May 9, 2017

Hidden Gems: Geoff Johns and Butch Guice's Olympus

Hidden Gems looks at some comics you may not have heard of. This time we'll look at a comic published by Humanoids/DC Comics in 2005, called...

Olympus, by Geoff Johns, Kris Grimminger, and Butch Guice

It's 2003 and Geoff Johns is still a year away from Green Lantern: Rebirth and claiming his undisputed place as DC's top writer. DC Comics at the time has a partnership with Paris-based comics publisher, Humanoids. Johns, working with Kris Grimminger, pitches a series featuring "every great monster from Greek mythology, from Medusa to the Stymphalian Birds." So they contact Butch Guice, who's fresh off of drawing Ruse (from the criminally short-lived company CrossGen) and colorist Dan Brown, and the result is a fun and aesthetically gorgeous, if narratively shallow, comic.


We start with a shot of one of our main characters, Brent, diving and exploring. And, man, look at that art. Look at those lush colors. They're gorgeous. Reading this comic was like if your eyes had taste buds and you fed them candy.


We learn that Brent is part of an archaeological group in Europe, and this is their vacation before heading back to America. We meet the studious Rebecca and lackadaisical Sarah, sisters who couldn't be more different.

And basically Sarah walks around in that for the entire comic,
because apparently Johns watched that GI Joe episode.
We're introduced also to their professor, Gail Walker, and together they find what looks to be a historical version of Pandora's Box, the jar that brings demons into the Earth. Their ship is then hijacked by a bunch of pirates, but a storm shipwrecks them on an island. And that island is beautiful.

Seriously, look at that. Look! 

Turns out it's Olympus, of Greek myth, and the jar really is Pandora's box. And damn, they need to get that thing to the top of the mountain where it belongs, or things like this come after them.

Okay, so there isn't much to the story other than a glorified mountain climbing experience. Johns does Johns and introduces some very basic plot elements to make us sympathize with the characters more. The Archaeology program is getting shut down. Brent's dad is in jail. Rebecca and Sarah are disappointed in each other. That's all the emotional depth to the story, but hey, that's not the point of it.

Really, it reads like a survival thriller movies where the goal is just to move from Point A to Point B (think of something like Gravity or The Shallows). But man. It sure is damn pretty.


May 8, 2017

The Crime Corner: An Introduction

Noir/Crime Comics: An Introduction
by Christopher Cornejo

So I was trying to think of a witty introduction to say on this piece. How I got a serious hankering for comic books and all its glorious (and crappy) splendor. How it gave me an escape from the monotony of life and how it allowed me to explore various worlds without leaving the comfort of my bed or couch.

True as it maybe that I’ve experienced those things in comic books, it wasn’t necessarily my first love and my first foray into escapism and worlds unimaginable. I got that high first on crime. Now I know what you’re thinking “Did this guy just confess how messed up he is?” (A topic that should not be questioned, for that is between me and my therapist) but fret not, for your fears are unfounded.

I LOVE CRIME. CRIME FICTION THAT IS (who knows how much explaining me and the editor would have to do if it was the act itself, not the medium I confessed to love).

One way or another I’ve always been a fan of (almost) everything that is crime and noir. There’s always something so elegantly stylish, captivating, and dare I say it, sensual about these kinds of works that I can’t help surrender to its appeal. This article could go on and on and on if I tried to enumerate all the great things crime (and noir for I feel they almost always go hand in hand) fiction has given me in all my years growing up but since this site is about comics, I will (try very hard to) limit myself with crime/noir comics.

As an introduction, I’ll be listing down the elements of crime as I understand and appreciate it. These are the elements that give crime comics its particular style, theme, and own identity. Consider this a primer of sorts. Now, these things need not be present at all times, but they’re kind of like a guidepost on what to expect from the plot and themes when you get to sit down and enjoy a crime comic and yes, yes, yes, this is not a definitive and objective list (because, let’s face it, facts are for wimps).

Think of these things as some bloodstained comfort blanket you wrap around yourself to feel safe and secure. And in the spirit of trying to be witty (and failing spectacularly to do so, I may add), I would like to call this as my own crime comic checklist (or notable noir niche, whichever fits your fancy).

The Seedy Underground (or the City behind the City)

“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Most fiction deals with the location as something or someplace people thrive and live on. At times, it’s part of their identity (like East and West Baltimore of the groundbreaking HBO series, The Wire); other times it’s just any other nameless place that stuff happens in. All those things can also be applied to crime and noir comics but the city that people inhabit in the pages of the topic at hand (or the streets if you feel inclined to call it that) is much, much more.

The city is a character in and of itself and not just a plot device. It is a like a colorful (if you feel like red, black, and varying shades of grey colorful) tapestry that shows the world as we know it and flipped it upside down. A ragged canvas that is a wonderful breeding ground for all the things that is wrong in the world. The streets get to be where bad things never stop happening and that the misery and hurt of it all becomes routine.

This is the place where businessmen sharpen their crooked ways to ensure their legitimate dealings lead to a profit often at the expense of the people they deal with and crooks act all like serious businessmen to professionally setup a score that guarantees they get to live another day.

