Thursday, April 30, 2009

15,000 Comics: Harlan Ellison on Daredevil

Calamity Jon was raised in a home filled with comic books – his parents collected them before he was born, and continued to collect them as he grew up. By way of nickel bins, swap meets, garage sales and being the recipient of other people’s lost interest in their collections, he eventually had a collection of at least 15,000 comics by the time he hit college. Ten years later, and several more thousand comics attached to his collection, he got sick of it and divested himself of all but a handful. In this feature, he tries to catalog every comic he’s ever read from memory …

15,000 Comics to go, starting ... NOW!

Daredevil #208/#209 – I’m not doing myself any favors by jumping into this project a measly two comics at a time, but as Daredevil comics – and, in fact, all comics – go, these two are unique. Arthur Byron Cover provided the story in issue 209, and made an assist (I’m thinking he must have been a continuity guru) on issue 208, with David Mazzuchelli turning in a superb and yet not-quite polished set of pages on the interior. Whooptee shit, but bear with me. The writer of 208 was Harlan Ellison.

I think, at this point, I’m thirteen years old, and there are two things I love; first off, Daredevil. It’s the first comic I ever collected with my own money (I started with #164, Expose, 1979, written by Roger McKenzie and drawn by the Miller/Janson team (Wally Wood assisting on inks, awesome), a flashback to Daredevil’s origin told while DD rests in a hospital bed after a showdown with the Hulk - I hunted that issue down in short order after buying this one - during which he’s visited by a small platoon of Marvel luminaries, including the Thing, Power Man, and Iron Fist, all three of whom had captured my juvenile imagination). The other thing I love is Harlan Ellison. I’m a sci-fi nerd at this point, but I’ve got one foot in the Arthur C.Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury camp, and another with Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock. So on the schoolbus every morning and every afternoon, I’ve got copies of “I Have No Mouth…” and “The Beast That Shouted Love…” or “Deathbird Stories” (my favorite, until Angry Candy) and so on.

So yeah, Harlan Ellison writes an issue of Daredevil, I damn near broke both wrists reaching with rocket-engine speed for the racks.

It’s an intriguing take on the deathtrap motif; Daredevil finds himself lured into a mansion of automated death by a robot disguised to look like a human girl and which has a hydraulic system which simulates the human heartbeat. Unlike most comic book deathtrap stories, we don’t enjoy the courtesy of watching the hero struggle against the danger from the perspective of the mastermind – in fact, by the time DD finds out who’s caused his troubles, the deathtrap’s master architect is long dead and barely even enjoying the revenge offered beyond the grave. It was an evocative, maybe modernist way to tell the story, to wrap the reader in with the hero's dilemmas - nothing that radical, but even today few writers dare to keep the reader in the dark about anything except the most blatant cliffhangers and bog standard twist endings.

Besides the evocative storytelling, Daredevil was more human and vulnerable in these stories than any hundred other so-called “regular people” superheroes. Batman WISHES he were this prone to the threat of death and injury – DD manages to escape every menace, but is battered, bruised and beaten at the end. Every fall takes the wind out of him, every trap has him scrambling to survive. He even begins the story beaten and out of breath from an off-camera interruption into an everyday robbery. At no point was Daredevil overcoming the threats with omnipotent superheroic panache, it was scraped knuckles all the way.

This, combined with Ellison’s use of a casual, hip patois for DD’s internal monologue (Daredevil swinging for the fences with the occasional “baby” and “Sonova(good old comic books, they never finish the cuss)” like his old beatnik alter-ego Mike Murdock or, more likely, kind of like Harlan Ellison actually speaks) had me riveted. What can I say, I'm easy.

The thing I’ve learned as a Daredevil fan is that you often have to wait for the good issues – DD will be a solid, even excellent superhero comic for a year or two, at which point the creative team will change and then you’ll have two, three or even five or six years of bland, unreadable garbage. Ellison’s issue, and the subsequent followup kept me reading until Miller returned a few years later. #208 stands as one of my ten favorite issues from a series which has had a LOT of great stories.

