9/27/2011

Idiotic Ideas: Starfire's Transluscent Bikini (Updated)


Go to: Shortpacked! by David Willis




I'm slightly alarmed that some people at DC even seriously considered this. I haven't read the comic book in question. But judging from the panels floating around the Web, it already reads less like a legitimate story in itself, and more like stroke material drawn by a fan who grew up on New Teen Titans. That's fine as fan fiction, but alienating to a whole swath of potential new readers. And it's even more embarrassing if this is indicative of the poor quality of the rest of the story.

But what's truly demoralizing is that I'm beginning to suspect that this scene is actually representative of the overall approach of DC's nu52 relaunch.

Update: I also find it a little creepy that Michelle Lee trotted out her 7 year old daughter reading a comic rated for older readers to make a point, even if it's one I agree with it. Listen, I'm not complaining that DC has subjected their intellectual properties to wildly different interpretations over time. That's the company's prerogative. The problem with Starfire as a character is that she doesn't have that high a public profile to begin with. To most people, she's a member of the Teen Titans in the children's animated TV series, as well as appearing in the kid-friendly Tiny Titans comic book. So going with slutty, amnesiac, and badly written Starfire parading around like a porn actress in a swimsuit that could have been even more revealing, had someone gotten their way, represents a lost opportunity to sell more comics. Not to mention a way to counter their already negative image regarding their treatment of women. Instead, DC has gone out of their way to reinforce it. If there's anything that says that the nu52 is meant for fanboy eyes only, it's a blatantly voyeuristic scene like this.

9/26/2011

Contagion


Like any disaster movie, Contagion is trying to scare you. It just does it in a more reasonable manner. There are a couple of Hollywood touches, and the timeline for the virus' spread up to the administering of a vaccine is accelerated for plot convenience. But the overall nature of the pandemic is plausible. This isn't a zombie virus, or something with a 100% mortality rate. It is somewhat more potent than the real diseases that have killed millions by spreading around the world. Director Steven Soderbergh chooses to look at the big picture, rather than through the eyes of ordinary people on the ground. The scenes of societal breakdown are there, but they're mainly there to mark the passage of time. The film keeps them at arm's lengths. Rather, the emotional tension comes from the scientists and doctors struggling to stem the spread of the virus.

Unlike most populist films which portray corporations as inherently evil, and science running amuck creating freaks of nature (Rise of the Planet of the Apes being a recent example), Contagion takes a slightly more ambivalent approach. Not that corporations and governments can't be secretive, manipulative, avaricious, or even blind to the concerns of the average person. But when the origin of the virus is finally revealed, it's as much a product of blind chance as it is to human foibles. In contrast to large institutions, the individual doctors studying the virus are an altruistic bunch, whether they're from the CDC, WHO, or a private lab. Their dedication is admirable as it is low key and fruitful, to the point of dying in the line of duty. Yay, scientific method!

Where Contagion does have an axe to grind is on the people who profit from spreading false information, fear, and paranoia. Soderbergh doesn't attack his colleagues in Hollywood or the mainstream news media. That would be too obvious. He goes for new media types instead, embodied by a snaggle-toothed blogger (played by Jude Law) who irresponsibly spreads conspiracy theories about the world's governments and big pharmacies temporarily suppressing a cure in order to make a huge windfall later, while peddling an ineffective homeopathic remedy of his own. He must have gotten his ideas from some stupid Hollywood movie plot. Amiright?

That's the blatant double-meaning of the film's title - that memes can be as destructive as actual viruses. The sentiment gets boiled down to a simplistic pronouncement muttered by one of the film's heroic doctors (played by Elliott Gould) "Blogging isn't journalism! It's graffiti with punctuation!" Nice burn, doc! One point for the old guard.

