Nov 28, 2013

Roundtable 4! Superheroes for Kids! Duo-Specificity! Colorists! Introductions! Royalties!

Welcome to another round of the Comics Cube Roundtable, where we at the Cube give our takes on certain comics arguments. Click here for the full list. 

Were superheroes, and should they always be, for kids?

Travis: I don't see a huge amount of evidence that they were designed for kids. In the Forties, superhero comics were as popular as other genres with soldiers and other American adults, but you do see, with the instating of the Code, a headlong dive to be more kids-oriented that ends, itself, pretty quickly, with the Marvel Age that brought in another wave of adult readers. Spider-Man debuts in a title that, up until that issue had been called Amazing Adult Fantasy, a name changed primarily to stop people thinking it was a porn mag.

But, superheroes have been, traditionally, kid-friendly, and that is significant. One of Catwoman's earliest appearances has Batman turn right to the reader and address the kids with a bit about how cowardly criminals can be when you take their guns away. The expectation of children in the audience has to be recognized, even if you gear away from it.

Ben: It’s hard for me to determine, because I read them as a kid, so I’m always going to think of them as something kids should be able to read. But being specifically for kids and kids alone? The comic book was originally composed of newspaper strips arranged into pages and stapled together. I do believe that everyone of all ages, to this day, still reads newspaper strips (if they happen to still receive newspapers, which, c’mon, the internet was invented). I think you can at least say that comic books have been traditionally all-ages, and there are a lot of people out there, amongst you in the world (might even be sitting next to you right now!) that like to conflate all-ages with “for children” even though that isn’t the case.

But, the stigma that comics are only for kids began with, like Travis says, the crackdown on comics and the invention of the Comics Code Authority, which removed anything that might have been entertaining from comic books. It also forced the superhero back into prominence, so maybe us superhero fans shouldn’t get too uppity about the whole situation. All I know is that the things that excited me and my friends the most as a kid, was the gratuitous violence slipped into the occasional issue of a code-approved book, so maybe things weren’t as innocent as we like to remember.

But also, maybe we don’t need so many decapitations in Green Lantern comics, Geoff.

Duy: Captain Marvel, my favorite hero of the 1940s and who I think it's safe to say was designed mostly for kids, got into some pretty grim adventures that wouldn't be seen as kid-friendly today. At the same time, I can't really see Superman punching a politician as something kids would have reacted to. But it was a different time, and maybe kids then were different from kids now, so I can't really say. If we're looking at exceptions though, we should probably note that Will Eisner aimed the Spirit toward a newspaper-reading adult audience. Now yeah, the Spirit is barely a superhero, but he's still a dude in a costume with a rogues gallery, so he counts.I don't think superheroes should always be for kids. Watchmen isn't for kids, for example. Neither, really, is the Punisher. And both have a place.

Now, Ben mentioned that "all ages" and "for kids" aren't the same thing, and that's true. Clearly, the overlap they have is that they both appeal to kids. So I guess I'm addressing this as if the question is "Should they always appeal to kids?"

And my quick answer is that it depends. If you're Marvel or DC, I would say it depends on the character. I am, by training, an economist (and a mathematician, but that's irrelevant), and I believe that the primary goal of any corporation is to make a profit. You can have the best piece of art ever, but if you don't funnel money back into the company, it is, in the end, not beneficial for the company. And so, to that end, I think if you're selling toys of Character X to little kids and showing cartoons of Character X on Saturday morning and selling video games of Character X to these same little kids, you may want your comics to be more accessible to those kids for crossover appeal instead of alienating them with adult themes and situations. And if you are going to insert adult themes and situations, at least don't let it be gratuitous, like "Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny and that's why he's the prime suspect in this murder, and the rape will be a plot device and that's it" or just really really stupid like showing Norman Osborn's O-face so we can get to a story about his rapidly aged children who hate Spider-Man. Of course, what is or isn't an "acceptable adult situation" in these things is at the discretion of the writer and editor.

There are exceptions, of course, because some characters work better in a more extreme setting. So in short, if you're writing The Punisher, go ahead and kill a bunch of people on screen. If you're writing Amazing Spider-Man, try to make sure that whatever you're inserting, it's entertaining.

Another technique for this is the whole "layered" approach. Spider-Man and Mary Jane "sharing a toothbrush" is most likely going to go over the heads of kids. Superman and Big Barda making out under mind control in front of a bunch of cameras—well, that may go over their heads too, but it's still creepy.

Matt: I think the superhero comic, like any medium in an attention-challenged age, needs to appeal to a wide range of potential audiences and readers. There can and should certainly be niche and small batch publications. Everybody doesn't love ROM: Spaceknight, but he could have a market. Superhero comics aren't just for kids since, once one can read, any book (comic or otherwise) is fair game. I may not read romance novels, but anyone else can. I think it's more important for a comic to work on a few levels as Duy was pointing out. You can see this aspect best in quality animated films. They know parents are going to take their kids, so there are parts of the story that are funny or meaningful on multiple levels for the multiple likely audiences.

There can be comics targeted at kids, there can be comics targeted at a broad, all-ages audience and there can be comics targeted at specific adult demographics (like whatever Ben is obsessed with this week). Few retailers would refuse to sell an adult any comic, they might not want to sell Criminal or Blacksad to kids, but that's their call to make. The crux of my argument comes down to the fact that I think it's more important to make a good product than worry about "seriousness" or "adult-themes." Fun is fun and good is good. You can be serious, adult-oriented and be terrible (pick your favorite New-52 to trash here).

To be duospecific, or not to be?

Travis: As annoying as it can be if done pedantically, the benefits probably outweigh the chance of that annoyance most of the time. If the art or the writing fall short, the other can take up the slack, and in any case, the reiteration of information does help it stick in your head more. Claremontisms, for example, were frequently unnecessary, and the phasing to describe things we could see or intuit otherwise was often rote, but we remember that shit. "The focused totality" is ingrained in your head, Bub.

Ben: I’m not so big on blanket rules to determine the “correct” way to make a comic. If I understand the term duospecific correctly, and I’m sure that I don’t, there are cases when it can be a good thing or a bad thing. You probably don’t need a caption explaining that the Hulk is punching the Thing, if the picture is the Hulk punching the Thing, but you probably don’t need Gambit to exist in comics at all either, and yet he does. So maybe don’t think too hard about this stuff sometimes. Where would we all be without Claremont?

Duy: I think it has its advantages. In general, I'm more a fan of when words and pictures add up to say one thing neither really can on its own, and duo-specific a lot of the time seems unnecessary, but one of the most loved single issues of all time, Watchmen #4, is full of it. Also, I can't really imagine reading a Golden Age comic without it, because that's part of the charm. And with that, here is #711. You're welcome.

Matt: I had to look up what this means before forming my opinion. Comics are a visual medium, they allow you to show with minimal telling. So, if the telling isn't necessary, no bubble. However, images often can't express the thoughts of the character and at that point a thought bubble is illuminating instead of unneeded. Basically, my point is not to treat the reader like an idiot. I can see that Spider-Man is flying through the skyscrapers of Manhattan without it being pointed out to me. Being too duospecific is like unnecessary narration in a movie, distracting and counterproductive. Show as much as you can, tell only what you need.

Are colorists important, or just the color?

Travis: Colorists are important to me. The black and white collections for Jack Kirby's New Gods and Mr. Miracle weren't even well-done reduction to black and white, but they were better than the original colors. I would rather read those comics without color and with poor color. Great colorists really do bring up the quality for a comic to me.

I know, for a lot of people, colorists are interchangeable, or they only remember there is a colorist when they do something horrible or something amazing. There was a bit of a debate a year or two ago, re whether colorists should be given royalties or participation rights because they aren't considered a huge part of the integral art of a comic, the way pencilers or writers are by many fans and pros. But that doesn't stop me from being almost absurdly a colorist fanboy.

