Guidebooks and Dolls
Travis Hedge Coke
Of all the spin-off opportunities, movies and TV programs based on comics are probably what the most fans get the most excited over. Movies are serious business. Television is important. Plus, it usually means a broader audience coming in than just the comics-readers, so you can talk to people at work about Hawkeye without having to explain who Hawkeye is (you just have to explain the purple leather and how he gave Iron Man a hard time – which, is probably because, back then, Iron Man was a secret drunk). Movies open up the audience, put the conversation out there, and the differences between representing something in real-time vs in panels on pages, the level of articulation to devices or superpowers, is rich soil for geeky ruminations.
I don’t get how powerful it can feel to some people, but I don’t feel movies are inherently superior to comics. In terms of mediums, I think comics kick ass over movies. In terms of overall execution and history, it’s a little muddier, but what comics can do is better for me than what television can do. Neither has to trump the other, but I know where my camp is set up.
I have a similar position with prose spin-offs. There are some awesome comics-based novels out there, from Joe R Lansdale’s Captured By the Engine and Dennis O’Neil’s Helltown to Nisioisin’s Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases. There’s some good short fiction and poetry as well (heck, there’s a nice Norm Breyfogle poem I ran in Future Earth a few years ago that doesn’t name names, but certainly reflects a famous superhero or two), but novels seem to be where it’s at for the most part.
O’Neil threw out the visual excesses of Knightfall when he adapted it and the Code-friendly obfuscations, and made a delightful novel about murdered hookers, prison rape, crippling injuries, and Jeeves & Wooster jokes out of a fun, but inarguably bloated crossover. That was smart and it’s an easy reread for me, at this point, whereas the comics might take some fortification to get through, if I tried to read the whole mess at once again (not that I wouldn’t). There’s a great children’s book about Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman coming together for the first time, learning to work off each other’s strengths, that looks even better when compared to the comics’ tendency to play them at each other’s throats, snipping and sniping out of petty jealousy. But, then you have novels like the Final Crisis adaptation that just yanks out anything remotely intriguing about that comic and binning it, to focus instead of providing a straightforward story synopsis with dialogue.
Formalism distinguishes between plot and story for a reason. Alisa Kwitney’s Breakout or O’Neil’s Knightfall have the same story (basically), as their comics counterparts, but they tell the story differently, because it’s a different medium and playing to the strengths of pure words is wise. Story is the set of events, plot is how you relay those events, the order of telling, the tone, the structure you put on your story. The Final Crisis novel, the Peter David adaptation of Batman Forever (roughly adapting a movie that loosely adapts comics) and to a degree, Roger Stern’s The Life and Death of Superman make structural changes as well, but they read like they’re designed to catch you up on the story and little else. The prose in Final Crisis, and the structure given to relaying the story, isn’t intriguing or purposeful, it’s mundane and geared to summarizing what is, for better or worse, a complex comic it’s easy to miss stuff in while reading too fast. Prior to home video or collected editions of comics being the norm, that kind of summarizing was helpful, to revisit a story, but we have trade paperbacks, we have DVDs, we’ve got Wikipedia. We don’t need story-reminder prose, anymore.
On a shelf below some comics and books, I have two toy versions of famous musicians I got from a friend’s girlfriend right after they broke up and she didn’t want to give them to him, anymore, a foot tall PVC Lin Minmei doll Square Pig bought me, and a Typhoid action figure I apparently stole from an ex and only recently rediscovered in a box with her Lockheed figure, a blouse, and some jewelry. We used to argue over whether it was an action figure or doll, because as far as I’m concerned if the skirt comes off, that’s a doll. I’d feel worse about that last one, but she’s got some Transmet trades and the last Bamf doll I sewed.
I have difficulty calling a six inch plastic woman in face paint and removable skirt an “action figure,” but think the fact someone made a pattern for a Bamf doll and disseminated is fantastic. I’m pretty much the inversion of the average adult who owns these kind of things. I’m going to go my whole life contented that I don’t have any Randy Bowen busts in the living room, but I have a plastic Wolverine keychain fob my mom bought me hanging with some tchochkes, and not just because Bowen statuettes are expensive. I don’t see the attraction. I acknowledge there is an attraction for some people, it’s just not in me.
On the subject of tchochke, how great is useless cheap junk?
