are not simply a matter of ease, but showmanship as well. Each page has the effect of being crafted as its own unique moment. Even in an early scene on page nine where the droids are simply conversing, he composes a segmented circle to give them each their own space and that also divides space in order to promote the rugged landscape and a panel of them all together.

As a reader you can see the work and are encouraged to appreciate the presentation. This benefits the story too, as it helps you to slow down. Even if the opening scene of exposition does this narrative no favors, Harris’ craftsmanship is going to make you want to linger a moment longer with what comes next. It not only helps you read the words on the page, but stick around and ponder them.

On top of all that, he provides these droids with a real sense of humanity. While C-3PO may be vaguely humanoid, at least half of these characters are most definitely not. Harris’ painterly qualities and strong emphasis on lighting against these metal forms works to his benefit here though. We get to see and understand them as people, which is how we end up with our brows creased and eyes focused in each moment of sacrifice.

This issue is a strong showcase for Harris and it also helps us understand why his work with Robinson has consistently revealed the best both of these creators had to offer. Now I’m curious which moment(s) crafted by Harris struck you most strongly?

Elkin: I am not at a point in this drinking conversation to point to specifics, Chase. I can barely have my fingers respond to the proper key-strokes, if I’m being totally honest. Still, what I was impressed with was the various ways in which Harris chose to structure his pages. This is, for all extents and purposes, a very corporate comic. It’s in service of the much larger Marvel/Disney/Lucas goals, plain and simple. Given this, one could easily expect Harris just to plod out page after page of six panel compositions. Thud, thud, thud… this is not a comic for comic book readers, after all.

But he didn’t. He actually stood up and said, “I’m a fucking artist and I’m going to make this shit a work of art.” I agree with everything you said about what he accomplished, Chase, and I applaud him for not selling out in a cash grab situation.

While I never quite connected with his individual panels in this book, I kind of felt like that was the point. These aren’t human beings, after all. These are robots. There needs to be some staticness to their presentation. The ends justified the means, as it were.

But I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to see pages where the expected progression of panels was so artfully done, so much in service of story. Between what Robinson is laying down and what Harris crafts, this book transcends the cash-grab obviousness of its publication.

This is what Haunted Mansion could have been. Maybe? And it stands as notice to other creatives that hack work doesn’t have to hack. It can be something else.

I wanted to start talking about Mantlo and Buscema’s work on Rom or Hama’s work on GI Joe or Mantlo (again) onMicronauts, but I’m too far crocked to make my point. Help me, Chase Magnett, you’re my only hope.

Magnett: Don’t worry, I got your back and I’m ready to make some grandiose statements.

Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 is the reason why even the most corporate of comics like Haunted Mansion #1 deserve a shellacking when they turn out as terrible as that one did. The truth is there are no inherently bad ideas (except land wars in Asia), just bad creations. You named three incredible works from the 1980s that have a deep, lasting impact on comics today and were based upon toy lines. There’s simply no good excuse for churning out bad work.

I’m confident saying that because Robinson and Harris had every excuse in the world. Just look at how I opened this column. We walked in ready to write this thing off and not even blame the two guys given cash to make it happen. I won’t blame anyone for making their green and the numbers on the paycheck stay the same no matter how good a C-3PO comic turns out to be. This could have easily been garbage and almost no one would have wanted to tear down the people who made it as a result.

But it wasn’t, and that’s so very important.

Rather than getting a self-aware ironic joke about everybody’s least favorite Star Wars character, we got a comic that made this character matter. They didn’t change who C-3PO was, but revealed why we ought to relate to him and helped us empathize with his struggles. They delivered melodrama better than all of the other Star Wars comics out there today, stuff that really feels like the movies we love. They packed in ideas that make this comic worth reading more than once and more than twice. They made it all beautiful to look and linger with.

All James Robinson and Tony Harris had to do was write a comic about C-fucking-3PO, and they chose to write the fuck out of C-3PO.