Ben: I’m probably the least qualified person to answer technical questions. I’ve never been one to notice the lettering, except when it’s noticeable, and the same is true for the coloring. I’m sure they have an intricate and important role in the process. I remember thinking that the coloring on Ultimates 3 #1 was really dark and muddy, but I also remember that comic being overall terrible, so maybe the colorist did Jeph Loeb a favor. Much like a football kicker, nobody notices you until you miss the field goal.

Duy: I'll confess that I'm one of the people who overlook colorists, unless you're Dave Stewart and you seem to be called in a lot to have colors pop out. (Greendale is one of my favorite comics ever, and that isn't going to happen without Stewart.)

But at the same time, I know that colorists make choices and that some make choices that are beneficial to the material while others just kinda cruise on the job or make bad decisions. Bad coloring is distracting (I can't read the Neal Adams Batman hardcovers because of them.). Good coloring enhances the story. Like letterers and maybe inkers and even some pencillers and writers, I think colorists do want to put the product ahead of themselves, doing what's best for it even if it means being "invisible." As for what that means regarding royalties and development rights, I dunno, but I do hate to think of a scenario where they'd get those rights, and then DC and/or Marvel would completely recolor something, or whatever.

Matt: I think I too am of the crowd of noticing coloring when it's bad. It's sort of something that if you're doing it right, the reader shouldn't even notice, like glaring plot holes.

Thorough introductions, every appearance?

Travis: It's very rare that I've come into a story, in any medium, and thought "I need more introduction here." Some people do like to be caught up right away, and not have things they have to wonder about, so some brief introductory material should probably be stuck in the story somewhere, especially with serialized or recurring characters. But thorough? No. Don't give a biographical summary for the first two pages of a twenty page comic. Don't trace out the relationship of two characters with panels mimicking those from thirty other comics that were published over a twenty-five year period captioning the greatest hits of their friendship. I don't care that they had amazing times and if they are feeling nostalgic, express it through one or two flashbacks, not pages of it. It's tedious. It's self-indulgent. And it's never as exciting as the actual comics those things happened in.

Winslade and Jenkins' Spider-Man/Daredevil comic is all about various people who've known each other too long, but they just express it, via the way the act to each other, the things they expect of each other, word choice, body language. It's more than enough and it's six times as effective as the above methods usually are.

Ben: I completely understand the need to recap and get readers up to date on the immediate happenings in older comics, as a reader might not have had access to the previous issue, even if they wanted to. Unfortunately, now that society has exited the stone age, that can make reading these comics in a trade format a little bit challenging. I, for one, don’t miss the expository introductions in comics. Say what you want about the effectiveness of the one page text recaps at the beginnings of comics now, but I think the idea behind them is sound. The science is solid.

I also believe that a solid writer or artist, if they’re doing their job well, can convey that character A and character B have a long-standing relationship. Good or bad, without needing to explain the specifics of such. The often mentioned “new reader friendly” comic that many (long-since jaded) “fans” on the internet will reference, when highlighting how comics were better in whatever time period they were 8 years old in, is a bit of a myth. I agree that not every comic needs to be Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I also know that some of the earliest DC comics I read as a kid, were Crisis on Infinite Earths. I may not have understood everything, or known who everyone was, but I knew that Barry Allen’s death was awesome, and sometimes killing a Flash is all that’s needed.

Saying that a comic is new reader friendly, assumes that every new reader is the same type of reader, or even the same type of person. The simplicity of one comic may be as likely to hook a new reader as it is to not hook the reader next to them. Everyone is different. If there was an exact formula, I’m sure someone would have figured it out at some point over the last 75 years. The comic publishers and creators have more to lose than you do, jaded comic fan.

Duy: There's a scene in Avatar: The Last Airbender where, with Aang in need of an firebending teacher, Katara suggests looking for Jeong Jeong. Toph, who wasn't with them when they ran into Jeong Jeong the first time, starts to ask "Who—" and then says "Oh, never mind. If it's important, I'll find out." The only things you need to know about any character who shows up are whatever things are necessary to the story.

Matt: As a constant mantra of mine, I have the Internet, I can look these things up. As a reader, it can be helpful to establish a rapport using dialogue. I rarely find it necessary for huge blocks of text introducing someone. Serious, I have the Internet in my pocket, I don't need all this exposition if I'm interested.

Royalties, participation rights, development rights?

Travis: Spread the wealth around. Nothing looks sad in the same was as forty years down the line being remembered for the people who didn't get credit, didn't get a piece of the action, despite all the work they put in.

Or, very clearly contract what is going to happen with union representation present if so desired.

Ben: This shouldn’t really be a debate right? The people making the comics that make billions for a company, should get a piece of that pie. On that same token, I don’t have much sympathy for anyone that bad business’d their way into irrelevance. Some were probably flat-out screwed, like a Bill Finger, but for anyone lamenting the plight of the creators of Superman, feel free to ignore all the times they signed away the rights to that character. Don’t get me wrong, the arguments are plentiful over what was legal then, what is legal now, and the validity of business transactions made at those times. But for everyone that willingly worked under understood conditions during those times, that now retroactively want to cry of oppression, don’t look for validation from me. By all means, they should all pursue their legal rights, as the laws do change and have changed, but the tendency to lay claim to the moral right tends to get on my nerves.

All that being said, Marvel and DC should absolutely give money and credit where it’s due.

Another thing that gets on my nerves, is this perplexing fan need to steal the credit Stan Lee gets and give it to Jack Kirby. I know that Kirby is wildly underappreciated and not given nearly as much credit as he should be by society at large, as much as society at large even cares about such things (seriously, make this argument to a co-worker that isn’t a fan, and watch how their eyes glaze over). But the need to quantify percentages of credit, as if it is relegated to one single pie chart where it is determined that Jack gets 80% of the credit, instead of Stan and Jack both getting 100% of the credit they deserve, is foolish. Trying to tear down what Stan did or didn’t do, as if this will help Jack, is not only a waste of time, but impossible to determine (even if you were there in the offices, I imagine). Especially when you try to paint Stan as this fiendish trickster working for “the man” and sticking it to the little guy, even though I’m sure Jack could have crushed Stan like a bug if he desired.

In summary, neither of them exists without the other. And if you don’t believe me, go read New Gods so you can see how terrible it was. (I know it's beloved, but it's erroneously loved! That comic is is awful.)

Duy: Hey, I liked New Gods! (Just New Gods, though, I reread those Omnibi recently and found myself skipping over most of Forever People, half of Mister Miracle, and all of Jimmy Olsen.)

The question, I take it, is if creators should get royalties, participation rights, and development rights for media adaptations of their work. I won't get into the morality and legality because, as I said, I'm trained as an economist, and as part of that, I believe that the first priority of a business is to make money so they can put out more product. Economists believe, first and foremost, that people respond to incentives. Therefore, I believe that it is beneficial to companies if creators came up with more characters to use and be used throughout all media (who is the last iconic character? Deadpool?), and I believe that creators have no incentive to do this thing if they won't get these royalties and various rights. New creators also have less of an incentive to do so if they see that older creators aren't getting it. The whole "If they can do it to this veteran artist, they could do it to me," mentality.

In short, companies like money and people respond to incentives, and these two things are not irreconcilable.

Matt: I think this too comes down to clear contracting and established protocols. Don't mess around with creators though. Without them, the publishers have no stories. Granted, in the old days, creators got screwed (by both publishers and other creators), but in today's world, it's something I would say most writerz and artists should be aware of. Places like DC and Marvel should be more generous to the people who helped them become what they are today. DC would be hemorrhaging money without Batman and Superman. Marvel would be dust without Spider-Man and the Avengers. They needed the creators of the past and they will need the creators of the future. The best way to succeed at that is to not only publish quality stories, but not treat their creative department like assholes.