Soderbergh's montage-like cinematography is particularly suited to this story. Like his previous movies, Soderbergh assembles an impressive ensemble of A-list and character actors: Lawrence Fishburne gives a measured performance, and anchors the film, as a CDC director, Jennifer Ehle is a dedicated virologist, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are intelligent epidemiological investigators. The film does a good job in portraying women as competent scientists. Then there's Gwyneth Paltrow who unwittingly brings the virus back to the US and becomes its first American casualty, and her sympathetic husband Matt Damon. Most of them don't interact directly with each other, as they're tackling the virus in their respective capacitis in different parts of the world. A clever thing about killing-off Paltrow so early is that it forces the audience out of any complacency. No character is exempt from death. Not even the famous ones.

If I had to sum up the message of Contagion, it's "let cooler heads prevail." While not preaching blind trust, it does ask us to not give in to wild speculation. Let the scientists get on with their jobs. When the outbreak first gets the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, they send a couple of their spooks to question Fishburne about whether it's possible someone weaponized SARS or the Bird Flu virus. "Nobody needed to do that" he replies, "The birds are doing it themselves."

9/20/2011

Green Lantern: Ganthet's Tale

By Larry Niven, John Byrne, Matt Webb
I am disappointed to discover you so bound up with myth and ritual
- Ganthet
Green Lantern: Ganthet's Tale was an odd experiment from DC that never panned out. It got lost between the shuffle of more high profile events like The Death of Superman and Knightfall, and the soft relaunch of Zero Hour. I couldn't find the book for sale on DC's website during a recent search. Its primary claim to fame was that it introduced the character , and is often credited for getting the ball rolling for Hal Jordan's controversial heel turn during the infamous Emerald Twilight. But its subtext was basically ignored by succeeding writers. And that comes as no surprise. Noted science fiction author was hired to write "Ganthet's Tale" long before DC started touting mainstream talents like Brad Meltzer or Allan Heinberg. But unlike those guys, Niven was perfectly attuned to the SF underpinnings of superheroes, and especially of Green Lantern. A little too attuned as it turned out, because he revised the history of the Green Lantern Corps in such a way that was far more rationally outlined than the rest of the DC Universe steeped in "myth and ritual". Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, and especially Grant Morrison, would probably have hated writing for it.

Anyway, spoilers ahead:

You see, the GLC have their own version of the fall from grace and original sin. A long long long time ago, a brilliant scientist named Krona dared to break his society's greatest taboo - studying the origin of the universe. He builds a machine that allows him to peer back to the very beginning of time. What he sees is an almighty hand fashioning a proto-universe out of the void. His machine then mysteriously explodes. Krona is punished for his crime, but from his act of disobedience, evil is born into the universe. Knowledgeable GL fans will tell you that guilt over Krona's behavior eventually leads to future generations of his race, now called the Guardians of Oa, into founding the GLC to wipe out evil from the universe.

"Ganthet's Tale" begins with a rehash of these events, but ends it with the narrator concluding "This is, of course, a lie." The narrator turns out to be a Guardian named Ganthet, who then proceeds to draft Hal Jordan into helping him locate an Earth-based offshoot of the Guardians. Funnily enough, we know them as Leprechauns. After finding one such community and revealing to them their alien birthright, an elderly male named Percival chooses to take Ganthet up on his offer. So the trio fly into space, where Ganthet reveals to them the real story of the origins of the Guardians of Oa.


The myth, as it turns out, is an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that the Guardians evolved over time, just like every other life-form. Their origins are on the planet Maltus, where the native Maltusians first began to exhibit the abilities that would one day culminate in the Guardians and the GLC. But its misuse, especially amongst the young, led to the decimation of the planet's' ecology, necessitating a mass exodus to find other inhabitable worlds. While most attempts to rebuild Maltusian society failed, one colony on the planet Oa succeeded after a fashion - the Guardians. In order to protect themselves from external threats, they founded the GLC. But they also projected sophisticated illusions backwards in time to deter attacks on their past. As Ganthet explains "The further back you look, the more powerful we become, until, like Krona, you gaze upon the creation, and behold us as the very progenitors of the universe itself." Krona, himself a Maltusian, was an unintended victim and scapegoat of this whitewashing of history.