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” – Raymond Chandler

Criminal: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The urban jungle that I’ve come to know in crime comics as the city is the habitat of people where they give in to their most basic and animalistic urges such as living (and mostly dying) by the needle and need of a fix, along with the predatory folks who prey upon the people barely scraping by. The city ensures the nights are just a little bit longer and the promise of a new day is something that is never guaranteed for everyone.

This is the place where justice is a word that has all but lost its meaning; where the only path to salvation is also the sure path to one’s ruin. There’s no law save the laws of the streets and you can be damn sure that those rules are not enforced by the police but by the thugs, dealers, and soldiers who bleed for what they claimed was theirs.

Emasculation

“We’re designed to be hunters but we’re in a society of shopping.” – David Fincher

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Most stories often have their protagonists overcome great challenges that pretty much redeem them in the end. This is a trait also shared by noir and crime comics. The only difference is, more often than not, our leading man takes more of a beating rather than give it and doesn't really catch a break in between. Our guy is always the fool who is always way, way, waaaaaaaaaaaay in over his head and often has to deal with various situations that he hardly (if ever) gets to get out on top. Sure, the world is unfair, but noir and crime comic makes damn sure that our guy gets to feel most of the brunt of said unfairness.

“People are lucky and unlucky not according to what they get absolutely, but according to the ratio between what they get and what they have been led to expect.” – Samuel Butler


100 Bullets by Brian Azzarrello and Eduardo Risso
That’s right, our guy who once in his life believed he can be a two-time champ gets a serious slap of reality and rude awakening that all he can be is a two-time chump, punch drunk and half dead going in to the last round with no idea how he’s gonna (or will he ever be) get saved by the bell. And just to rub it in, no one can save him, in fact, since misery loves company; no one gets to be saved.

No one.

Yes, I know I should point out the obvious here. All our protagonists (if you could even call it that) happen to be from the male side of the kingdom. Make no mistake; this theme is deliberate. Maybe to all the more ensure that the point gets across, and the point we’re talking about here is that “it ain’t pretty and it never will be”. A man’s pride and ego is what makes him who he is and what better way to serve a lesson about things going as bad as they can get than robbing said man of his identity and what makes him, uh well, him?

To the fine, fine, fine ladies reading this, don’t worry because in the world of crime, you’ll have your own woes to deal with. Just keep reading on.



Femme Fatale

“I say all the things I swore I’d never say again. She owns me. Body and soul.” 
– Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


The Black Monday Murders by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker

Imagine yourself, sitting at a bar. You’re there minding your own business, a drink in your hand and just killing time when lo and behold, this lady walks in straight out of your wildest dreams and fantasies. Everyone in the room feels it, the undeniable smoldering sensuality of her every step. You became aware of your own heartbeat because anytime now it will jump out of your throat. You feign detachment and cool disregard to the hell on high heels taking over the place, but you and I both know she knows better. She rewards you with a look that could have a corpse breathing hard. The promise of just the touch of her skin leaves you gasping for air, and why shouldn’t you be? You’re way out of your depth and breathing underwater while your mouth is filled with thoughts of her.

But like all good (and pretty) things in the wonderful world of crime, that beauty most likely is just skin deep. Underneath all the glamorous looks and amorous come-ons, hides a sly and conniving predator that ensures you take the bait before she leaves you lying on the floor, with no control of your senses and no possessions in your name, wondering what and how you get to reach the bottom this fast, wishing all that she’d given you was a dream come true but only turning out to be the endless waking nightmare that you’ve now come to know as your life.

“Yes I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?” – Double Indemnity

Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips


The femme fatale has become a landmark character in crime and noir. She’s the foil and oftentimes the cause of our protagonist’s troubles. At best, she gives our guy something to think and tide him over while he’s spending the foreseeable future in prison or a life that will be a continuous downward spiral. At worst, she’s the catalyst that causes our hero to gain redemption but that comes at the expense of his own soul.

The objectification and misogyny these women get, they turn it to weapon that gives them the capacity to go after and take whatever it is that suited their fancy because the only way to get even is to trample every men that stands in their way and use them as cannon fodder and a means to their own ends. Cruelty for the sake of personal gain is not something that is original only to femme fatales but nonetheless the effectivity of this theme is something that keeps readers coming back for more because like sick voyeurs in awe of the accident waiting to happen, we could not avert our eyes away from this road of damnation that leads to everybody’s ruin.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, right?

And speaking of ruin, on a final note. . .

Redemption (or the Road to Ruin)

“I have to believe there’s redemption in the darkest of circumstances; otherwise it’s too bleak for me” – Paddy Considine

The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

For all intents and purposes crime and noir is a story of inherent if not preordained tragedy. A modern tragedy set in the landscape of the urban jungle where the fatalistic nightmare of the lead characters comes into vivid reality. The insurmountable odds stacked against our protagonist are only rivaled by their perseverance to get away from the problems that haunt their everyday lives. Yes, everything is pre-ordained to be doomed, but this will never stop the people from seeking reprieve whatever form it may take shape.

The superficial goal of crime comics, at least from the lead character’s perspective is that they have to get what they want. That could be in the form of a successful score from a heist or finally getting their revenge by giving the well-deserved comeuppance to the source of their seemingly unending misery. But more than that, crime comics is a story about one’s redemption.