Nov 27, 2013

Happy Accidents

Happy Accidents
Travis Hedge Coke

For all we make of intention and carefully laid plans, there’s a quote from Die Hard With a Vengeance (an original script adapted to be a Lethal Weapon sequel then adapted from that to be the third Die Hard): “You can stick your well-laid plan up your well-laid ass.” Intent is noble and plans are good, but what matters is what plans produce, what results. The road to Hell is paved with the best intentions. The road to pop glory is sometimes cleared of all traffic and ridden down at top speed like a maniac on uppers by happy accidents that improve the whole damned ride.

Serial comics are going to have accidents. Many flubs occur due to divers hands, some are printing errors, more often than not, when a scene is revisited years later it is misremembered and thereby laid down incorrectly the newest time. The penciler on Doom 2099 once derailed a story absurdly by just adding stuff that violated the script and, I presume, not thinking of the consequences. When Grant Morrison introduced an in-continuity biological son of the Batman, he recalled the out-of-continuity comic where Talia al Ghul and Bruce Wayne had a child wrongly, and wrote the scene from that flawed memory. The writer on Doom 2099 was able to steer things around, and Morrison lucked out in that a) the other story was out of continuity and b) he frames it in dialogue, so it becomes a character moment instead of history. Iron Man had a nose built into the armor for a few years, due to a misunderstanding involving Stan Lee. Other things are just a mess and you’re best off putting them out of mind. Green Arrow was sexually assaulted once, and another writer, misremembering, turned it into an extramarital affair.

But, on occasion, a flaw appears that improves the comic.

1. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Dave McKean refused to do some stuff in the script, completely (including just having Robin in the comic at all), illustrated some parts nebulously or in highly exaggerated fashion (Batman shoving a big piece of glass right through his hand), and sometimes just did his own thing. The comic probably would have sold, either way, since a lot of people were buying it from the cover and a sudden rise in Bat-fame, but I doubt it would have been the perennial seller if the art had been closer to the original plan. Some touches appear to exist only because McKean was interested in this particular texture at the moment he was working on a page, or because this visual flourished while communicating the details took a backseat, and it looks exciting for that. Arkham Asylum feels incomplete, it feels a bit like a Rorschach blot sometimes or like throwing dice, drawing three new cards and keeping two hoping something lines up. It’s because of the art, because of the conflict between the script and the art, that it stays new.

2. The Dark Knight Strikes Again

Partway into this sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, 9/11 happened, and the comic changed. It was hella fun already, but the parody politicos give way to caricatures of real politicians, the scope of even small-scale city-leveling damage is reevaluated from something you — and the superheroes — can shrug off to something that will be messed up for awhile. The idea that superheroing, that massive street fights with aliens and robots can be without consequence went out the window like a baby on fire with the bathwater tossed out just after in hopes it’ll extinguish the flames. It’d been the biggest show of arms against American citizens in the continental United States since, what? The AIM War?

It wasn’t the biggest attack ever, but it hurt people, and in that selfish but earnest way, it hurt us. Frank Miller started working with that immediately, raw and rough about it, but in earnest. It’s big, it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, angry, weird, and most of us reading it didn’t know how to deal with it. But it’s kept the comic feeling more relevant with every passing year, and the more insular story it began as would not.

3. The Invisibles

The Invisibles has a few flubs, some of which were corrected for collections, such as a bizarrely symbolic rendering from Ashley Wood of a page that’s meant to be an explanation of a complex idea, that hilariously includes in the dialogue, “Hard to make understand not soon.” But, one flub made that comic so much better for me, and that’s the accidental rescue of Jolly Roger.

Roger was sort of all the negative stuff about King Mob without the positive. She was angry, vengeful, murderous, self-righteous. The plan is that she dies at the end, while he is given a new chance to be a better person. We see her body dumped with dozens of others, nothing but landfill. But, we see someone pull themselves up, too, in that comic, and while the script calls for KM, the figure has hair and he doesn’t. Or, it has a squiggly top of the head, but I’m going with hair because that means Roger lives! Karma is BS, life goes on, don’t sweat the small stuff.

4. Civil War

It has recently come to my attention that pretty much no two comics involved in Marvel’s Civil War had talent who agreed on what the registration laws actually entailed. Is it superhuman powers? Is it people using superhuman powers to be vigilantes or otherwise criminal? Is it people who have high tech armor or weird magic headbands? Is it just about mutants? Does registering draft you? Nobody knows! Nobody ever agrees! They just fight over it because Captain America resisted arrest, stole a jetplane (and its pilot!) and said “Resist.” Even, when Cap finally allows himself to be arrested, admitting culpability in all the damage this conflict has caused, no clear idea of the registry or mechanisms for its use are presented, it’s just whatever the comic on hand wants or needs.

Which is essentially how we respond to hot button laws or actions being pushed into actuation in real life. Even something like the recent US health care bill has so much misinformation around it, as well as having many concessions, some seemingly at odds with the bill itself, that it’s not a matter so much of for or against as what are you for and what are you against. Legalese is nuts, why shouldn’t it be in fiction, too? (And like real politics, the journalism angle was the most interesting part and a lot of people died unnecessarily. I’d like to pretend any of that was planned so.)

5. Post-Crisis Superman

John Byrne decided that Clark Kent, when he was growing up, was the alpha dude. He was the star football player in high school, the handsome, muscled local boy everybody loved. And, as an adult, he was a bit yuppie jogging suit passive-aggressive, but ultimately still Clark Kentish in the classic sense. This was not particularly well thought out.

A few years later, talent such as Jon Bogdanove and Louise Simonson would take these three faces of Kal El, the Clark as he is, public Clark, and Superman, make it it’s own thing. During their lengthy run with the character, he changes when he’s with close friends, when he’s at home with Lois Lane or with his parents, and he isn’t being Superman, he’s not posing or thrusting his chin out, arms folded over his chest, but he stops pulling his body inward, stops pretending to be so clumsy or naïve. He’s comfortable. Here’s a guy who spent nearly two decades not knowing he was very different, who had a life and identity, and in private, he still has that. He doesn’t have to be either act. And if John Byrne hadn’t shifted things up, despite apparently having no interest in dealing with it, Simonson and Bogdanove would never have had their opportunity to make something of that trichotomy.

Nov 25, 2013

Early Claremont X-Men: More Terrible Than You Remember

Early Claremont X-Men – More Terrible Than You Remember
X-amining the X-Men Part 2: We Know Drama
Ben Smith

Last time out, we covered how awful you all are for not supporting minority superheroes. This week, you can rectify that as we’ll take a look at the early beginnings of the Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum era of the all-new X-Men (yes, we will all get retroactive credit). These comics may have been a big hit at the time, and certainly revolutionary, but they were excessively melodramatic, even by Claremont-ian standards.

There’s a lot of ridiculousness to cover this week, so let’s get started.

Uncanny X-Men #94. Writer: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Bob McLeod; Plotter-Editor: Len Wein

(I know that technically the title of the comic was not Uncanny X-Men yet, but that’s what it’s commonly known and referred as, so calm your stirring heart.)

Professor X begins to praise X-Men new and old, for their triumph over Krakoa, the living island. Sunfire interrupts him to inform everyone that he is not joining the team and returning to Japan (and that they can all suck it). Professor X asks the rest of the new X-Men if they feel the same way. Colossus, Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler all agree to stick it out a while longer.

Banshee wavers a bit, before being convinced to stay (while referring to himself as a barely-literate ex-cop).

Before congratulations and good tidings can be spread all around, Angel lets loose with the bombshell. He is leaving the team, along with original members Jean Grey and Iceman, as well as Havok and Polaris. No longer children, they want to attempt a life outside of the school. Wolverine insults them all for making a big deal about it, and Cyclops steps in-between him and Iceman before they can fight about it, which then leads to the first back-and-forth threat between Cyclops and Wolverine.

First: Wolverine threatens Cyclops

Angel asks Cyclops if he is going to join them or stay with the team. After a long night of melodramatic pondering, Cyclops decides to stay.

Random cursing of your eyes in the middle of the night is always normal.

Cyclops and Jean Grey tenderly say goodbye.