There's quite a bit more that's revealed through various twists and turns. I get the impression that Niven is cramming as many ideas as he can within a 60 page comic book. He glosses over several plot points and fails to develop the voices of most of the supporting characters. Percival and especially Hal are reduced to slow-witted sidekicks, and the main antagonists Dawlakispokpok and Thwarcharchura come across as slightly generic. The only memorable character is Ganthet himself, whose sharp tongue often reminds me of a prickly professor urging his students to keep up with him. And that's awesome! He gets the best lines in the book. And Niven's smart characterization will never be sucessfully duplicated by future GL writers. The art supplied by John Byrne uses the sketchier style he developed after he started inking his own pencils. It's efficient. It gets the job done, but it's a bit too bland to look at for my tastes. It doesn't do anything to evoke the grandeur of the book's cosmic setting. This is a dense read that's long on exposition and short on the kind of action fans of the genre have come to expect. The book's two big fight scenes are pretty restrained, with an emphasis on brains beating brawn. At one point Ganthet chastises Hal for objecting to a certain tactic with "That is because you insist on thinking like a warrior, instead of a scientist." Oh snap!


So how does "Ganthet's Tale" stack up, nineteen years later? It's relatively ambitious, but feels truncated. Niven puts some serious effort into wedding hard science with the superhero genre. But the results fall short. Perhaps he's taking it all too seriously. Perhaps more pages were needed to develop his ideas. Perhaps with more freedom, he'd end up with something fractionally closer to the expansive space operas he built his reputation on. Who knows? There's a familiar SF feel in his ability to conjure up alien civilizations that have been developing for countless eons. Niven takes a big picture approach to the rise and fall of empires, the fabrication and perpetuation of falsehoods, science vs. religion, the battle of the sexes, and of an indifferent universe ultimately devoid of absolute good or evil. I still possess a good deal of affection for what Niven was trying to do. But if fans remember "Ganthet's Tale" at all, they probably treat it as the setup to Hal becoming a villain.

9/17/2011

Not exactly your OBGYN


Go to: What Every Woman Should Know by Susie Cagle, at Cartoon Movement
(via Brigid Alverson)

Jason Thompson bends the ComiPo! EULA


Go to: Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga at Anime News Network

Jason Thompson reviews the ComiPo! manga-creation software, and uses it to create a comic "inspired by the recent case in which an American citizen, flying to Canada, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography due to some dojinshi he had saved in digital form on his laptop."

9/16/2011

Unwanted House Guests


Go to: Evil Space Robot by Les McClaine, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This is why Batman maintains a secret identity.

The Perils of Freelance


9/14/2011

T-Shirts: Almost a Superhero




Go to: Kleefeld on Comics by Sean Kleefeld

I do not like nosebleeds. They are unpleasant.

9/12/2011

More NonSense: To Explore Strange New Worlds

USS Enterprise, image courtesy of Memory Alpha

Last week marked the 45th anniversary of the television premiere of Star Trek. I've loved this show since I first watched it on late night television reruns in the 80s. It still remains an enduring passion after all this time. Star Trek was escapist fantasy in the best sense; A constant reminder that there was a larger universe out there than I could ever imagine. And I continue to believe in the value of space exploration and scientific research. While I have come to recognize the limitations of the show itself, its progressive tone, utopian vision, and ethnically diverse cast continue to be a source of inspiration. Star Trek was the first television series to impress on me that science fiction could intelligently address contemporary socio-political issues. And while the formula it originally employed has become stale to downright embarrassing from overuse, Trek's influence can still be felt within the television industry, popular science fiction, and popular culture in general.