But since this is crime comics we’re talking about, said redemption comes at a considerable cost. We mostly meet our characters down in the dumps knee-deep in trouble and not a source of hope in sight. Everything is turning bad and it will just keep on getting worst. The only way to stop or even ebb this unending stream of problems, our character needs to devise a plan to get out from under. These thoughts turn into unsavory schemes that they must execute if they want to make it. They get tangled with bent people with personal desires and not above a double cross to get what they believe were theirs.

“I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil.  Such things I do, just to make myself attractive to you.
Have I failed?” - Morissey (The Last of the Famous International Playboys)


Gotham Central: Half a Life by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Yes it’s a difficult path that needs to be taken. Despite all these problems plaguing our protagonist, they can’t help themselves in trying to do the right thing (or at least the closest thing in doing right by the people they promise to save). Because what is a person (however crooked they might turn out to be) if not for the principles that defines them?

And that’s the problem. That principle that serves as their (possibly only) saving grace is a double edged sword that they have to fall on later. The best-laid plans of mice and men have never been more destroyed than by walking the road to redemption, which also happens to be one’s road to certain ruin. This theme never loses its charm in noir and crime, because when you get a good crime story, no matter how messed up and vile the protagonist happens to be, you can’t help but root for them as they go through the paces and follow the path to redemption, regardless of our knowing too well that not everything will end up smelling roses and a happy ending is the last thing these characters will ever get.

Because our knight does not have a shining armor, they’re vulnerable from pretty much everything and they are tainted by the nature they got acclimated to as well as the people they’ve surrounded themselves. Despite the questionable things they did, our lead character can’t help themselves but behave like honor and faith has anything to do with the life they’ve lead up until now.

Like any heroes, we want them to triumph and prevail unscathed and unharmed. But that kind of ending is reserved elsewhere. That kind of conclusion will never be found in the pages of crime and noir comics. That makes it all the more compelling, because regardless of how high they manage to get up we know they’re bound to fall. In the world of crime, everything and everyone is set to fail.

So there you have it, a primer of sorts about all things crime and noir in the wonderful world of comic books. I hope you got something out of it. As for me, I’ll try to follow this up with other crime/noir comic related stuff to post in this blog because it would be such a shame if you people do not get at least a chance to pick up any of the numerous comics out there for crime (I mean crime as a story not a propaganda promoting crime), I’ll be back with other stuff but until then, take a chance and pick one up for the team, yes?

May 7, 2017

Why Is Hydra Cap Such a Big Deal?

I've been reading comics for almost 30 years and have run this website for seven. One of the traps I want to avoid is complaining about something a modern comic does that I completely gave a pass to when I was younger. So I have to ask...

What's the Big Deal With Hydra Cap?
by Duy Tano

It's an honest question. As someone who has read superhero comics for as long as I can remember reading, I've come to know a few things that make the outrage for this make little sense to me. Namely:

We Only Really Appreciate Steve Rogers When He Isn't Captain America

Icons have repeated stories, cliches if you will. Peter Parker quits being Spider-Man. Superman loses his powers. Daredevil's life falls apart. In Steve Rogers' case, he gets replaced. This is a twist on that. It's still him, but his personality has been replaced. Did we want another replacement Cap to come along?

These Things Never Last

When I was nine years old, Superman died. Then they had these four guys replacing him.



Your options were that he was one of the four, or he was dead. I still remember when they brought him back as a fifth Superman, and some people actually believed they changed plans midflight, believing they had fully intended him for be to one of the four. (Incidentally, the one he was actually most like is Steel — and I'd bet anything he'd have gotten the most backlash if that was revealed to be the case.) I knew he wasn't dead. Just like a year later, I knew Batman's back wasn't going to stay broken. Just like I knew Ben Reilly wasn't going to be the real Spider-Man, and how I know Man-Thor is going to get Mjolnir back eventually and that Bucky wasn't going to stay as Captain America.

Steve Rogers isn't Hydra. He will overcome it by force of will, and if you've read superhero comics habitually for any significant length of time, you should know that.

Now I've heard the criticism that it's because no one wants Steve to be evil, but...

Superheroes Turn Evil All the Time

Look, here's Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, one of DC Comics' centerpieces of the last 10 years, back when he was evil.


Here's Superman, trying to take over the world.


Here's Spider-Man, working for Dr. Octopus in a classic Stan Lee/John Romita story.



Annnnnd here's Captain America, written by Stan Lee and drawn by his co-creator Jack Kirby, mind-controlled into being a Nazi. Let's not pretend to assume that we know for a fact Kirby would be offended by this when he literally drew this.



So, you may say, those are all short stories and they didn't last this long, which, okay, but...

Comics Are More Decompressed Now

In 1987, Kraven the Hunter took over as Spider-Man in the critically acclaimed "Kraven's Last Hunt." It lasted four issues.


Just a few years ago, Dr. Octopus took over as Spider-Man in the critically acclaimed and commercially loved Superior Spider-Man. It lasted over two years.



Comics are so much more decompressed now. A plot point that would have lasted an issue back in the day is explored in six. A four-issue storyarc then is whole reams of hardcovers now. That's the way of things now. And if that's your criticism, then that's not isolated to Captain America. That's the entire comics industry as a whole. And that's a whole separate discussion altogether. (Spoiler: decompression isn't inherently bad, and a lot of compressed comics from back in the day could have used more decompression.)