Cyclops immediately gets the new team to work in the Danger Room, and they spend the next several indeterminate weeks training hard.

Thunderbird is minorly injured during a training session, leading to a heated exchange between him and Cyclops (both Thunderbird and Wolverine were being established as hotheads).

Meanwhile, at NORAD headquarters hidden deep within Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, the facility comes under attack from a group of Ani-Men.

The Ani-Men quickly gain control of the base, and welcome their master, Count Nefaria.

Back at the mansion, Nightcrawler tries to talk it out with Cyclops, following the altercation with Thunderbird. They are interrupted by an urgent telepathic summons from Professor X.

Count Nefaria addresses the world, revealing he has activated the Doomsmith Command System, and if each nation of the world doesn’t pay his ransom, he will launch America’s entire reserve of nuclear missiles.

The Beast, a member of the Avengers at that time, contacts the X-Men to see if they can handle it, as the Avengers are occupied. The X-Men speed off to take on Count Nefaria.

Inside the Blackbird on their way to Colorado, Wolverine threatens to kill anyone that has harmed the soldiers inside, much to the surprise of Banshee.

Count Nefaria detects their incoming craft, and fires missiles at them, which the Blackbird skillfully dodges, but an enraged Count Nefaria lets loose with the base’s sonic distruptors, disintegrating the X-Men’s aircraft, and sending them falling thousands of feet to the ground below.

In the future letters page with reactions to this issue, we see that not everyone was a big fan of Wolverine right off the bat.

My brain thoughts: It’s pretty clear that both Thunderbird and Wolverine were being set up as the resident hotheads, which makes what happens next not that surprising. I wonder if Claremont was being hamstrung by the plotting of Wein in these early issues, because they aren’t that great. The choice of villains, in particular, is not that strong in the early going for this new team of X-Men.

Uncanny X-Men #95. Writer: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Sam Grainger; Plotter: Len Wein; Editor: Marv Wolfman

The X-Men plummet from the sky after the Blackbird was destroyed by Count Nefaria’s sonic disruptors.

Cyclops quickly organizes the team, and Storm grabs Wolverine and Nightcrawler to fly them to safety, while Banshee grabs Thunderbird, and Colossus takes a dive to the ground in his metal form. Banshee narrowly returns to save Cyclops before he becomes a spot on the ground below.

Regrouped on the ground, Cyclops has Nightcrawler teleport inside the base (contradicting later depictions of him not being to teleport in anywhere he can’t see, at risk of teleporting inside a solid object).

Nightcrawler fights and defeats an unfortunate soul by the name of Croaker, who unfortunately looks like Mer-Man from He-Man. He then opens an entrance so that the rest of the team can join him. Nefaria tries to gas them, but they easily tear through a nearby wall, and defeat a legion of hypnotized military troops using Storm’s weather manipulation powers.

The Ani-Men attack, and the two teams are locked in furious combat. Wolverine is temporarily defeated by a giant cat-man with a full-on Alan Moore beard, before Colossus saves his bacon.

The X-Men prevail, which should not be surprising due to the title of the comic. Count Nefaria makes a hasty retreat, having set the Doomsmith Command System to self-destruct. While Cyclops freaks out about this, Banshee and Thunderbird try to prevent Nefaria from escaping by jet. Thunderbird foolishly leaps on the jet, preventing Banshee from easily destroying the jet with his sonic powers.

Professor X telepathically informs Cyclops to stop worrying about the self-destruct, since the system was destroyed during their battle with the Ani-Men, and to see to their teammate endangering himself outside. Professor X and Banshee both plead with Thunderbird to cease, but he continues to pound away at the aircraft, seeking to prove himself a mighty warrior. Cyclops and the rest of the team arrive at the launch ramp just in time to see the airplane explode, killing Thunderbird. Professor X screams out in horror. Banshee is traumatized for his inability to convince Thunderbird to stop.

Cyclops chalks it up to the game and the team departs (apparently for a long walk back to New York).

The letters page for this issue provides a look inside the thought process of killing off Thunderbird.

My brain thoughts: Like the creative team explained in the mailbag, Thunderbird’s attitude and powers were being duplicated elsewhere, and they decided Wolverine showed more promise, I guess (luckily for them, considering how popular Wolverine would become). It was pretty unfortunate that it happened to be the Native American character that had to go, but any choice they would have made would have wound up with someone mad. Well, maybe not the Canadians, they never get too mad. I guess nobody would have cared about angering the Russians at the time either. Okay, so they pretty much picked the worst character they could have in terms of fan ownership, I imagine. I blame Marv Wolfman.

Uncanny X-Men #96. Author: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Sam Grainger; Editor: Marv Wolfman

Cyclops wanders the forest, still distraught over his perceived failures because of the death of a teammate, Thunderbird. Using his mutant powers of melodrama, he screams out and anger, leveling a patch of trees with his eye-beams.

Then he waxes poetic to himself, like a bespectacled Hamlet.

During a Danger Room session, Nightcrawler laughs a little too much when Colossus swats Wolverine to the side. Wolverine jumps at Nightcrawler with his claws extended, with Nightcrawler teleporting away just in time to save his life.

First: Wolverine berserker rage

Wolverine gets a light scolding from Banshee, before Banshee is pulled to the side by the Professor. The Professor shares his concern about Cyclops mental state following the death of Thunderbird. (It seemed like Banshee was being set up as the second-in-command of this group.) They are interrupted by the doorbell, and Xavier remembers that the new housekeeper he hired was due to arrive.

Banshee runs off to greet the new housekeeper, expecting an old biddy of a woman, and instead is greeted by the young and attractive Moira MacTaggert.

First: Moira MacTaggert!

Cut away to a mysterious facility in the Adirondack mountains, where an Air Force Colonel informs a Dr. Lang (not Scott, apparently) that his Project Armageddon is no longer going to receive its secret funding from the government. References to Bolivar Trask, the mutant menace, and shots of a very Sentinel looking leg, suggest the Sentinels will be reappearing soon. Dr. Lang vows not to let Colonel Rossi reach Washington D.C. alive.

Back at the mansion, the rest of the team is getting acquainted with Moira, and Banshee continues to swoon over her. Suddenly, the team is interrupted by the body of Cyclops violently crashing in through the wall.  His attacker is none other than Kierrok, the shatterer of souls, the slayer of men, Kierrok the damned.

The team takes turns trading attacks with the mighty one-eyed dragon beast-thing. Wolverine lets loose a devastating attack with his claws, apparently savagely killing the monster.

First: Wolverine kill?

The victory is short lived, as Kierrok rises again, reforming, leeching off the energy of the X-Men. Professor X tries to read the beast’s mind, and is overwhelmed by horrible alien images.

Moira comes running in firing shots from a sonic rifle (like a boss), momentarily defeating the beast yet again.

Professor X recovers enough to tell the team about a mysterious tower that he gleaned from the mind of Kierrok, which seems to be the source of the beast’s power, and sends Storm off to destroy it. A swarm of beasties come flying out of the tower, and attack Storm, affecting her mind. She tries to focus and concentrate, with images from her past flashing in her mind.

First: Storm in Cairo, and hints of Storm as claustrophobic

Storm is able to shake them off long enough to send devastating thunder bolts down from the heavens, destroying the tower. With the tower gone, Kierrok melts away, and the danger is over.

The last panel shows the crashed plane of Colonel Rossi, engulfed in flames.

My brain thoughts: Free from the plotting of Len Wein, Claremont lets loose with the menace of Kierrok. Also known as, the worst X-Men villain ever. Boy, they were having a rough go with the villains in these early issues, but I think we’ll see that start trending upward with the very next issue.

My final brain thoughts: One-eyed dragon beasts, gun-toting housekeepers, dead teammates, the incompetency of the U.S. Air Force, and Wolverine is not the weakest link.