Other commentary: David Alan Doane, They Boldly Went, Ryan Paul, Charlie Jane Anders, Ty Templeton,

While it might be awhile before we have a better overall understanding of the influence of 9-11, it would be equally hard to deny that it has had an impact on popular fiction. The event certainly raises questions about the nature of evil, the uses and abuses and limits of power, human rights, and it has inspired new apocalyptic scenarios. I'm of the opinion that the superhero genre would have been popular even if 9-11 didn't happen, but Charlie Jane Anders lists the various ways in which the present glut of superhero movies refer to it. Annalee Newitz does the same with science fiction. Andrew O'Hehir notes how some of the most sucessful film franchises only obliquely refered to 9-11. Matt Zoller Seitz lists various works that were inluenced by 9-11, starting with In the Shadow of no Towers. Paul Gravett discusses two works by Joe Sacco and David B.

Manga Out Loud podcast with Rob McMonigal, Brigid Alverson, Alex Hoffman, & Lissa Pattillo, discussing digital manga.

Dustin Harbin on digital comics.

Rob Steibel on the origins of the "Kirby Crackle".

Chris Sims points out that at least some fans also hated the 1987 Batman reboot by Frank Miller.

It's become cliche to argue that superheroes are modern myth, except that they're owned by faceless corporations. Charlie Jane Anders presents a chart tracking this ownership.

Video: How do we know for sure that we live in three dimensions?

Video: Charles Schulz draws Charlie Brown

Dave Uzumeri explains what's changed within DC continuity with this week's crop of DC issue #1s.

Jess Nevins on the early history of the shared universe.

9/11/2011

Anniversary Edition


Go to: Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling

When nerd rage meets political outrage.

My Self, My Complex


Go to: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

9/10/2011

I'm not covered


Go to: Gabby's Playhouse by Gabby Schulz and Ken Dahl

9/09/2011

In the Shadow of No Towers

In the Shadow of No Towers was always going to be a somewhat disappointing comic book. For many Americans, 9-11 was an event that defied comprehension. And for those reasons, Art Spiegelman was percieved by some as the go-to guy to write about it, due to his reputation as the creator of Maus. He's even a native New Yorker who was around during the attacks. So when "No Towers" proved to be a far less notable achievement than Maus, it only added fuel to critics who already believed that Spiegelman was a one-trick pony who had no compelling narratives to tell, beyond recounting his father's suffering during the Holocaust. In contrast, Spiegelman's own experiences during 2001 were never going to be as overpowering.

The format probably didn't help either. "No Towers" is a series of ten Sunday-style comic strips, designed to fit a broadsheet. They were initially published from 2002-2003 in the German newspaper Die Zeit, then collected into a hardcover in 2004. The presentation in itself is an object worthy of attention. The cover design is beautifully minimal. Each page is printed on thick, glossy, cardboard stock. Spiegelman's strips only comprise half the book. The rest is devoted to supplementary material, including reprints of the cartoons Spiegelman mined for reference and inspiration. At the time, I thought everything about the book felt padded in order to justify the printing of such a slim series.


And looking at the content of the strips themselves, there's not a lot going on. The first three deal directly with the events of 9-11 from Spiegelman's perspective. The remaining material chronicles his descent into paranoia and depression. To anyone looking for greater insight into the events that day, Spiegelman has none. He develops a Cassandra Complex early on, but doesn't present any research to back up his opinions. His complaints becoming increasingly shrill over time. He often resorts to visual and verbal cliches (“waiting for the other shoe to drop”, “sticking your head in the sand”, children wearing gas masks) to get his point across. This gets tiresome after awhile. Spiegelman becomes enamored with the imagery of the glowing steel skeleton of the World Trade Center as it collapses. It forms the backdrop for all his strips. But whatever poetry he finds in it doesn't translate onto the printed page. Why is that? Is it due to Spiegelman's own limitations as an artist? The whole thing ends up looking like a giant, glowing, neon sign.