So in general, it's strange to me that we're criticizing a comic book for doing old plot points in a way that modern comics do things. And if you're complaining about the way modern comics do things, well, guess what? They're probably not written for you. They're probably written for the younger audience who will read these comics with the same wonder that you read your beloved comics when they were your age. When I see people praise Walt Simonson for creating Beta Ray Bill while disparaging Jane Foster as Thor because it's cheap storytelling, or when I see people complaining about Riri Williams while at the same time praising the time James Rhodes became Iron Man, it just boggles my mind, and the only reason I can really think of is the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia blinding us to what wasn't itself well-done in the past as well as how much of a pass we gave things before we realize how the mechanism worked.



I can only think of three reasons this has gotten the backlash it has, beyond "We praise things when we're younger that we don't when we're older." Let's go through them.

The Execution Sucks for the Expense

It's one thing to decompress—some of the most successful writers in history are decompressed. But it's been over a year, over 12 issues at $3.99 an issue (so you've spent over 50 bucks if you're following this), and until Secret Empire launched a couple weeks ago, it's basically been an extended prologue.

That is too much to ask in terms of expense. And while we can say that about any event that DC and Marvel have put out in the last couple of decades, it was always bound to reach a breaking point.

(Insert here whatever you think of Nick Spencer as a writer in a vacuum.)

We Actually Haven't Had Steve Rogers as Captain America for a While

The most acclaimed Captain America run in the 21st Century, Ed Brubaker's, had Steve Rogers as Captain America for 25 issues, then replaced by Bucky for longer than that. Then they brought Steve back as Cap for a few years and then aged him so he couldn't be Cap, and then Falcon became Cap. There are only two people Cap would ever ask to replace him, and that's those two. But now that Steve was Cap again, maybe we just needed some old fashion.

Breaking points, folks. Breaking points.

Now Was the Wrong Time to Do It

First, Captain America's more popular than he's been since 1941, and kids and adults alike look up to him. Chris Evans' franchise is the most well-crafted of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Hydra Cap isn't exactly a good gateway for new fans.

More importantly, politically speaking, America and the world are in such turmoil, that hell yes, maybe we actually do need some old fashion. We need Captain America who isn't a Nazi, because America is better than that. Maybe this is the Captain America we need right now.

Roger Stern and Frank Miller, Marvel Fanfare #18, 1985

Which then begs the question, if we're all so insistent that Captain America isn't a Nazi, then why is Donald Trump president?

I have no answer for that. I have no real answer for this. Maybe the only real reason we're pissed off at what is a standard comic book trope is because it's happening to Captain America, and as a result it's striking too close to home.

For some awesome Captain America stories, here are some links:

May 3, 2017

Five Spoilery Points About Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

This is not a review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A review would look at the movie in as objective a manner as possible. And I am not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to give you...

Five Things About Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Needless to say, SPOILERS FOLLOW.




Ready?

Set?

Go.

5. God, no, not Adam Warlock!

This isn't a spoiler so much because it's been confirmed over the internet that Adam Warlock is going to be in the third movie. Readers of Marvel comics in the 70s and the 90s are well familiar with Adam Warlock, the artificially created perfect man with golden skin, who took center stage in many a comic book event. He is also, to yours truly, the single most hated character in all of superhero comics.

That's him in the middle, looking like a giant douchenozzle.

I hate Adam Warlock. And not "I love to hate him," like I love to hate Gladstone Gander or Cyclops. There is no character in the entirety of comics that can turn me off a series faster than Adam Warlock. None. No one comes close. Adam Warlock is the patron saint of introspective characters who exist ostensibly to "elevate" comics, but really just fall short because the execution of the introspection turns into navel-gazing.


I hate Adam Warlock. Reading him is like watching a Christopher Nolan movie forgoing entertainment for the chance to be deep and thought-provoking, and failing. Except in comics, there's no Heath Ledger to bail out a structurally messy movie, or no performances from all-time great actors like Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. This is like if Inception were played by terrible actors, but you still had to deal with people afterwards praising how deep it is. (Oh noez, let's figure out which parts are dreams and which parts are real! It's deep! Like a jigsaw puzzle!)

Adam Warlock has a tendency to be put at the forefront of things. I hate seeing him overshadow Captain America and Thor and Iron Man and all the better characters around him (which is every character) and I'm almost definitely going to hate seeing him overshadow Star-Lord and Gamora and Drax and Groot and Rocket if it happens. I guess it's a good thing that he's being introduced in what may be my favorite Marvel movie franchise (that's right. I went there.), and hey, maybe they'll cast someone awesome to make him bearable. But until I see it, my sentiment remains: God, no. Not Adam Warlock.

4. Watch it twice.

I've seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 twice and it does a couple of things that always hit my sweet spots as someone who consumes fiction. The first thing it does is have characters who are lying to themselves. Yes, Yondu calls out Rocket for hiding behind a tough facade and pretending he doesn't care about anything, but there's also Rocket not admitting he likes Peter Quill's music, when, on a second viewing, it's pretty damn obvious he does. It's never called out and neither my girlfriend nor I even noticed it the first time around, but it's there, under the surface.

I have no appropriate picture for this section, so please enjoy topless Chris Pratt.
I am shameless and hope a lot of people Googling "topless Chris Pratt" lands on my website.

The other reason for watching it twice is all the small foreshadowing bits they do in the beginning, usually played for laughs, which resonate differently when you know what's going to happen. When the Guardians land on Berhert, Kurt Russell Wyatt Earp Snake Plissken Ego finds them and tells Peter to come with him, since he's his dad. Within the next ten minutes, Gamora has casually said "If he turns out to be evil, we'll kill him," and Drax has said "I thought Yondu was your father." Both are played for laughs. The second time around, both of them take on a different meaning. The second one, in particular, is a punch in the gut.

Tangent 1: With both Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker in this movie, we have two guys from Tombstone in the Guardians franchise. Can we get Val Kilmer in the next one?

Tangent 2: What is Kurt Russell's best known role? My instinct is Snake Plissken, but that's because I see him a lot of the time in geek montages and collages. But who would it be otherwise?

3. Taserface!

The 90s may be the most panned decade in the history of superhero comics, but man, think about this. The next Avengers movie is based on a 90s event. The highest-grossing Spider-Man movie has his main villain of the 90s as the antagonist. And this one, of all things, has freaking Taserface.


He's different in this one, not Iron Man–equipped. But still, it's freaking Taserface. We live in a world where Taserface is in a movie. Literally anyone is fair game now.

There are cameos here by people named after the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Like with Yondu, they seem to be only connected very loosely visually. But they're there. And the only question now is, who's next?

2. The soundtrack is awesome.

Aww, look at Baby Groot. If you don't like Baby Groot, you have no soul.

When the soundtrack list was released, I knew three songs and I loved all of them. By the time the movie was released, I knew all the songs and loved pretty much all of them.

Tangent: here are the movies with the best soundtracks ever in no particular order:

  • The Crow
  • Guardians 1 
  • Guardians 2
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Empire Records
  • Rock of Ages
  • I Am Sam
Also, I may have made that list up off the top of my head.


The three songs I loved prior to the release of the soundtrack were Surrender by Cheap Trick, The Chain by Fleetwood Mac, and Father and Son by Cat Stevens. Before the movie, I tried figuring out what was going to happen and how the songs would fit in. Shit, I thought maybe Father and Son would play when Quill and Ego were playing catch, just for laughs.

1. Fine, I cried.

But no, the damn thing played at the end, after Yondu sacrifices himself for Peter and tells him he loves him. The funeral is a beautiful one, timed perfectly with Sylvester Stallone and the Ravagers/original Guardians ("My friends and I, we were a lot like you.") showing up after they said they wouldn't to pay tribute to their fallen friend. With Father and Son in the background playing, I had to hold back my tears the first time and did my absolute best the second time around, but it did not work. The room got misty and I felt a drop by the side of my eye. Yes, I cried, and I don't care what you think! (Sob.) A superhero movie had successfully made me cry, something that very few works of fiction at all have been able to accomplish.



Two months ago, I said Logan capitalized on the collective emotions of everyone who spent 17 years watching the X-franchise. Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 capitalized on the emotions of everyone who's ever failed to say goodbye to someone they love. It was beautiful. It was unexpected. And when I saw it the second time, when it was no longer unexpected, I couldn't keep my eyes dry. And you guys may notice, I don't talk about these movies much, at least not immediately after they're out. But I had to talk about this one. Thank you to James Gunn, Michael Rooker, Chris Pratt, and the rest of the crew of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 for making me feel things. It's a moviegoing experience I'm not going to forget.

Apr 24, 2017

The Pivotal Eighties

1980s: The Pivotal Decade
Ben Smith

The 1980s was a transformative decade for pop culture and entertainment, and nowhere was that more evident than in the field of comics.  It was a decade that witnessed the peak of everything that had come before it, before evolving into what would come after.  Most of the media that dominates our culture today has its roots in the ‘80s.  The continued expansion and availability of television meant that unlike any decade before it, instead of reading about the biggest events in the world, you could watch them as they happen.  The visuals for everything became as important as the art; from sports, to music, and even royal weddings.  While I may be biased (with the ‘80s being the decade that coincided with my formative years as a young human being) I’m going to attempt to prove just how transformative this decade really was, as always through the lens of television and comics.

CABLE TV AND THE LIMITED SERIES

Television had always been dominated by the big three networks.  You got all your entertainment, news, and sports within the limited framework of that established network format.  If you missed the big game, you had to hope for a few minutes of coverage on the local news that night, or read about it the next day in the newspaper.  Cable television brought with it a wider range of options, of specialization, that a general audience network could never hope to match.  CNN, MTV, and ESPN were all predicted to be colossal mistakes, but what nobody could predict is that people would prefer this level of customization.  The news had always been delivered after it had already happened, rigidly at 6:30 or 10 PM on your local station.  Now, you could experience the news live in real time, from around the world.  ESPN changed sports from a local event or an occasionally televised event, into full blown multi-media entertainment that could be consumed at any time.  Michael Jordan doesn’t become a brand without ESPN laying the foundation for sports as the greatest in reality entertainment.  MTV changed the entire landscape of marketing by accidentally discovering that the people with the most time and disposable income happen to be teenagers and young adults.  Our modern era of never-ending choice and on-demand entertainment capability absolutely has its roots in those early days of cable television.    



Comics had always been dominated by long-running franchises and established big-name characters.  In the earliest days of comics, first issues were considered less attractive from a business standpoint, as it (in the minds of publishers) represented the unknown.  A high issue number indicated quality, because surely if a book had been running for that long then it had to be good.  That’s why you see Captain America inheriting the issue numbering from Tales of Suspense, or the Hulk from Tales to Astonish.  In the ‘80s, with Marvel dominating the first part of the decade in sales, Jim Shooter and his editors began to test the market.  Comics like Dazzler and Micronauts were sold to the direct market only.  An untested character like Wolverine in the X-Men could get his own limited series, as a trial run to see if he could expand into his own title.  Mini-series that told a single epic storyline, such as Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths, were created and became instant smash hits.  New readers were created every day by licensing the top cartoons of the day (like Transformers and G.I. Joe) and turning them into brand new comic book series.  Independently owned non-superhero comics fare was continuing to grow.  Comics began to expand and specialize the way they would deliver stories and characters to the readers like never before.  The medium no longer had to rely on the unreliable newsstand for all of its sales.  Now first issues were considered the best way to get in on the ground floor of the newest superstar character.  Without this diversity of formats and delivery, we probably never get the diversity in title characters that we are seeing today.

MTV AND THE SUPERSTAR COMICS ARTIST

For better or worse, MTV made music as much about image as it was the music.  Madonna pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable behavior from a musician, and kids loved her for it.  MTV was infamous in its early years for its refusal to allow black artists on the network, receiving a lot of criticism for such, until the popularity and brilliance of Michael Jackson could no longer be denied.  (With a little help via an ultimatum from CBS records.)  Prince would follow closely behind, with his combination of different musical styles defying easy categorization of any established musical genre.  His look was as groundbreaking as his sound, and changed the mindset of what could be successful to the theoretical “middle-America” that politicians and executives were so worried about scaring off.  A musical act could now become superstars based as much on a marketable image as their actual talent, or the content of their art.  Regardless of skill, the range of artistic expression that MTV provided a platform for is undeniable.  The impact MTV had on our culture is immeasurable.    



Comic books have always had their breakout talent, even if readers never intellectualized who that specific talent might be.  Carl Barks stands out as one of the earliest unnamed superstars, with his Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories clearly far better than the other duck comics of the time.  Stan Lee, love him or hate him, was instrumental in the identification and celebration of the comics talent working on every Marvel book.  Still, comics art from the big two still worked within an established “house style” which left the majority of books looking similar.  The ‘80s began to really see the invention of the superstar artist, with guys like John Byrne or George Perez developing a devoted fanbase that was just as interested in following them as they were in any single character.  However, Byrne and Perez could still be considered to be working within the framework of the established superhero house style.  It wasn’t until the end of the decade that artists like Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee really began to break the mold and establish artistic styles that looked unlike anything that had ever come before.  (Sienkiewicz never gets mentioned as a part of this movement, but he should, since he’s far better than any of the other artists.)

Comics art had never been this varied, or looked this flashy before.  Eventually, those same artists became so popular that they created their own publishing company in the ‘90s, where Image Comics was literally much more about flashy images than it was the content of the stories.  Yet, Image was absolutely essential in the continued advancement of comic books as an artistic medium, at least in terms of the industry recognizing the importance of its own talent, if not the content of those actual comics.    



THE REINVENTION OF RECYCLED IDEAS

With any invention there must come the identification and stabilization of what makes that invention most successful.  Since humans are fickle beings, that established standard must eventually lead to reinvention if it will continue to survive.  In the ‘80s, television had been around long enough to establish a format for its lineup as well as the content of the programming, but all that had began to change.  Late night television had reached its peak in the form of Johnny Carson, the ultimate continuation of an old Hollywood comedy style in a format that had become comfortable.  That was until young comedians like David Letterman came along and subverted that established framework to highlight their own cynical comedic style.  Shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere depicted a level of realism that had never been seen before in any cop or medical drama.  Miami Vice smartly incorporated a MTV look and sensibility with the tried and true police procedural genre.  Roseanne and Married with Children showed us that life as a family wasn’t always as perfect or easy as it might have been on a show like Leave it to Beaver.  All of these television programs built upon an established framework, but stood out by providing a different take on it.  



Superhero comics had seen reinvention before, going all the way back to the creation of the original superhero, Superman.  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman thrived as shining beacons of justice and the best of what humanity could aspire to be for many decades.  Then Stan, Jack, and Marvel came along and reinvented superheroes as flawed human beings compelled by trauma to make the world a better place.  By the ‘80s, comic book creators had decades of proven success to build upon and appropriate to create new and interesting twists on the same formulas.  Frank Miller vaulted a lower tier character like Daredevil into the limelight by using him as a vehicle to tell grittier (for the time) street-level crime stories.  Walt Simonson used Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary Thor work as a starting point, jettisoned the few things that didn’t work, and wound up creating the most beloved Thor run of all time.  Roger Stern wisely recognized that killing the original Green Goblin had been a mistake, and so he created a new take on that established Spider-Man villain in the Hobgoblin.  Over and over, all-time favorite comic book stories were being created across the industry.  This was the pinnacle of what superhero storytelling could achieve based on what had come before.  For comic books to continue, they would have to evolve.

THE EVOLUTION OF ENTERTAINMENT

With reinvention must also eventually come evolution.  The need to differentiate from what has come before usually comes by pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable by society.  This can come in the form of much needed diversity, where art reflects the world we see outside our window.  The Cosby Show was a landmark in network television because of its depiction of a suburban black family.  It made no specific statements about race or politics in its writing.  The Cosby Show made a statement by not making a statement at all.  Its genuine portrayal of a normal family resonated with all viewers, no matter the color.  That show, along with the popularity of musicians like Michael Jackson and Prince, and magnetic sports stars like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, helped break color barriers in this country.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go on this front.)  An entire generation of children, of all colors, were growing up with Jordan as a personal hero.  (I did!)  Similarly, television shows like Cagney and Lacey, or Murphy Brown, depicted women that could stand on their own as characters and as marketable TV stars.  Golden Girls alone proved that writing and acting, not gender, is all it takes to be a successful TV show.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go in the perceived marketability of female-led entertainment.)

The (some would say) darker side of pushing the boundaries comes in the form of offensive or shocking material.  Talk show hosts like Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo defied convention, earning notoriety by catering to the lowest common denominator of human nature.  There’s a clear progression from Geraldo being hit in the face with a chair, to Jerry Springer, to the “reality” TV that dominates American television now.  Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop/Rap music would come under fire from politicians for its explicit depictions and descriptions of sex and violence.  Both combine artistic expression with a rebellious nature that is instantly appealing to youth.  It’s not my place to say if our society is better off having crossed these boundaries, I’m nowhere near smart enough to determine that.  However, it is clear that many individuals have learned the wrong lessons from the ‘80s, providing an ever worsening level of shocks without any of the artistic talent needed to make them the least bit worthwhile.  (Shots fired, Kardashians.)



The most obvious case of evolution in comics came from an old idea by Stan and Jack that had never really caught on, and that was literally the evolution of the human species in the form of super-powered mutants.  The X-Men had always been a team of, like the rest of comics, primarily white males with no personality.  The late ‘70s saw the team reinvented as a racially diverse group of heroes from all across the globe, a true international team.  But it took until the ‘80s for the X-Men to really begin to take over the industry, by capitalizing on that varied representation along with its soap opera storytelling as spearheaded by Chris Claremont.  The darker side of comic book evolution would come in the form of the grim and gritty era, as influenced by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Both books were considered watershed achievements in the genre, with their dark takes on established superhero norms.  Watchmen expanded upon Stan Lee’s idea of the flawed hero, by suggesting that only a truly psychologically damaged individual would feel compelled to fight crime.  The Dark Knight Returns shows a Bruce Wayne that needs to be Batman to truly feel alive.  Both comics were created with a level of skill that had arguably never been seen in the industry before.  Yet, other less talented comic professionals would take all the wrong lessons from these comics, focusing on the violence and psychosis, as heroes across the board began to become more and more unhinged.  There’s no question those books inspired a deeper level of sophistication and storytelling skill, but too often that comes with a “comics aren’t just for kids” mentality that usually only results in a higher level of sex and violence than necessary.  The comics of today are technically more proficient in writing and art than they’ve ever been, but does that make them better to read?  As always, I am not smart enough to say.      

I love the 1980s.  I will freely admit that most of that is fueled by childhood nostalgia, but I think it’s also clear it was a pivotal decade in the evolution of popular culture.  It wasn’t the first revolution, but it was the first revolution that was fully televised.


Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed

Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed
Ben Smith

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about diversity of representation in superheroes, and the best way to better reflect our modern world with characters that are in some cases, 75 years old. The majority of the most popular superheroes have existed since, at minimum, the 1960s. Because of that, and our country's long-standing tradition of racism, most superheroes are straight white males. In our modern, seemingly more enlightened times, that represents a huge discrepancy with the world you see right outside your window.

The approach of DC and Marvel over the last decade, has been to try and replace existing characters with either an existing supporting character, or a brand new one. Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Sam Wilson as Captain America, being an example of each. Many fans have cried foul, as they claim to prefer Ray Palmer and Steve Rogers, and that if you want more diverse characters they should be created from scratch. I can understand preferring your traditional favorites, but just creating a new character capable of successfully carrying their own title isn’t all that easy. Deadpool and Cable are probably the last two non-derivative characters created that are capable of sustaining their own monthly comic, or a movie franchise. (Even considering Deadpool non-derivative is a bit of a stretch, since he’s basically a blatant combination of Deathstroke, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.) X-23 and Spider-Gwen represent recent successes that are completely derivative versions of their white male counterparts, while the only nonwhite character that can be included in this list is Miles Morales, also a derivative.

So, I don’t really have a solution for this problem. I understand wanting to see your favorite characters remain as they were when you fell in love with them, but it’s no simple task to create brand new characters that readers will embrace. What is not debatable is that replacement characters have existed nearly as long as superheroes have. So the next time you’re complaining about replacement characters in a vacuum, please refer to this list and maybe at least acknowledge you’ve become old and cynical.

THE HUMAN TORCH



The Human Torch was Marvel’s very first superhero, appearing in the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939. Then, the Human Torch was an android named Jim Hammond. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Marvel Universe as we know it with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, they created a brand new Human Torch. This time, he was a teenager named Johnny Storm. Jim Hammond would return here and there over the years, but will never eclipse the popularity of Johnny Storm in the role that he originated.