From what I understand, the soap opera elements of this new X-Men team were the initial draw and appeal of the book, along with the interesting new characters. (Not to mention that they were all visually appealing, thanks to the design work of the brilliant Cockrum.) But Claremont was outdoing himself at even his eventual peak with all the agonizing Cyclops was doing over the span of three issues. We start getting more glimpses into the personalities of the team here at the beginning. Nightcrawler is a caring soul, despite his devilish outside appearance. Storm has some kind of traumatic accident in her past. Wolverine is a dangerous loose cannon trying to control the animal inside. Banshee is barely literate, and attracted to housekeepers. Colossus is…strong.

I can’t quite pinpoint what’s off for me about these early issues, except that perhaps the villains are absolutely terrible. Even beyond that, the interactions of the X-Men aren’t quite there yet. They’re new, and raw, and undefined. Evolving before our very eyes. I blame Marv Wolfman.

Things promise to get better next time out, with better villains and further establishing of the new characters. Join us, won’t you?

You can read this stuff here:

Nov 21, 2013

What's Wrong With the New Gods? A Look at Jack Kirby's Fourth World

There seems to be some characters that don't really sell all that well, but are favorites of writers and artists. Over at Marvel Comics, Dr. Strange seems to be a prime example of this, having had several series over his many decades of existence. Over at DC, the usual suspects seem to be Jack Kirby's New Gods, which include Darkseid, Mr. Miracle, Orion, and Big Barda, who make up Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga. Walt Simonson has stated that of all the things Jack Kirby's ever done, the Fourth World is his favorite — and that says a lot considering that Walt's first comics were Kirby Thor comics, and that Walt made his name on Thor. When you watch the DC animated universe, specifically Superman and Justice League (Unlimited), you can see how much Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and company love these characters.

So how come no series focusing on the Fourth World has ever gone past 30 issues? How come no one's clamoring for a cartoon or a TV show or a movie? How come, for a "saga," it never seems to really read like one with a set beginning, middle, and definitive end? And how exactly are the "New Gods" not just a bunch of superheroes anyway? In other words...

What's Wrong With the New Gods?
by Duy

Going through the Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus editions, of which there are four, it's easy to see what's so appealing about the New Gods. I for one am really into it when mythology mixes with the superhero motif, and Thor and Wonder Woman are two of my favorite superheroes. The basic construction of the Fourth World is impressive in itself. There came a time when the Old Gods died and two worlds were born from the destruction. One world, New Genesis, was full of life and goodness, while the other world, Apokolips, was a steaming planet of fire pits and was full of oppression and evil.

New Genesis

The rulers of both worlds, Izaya the Highfather and deadly Darkseid, were tired of their ongoing war at some point, and declared peace by trading sons. Darkseid gave Orion over to Izaya, and Izaya gave Scott Free, who would later become Mr. Miracle, the Ultimate Escape Artist, to Darkseid. Such moves gave the story its mythical flavor, as, for lack of a better word, illogical stuff like that is commonplace in myths. The story in which this is detailed, "The Pact" in New Gods #7 (the same issue that calls the entire saga a "tapestry"), is said to be Kirby's favorite story among everything he'd ever done.

Kirby's Fourth World saga then spanned four comic book series:

  • New Gods, which really focused on Orion and his war against Darkseid, but probed more into the other New Gods of New Genesis as well.
  • Mr. Miracle, which focused on Scott Free, who escaped from the clutches of Darkseid and went to Earth to work as an escape artist. Of course, the forces of Darkseid followed him. He works with his girlfriend Big Barda of Apokolips, Barda's Fighting Furies, his assistant Oberon, and protege Shilo Norman. Mr. Miracle is the most successful of the original Fourth World titles, lasting 18 issues while the others only lasted 11 each.
  • The Forever People, featuring the youth of New Genesis — Mark Moonrider, Vykin the Black, Serafin, Big Bear, and Beautiful Dreamer — who, by focusing their energies and saying "Taaru!" could summon The Infinity Man! (It's kind of like Captain Planet, except with just one word instead of five separate words and a whole sentence, and the Forever People act like hippies, man.)
  • Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which Kirby agreed to take on in exchange for launching the three new titles. It's actually in this series that Darkseid makes his first appearance, but as it's Jimmy Olsen, Superman appears in quite a good portion of it. It's here that Cadmus, the genetics labortatory that's become ubiquitous in most Superman comics since, was introduced, and the Newsboy Legion, featuring some child characters from the 40s that Kirby did with Joe Simon, reappeared. (Another Simon/Kirby creation, the Guardian, reappeared here too.) It also highlighted the silly side of things, and even featured Don Rickles for a couple of issues.
From the basic construction of the concept alone, you can see Kirby's literary aspirations and artistic ambitions. Aside from the very elaborate mechanics of how New Genesis and Apokolips worked and interacted, Kirby even named  most of his characters to be allusions to something with more cache. Izaya evokes the biblical Isiah. Orion is named after the Greek huntsman and the constellation. Desaad the torturer takes his name from the Marquis De Sade. Kalibak, the monstrous son of Darkseid, is reminiscent of Caliban, the monstrous man from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Esak, one of the children of New Genesis, is evocative of Isaac. And even the villain, Darkseid, and the font of the New Gods' power and being, The Source, seem to prefigure George Lucas' Dark Side and The Force, from Star Wars.

The four titles ran concurrently and were built up with a specific vision, and it was like nothing ever seen before, and it's not something that's been tried a lot since. (In fact, I can only think of one example of the top of my head: Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory.) I think a lot of it was uneven — not surprising when you consider that Kirby was not really used to scripting, but that none of this had been so much as attempted prior to the Fourth World. There were times when you could assume that in terms of coordinating, Jack was in over his head as well. As Glen David Gold said in his introduction to the third Omnibus, Kalibak comes to Earth in New Gods #5, and he's not seen again until #8, as if Kirby wrote in his introduction, forgot about it, then saw the actual comic on the stands and said, "Whoa, I gotta get back to that!"

In fact, I think that it's easy to see what creative types find so appealing about Kirby's Fourth World — its scope, its aspirations, its allusions, and the fact that no one drew machines or fights like Kirby — but I also think the project was far from perfect. It scope went unexplored, its aspirations were just that, and its allusions didn't go far beyond alluding. In short, it was full of potential that went unfulfilled. But how could that potential possibly have been fulfilled? It was a brand new experiment, one that required a lot of time in a serial medium. And that was something it didn't get. After only 11 issues of New Gods and The Forever People and 18 issues of Mr. Miracle, the saga was discontinued.

Kirby was given a chance in 1985 to end the Fourth World saga with the original graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, but considering that he never even got past Act 1 in the original run, it was doomed to failure. He had planned for a long, sprawling epic that ended with Orion and Darkseid killing each other, and was told to rush the ending into one book when the beginning had barely taken off, and to keep Orion and Darkseid alive for marketing purposes. This isn't even mentioning that he wasn't the same Jack Kirby anymore, and he wasn't coming from the same place creatively, so the final product was even stilted and almost unreadable on its own (although it did feature some pretty Kirby art, with innovative layouts and a new, different method of coloring, at least for mainstream comics).

So I think a lot of the problems with the Fourth World can be traced back to the way the original run worked. It was untested, the first of its kind, and poorly coordinated. For all that people like to work with that source material, it is full of problems, partly because it remained so unfinished. On the flipside, Simonson posits that this is partly what gives the work its power, and that if it ended, then that would be it. This way, Apokolips and New Genesis are at war forever. There's something to that, certainly, in the same way that some of the most adaptable characters from the Golden Age (Superman, Batman, Captain America) don't seem to really be the same as the more critically acclaimed characters from the Golden Age (The Spirit, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man). It seems that the more concrete and canonized nature may remove some adaptability.

But to be honest, I think the biggest problem the New Gods have ever had, in terms of storytelling and standing on their own, is this guy.

Superman, for my money, is a completely unnecessary add-on to the Fourth World saga. He seems to appear in Kirby's stories to boost sales and provide assurance to then-readers that the story "matters" when it comes to the larger DC continuity. In fact, Kirby even had his Superman and Jimmy Olsen faces redrawn to fit the house style. (Superman was a very protected property.) It actually lessened the value of reading these for me. (If I buy a Mike Allred Batman, I expect to see a Mike Allred Batman, not a Mike Allred everyone else in the Bat-universe and house-style Batman. This is true of all artists, but especially true of artists whom you are using the cache of as your selling point. And while we're at it, here's a Mike Allred Batman story, "Batman A-Go-Go")

I'm not even saying that I like Kirby's Superman (left), but if you're going to redraw it, at least ask the man to redraw it.
"Hey, Jack, can you give us the S curl?"

Superman sticks out like a sore thumb, visually and narratively, in Kirby's Fourth World, but at least he was relegated to the Jimmy Olsen book, in which they introduced Cadmus, the Earth-based laboratory where they did genetic research. (Superman also showed up in the first issue of Forever People, but there he was a point-of-view character and not really a main character. He was used to establish the cast.) At the very least, when Jack was writing the books, the main characters were still the New Gods. Orion and Lightray took center stage in New Gods, Mr. Miracle and Big Barda in Mister Miracle, the hippie-like Forever people in their own title. Those three titles felt significantly more connected to each other than Jimmy Olsen, so at least it's a little removed. There's a bit of a disconnect.

But after Kirby left and the characters were revived later on, DC decided to fold them more into the fabric of the main universe. There's a Justice League/Justice Society crossover where Orion contacts the heroes to fight the forces of Apokolips. In John Byrne's Superman and Wonder Woman runs and his Legends miniseries, Darkseid is played up as a really powerful bad guy, the "Big Bad" as it were, to Superman/Wonder Woman. As a result, Orion and the rest not only seem demoted from "gods" to "regular superheroes" (Miracle, Orion, Barda, and Lightray also all at one point or another joined the Justice League) but they seem to take a backseat to Superman and the gang. To be fair, it's not like the gods of New Genesis were portrayed as incompetent, but they did end up with reduced roles and they no longer felt like the stars of their own epics. It was pretty clear in Kirby's stuff that said epic would culminate in the final battle between Orion and Darkseid, but in the bigger scheme of things afterward, it felt like that battle was reserved for Superman.

Things got particularly bad in the 90s when, in an attempt to build up Doomsday, the monster who killed Superman, they just jobbed Darkseid out to him, earning him the title of "Jobberseid." (A "jobber" is a term in professional wrestling for someone who loses. To lose is to do a job.)

And it seems, to me, that the main appeal of that is because Darkseid is the most threatening villain in DC's entire lineup. Even the Superman animated series and the Justice League (Unlimited) follow-ups co-opted Darkseid as the biggest, baddest Superman villain.

That's not only unfair to the rest of the Fourth World characters, but it's also unfair to the Fourth World saga. But more, I also think it's damaging to Darkseid. The cartoons used him sparingly — just once against Superman in the middle of the show's run to set up the final confrontation, and once in the series closer; just once in Justice League to re-establish Superman as a force, and once more in the series finale. In both cases, Darkseid is the ultimate villain in the literal sense — he's the last villain.

So I think, in his function as Superman's bad guy, Darkseid should be used sparingly, but he hasn't been. And that's a danger that comes with a serialized ongoing medium with no plans to end things. Some villains, you just can't use too much. You can't bring Galactus back too often; he would lose what makes him threatening. Apocalypse looks threatening, then you realize he keeps losing. Thanos had to be kept from losing what made him threatening that they had to explain it away as a psychological flaw that he sabotaged himself each time. Darkseid is one of those villains. He talks a big game, but every single time he fails at something, he loses more of his cache. As a result, I actually think that Darkseid is one of the single most undertapped villains in all of fiction.

In other words, it seems that the Fourth World has been marginalized in an effort to make Darkseid the main threat to Superman (and the DC Universe), but even that hasn't panned out, and it culminated in the 2008 DC event, Final Crisis, where the New Gods were basically "killed" or "reset" and shunted off into a universe of their own. I thought this was a good idea, because I think there is a whole lot of potential in the Fourth World characters, but that to really meet that potential they had to be their own focus. They had to take center stage in their own story.

Of course, DC rebooted its line in September 2011 so that was never built on (Darkseid and Orion have already shown up in various books). But I still think the concept is sound. I think that story's just begging to be told, because Kirby never had a chance to really tell it. I think that there are many creators who would want to work on it and I think DC could ensure it sells well with the right amount of marketing. Unfortunately, when it's been tried, it hasn't lasted long, as in the case, for example, of Walt Simonson's Orion run, which seems to get a lot of love from the Internet among the people who have actually read it. (DC won't even collect past the fifth issue.) But maybe that's a solution, since I think it's the kind of project you can skip over single issues for and go straight to paperback form — kinda the equivalent of putting a new live-action series on Netflix right away instead of throwing it to the networks and waiting for it to find an audience — because the story would be so dense, so packed.

And if not in comics? Then maybe a cartoon would be where they finally get their story told. Maybe even the movies. Maybe something else. On the web, maybe?

But wherever they tell it, wherever Orion and Darkseid have their final battle, should it ever happen, I just hope it's far enough away from Superman.

Nov 20, 2013

Reference-Heavy Light Reading

Reference-Heavy Light Reading
Travis Hedge Coke

The idea that making references or allusions makes a work more scholarly or more difficult to understand is prevalent, despite the fact there are annotations for references made in something like six thousand forms of light entertainment from All in the Family to Isabel Allende’s Zorro. We live in a reference-heavy world, one where we quote or misquote daily, where everyone uses examples gleaned from television shows or historical anecdotes, where names or places remind us of fictions or real life events, because that is the world. The world is shaped by our shared predilections and predictions, by connections of catchy memories, and all the funny and sad bits we pick up on throughout life.

The Garfield book Duy talked about a few weeks ago has a Kiss Me Deadly allusion on one page that has more power for the atmosphere it brings than for being recognized as a visual reference.

Children’s entertainment is often wall to wall with references and allusions, not because anyone is attempting to educate the children or motivate them to seek out what is being alluded to, but because on a basic level, if an allusion is good, it does not actually need a true source to work. The allusion’s source is second to the power of the allusion. A footnote or a wink have greater power than anything to which they can direct an audience.

Yet, when it comes to comics, I’ve heard people talk, nonstop, about how new readers should steer clear of this or that comic because it’s reference-intensive and without a full education on all the sources alluded to or quoted from, how could they possibly understand the story of a duck whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by a guy with a bell on his head? You need a literary degree to even touch an issue of Sandman, which is why it’s bread and butter audience is usually eighteen-to-twenty-one year olds. You need to have grown up on Sixties Marvel to understand the story of a photographer’s sense of impotence in Marvels. Unless you have written a book on Twentieth Century popular genres you cannot possibly enjoy Planetary or Garth Ennis’ Nightingale.

It’s silly fear. It does not reflect reality. But, it might chase of readers who’d otherwise have some fun. So, I want to recommend some reference-laden comics that are easy for anyone to come into and are just plain fun.

(Because of the nature of this column, I'm gonna put the Amazon links to each book after each recommendation. -Duy)

1. (Jack Kirby’s) Black Panther

Panther is in pursuit of an ancient treasure that allows one to reach distant times instantaneously. Starting with a man named Abner Little and carrying on through a “six million year man” with Hatch-22 tattooed on his forehead, Kirby’s Black Panther run was a thrill-ride wacky race chock full of references and puns, making reference to older comics, to children’s stories, the Loch Ness monster, and King Solomon. Knowing what Li’l Abner looks like, or being familiar with Catch-22 or the phrase, the etymology of Zanda, the roots of the aged Silas Mourner, or the history of the Black Panther might enhance the comic, but it’s not what makes it worth reading. The rush of adventure, the unending hail of gunfire and plethora of kicks to the face, the glorious speeches of Princess Zanda makes this a comic worth owning.