What we walk away from this with isn’t just the knowledge that we can get a good C-3PO comic, but that we can get a good comic out of just about anything. It’s a reminder that as comics readers we should stop lowering expectation and making excuses, and start demanding more. Comics are a great medium and their content never diminishes that potential.

Elkin: Dammit, Chase. You took the words right out of my drunken mouth. I’d give my red arm for you anytime.

Love you, man.

Magnett: Ditto.

Posted in Comic Reviews, Comics, Comics Bulletin, Friday Follow Up | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading Questions: Meet Young Animal Same as Old Vertigo

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 14, 2016.

Young Animal Doom Patrol 2

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own 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…

How could the recently announced Young Animal imprint improve upon the original DC/Vertigo relationship?

I think this is a really interesting question because it gets right to the heart(s) of DC Comics “Vertigo Problem”. Vertigo Comics was once the bar for high quality mainstream comics. Established after the rollout of highly acclaimed series like Saga of the Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Animal Man, Vertigo seized on a few very potent ingredients and transformed them into an iconic brand.

Those ingredients could be narrowed down to top-notch and largely British creators (e.g. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman), mature content (i.e. lots of fucking and death), and excellently executed comics (e.g. The Invisibles, Sandman). When you look at the Vertigo catalog, including the series that led to its official creation, it’s quite an accomplished batch of comics in terms of both artistic and historical achievements resting under those seven letters. What Karen Berger did as the Executive Editor of the Vertigo imprint is one of the greatest successes in all of American comics.

Now Berger has not only left Vertigo behind, but it was just announced that she’s now editing series for industry rival Image Comics. That single piece of trivia encapsulates the “Vertigo Problem” rather well. While the imprint lived through almost two full decades of dominance in the mature, mainstream comics sector from the late-80s through the mid-00s, the past ten years have not been so kind. Whereas before Vertigo was the place for creators to pitch high profile, mature new series, there has been a case of brain drain. Smaller publishers, specifically Image Comics, have offered creators complete ownership and other competitive concerns. Readers looking for the new hottest thing outside of superhero comics don’t look toward Vertigo anymore.

This hasn’t stopped the imprint from putting out lots of new material. Under the leadership of editors like Jamie S. Rich they have found some series capable of achieving both commercial and critical success (based on comparable series in the very small, very weird American comics market). Series like Sheriff of Baghdad and Twilight Children are certainly nothing to scoff at, but they are the exceptions of a low overall success rate and don’t approach the highs of powerhouses like Y: The Last Man, Fables, and 100 Bullets from just over a decade ago. Perhaps the most successful series left at the imprint is American Vampire and it is currently preparing to begin its swan song as both of its creators, Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, continue to pursue lots of other new projects elsewhere.

Vertigo isn’t in danger of being shuttered, but it’s a shell of its former self. It lacks the stable of A-list talent, the roster of top-selling comics, and list of awards that once made it one of the most successful imprints in all of American comics and a guiding force for moving the medium forward in America. That’s how we got to asking about improving relationships and solving this “Vertigo Problem”. How do you try to reclaim the success of yesteryear? Part of that might lie in looking at the origins of the imprint when it took successful, mature DC superhero comics and bundled them into their own unique line. That’s how Young Animals plays into all of this.

But for those not paying attention to comics news (and who could blame them?), it’s probably worth taking a brief look at what exactly Young Animal is besides a terrible name for a comics imprint. Last weekend at Emerald City Comic Con, DC Comics rolled another batch of big announcements only two weeks after the big DC Rebirth event at Wonder-Con. This was the B-roll filled with exciting projects, but nothing with the mainstream draw or potential revenue of relaunching series like Batman or Superman. In addition to a very interesting Kamandi project, DC Comics announced Young Animal as a new imprint to be curated by musician and comics writer Gerard Way.

Based on interviews and the initial wave of marketing, Young Animal is where creators can take a more mature or “quirky” approach to DC Comics intellectual property. Amongst the initial round of launches are reinventions of classic DC characters in Doom Patrol, Shade, the Changing Girl, and Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye. Both the Doom Patrol and Shade, the Changing Man were previously reinvented by foundational Vertigo writers Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, respectively. Cave Carson is a Golden Age character with very little Modern Age presence, but is likely to be seen in a very new, very strange light with writers Way and Jon Rivera and artist Michael Avon Oeming attached.