But the truly distinctive part of "No Towers" is Spiegelman's use of cartoon imagery. I've already mentioned his implementation of the broadsheet format, which he divides into roughly three separate tiers, each reinforcing one another. In addition to autobiographical bits, Spiegelman often repurposes classic comic strips. For example: the Katzenjammer Kids are drawn as the burning twin towers of the WTC. They run around helplessly until "Uncle Screwloose" intercedes by poring a drum of oil on them. Or Spiegelman visualizes himself as Little Nemo falling out of bed, after dreaming of John Ashcroft shoving him out the window. It's far from subtle, and often not very funny. Certainly not funny enough to counter the gloomy atmosphere pervading the book. Spiegelman makes the remarkable claim "The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century... they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment." Putting aside my own doubts (or personal ignorance) about the spiritual power of these strips, I don't feel that Spiegelman effectively makes the case for them. I suppose an argument can be made for their broad humor about the foibles of Americans, and its relevance to understanding the behavior of Americans during 9-11. But Spiegelman's use of them is too heavy handed, and he doesn't demonstrate that he possesses the necessary chops to capture the stylings of these strips.


In the end, "No Towers" lacks the universal appeal of Maus. Rather than trying to express something about the human condition, Spiegelman is content to let loose his own anger and pessimism about the post 9-11 political landscape. The comic is strongly tied to a very specific context. And for those who do not share the assumptions that Spiegelman makes, they will have a harder time getting through this book.

Having said that, I have become more appreciative of the urgency of the comic's message after all these years. Re-reading it for this review helped me recall that as a foreign resident at the time, I was developing a milder form of paranoia, and feelings of helplessness, from listening to all the post 9-11 rhetoric. I kept my head down, became sensitive to anything vaguely xenophobic hurled in my general direction, hoped that Ashcroft would never notice me, and secretly cringed at all the speeches calculated to make everyone conform to some collective filled with sorrow and unreflective resolve. The superhero comics of the day only served to deepen my disconnect:

Even the supervillains must join in the collective breast beating.
From Amazing Spider-Man #36, written by J. Michael Straczynski.
Art by John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna

So yeah, I've become far less disgruntled over the slightness of "No Towers", more forgiving of its obvious self-indulgence, and far more sympathetic to the sentiments that buttress it, including the impertinence needed to express them to the largely hostile audience of the period.

9/05/2011

More NonSense: Relaunch Edition


 So the DC relaunch took place this week. Some predictions/reactions:

Tom Spurgeon, Steve Sunu, Greg McElhatton, Johanna Draper Carlson, MGK, Mike Sterling, KC Carlson, Alan David Doane, J. Caleb Mozzocco, Matt Seneca, Bart Beaty, Christopher Allen

And there's mine, of course.

Dan Didio and Jim Lee on the relaunch.

Ty Templeton on Superman's red pants. I thought they were shorts.

Dave Uzumeri tries to answer some questions of the new DC universe. It's already this confusing?

Chris Sims on the JLA lineups through the years.

Rob Salkowitz on comic's digital dilemma.

Jim Smith on why reboots don't work.

Johanna Draper Carlson has 12 Horrible Superhero Comic Stories for Women.

Rachel Edidin on the problem of women in tthe comics industry.

Michael Fiffe on superheroes and the mainstream/alt comics divide.

Charlie Jane Anders on the success of the Iron Man film vs.the failure of Green Lantern.

Sean T. Collins on feminism in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice.

Rob Clough lists his top 50 books of 2010.

Ryan Holmberg on the effect the tsunami and earthquake have had on the manga industry.

Caleb Goellner reports that Naruto will have simultaneous print and digital releases.

Nadim Damluji: Survey of Contemporary Arab Comics

Blog: One Thousand Ferzats

9/03/2011

Disturbance


Go to: Vice Comics by Jonny Negron

Peace


Go to: The Art of Peace by Susie Cagle at Cartoon Movement

Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1


Flashpoint #5
by Geoff Johns, Andy Khubert, Sandra Hope, Jesse Delperdang, Alex Sinclair, Nick J. Napolitano, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Rob Reis

Justice League #1
by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Alex Sinclair, Patrick Brosseau, David Finch, Richard Friend, Peter Steigerwald

Well, that sucked...