2. (Grant Morrison’s) New X-Men

All X-comics self-refer between each other, and that’s just going to happen, but New X-Men never made a reference that it didn’t attempt to explain in its own pages as much as it needed to. It wasn’t “see issue ___” referencing. It wasn’t trying to sell you a crossover or make its energy by name-checking a better story from twenty years previous. And, just as often, the references were to Modernist painters, experimental musicians, the comics industry, or the contemporary planet that published the issues. None of which is necessary to catch onto, none of it demanding external research, and unlike much of the list, NXM was just as likely to piss off the more familiar reader with its allusions and mashups, than the reader who came in blind to the references.

If you want to see Emma Frost’s new ability to turn her skin to diamond and feel no emotions as a comment on Cyclops’ childhood guardian, a criminal with diamond-skin, it’s there for you. If you remember that Beast and Polaris experienced radical shifts in their mutations after injuries, that’s echoed in Emma’s new powers. Maybe, you read the proposal for the run and remember that it wasn’t Emma but super-strong, metal-bodied Colossus in that document. You can have none of that back material on hand, and what’s there is a woman with a tragic life who’s just been buried in concrete and the body parts of her students by genocidal war machines that slaughtered a nation and she needs to be very strong just then, and preferably very cold lest the horror really settle in.

3. (Early) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The earliest Turtles comics were stuffed with in-jokes, and the Turtles basic existence is a remix of elements from Daredevil comics, from their origin with the radioactive canister to the ninja clan named after a body part and the mentor named for a small length of wood. Millions of kids have dug the Turtles without even vaguely connecting them to a Marvel superhero because those elements are remixed into something freshly its own, and other references are often simply motivational. The Rextab building that looks like the Baxter Building of Fantastic Four is not dependent on being the Baxter Building. The appearance of Cerebus or the Fugitoid are invitations, perhaps, to check them out elsewhere, but they are never firewalls to keep out the unfamiliar. Really, Cerebus could exist nowhere except in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without much loss for many readers. These preexistent things are used the same way turtles and ninjas are, as starting points, as something to springboard from and then you ought to be too busy reading the ass-kicking to care.

4. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

When I got my review copies, it was suggested to me that I play a drinking game my friend called “References You’ll Catch, But The Kids Won’t.” You’d get drunk. If you were drinking caffeine, you’d be wired enough to produce your own rainbows. There’s a lot. This is a comic where someone off-panel declares, “I’ll swallow your soul.” And, gloriously, it doesn’t matter. The comic isn’t about references, it just has them because they’re funny. They’re funny in a referential context, in an in-story context, and even sometimes out of context. They’re atmosphere, but they aren’t the oxygen you need to breath, just another sweet scent in the air (that sometimes you can light on fire).

5. Frankenstein’s Womb

I’m a sucker for Origin of Frankenstein stories. I love Ken Russell’s Gothic. The one with Bill S. Preston, Esq from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t bad. And I love walking tour documentaries, the conceit of a separate-from-reality narrator traipsing about giving 20/20 hindsight lectures. Warren Ellis combined both and Marek Oliksicki drew the beautiful sweet hell out of it. It’s a skewed history lesson, it covers ground from mythology to science to literature to biography and more importantly, it has a giant hulking horrorshow monster in a scary old castle talking to a woman with a load of dread crapped over her soul and hardening like a scab nobody wants to pick.

6. Urusei Yatsura

So reference-heavy, it’s pun of a title can’t be usefully rendered into English. There’s no way this is making it, right? You’d need to be able to read it Japanese and then read it in Japanese. You’d have to be familiar with the 70s scifi culture it’s steeped in. Except, no, you don’t. At all. The title aside, the English translation is fantastic and stays funny when adjusting a joke or just playing a reference straight as if there is no reference there. Heart-warming, funny, weird, Urusei Yatsura is dense and never seems it. It’s a long-running series of short comics, and yet it doesn’t come off as repetitive, insular, or impenetrable in any way.

On the off-chance you know nothing about Valentine’s Day or Japanese law, this is still funny:

7. Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland

The most CLAMP thing ever not to feature gay boys, this is a series of shorts where a schoolgirl runs confused and scared through glibly eroticized fictional worlds, from Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland to the universe seen in Barbarella and CLAMP’s own X. This is definitely concept over plot or characterization, but it’s a novel concept, beautifully drawn, and there are some great laughs. The references range from puns to the mock worlds, and even intertextual between the different shorts, but what’s important isn’t what CLAMP is borrowing from elsewhere, it’s what they are doing with the material. It’s not about the elements, but the arrangements. And the sex jokes.

8. Alice in Sunderland

Edutainment here we come! How Sunderland and the Nineteenth Century might’ve affected Charles Dodgeson’s creation of the Alice books in a few hundred pages of comics. It’s a faster read than that probably seems, and comes off both mad and beautifully, rushing from bit to bit as soon as any connection presents itself, from the theater to the streets, poets, preachers, religious, journalistic, funny or tragic.

9. Judas Coin

Walt Simonson’s Judas Coin is a collection of interrelated short comics taking place over the course of a few thousand years in the DC Universe, using mostly preexisting characters, often from titles that were published before I was born. I never once felt lost or like I was missing information and neither will you. Judas Coin uses those old comics, it never relies on them. Heck, you don’t even have to know who Judas is, in the Bible, to understand what he did, because we see what he did: He betrayed his friend for some money and a break. That, in this sense, is the important thing about Judas, it’s the important thing about that money. The character still may bring up to you, the reader, other biblical moments, the teachings of Jesus, the metal band Judas Priest or whatever, but what’s important, what affects the Romans, Vikings, cowboys and outer space goodtimers of this comic is right there on the pages.

10. Preacher

A big ass treatise of manly manliness, rugged individualism in groups, and how walk tall, take your lickings, and spit in the eye of the devil. There’s a good bit where someone puts a two-by-four with nails in it to the head of a righteous sadist, too, and that was a long time coming, so when it happens you’re ready to cheer. Preacher sometimes looks like a mass of crass reactionary ball-busting macho bullshit, and it’s supposed to look like that. It references a new Western every few pages, a new war or another war movie, with the tone of the comic and the music playing in the pickup truck cab changing every so often, but always identifiable, and sometimes real life dead people show up and talk but aren’t named because if you get it, it matters, and if you don’t, what is represented matters more.

11. Planetary

“But, Travis, you did annotations for Planetary! The references must be important,” said a rhetorical person I just made up. They are, for all that. They’re just never the dealbreaker, and there’s so many, anyone who was alive for any part of the last seventy years is going to feel the frisson with some of them. But, I primarily did the annotations to show that the connective tissue was just that, connective, more than anything else. The connections I saw might not be the ones you see, but what matters is the story at hand, the comic we’re reading. Where we go backwards from there is up to us, but it starts with Planetary, and that’s a very good place to start.

12. Pearls Before Swine

Pearls has gags referencing everything from other comic strips to Nineteenth Century poems and Nineteen Sixties sitcoms. They are all funny. And, they are all usually the secondary joke in that strip, meaning if you don’t get it, there’s at least one other chance you’ll laugh somewhere in that three- or four-panel comic.

Nov 18, 2013

The All-New, All-Different X-Men: Diversity in Mutanthood

The All-New, All-Different X-Men
X-amining the X-Men Part 1: Diversity in Mutanthood
Ben Smith

If there’s any comic series in history that needs more focus and attention, it’s the legendary run of the new X-Men that began with Giant Size X-Men #1. While most of you have probably already read these classic comics that introduced the world to Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus, there are a few of you out there that avoid X-Men comics like the plague, and I write this for you. (More accurately, I’m writing this to force our illustrious editor Duy Tano to read the X-Men in at least some capacity, because I am just that evil.) (Dammit. -Duy)

The X-Men were one of the many books created by the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Introducing the concept of superpowered mutants into comic books, the concept never really took off like the rest of the early Marvel lineup. After Neal Adams tried and failed to save the series, the book was essentially cancelled, relegated to publishing reprints of earlier stories.