Looking at the initial line of Young Animal announcements, it’s clear that the imprint is either coming from a place of nostalgia or inspiration regarding the birth of Vertigo. Taking the strangest characters along with some new inventions from the DC Universe and allowing high profile creators to go crazy with them outside of continuity was what that imprint was all about. In a best case scenario, comics and superhero fans alike will be treated to some very entertaining and engaging new books come September and October.

But how does all of this impact Vertigo’s place in the DC Comics publishing lineup?

The most immediate thing it does is severe the relationship between the Vertigo of today and the line originally conceived by Berger. There’s no room for capes or DC-related weirdness anymore. Rather than look at Vertigo as a home for these sorts of mature and experimental projects, the publisher has opted to create another heading altogether. Way’s outside fame and influence may have played a role in this decision as well. It’s possible that the only way to bring him on board was to give him his own house to play in. Whatever the reason, the connection between Vertigo and DC Comics is more distant than ever.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. While early Vertigo thrived on DC Comics-related content, with evenSandman including references to the Martian Manhunter and the title character’s gas-masked predecessor, that has not been the Vertigo brand for quite some time now. With Berger gone and a more recent history of genre successes that range from science-fiction to fantasy to crime noir, it makes sense to focus on the future rather than the past.

In the past year there have been a surge of new titles from the imprint, but very few have stuck. Even series like Art Ops with fan favorite artist Mike Allred on board have received lukewarm receptions. There’s a lot of effort going into searching for the next big thing, but not much in the way of success. That comes both from a loss of credibility among readers and a less attractive offer to be made to creators. It’s possible that Young Animal could help Vertigo improve both of these fronts.

Since the launch of the New 52, Vertigo’s association with DC Comics has hung like a millstone around its neck. While the two imprints are run separately, the New 52 represented everything Vertigo was supposed to be apart from and company-ties still bound the two in the eyes of many readers. The New 52 presented a surge of new capes comics focused on a house style and valued (i.e. marketed) over the corpses of invigorating series like Dial H for Hero and I, Vampire. Young Animal gives DC Comics the ability to reclaim credibility with mature readers even as it doubles down on double shipping schemes and constantly rotating artists. The strangeness and creator-driven atmosphere surrounding Young Animal announcements could be the rising tide that raises all of these boats.

Way’s name, along with several other attached creators including Becky Cloonan, is bound to buy some credit as well. On comics like Way’s Umbrella Academy and Cloonan’s superlative By Providence or Chance, they have earned credit as auteurs in the comics community. If they can bring a similar level of creativity, challenge, and success to any of the Young Animal series, it’s bound to make readers reconsider their opinions of DC Comics output.

It’s that same level of dedication that may help to attract new ideas and creators back to Vertigo as well. The imprint will never be able to match Image’s deal on ownership, but it is capable of paying all creators a steady page rate. That money matters in low-income business like comics. If Way and his other Young Animal collaborators can convince some creators to reconsider Vertigo AND Vertigo can sweeten their deal to be competitive with other publishers, then it’s possible the next Saga or East of West could be published without a big “I” in its upper left hand corner.

Even though Young Animal is not Vertigo and Vertigo is not Young Animal, the announcement of this “pop up imprint” could give its DC Comics predecessor a much needed infusion of energy. Vertigo has struggled to remain relevant over the past ten years in a market of comics that it essentially created. It will never be what it once was, and that’s the key to moving forward.

Young Animal has looked to the past in order to find a new way forward for the many unused superhero properties at DC Comics. That’s a good and exciting strategy. Vertigo must look around and ahead to grow. The Image Revolution has changed how creator-owned comics function and what publishers look to sell in the direct market. Vertigo has a talented staff of editors and more resources than almost any of their competitors. It is up to them to take this opportunity to make Vertigo mean something again, and make it mean something new.

Posted in Comics, Comics Bulletin, Industry Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment