Thanksgiving, Day 9: Comic Books

I would have posted this yesterday, as it was new comic book day, but I was still overwhelmed by democracy.

The reason I thought of this was because of a student in one of my classes. He’s a quiet kid, something of a Socially Awkward Penguin, but he and I have been talking about books for the last few months. I let him my Japanese copies of the Hitchhiker’s series, and found out he’s also been reading Connie Willis. We talked on the bus about books, and it was great – he’s a quiet, 15 year-old bookworm. My kind of people.

Today he asked if I knew who Deadpool was, and my heart grew three sizes right there and then.

Deadpool versus zombie Presidents. This is perfectly normal.

For those of you not familiar with the Merc with the Mouth, Deadpool is Marvel Comics’ most popular comic relief character. If by “comic relief” you mean “clinically insane” and “irredeemably violent.” He kills people for a living and cracks jokes about it. He has amazing healing powers and simply cannot be killed. In several cases, he’s managed the kill off every single superhero in the Marvel Universe. Repeatedly. For people who like wanton violence tinged with humor, Deadpool is your guy. The fact that he knows he’s a comic book character just makes it all the better.

Deadpool isn’t one of my favorite characters, though. I’ve talked before about my fondness for Green Lantern, for example, and I will always have a special place in my heart for the Legion of Super-Heroes. I prefer Superman to Batman, though neither one would really be complete without the other, and Firestorm has always been an underrated gem, in my opinion. But there have always been good characters in books and movies, and good stories as well. What is it about comic books that keep me coming back?

I could just refer you to Scott McCloud’s seminal work on the subject, Understanding Comics. He’s an expert on not only the history and evolution of comic books, but also the way they work as a medium, a cross between art and words which, when combined, become more than both. If you like comics, I highly recommend you give this book a read. If you’ve always wondered what the big deal is, then it’ll help clue you in.

I’m not quite that academic about them, though. I suppose I like comics because they provide me with something my everyday working world does not – wonder.

Also, practical lessons about not taking things that don’t belong to you.

Don’t get me wrong, you can find wonder if you look for it. It’s not all that hard to stumble across, but you need to know where to look. You might need a bit of special training or extra work, or a guide to show you the way. Comics – especially superhero comics – deliver it all right to you. Epic battles, staggering losses, heartwrenching moments of tragedy and unbelievable moments of victory. They’re all there, for just a few dollars. The superheroes and the villains they fight are us, writ large. Their powers are so much greater, their responsibilities are so much more important. We can look to them as examples of how to deal with our own petty adversities and inconveniences, knowing that the while the fate of the world may never be in our hands, our own fates often are. We cannot be Superman, but we can learn from him.

Not all comics are about superheroes, of course. In the non-capes-and-spandex section of the comic book field, there are still great tales of human experience to be told, and they are given to us by many great and talented artists and writers. By combining pictures and words, these creators are able to work wonders with our brains, bringing us along on imaginative journeys that could not be undertaken by words or pictures by themselves.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on comic books over the years. Some of it has been wasted, sure, but so has some of the money I’ve spent on books and movies. Some of my favorite stories of all time come from comics. Some of the characters I look up to have come from comics. Some of my favorite artists and writers draw and write for comics. They have made my life richer and more interesting, and if that’s not something to be thankful for, well, then I don’t know what is.

An often overlooked lesson in comics – use your damned common sense.

Why DC Comics Just Can’t Win…

Okay, look – the flames are completely in line with the history of the character. It’s not… It isn’t… Okay, yes, he’s flaming. Ha, ha, ARE WE DONE NOW?

As you may have heard by now, DC Comics is re-introducing an old character with a twist. In the upcoming issue of “Earth-2,” Alan Scott is being re-imagined as a gay man.

For a little background: Alan Scott is Green Lantern. No, not that one. Or that one. Or the other three. Prior to the reboot of 2011, Alan Scott was the original Green Lantern, with a ring that was much more mystical than scientific. He served in the Justice Society, a WW2-era superhero super-group, and had two kids, Obsidian and Jade, who were superheroes in their own right. Over the years, Alan got older and younger, then older – and then younger again, but he was considered to be one of the moral pillars of the superhero community. He had been doing it longer than anyone, and commanded great respect amongst his fellow heroes.

“Earth-2” is a new series that starts in the modern age with the destruction of the Justice League. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman are dead, leaving a void in the world of heroes. The first arc will, as far as I can predict, follow the emergence of a new, modern Justice Society. We’ve already seen Al Pratt (the Atom) and Jay Garrick (Flash), as well as the news-making Alan Scott, and word is that this Earth is going to lean a little more towards the mystical than the scientific in terms of how our heroes get their powers.

All that aside, now, let’s look at their decision to re-imagine Alan Scott as a gay man and why DC Comics can’t win.

Here is the problem that DC is facing with this: there was no choice they could have made that would have avoided backlash from some sector of their fan base. Their options were:

Create a whole new gay character: And no one would have cared. It’s diabolically hard to introduce new characters into comics and have people like them. That’s why some of the most popular characters today were also popular 20, 30, 40 years ago. If they had tried to make a new character, the odds are that he would have sunk into obscurity within months. Every new character that becomes a success does so on the corpses of dozens who didn’t.

Make an existing hero gay: Which is what they’ve done, of course, provoking a chorus of complaints from fans that they’re “dishonoring” a great character. Set aside the fact that these fans probably hadn’t given Alan Scott a second thought until this news hit the web, they’re basically insisting that if DC is going to make a gay character, it should be an original one. See the point above.

Make an existing hero gay – in an alternate universe: Now they can say, “Well yes, Alan Scott is gay, but if we need to we can just say it’s not the ‘real’ Alan Scott.” If things go horribly wrong, they could just let “Earth-2” finish its run, wait for people to forget, and then re-introduce Alan into the mainstream DCU with a playboy bunny on his arm. But now, for those of us who are fine with re-envisioning Alan Scott as gay [1], there’s the slight worry that him not being the “real” Alan Scott is a bit of a cheat.

Well, there goes society. G’nite everyone.

Mixed in with all of that is the complaint that they’re just doing this to be hip and trendy. President Obama has voiced his support for gay marriage, DOMA is being chipped away at left and right, and gayness in general is becoming more acceptable to the population at large. Over at Marvel, their mainstream gay hero, Northstar, is getting married soon, and a lot of people think that DC is just jumping on the gay bandwagon. That part, at least, demonstrates a high level of ignorance over how fast the comics-making process works. While I wouldn’t put it past DC Editorial to get on the red phone to Robinson and say, “Make Alan Scott gay, dammit, we have to beat Marvel to the queer kids!” that isn’t what happened. Word is they’ve had this one in the works since late last year, when “Earth 2” was being set up as a way to make up for the Justice Society having been lost in the reboot.

From what I’ve read, it seems as though DC is acting more-or-less in good faith here. They’re just as attention-hungry as anyone else, so there is still a non-zero chance that they’re doing this to get attention, and will let Gay Alan vanish into comics history at some point. But the writer, James Robinson, has a history with Alan Scott, so I trust he will do his best to make the story real and complex and interesting.

I plan on giving them the benefit of the doubt. Even though fans may bitch, and even though DC doesn’t have a great track record with the whole “sincerity” thing, I’m going to support them with this, Earth-2 and all. Comics needs more diversity. There needs to be characters that readers of all stripes can identify with. There needs to be someone on the page for some gay kid reading comics to look up to and imagine himself being. There’s no reason the DC Universe – either one – can’t resemble the real world in at least some small ways.

Interviews with Robinson look good, too. He says, “The reality is the world is filled with fantastic gay people that contribute to society in every aspect you can imagine from medicine to arts to serving in the military. It’s nice to put one in a super team and acknowledge that there’s a gay character there too. But I want to reiterate, it’s just one aspect. He’s a gallant, heroic, green knight that would die for the Earth and its people and fight to his dying breath. There are so many other fantastic attributes to Alan Scott and I want people to see that he’s gay and he’s also everything you’d want in a hero.”

The artist, Nicola Scott (no relation), says, “Alan strikes me as an incredibly open, honest and warm man, a natural leader and absolutely the right choice to be Guardian of the Earth. His sexuality is incidental. Every time I draw him I love him even more.”

The take-home is that the people who are building the new Alan Scott have great affection for him. They want him to be a hero, not just a gay guy with some flashy jewelry.

Plus it pisses off the “One Million Moms,” and anything that does that can’t be all bad.

Bonus Round: Predictions

And hello to you too…

Well, one prediction and one bad feeling in my gut, and both of them have to do with Alan’s boyfriend, Sam.

1) Sam will become Obsidian. Why? That panel right after we see Sam for the first time, Alan says, “Sam! What are you doing lurking in the shadows?” Emphasis mine, of course. This may be Robinson tipping his hand. The original Alan Scott had a son, Todd, who could manipulate shadows. Also, Todd was gay. And slightly insane, depending on when he was being written.

2) Sam will be fridge-stuffed. At least this’ll be in the tradition of new Green Lanterns, anyway. You see, back in the day when Kyle Rayner became a Green Lantern, he had an awesome girlfriend, Alexandra. She was cool, she was supportive, she helped him decide to keep the ring and use it right.

Then she was murdered, folded up like a paper crane, and stuffed into Kyle’s fridge. Just to piss him off. Much like Peter Parker and Uncle Ben, this gave Kyle the momentum to become the hero that he did. It’s unfortunate that she had to die to do it. Now the term “fridge-stuffing” applies generally to characters (usually female) who are killed in order to give the protagonist (usually male) a reason to continue the heroic journey.

It would be all-too-easy to kill off Sam as a way to kick-start Alan’s heroic career. Even worse, it would then allow the writers to ignore his sexuality altogether for the rest of the series. After all, if he’s mourning for his poor, dead love, he’s hardly going to start dating again anytime soon. So we don’t need to worry about trying to write a gay romance and kicking any more hornets’ nests.

And despite the title of this entry, it is possible for DC Comics to win this. All they have to do is write a fantastic comic book, with grounded, complex, interesting characters. Make Alan and Sam people who are important to the reader, and let us believe in who they are and what they want to do in the world.

Do that, and victory is yours, DC. I look forward to it.

—–

[1] *raises hand* Hi.

In which I am almost, but not entirely, like Ultra Boy

It’s very important that I write something. Over the winter break, I picked up a bunch of games off Steam – Batman: Arkham Asylum, L.A. Noire, Grand Theft Auto IV, Bastion, The Binding of Isaac – they call to me. They want to help me eat up vast amounts of time without really realizing it. They want to sap away my precious intellectual juices in a haze of car crashes and Batarangs.

On the other hand, I stole a SWAT truck!

As much fun as that sounds, I do have work to do. Not school work, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea. I have my own work to do – writing.

Last year, I got really lazy with writing book reviews, which isn’t really a sound strategy when you’re the sole writer for an internationally-known book review podcast. [1] With every week that I do the show, my backlist of reviews diminishes by one, and sooner or later I’ll be at a point where I have to actually write one review a week just to catch up. That’ll be the point where I’ll have to either end the podcast or put it on a hiatus, because there’s no way I can pull that off for very long.

So, one of my resolutions for this year is to get back in the saddle of review-writing, and make sure I always have plenty of reviews to choose from each week. As of this writing, I have a backlist of 48 reviews. That’s great. Unfortunately, half of them are either Wheel of Time reviews or Discworld. So I need to get moving on this and try to put some variety back in the stacks. I have a lot of old, pre-podcast reviews that I can beef up, but a lot of those are for books I no longer own. That means doing a bit of research to remember what they were about, to say nothing of cursing out Past Chris for not writing more thoroughly.

The other work I have to do, of course, is writing fiction. I’m still plugging along on my fic-a-day work, and have decided that in January I will use only all-new characters. That’s not as hard as it sounds, but after seven months it does seem to take a little more energy every day just to get started on writing. I know I have to do it, but I find other things to do, and that’s never a good sign. It also brings me to the title of this post.

His Ultra-Smooth is always on, though. Another difference between him and me.

In case you’re not familiar with him, Ultra Boy is a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group that battles interstellar menaces in the far future of the DC Universe. Ultra Boy is a character with pretty run-of-the-mill powers – super-speed, invulnerability, great strength, and so on – but with one rather strange caveat: he can only use one of his powers at a time.

The idea is that his body is full of some kind of “ultra-energy” that can allow him to do amazing things, but he has to consciously will it to do what he wants. And there’s not really enough of it to go around. So, he can be really fast, but not inhumanly strong, or he can be super-strong and yet vulnerable to an enemy’s weapons. It’s an interesting twist, and part of what makes him more than just Superboy with some stubble.

Now while I cannot, as of this writing, fly or shoot lasers out of my eyes, I do feel a kind of kinship with Ultra Boy. I have creative energy that I can do pretty good things with. I’m not superheroic or anything, but I’m certainly not bad. The trouble is that I can only use it for one creative outlet at a time. So if I’m writing, it means that I’m not drawing or doing photography. If I start getting more caught up in photography, then the writing will stop. If I feel the drawing itch kick in, then that’ll be it for the photography, and so on.