(As an aside, I always kept an eye out for more of Arthur Byron Cover’s work, reasoning that if he’d been a compatriot of Ellison’s that he must be a writer to watch out for – I never came across his name on the shelves, although I see that he did the novelization of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and I can’t help but wonder if he was able to capture Brian Blessed’s enormous “GORDON’S ALI-IVE??” with the magnitude it deserved)

Issues covered in this article: 3 (I’m borrowing #164 against the time I decide to do a complete DD rundown)
Issues to go: 14,997 (jeez!)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: Avengers #200 - An Autopsy

Okay, look, I would love to be able to give Avengers #200 a loving look back. I really would. Unfortunately the book was atrocious. Going back and re-reading it is like opening up a can of peanut brittle and there’s regular peanut brittle in it, and you’re thinking hey, shouldn’t this be full of comedy spring-loaded false serpents and then someone comes along and shivs you from behind with a filth encrusted knife.

I exaggerate. Avengers #200 doesn’t even have the shock of a knife when you were expecting toy snakes. It’s just unremittingly dull and awful, Hannah Arendt’s maxim about the banality of evil in pointillist four color newsprint. It’s not even bad enough to be entertaining, which makes it even worse.

I wasn’t there when this book was written. I have no idea of the rumor presented here is true or not. I can believe it, however, because the comic book reads like a horrible, stitched together monstrosity like Ultra the Multi Alien, except lacking even the miniscule amount of charm that character had.

What we have here is a comic book where one of the main characters is, effectively, abducted to Limbo (not Catholic limbo… or maybe it is? I’ve never been too sure about how Marvel thinks it all works, maybe Immortus wasn’t baptized as a kid or something) and impregnated in order that the person impregnating her can get her to give birth to him. Yes, he gets her pregnant with himself. This plan is entirely in order that the character doing the impregnating (Marcus, son of Immortus and some nameless woman he fished out of the water after the Titanic sank… I’m not kidding) can be ‘born onto Earth’ since, as the son of a guy who hangs around in Limbo and a woman who was supposed to drown in one of the greatest naval disasters of the 20th Century, Marcus can’t exist in our world without Bad Stuff Happening.

That paragraph hurts my brain to read it, and yet, it’s not as stupid as this comic book. I’ve failed to capture the continuous squick as Ms Marvel, the woman who gets kidnapped into limbo and used as the womb in question (seriously, why do comic books so often feel the need to create costumed super hero women and then immediately use them as hostages or worse, reduce them to their biological functions right off of the bat?) runs the gamut of emotions from distaste (having no memory of having been made pregnant in the first place) to horror and confusion (as her weird baby ages to adulthood in a matter of days) to lust for the baby she just delivered that day.

And since he grows up to look like Vincent Price with a ‘fro, the incest squick is only increased by the fact that every time the guys speaks I hear the opening narration to ‘Thriller’ in my head.

I honestly think there could have been an awesome comic book here. We have a lot of great stuff happening in the background of the ridiculous extradimensional rape and incest pony show.

“Wait a minute” you might be saying “You didn’t mention rape!”

Well, okay, that’s fair. I didn’t directly say that Marcus rapes Ms Marvel. The comic book itself shies away from saying this. But it doesn’t shy hard enough.

So, not only does Marcus (who, apparently, we’re supposed to feel sorry for) abduct Beethoven and Shakespeare and force them to help him score, most likely with ‘a subtle boost from Immortus’ machines’) but then he gets tired of waiting for Ms Marvel to let him knock her up with himself, so he uses those same machines on her.

We get an earlier scene where Marcus just admits that’s how Immortus got his mom to go along with the program. Immortus, master of Time, lord of Limbo, built an actual sex machine.

So both Immortus and his kid think it’s perfectly okay to abduct people from anywhere in time and use wacky machines to more or less get them to have sex with you. Oh my, that’s not creepy at all. Now, I think that hanging the 200th issue of one of Marvel’s biggest comic books on the mystery of who got Ms Marvel pregnant is pretty weird to begin with. This is a comic book with an actual Norse god, the personification of American ideals, a man who made himself the most advanced portable weapons system on the planet, a woman who can shrink down to the size of a wasp and blow open a steel door by pointing at it, an android who married a mutant who can change reality… and they’re spending the issue dealing with Ms Marvel being pregnant.

Even with all the Immortus/Marcus/Limbo baby born on Earth makes time go freaky stuff, that’s pretty thin gruel to hang the 200th issue on. Still, like I said, this might have worked out. We get to see Iron Man punch out a dinosaur, a medieval knight stab a robot woman in the chest and break his sword, and Captain America almost punches a smart mouthed baby.

In a way, this story is a real trail blazer. Decades before Brad Meltzer would bring us rape, mind control and forced amnesia in Identity Crisis Shooter, Michelinie. Layton and Perez somehow managed to break that ground here. I don’t mean to imply that Identity Crisis’ mail flaw is that it rips off this story, because it doesn’t and also it isn’t: Identity Crisis is awful in its own amazing way. We’ll get back to that someday. But Avengers #200 manages to be boring (yes, a story where a Norse god delivers a half-alien woman’s baby, who was conceived in another dimension, and yet it’s boring… there’s dinosaurs and robots and it’s still boring) and creepy at the same time.

The best part (for a very particular value of best) is when, directly after hearing how Marcus kidnapped her into limbo, dazzled her with history’s greatest experts in poetry, music, and getting dressed up really nicely, then used machines to control her mind so that she’d sleep with him Ms Marvel decides that she will willingly go into Limbo with her baby who is now a fully adult Vincent Price impersonator. This is after he’s knocked her out once and said the line “Forgive me, mother. Forgive me… my love.”

Stop staring at me like that I didn’t write it Jim Shooter probably did.

So Thor, Norse god of Thunder and also apparently of opening portals in space time so that Ms Marvel can have sex with her own baby who raped her so that he could exist in the first place, does just that. And off Ms. Marvel and Marcus go to cohabitate in Limbo. I’m really starting to think it’s not Catholic Limbo, I don’t think I could have missed that in catechism.

The ending to this story was so creepy that even Chris Claremont, a fellow who is no stranger to rape in comic books (he has Warren Worthington, the Angel, get dragged down into the sewers and stripped of all his clothes in order to be forced to marry another mutant named Callisto) thought this had to be dealt with. He brings Ms Marvel back to point out the whole ‘he used machines to make me love him’ bit that’s directly stated and then immediately glossed over here in a later Avengers Annual.

But aside from the horrible, insane, crazy-ass subtext that Immortus and his son are both effectively rapists who use machines instead of rohypnol, what does this story have for us? Well, we can thrill to multiple scenes of Carol Danvers (Ms Marvel’s real name) giving birth while everyone wonders how she could be doing so when she wasn’t even pregnant the day before. Then we thrill to scenes of the baby growing up fast and giving Captain America shit until Cap nearly belts him before Iron Man restrains him and calmly suggests they back off.

Yes, Captain America wants to punch a baby and Iron Man stops him. The 80’s, ladies and gentlemen. We also have a subplot where Jocasta, an android, tries to get the Vision, a synthezoid (basically an android made out of artificial flesh) to have sex with her only to be blocked by his wife, the Scarlet Witch, who is a mutant. I’m sure it was a continuing thread in the book at the time (robot girl loves robot boy who is married to human woman oh the soapiest of operas) but man, I really don’t care. Captain America almost punched out a baby and you’re wasting my time with this, story, you fail in every conceivable way. (Yes, I made that joke. No, I don’t apologize.)

Lots of Avengers fight lots of time lost stuff in scenes that tantalize us with the faint whiff of potential. Perez and Layton draw the hell out of this comic. Seriously, having George Perez and Bob Layton illustrate this thing is like having Michaelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci lovingly render a prolapsed colon.

The ‘meat’ of the story consists of a mostly naked Marcus working on a machine that will supposedly make it okay for him to stay in our world only to have Hawkeye blow it up because he doesn’t trust the guy.

I don’t blame him.

Then we get the horrific denouement. All in all, the comic just sits there after you’ve read it, as horrible and pathetic as an incontinent old terrier simultaneously attempting to eat, defecate on and fornicate with your right leg.

It's A Wrong Idea: Adventures In The Rifle Brigade

When people talk about Garth Ennis, they tend to talk in glowing terms. They applaud his grasp of human nature, his witty dialogue, his dark humor. Or, they just shout a lot. Like, at the moon, or a tree, or maybe a passing dog with floppy ears. Frequently, whther they're complimenting his work or denouncing it, they talk about some of the really messed up things his characters do. A fair example is Arse Face, the teen suicide idol from Ennis’ premiere selling book, Preacher. You see, Arse Face was a little under the weather when Kurt Cobain elected to eat a bullet. Idolizing the singer, the young man decided to suck on the barrel of a shotgun too. Only he lived, horribly scarred. After surgery his face was pinched in and looked like… An arse! HAHAHA! Get it? Oh wait, except no one in the US knows what the bloody hell an arse is. It’s Brit slang for ass. See? His face looked like an ass. Oh man, comedy gold.

Preacher is full of archetypes so profound and over the top that they border on caricature. An Irish vampire, who’s a drunk! A small town preacher, who has doubts about his faith! A rural American man, who is a sociopathic killer and enjoys sexual congress with dead fish! Oh my! Ennis sure has turned a critical eye on our society! Ennis just doesn’t do subtlety very well, if at all. His oeuvre is hyper violent sadism combined with off color humor. The narrative, such as it is, is usually employed in service of connecting scenes of unhinged sadomasochistic meat product rape with effervescent beheadings and detailed examinations of cannibalism.

Despite that, Preacher was a phenomenal success. You can talk a lot of trash about the book, but it resonated with audiences and made a pile of money. Making a Pile of Money is just about the only barometer for success that the comic book industry has left. You can draw your superheroes sporting bandanas constructed from a multitude of pouches, with three foot long ankles hinged like a rabbit, and fingers with more joints than Tommy Chong, but as long as shmucks lay down cash for each of the nine variant covers, the industry will treat you like Einstein with two brains and a meter long phallus.* What I’m getting at, is that success in comic books has less to do with the quality of your work than it does with the audience’s capacity for self loathing.

Which isn’t to say that Preacher, or Ennis, is without merit. For what it’s worth, I bought Preacher and I enjoyed it. Most of it. There were good parts, parts that shined. In characters like the Saint of Killers, Ennis has created some enduring mythology. His approach to the Scion of Christ and a global Catholic conspiracy that spans centuries is constructed in a fashion that far outshines Dan Brown. Ennis’ use of a John Wayne hallucination to serve as narrative device sounds hokey, but works exceedingly well. There are bits of Preacher that work great, and display that Ennis is capable of being a good storyteller.

So when I saw Adventures In the Rifle Brigade for sale, I opted to pick it up. The cover promised some WWII action, and I was interested in seeing just how far off the rail Ennis could take the Second World War. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a critical examination of the war from an alternative perspective, delivered in between combat scenes of nearly surreal amounts of gore.

What I did not expect, was a clumsy satire of WWII adventure stories populated by characters so puerile as to surpass caricature and dive straight into toilet humor, only to leave the toilet behind as the story scrambled down the pipe in search of more juvenile material, as if it was saying to itself in shuddering tones "this poop isn't poopy enough." It seemed as if the lesson that Ennis learned from Preacher was “I’m not very good at delivering subtlety, so why bother?” Three of the six members of the eponymous Rifle Brigade (which is really more of a squad) never vocalize anything other than their catch phrases. Fortunately for the reader, they repeat their catch phrases with such frequency that you never expect anything else from them and when they shake up the delivery a little bit with an exclamation point, or the entire phrase in capital letters, you can really tell they’re emoting extra hard.

Satire is an art. It requires a complete and accurate knowledge of the subject, a biting witt, and a degree of subtlety to deliver humor in a fashion that the audience won’t expect.** Repeating the same joke over and over, is not the way to accomplish this goal. I’m familiar with the axiom that repetition is the crux of humor, and despite repetition being the crux of humor, it requires a certain flair and restraint.

One of the principle jokes of the books, repeated numerous times, is the relationship between Capt. Darcy, a proper English officer and adventurer, and Lt. Crumb, a rather effeminate and modern young British Officer in what I suspect is supposed to poke fun at the generation gap felt among the old and new guard of the British Military during WWII. Capt. Darcy is very manly. Very gentlemanly. Very British. T. Darcy has something of a crush on Darcy. At least once per combat scene, Crumb will become the target of violence and believes himself to be mortally wounded. He begs Darcy to bestow on him some intimate act. At first a kiss, as the books progress the requests become more ribald. Darcy is flustered, but always relents out of sense of duty to the young officer. At the last minute, Just as the request is to be granted, it’s revealed that Crumb is not wounded at all, and he recovers, refusing to admit what has transpired. HAHA! He is confused about his sexuality!***

The story itself is just this side of nonsense. I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the narrative hinges on retrieving a misplaced testicle that was formerly attached to Hitler. For reasons that aren’t really clear, the testicle appears to have some magical properties. At one point it is accidently ingested by one of the Rifle Brigade (BY THE GAY ONE! HAHAHA!) and what follows is a nightmare of ethnic stereotyping wherein the man goose steps about and shouts in nonsense faux German before vomiting up the Evil Essence in a black wave of putrescence that seemingly immobilizes the enemies.**** With the enemy soundly vomited on and no other obstacles in their path, the Rifle Brigade return to England for a cup of tea and a shot of a dusty warehouse filled to the brim with testicles in specimen jars. I guess the point of the story was, the British like balls? Frankly I don’t know.

Reading the Rifle Brigade is an exercise in stamina and masochism. It requires you to be a fan of Ennis’ work, or a 10 year old boy fascinated by genital jokes. I persevered this book on the hook that if I just read one more page, the pay off would certainly be there. Just one more panel, and something interesting would happen. That bit of Ennis brilliance never came though. There was no introspective moment for the characters; they are static. Their circumstances are not changed, and it’s not even clear if the war was negatively or positively impacted by their actions. The story exists in a void of causality that leaves you wondering why you bothered reading it.

* Yes, I'm talking about you Liefeld.
** This is why I never attempt it.
*** Gay is hilarious!
**** No seriously. This not only happens, it's the climax of the book.

Who Watches The Watchmen: Get Dressed?

Monday, April 27, 2009

PR and Q / OG Seebelow: You know how you guys think nothing could be worse than The Spirit?

How much yes? Fuck yes is how much.

Brett Ratner to Direct Youngblood Film [Newsarama]

The Indian production company Reliance Big Entertainment has optioned Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood for film treatment, with Brett Ratner attached to direct, this according to Variety.

“Most* of the great graphic novels are gone, and ‘Youngblood’ is one of the few comicbooks left** with tentpole potential,” Ratner told the trade. “It was a real personal passion project for me, and a lot of people wanted (‘Youngblood’), but the amazing thing about the guys at Reliance is the speed with which they’re able to move***.”

Reliance has also acquired the rights to French graphic novel Fly Wires (which will be renamed Infinity) for Ratner’s production company as well.

Both projects are being fast-tracked for production.****

This won't the Ratner's first foray into the world of comic books. He directed Marvel/Fox's 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand following Bryan Singer's departure from the franchise to direct Superman Returns.

* Or, apparently, "all", if they've sunk this low
** I wouldn't tentpole Youngblood if it were one of the few comicbooks left
*** I don't expect Liefeld exactly dragged his feet in accepting any and all offers
**** "Quick, make the film before someone reads the book!"

Related Youngblood news:
First Look - Obama in Youngblood [Newsarama]

PR and Q / OG Seebelow: Lesbosuccubatfemme.

DC readies lesbian Batwoman for take-off [The Guardian UK]

Fans at Comic Con in New York this week were treated to a sneak preview of DC Comics's highest profile gay superhero, Batwoman, described by her creator as "the kind of sexy that makes you think of a succubus with a very bad attitude"*.

With fiery red hair, a skin-tight leather cat suit and knee-high red stiletto boots - complete with a blood red bat symbol on her ample chest - Batwoman, the alter ego of Kathy Kane, is set to make her debut on bookshelves this June in Detective Comics 854. Her appearance follows the shock – apparent – demise of Bruce Wayne, the multi-millionaire philanthropist who has protected the streets of Gotham City as Batman since 1939.

Writer Greg Rucka said that Batwoman - who first appeared in 1957 but was killed off in 1979 - was "exceptionally cool".

"Yes, she's a lesbian. She's also a redhead**. It is an element of her character. It is not her character. If people are going to have problems with it, that's their issue," he told Comic Book Resources. "Frankly, she should be judged on her merits.***"

Kane was first outed in 2006 when it was revealed that she was the former lover of Gotham detective Renee Montoya. She has made passing appearances in the comics since, with June's outing**** to be her most high-profile.

"Nobody has really seen her. They don't really know who this person is*****," said Rucka. "You are going to figure out what she does, why she does it and who she has to help her. I obviously get into what makes her different than Batman. They share a lot, more than including a bat. But they have different techniques and different approaches.******"

He expects readers to be shocked when they read the first issue. "I think people are going to fall out of their seats," he said, providing the first few pages of the comic at his blog.

* I'll have you know, all the succubi I've known have been absolute sweethearts.
** Oh, she's multi-dimensional.
*** For instance, have you heard that she's the kind of sexy that makes you think of a succubus with a bad attitude?
***** Some sort of lesbian Batwoman?
****** For instance, Batman is the kind of vindictive drive that makes me think of a minotaur with heel spurs. Totally different scene.

I like Greg Rucka and everything, but these talking points are b-to-the-ullshit. Over in his own Livejournal, Rucka is kicking up a fuss over fans making hasty pre-judgments of the character, specifically as assuming that she's going to be ... well, some sort of succubus with a bad attitude, I suppose. In particular, he's grossly offended at the notion that she's just another hot lesbian in stiletto heels produced to titillate the market and generally reducing female homosexuality to a heterosexual masturbatory aid. Rucka's response is to, arguably, obsess over the conditions of the criticism rather than the intent, as he points out that Batwoman's boots are clearly quite functional and clearly not stilettos. He also follows up with this shot, showing us plainly that those boots are made for kickin', and there's certainly nothing gratuitously sexual about the character ... not at, um ... not at all ... not, um ... ... ...

Tits. A top so tight that you see each delineated boob and areolae. Oh, and a bit of a cameltoe.


Who Watches The Watchmen: Does it come with a split-open dog's skull pen holder?

Rorschach Desk Blotter [Things From Another World]

Who Watches the Watchmen

As more and more reviews of Watchmen come in, I think my favorite to date comes courtesy of Debbie Schlussel who calls it a film fit only for a moron and a vapid, indecent human being Her site is a parental watchdog site which rates movies in terms of Karl Marxes, promotes books about the Islamic menace, and ends the review with a plea that "G-d help this country (minus Hollywood)." A glorious example of the oeuvre.

She ends her review with an anecdote about a woman she berates and loathes because the woman (a single mother, gasp!) presumes that her own ten-year old son "knows it's (movies) not real and he knows the difference between right and wrong." Debbie's estimation of this boy's future? "Her son is going to grow up to be messed up."

The "Watchmen" Lie: Hollywood Sends More Depravity Your Kids' Way Costumed as "Superhero" Flick []

While I'm on the subject of batshit Watchmen-related material, screenwriter David Hayter recently wrote an open letter to ... well, the haters, I suppose ... wherein he suggests that fans of the film are much like rape victims. Rape victims who fall in love with their rapists. And he means it as a compliment.

An Open Letter From WATCHMEN Screenwriter David Hayter []