Every time DC gets around to revamping their shared universe, the outcome only underlies the limitations of this course of action. The company tears its universe apart, sifts through the rubble for anything useful, ends up using most of it to rebuild, then stands back and acts surprised when the structure starts to crack under its own weight. As a story, Flashpoint bears the imprint of those past initiatives. There are plenty of nods to Crisis on Infinite Earths. But Flashpoint is easily their worst effort, and a sign that pushing the reset button one too many times only results in diminishing returns.

This enormous undertaking was accomplished by torturing Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash. This is the guy who died saving the multiverse in 1985, stayed dead for so long that readers were beginning to think it would be permanent, only to come back to life and make life a living hell for everyone else. That's the big reveal of issue 5 - it's all Barry's fault.

throughout Flashpoint, Barry is presented a nightmare vision of a DC Universe that's out of control. It's portrayed in the most gratuitous, joyless, and morbid way imaginable. Everyone dies or becomes a broken shell of themselves: Hal Jordan never becomes Green Lantern and dies, Superman was never raised by the Kents, Bruce Wayne never becomes Batman because he dies in the alley where his parents were supposed to be murdered, Wonder Woman and Aquaman become genocidal world conquerors. And that's just scratching the surface.

Diane Nelson wants her new universe NOW!

All of this is laid at the feet of Barry because he was trying to stop a time-altering murder perpetuated by his greatest foe, Eobard Thawne a.k.a.the Reverse Flash. It's a ludicrous burden to accept. And what's frustrating is that Flashpoint never delivers a believable argument for why Barry should be culpable, or more culpable than Thawne. And even if I were to buy into the idea that Barry is to blame, it offers no good reason for why he couldn't eventually come up with a solution that produces the best possible outcome and returns things to what they were. The only explanation to be found is on the metafictional level - the much hyped DC 52 relaunch. But it's demoralizing that this newly revised superhero universe is being built on the impotence and cynicism found in Flashpoint. I call bullshit on it.

Arriving on the heels of the final issue of Flashpoint is the first issue of Justice League. They meet again, for the first time! Yes it's as by-the-numbers as it sounds. The now familiar cover portrays the team's core members, but the story within only introduces about half the lineup. Most of the issue is devoted to Batman and Green Lantern arguing about their respective crime-fighting methods. Is that just convenient to the story, or is DC pushing them as some kind of heroic team-up? It does quickly establish characterization: Hal is still brash and Bruce is still a jerk. They spend the first half of the issue chasing a super-powered mook. When it reveals that it's working for Darkseid, it just gets used as a setup for a lame joke. Way to inspire a sense of dread in your readers!

As for the character designs of Jim Lee, I can't really say I care for them. They're mostly tweaks to their more traditional looks, filled with a lot of extraneous lines. I'm not the first to think that those neck collars look ridiculous, especially on Superman. But there's also something oddly clumsy about how they're rendered. The way that Lee gives everyone pseudo-shoulder pads and chest plates make his characters look less like people and more like reticulated action figures, or puffed-up gridiron players. And then, there are the sketches at the back of the book which show how truly bad it could have been.

This is why Batman hates reboots

This issue is basically your standard meet n' greet, and on its own terms it's not terrible. But Justice League #1 is the first comic of DC's relaunch. And as an introduction to the new status quo, it doesn't exactly impress either. There isn't anything here that would sway someone still on the fence. Wasn't the whole point of the relaunch to bring in new readers and find a new approach? Or am I misreading the intent? What I find in these pages is not significantly different from what DC has been publishing just before the relaunch, except it's now conveniently reset so that newbies don't have to worry about catching up to the story. But then again, look at who wrote it. And it's this sense that nothing has changed that makes for an underwhelming experience.