Stickers, buttons, tie pins… I love this stuff. The newspaper that promoed The Dark Knight, those Superman buttons with the light up red eyes, Fantastic Four F pendants. Ninety-two percent of the time, it’s stuff that’s designed to get bought and then boxed for five years so you can pull it out and go “Oh!” before you box it again. And that’s a good thing.
I have pictures of my nephew and niece in shirts with Jim Lee’s X-Men art all over them and what makes it better is they used to be my brother’s and mine when we were that age. Comics makes good clothes. I have a Plastic Man necktie. Because it’s Plastic Man. On a necktie.
But, I am in love with Anika Milik’s heroine chic idea, using comics-based palates, patterns, or otherwise invoking a comics design, scene, or style in an outfit that doesn’t immediately scream “this has to do with comics.” The problem with comics-inspired or comics-related clothes isn’t that they’re inherently tacky or awkward, but how they’re worn more often than not. Being a geek is no excuse for going out in an XXL shirt stretched out with an easily removable but month-old bbq stain with a huge winking demon chick from a Glenn Danzig comic on the front of it. “I don’t give a fuck,” is the excuse you should be using for that, but you can’t go with not giving a fuck and complain that no one takes you seriously and people are giving you the hairy eyeball at the bus stop. If your Supergirl sweatpants have a hole in them, make sure it’s at least in an interesting place before you go further than two blocks from home in them.
6. Paper Dolls
On the subject of dressing, I’d like to say we need a real solid return to paper doll back ups in more comics, or those designs supplied by the fans fashion spreads. There are some artists with a grand eye for fashion working in comics, both as designers and for lifting other people’s designs and dressing Peter Parker or Sailor Mercury in them, and that makes for excellent paper dolls. It’s one of those areas, where a lot of the others are pedantic, simple, generic, and then you have Phil Jimenez designing a kickass outfit, Dan DeCarlo, Trina Robbins, or Stan Goldberg.
I really wanted Kisekae Set System dolls to take off more. KiSS dolls are open standard digital paper dolls, mostly made by fans, and there are some great comics-based ones from a Kiyoko (Maison Ikkoku) with a hundred aprons and skirts to a Psylocke (where did Psylocke first appear? Captain Britain?) doll with so many costumes, but also a great number of elements from outfits she’d worn over the years as a fashion model, assassin, and hanging-round-the-manse freeloader.
My biggest problem with John Byrne’s Superman is that Clark dresses like a schmuck. A sad amount of John Byrne clothing choices just don’t work. The tops he puts on most of the women in Alpha Flight. I don’t want those in a paper doll set, but Jim Lee’s suits? Jack Kirby’s? JG Jones? Jill Thompson? So many awesome outfits, excellent skirts, jackets, shoes, and costumes! Those, I want. But, I don’t want to redraw, layer, program the dolls myself; I’m lazy. I want these provided for me.
7. Critical Analysis
One of the glories of excellent comics is how much they give us to talk about, at length, preferably with jargon and diagrams. Annotations, guidebooks, essays, analysis anthologies, explorations of techniques, it’s all good. Hannah Moidrag, Warren Ellis, Robert Jones, and Andrew Hickey can take apart a comic or a technique in ways I would never think to, find applications that are brilliant and if I did think of them, would take me much longer to figure out.
It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing wholesale. Reading Ben Smith or Carla Speed McNeil talk about a comic that excited them is exciting. I don’t have to agree with Marie-Catherine Caillava on the importance of Magneto’s jewishness to be glad she wrote about it. Sigrid Ellis’ Kitty Queer is a great essay, whether or not you accept that Claremont writes Kitty bi. Anarchy for the Masses has several tedious annotations, and misses the opportunity to talk about any of the schools of art, techniques, styles, fashions in The Invisibles, or even the philosophies, to instead give joke annotations about Oreos, but there’s a fantastic amount of info provided by the talent from the comic, good interviews, and some interesting speculation. Most of the stats in the old Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series, as well as some diagrams and maps, don’t really jibe well with the actual comics, but sweet hell they’re fun to read. Gruenwald earned his way to patron saint of Marvel with those things and no matter how much things change with the characters, the world, the fun and energy of those entries will never have an expiration date.
I like me some Comics Should Be Good, some Understanding Comics, but where would I be without Duy and everyone else at the Cube? I was checking out everything else going on here more consistently than any other comics commentary site long before I was offered a spot.