I hear Fitzgerald did this all the time.

The thing is, I don’t really have a lot of control over when my creative outlet is going to switch from one thing to another, or if it’ll just stop altogether – which has happened before. So when I get to a point like where I am today, where I just want to switch off my brain and hijack cars all night, I start to worry that this is the first sign of The Switch. I really want to continue with writing, and I have no plans to stop doing the podcast. But perhaps my subconscious has other things in mind for me.

The obvious solution, of course, is to soldier on. To write something, even if it’s half-assed and half-hearted, just so I can say, “Well, I did it.” But at the same time, I don’t want it to become a chore. I don’t want it to become just one more damn thing I have to do every day. I’m not making money off the podcast or the fiction, so the main reason I do it, really, is for my own enjoyment. And if I don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point?

Anyway, all that is neither here nor there. I’ll keep on keeping on, and monitoring myself to see what’s keeping me on track and what’s trying to nudge me off it. Self-knowledge is a good thing, if a little tricky at times.

—–

[1] There are people in other countries who listen to it. So I’m just being accurate.

Slade, I’m Afraid We’re Going to Have to Let You Go

RAAAWRR! I HAS A GUN!!!

The above line would probably be immediately followed by the distinctive and musical sound of a large sword through my throat.

I’m trying to put together tonight’s story, but my brain isn’t cooperating with me, so let’s prime the pump somewhat by talking about comics. Specifically, the current state of the New 52 in DC Comics, which is now entering its third month. More specifically, the ones that suck.

The first one to get cut was Deathstroke, after only two issues. Now why did I drop Deathstroke like it was a flaming turd in my hands? Hmmm….

Guys [1], remember when you were a kid, and you’d play super-heroes with your friends? One of you would be Superman and one of you would be, I dunno, Wolverine, and after you finished arguing about how Superman and Wolverine can’t fight each other because they’re from totally different comics and that wouldn’t make sense, you would start basically listing off your attacks:

Li’l Superman: I’m gonna hit you with my heat vision! BZZZAT!
Li’l Wolverine: I use my claws to reflect your heat vision back at you! FRINNNG!!
Li’l Superman: Well I can just let it bounce off my chest. Ha ha ha!!
Li’l Wolverine: I’m gonna throw Kryptonite at you! WHAM!
Li’l Superman: Yeah, well I’m gonna take these special metal-eating Kryptonian cockroaches and they’re going to EAT YOUR BONES! HA!

And so on. Point is, each kid would find reasons why his hero was utterly undefeatable and how there was no way the other one could possibly stand against him.

You'd think his codpiece would be bigger.

That’s what it’s like reading Deathstroke.

And that’s a shame, because they have a really interesting opportunity here. Most of DC’s metahuman characters are like football players in their prime years – their twenties and thirties. They’re still fit and clear-minded, they’re still hip and with it. Their careers are fresh and new and their best years are still ahead of them in terms of kicking ass and taking names. But Slade is older. We don’t know exactly how old, of course, because time in comic books is a plastic and unreliable thing, but he probably has a couple of decades on the Justice League at the very least.

Super-soldier or no, time takes its toll. You have to keep learning new skills, keep up with the newest technology and weaponry. You have to continue to improve and adapt yourself to the world, and that gets harder as you get older. So the first issue sets this up very nicely: Slade’s handler Christoph basically comes out and says: “They don’t think you can cut it, Slade. Not anymore.” There. The issue is out in the open, ready to be dealt with. It suggests that Slade isn’t what he once was, that he can’t hold his own against the newer, younger crowd. Like an aging prizefighter, the time has come where perhaps he should think about bowing out gracefully and leaving the ring.

We could then have a really interesting storyline that explores the perils of age and obsolescence, where perhaps Slade tries to accept this new reality but is not allowed to do so. Perhaps he gets his ass kicked in the first issue and has to figure out new ways to defeat his enemy. Or he goes the “old gunslinger” route, where he has to deal with the young up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves by killing the greatest assassin the world has ever known. Hell, maybe he looks back on his life of murder and bloodshed and sees that there’s more time behind him than before him. Maybe he stops and asks, “What’s it all about, really? What have I contributed to the world?” And despite an earnest desire to make good, to maybe give up his lifetime of violence, he gets pulled back into it, Unforgiven-style. There is so much that can be done to expand this character and make him vivid and believable and interesting.

RAWR!

Instead, they go for a gore-festy fight sequence that is basically the writer with his fingers in his ears screaming, “LA LA LA DEATHSTROKE IS A BADASS I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” He cuts through a whole slew of assassins and soldiers as if he were a young man of twenty, never once having to deal with the fact that he isn’t. And everything that tries to stop him is cut down with absolutely no significant effort. It is proven in bloody detail that Slade Wilson cannot be stopped – not by ninjas on motorcycles, not by guys in ridiculous armored suits with wheels on them, not by the ravages of time itself. He has no doubts, no fears, and no competition.

And that, friends and neighbors, is utterly and fantastically dull.

I swear to you, this was real.

This was actually one of the problems with Superman back before the character was first rebooted in the 80s – he was far too godlike. There was literally nothing that Superman couldn’t do, no battle he couldn’t win and no enemy that could give him more than a moment’s pause. With nothing that can challenge him, there’s really no point in writing stories for him.

So when John Byrne gave him a new start, he brought down his power levels a bit and created new conflicts that would force the Man of Steel to adapt and improve. And, again, he succumbed to power-creep over the years, to the point where J. Michael Straczynski actually decided that it would be more interesting to see him walk across America than punch out giant robots. He had grown so powerful that physical conflict was beyond him, and he needed to start dealing with social and political problems. [2]

He could also use a haircut.

In the New 52, Superman was de-powered again. In Action Comics – which takes place several years before “now” – he’s probably at his “weakest” since he was introduced back in 1939. He can’t fly, he can still be injured and get worn out during a fight. Even in Justice League of America, which is a little closer to “now” in comic book time, he suggests that he has limits to his powers and he knows what most of them are. By putting limits on what Superman can do, the various writers are forced to make the character work harder and be more creative in dealing with problems. The reader knows that it’s possible for the character to fail, and so we are more interested to know how he deals with the problem at hand.

No so with Deathstroke. The writer, Kyle Higgins, is doing his best to eliminate any chance that Slade Wilson could be defeated by anyone – even himself. He slices through his enemies in a single panel, makes bored quips about how pathetic they are, and the artist, Joe Bennett, makes sure that the closest thing we see to an emotion on his face is bemused detachment.

Yawn.

By the time I got to the end of issue 2, I was pretty much convinced that there was nothing holding me to this title. There were no characters that I cared about, no plot elements that interested me. All they had given me was Slade Wilson, Badass With a Sword, and I have no reason to read that.

Well.

That was certainly more than I thought I’d write on the subject. Next up, let’s tear apart Green Arrow. But not right now – I have a story to write.

————————

[1] My analogy here is more geared towards my male readers than my female ones, but I’m sure there was an equivalent for little girls and I’d love to hear about it.
[2] Which, from what I could gather, was such a dumb idea that Straczynski himself got bored with it and went on to do other things.

The New 52 – 4th and Final Week

Well, it’s been a busy month for all of us comics readers. 52 titles, some good, some… less good, and overall a whole lot for us to take in. It is tempting, of course, to paint the whole reboot with a broad brush and complain about the changes – or the lack of changes – simply so we can be aggrieved fanboys who have something to complain about.

What’s important to remember, I think, is that as much as we may be fans of these characters, they don’t belong to us. Hell, they only belong to DC in that picky legalistic sense. These characters belong to our shared culture, and if we want them to persist – and we do – then we have to accept that they’re going to change as times change. If you think that the Christopher Reeve Superman is the best and only Superman out there, then stop reading comics and watch those films over and over. If you think that nothing good has come out of comic books in the last twenty years, then stop reading comics, collect those back issues, and revel in the Good Old Days.

Change is part of the medium, and it’s important to accept that. Our job as readers and fans is to encourage the creators to take risks, explore new avenues and, most importantly, give them the freedom to screw up from time to time. And they will, oh trust me they will. But if they don’t take those chances, then we’ll just end up with the same old safe, boring storylines again and again. And no one wants that.

Okay. Off soapbox number one, onto soapbox number two. Spoilers abound….

Read on, if you dare

The New 52 – 2nd Week

Well, since I had such fun last week, staying up late and burning pixels into my retinas, I thought I’d do it again! The second wave of #1 comics was released this week, with a few gems, a couple of head-scratchers, and an overall sense that the kids over at DC have some interesting tricks up their sleeves. Spoilers will be aplenty, of course, so read at your own risk.

But enough of my yakkin’.

Let’s boogie.