BETA RAY BILL

The very first thing Walt Simonson did in his deservedly lauded Thor run was replace Thor with an alien named Beta Ray Bill. Bill was shockingly found worthy of lifting Mjolnir, and gained the power of Thor. Admittedly, this replacement only happened over the course of two issues, if even that, but the character was still accepted enough to receive his own hammer granting him superhuman might.



One of the more frequent arguments I’ve heard against replacement characters is that in the past they happened more naturally, but this couldn’t be further from the case for Beta Ray Bill. He makes his first appearance, becomes a Thor derivative, and is immediately embraced by fans over the course of two issues. I’m not trying to diminish Bill in any way, merely trying to highlight the hypocrisy of some fans. The loudest, most disgruntled voices complaining about Jane Foster, are probably wearing a Beta Ray Bill t-shirt while they do it. And if you want to argue that Bill existed alongside Thor, then I’ll point you to the fact that Thor Odinson just had a miniseries and has been guesting in multiple books, as the main Jane Thor comic is being published.

THE FLASH



The Golden Age Flash was a character named Jay Garrick, given super speed powers by exposure to hard water vapors, or something stupid like that. In an effort to reinvigorate their superhero comics line, DC created a new Flash in 1956 named Barry Allen, with a more science-fiction bent. Barry Allen was extremely popular, and helped launch an entire wave of replacement DC heroes in the 1950s. (Eventually inspiring the creation of the Fantastic Four, after the new heroes formed a new superteam called the Justice League.) Barry Allen was then eventually replaced by his protégé Wally West, and Wally went on to have one of the most impressive long-term character arcs in comic book history.

Some of you may argue, that these changes occurred long before you were even born. You’re right, but that doesn’t make them any more noble or natural than changes occurring today. Those updated DC heroes were considered a necessity to speak to and reflect the new generation that was viable at the time. Yet somehow, that level of change and evolution has remained stagnant practically ever since.

GREEN LANTERN



See above with the Flash, the title of Green Lantern passed from Alan Scott to Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner. With a little bit of Guy Gardner and John Stewart sprinkled in alongside. DC eventually realized that you don’t need to only have one Green Lantern as the focus, when the entire appeal of the franchise is an entire universe of space cops. Considering Nova is the Marvel equivalent of Green Lantern, that’s what makes the outcry over Sam Alexander as the primary Nova instead of Richard Ryder all the more confusing. (It’s also a little distasteful how much some fans complain about Sam, a character Jeph Loeb named and modeled after his son that had tragically passed away.) Richard was never all that interesting, guys. He just wasn’t.

IRON MAN


James Rhodes is the one I’ve heard fans describe the most as a slow-developing natural progression when he replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man. I’ll admit, I don’t even know the specifics of how long it took Rhodes to take over the mantle, but at least admit that your opinions might be clouded by the fact it happened when you were 7 years old, when every story seemed more magical and you had not yet learned to question the methods by which they were told to you. Regardless, there is no way it is more natural, or he more worthy a successor, than X-23 is for Wolverine. Laura as the All-New Wolverine has easily been my favorite Marvel comic over the past few years, and you cannot tell me that there is any character more worthy of replacing the original than her.

BEN REILLY



Despised by many at the time, Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly was highly controversial when he temporarily received the role of Spider-Man in the mid ‘90s. Nearly from the moment he was killed off in 1996, fans have been clamoring and asking for the return of Ben Reilly ever since. Along those same lines…

CAPTAIN AMERICA



Steve Rogers was famously killed and replaced by Bucky Barnes following the instant classic event series Civil War. After a short initial outcry, Bucky was quickly embraced by fans, and considered a more than worthy replacement because of his long association as Steve’s partner, to the point that some fans were disappointed when Steve eventually returned. In even more recent years, Steve’s longtime partner Sam Wilson (the Falcon) took over as Captain America after Steve was artificially aged due to some story shenanigans. Again, Sam also had a pedigree as a long-time ally and friend of Steve Rogers, and yet this time the replacement was much more controversial among fans. Stand Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson next to each other, and you might start to ask yourself exactly why that is.

As you can see, replacement characters have been around in comics nearly as long as comics have. But while fans readily accept characters that existed before them, or were created when they were kids, those same fans angrily reject any attempts to update characters to reflect our modern times. Either they’ve become overly cynical with age, unable to accept that change can be a welcome part of life. Or they really have to ask themselves, is it that the characters have been replaced, or who they’ve been replaced with? If it’s not the idea of replacements, then it might be the very idea of diversity, and that is unfortunately a much more depressing reality.

There’s no easy answer for any of this, but what’s clear is that something needs to change. With more and more movies and television shows being made using superhero characters, the need to reflect the audience paying to go see them will only increase. Comics have long been on the forefront of societal change, reflecting events in the world before they even occur (comic book superheroes were fighting Hitler before our government was fighting Hitler) and yet on this front, comics are beginning to lag behind. Comics had been so progressive in the ‘60s with Black Panther, the Falcon, and John Stewart, continuing on with Storm, Shang-Chi, and Luke Cage in the ‘70s. And yet, somehow, that is still basically the same roster of diverse characters being used 40 years later. That, my friends, seems wrong.

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