Then the X-Men were given a second chance, in the form of a giant-sized annual that introduced an all new team of characters into the series. A team decidedly (and I assume purposefully) more diverse in nationality, race, and gender than most other superhero comics at the time.

Len Wein was the writer of the issue (and not Chris Claremont as most would assume) with Dave Cockrum providing the art. The creators would pair previously introduced characters like Banshee, Sunfire, and Wolverine, with new characters like Storm, Colossus, Thunderbird, and Nightcrawler (Cockrum had initially intended Nightcrawler to be a new Legion of Super-Heroes character, and it was clear that he was the artist’s favorite of the bunch).

The story begins with Nightcrawler, devilish in appearance, on the run from an angry mob in the streets of Germany. Professor X intervenes before the mob can overtake him, and offers him salvation.

Next, the professor travels to Canada to recruit Wolverine, a character previously introduced in Incredible Hulk #181 (not surprisingly now one of the most sought after back issues of the Bronze Age). For some reason Wolverine almost immediately agrees to abandon his country and position in its government to run off with a bald man in a wheelchair (I’m sure this is explained at some point).

(Probable) First: Wolverine referred to as Weapon X
(I’m not going to look at Hulk #181 to verify)

This image of Wolverine slicing the man’s tie remains the thing I remember most about reading this comic as a kid. I have no explanation for this.

Professor X follows this up with a visit to Tennessee to recruit former ally Banshee. And then travels to Kenya, Africa , to recruit a “storm goddess” named Ororo, who would later come to be known as the mutant master of weather, Storm.

Following that is a trip to Japan to enlist former antagonist Sunfire into his mysterious agenda. Next up is Siberia, where Xavier convinces Peter Rasputin, and his mutant abilities as Colossus, to join him in America.

Professor X completes his world-wide tour of recruitment in Arizona, by practically taunting the Apache mutant John Proudstar, later known as Thunderbird, to join his cause.

An indeterminate time later, the ragtag new team is assembled for the first time, in full costume no less. (With Wolverine depicted in the back of the group, something that John Byrne noticed and would change later on during his time on the series.)

It was now time for Professor X to reveal why he recruited this new team of mutants, and it was to rescue his old team! (I can’t imagine this wound up being the greatest selling point for them, with all the promises of a better life and better understanding of their mutant powers.)

Cyclops enters the scene, and recaps how Iceman, Polaris, Havok, Angel, Jean Grey, and himself investigated a new mutant located on an island in the South Pacific, a mutant so powerful that it defied classification. Shortly after landing, the team is ambushed, with Cyclops having no memory of what happened. He was able to make his way back to the mansion and the Professor, leading Xavier to find new allies to help in the eventual rescue attempt.

Inexplicably, Sunfire is the only one to object being convinced to form a rescue team to go save a group of people they don’t (or barely) even know. Not only that, but this seasoned team of heroes was almost immediately ambushed and (presumably) captured, and yet they all speed off to save them. (I’m chalking this up to telepathic persuasion.) Sunfire winds up changing his mind and rejoins the team mid-flight.

They arrive at the island, and decide the best course of action is splitting up into smaller teams of two and searching the island.

Cyclops and Thunderbird land the plane, and then fight off some overly grabby foliage on their way to some temples that sprang up shortly after their arrival on the island. Storm and Colossus survive an avalanche before also arriving at the strange temples. (Why they all split up to go to the exact same location is beyond me, but it’s what the Justice League always does, so why mess with somewhat competent traditional tactics.) Banshee and Wolverine fight the menace of crabs (probably in more ways than one) with Wolverine using what may be his first mildly insulting nickname for a teammate, referring to Banshee as “Irish” instead of his, you know, name.

First: Wolverine referring to a teammate by an insulting nickname

Nightcrawler and Sunfire fight off some birds, where Nightcrawler reveals his teleportation powers for the first time (not the first instance of Nightcrawler continually displayed new abilities, he was Cockrum’s favorite after all).

They all arrive at the temple, and bust their way inside, where they discover Cyclops missing comrades unconscious and being fed upon by some strange network of organic tentacles.

Freeing their teammates, the group is shocked to discover that the powerful mutant they were searching for wasn’t an individual on the island, but the island itself. Thus marks the first appearance of the mutant island Krakoa.

Krakoa was birthed into existence after an atomic test (of course) granted the island sentience. It grew hungry, which worked out well when the X-Men arrived and it could feed on their mutant energies. Not satisfied, it let Cyclops escape and psychically manipulated Xavier into finding more mutants to satisfy its hunger.

The super-powered mutants form together to attack the massive Krakoa. Professor X joins the battle by attacking the mutant island with his telepathic powers.

Before the professor passes out for his efforts, he relays a plan to the team to defeat the (kinda innocent) creature. Combining their powers to augment the mutant abilities of Polaris, they sever the magnetic force of the Earth below Krakoa. With gravity ceasing to exist below the mutant island, it is sent spiraling into space, never to be seen again (until the next time Krakoa is seen).

Iceman whips up a quick ice-bubble to protect everyone, until their plane fortuitously pops up out of the water. They board the plane and head back to the mansion, leaving them all to wonder just what they’ll do with a team of thirteen X-Men.

(I understand why this is an out-of-story problem, but never understood why this would be an in-universe problem. If I was on the Avengers or X-Men I’d want as many teammates as possible. Mostly because I’m lazy and would pretend to be helping while doing nothing, as I’m known to do during any kind of activity that requires a large number of people. Oh, we’re all going to clean up the office? Let me wipe down these windowsills for an hour straight.)

Giant-Size X-Men is rightly one of the most historic comic books in superhero history. Not only was it the beginning of the X-Men becoming the dominant franchise at Marvel and in all of comics, it also introduced some of the most beloved mutants on their roster, that still remain immensely popular to this day. The Canadian Wolverine. Storm, the African goddess. The German Nightcrawler. Never before, or since, has a group of characters that diverse ever been so successfully introduced. (I watched and loved Extreme Ghostbusters. I just wanted to say that. -Duy)

Take a look at the letters page from Uncanny X-Men #95, which contains the feedback from Giant Size #1.

All three letters express approval of the new characters, along with praise about the diversity of the team. (Not to mention a slightly creepy comment about Storm’s “bewitching” eyes. From an Air Force officer, no less. Sigh…)

Diversity in comics has become a bit of a hot button issue in recent years. Many of the most iconic superheroes were created, at minimum, fifty years ago. Consequently, the majority of the most popular characters are white males. Many superhero movies have changed the race, or even the gender, of some of the supporting characters to reflect a more modern view of society. Most of the time this is limited to characters like Nick Fury, Electro, or Jimmy Olsen. Considering that iconic superhero characters are not easily created on a whim (with the last one arguably being Wolverine in the mid ‘70s) the subject has often been broached that the comics follow the example of the movies, and change their characters to more accurately represent the audience that reads them. While I am by no means qualified to determine what the correct answer is for such a sensitive topic, I do know that the arguments against such changes more often than not don’t cast the arguer in a positive light. Statements that include phrases like tradition and “forced equality” are thrown around, and I can’t help but cringe at them and exit the conversation as quickly as possible. Often times it will be said that if creators want more minority superheroes, than they should just create them themselves, which is a bit like saying the best way to build a championship basketball team is to create a new franchise from scratch (and we’ve all seen how well that has worked for the Charlotte Bobcats).

Anyway, I’m definitely not the person to determine the answers to such questions, or to decide if the questions should even be asked. All I know is that if you really take a hard look at the Avengers team featured in the blockbuster movie, the only diversity you’ll find is green skin, which seems more unrealistic than Thunder Gods or super soldiers.

Oh, and uh, read some X-Men comics. They’re great.

Marvel just released an Omnibus of the first stretch of All-New, All-Different X-Men: