Monday, August 27, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 5: When the Real World Intrudes . . .

A Year Called Comics, part 5: When the Real World Intrudes . . .
(The fifth in an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day challenge!)

This summer did not go as planned. I had hoped to write one part of my year-end analysis every week through July and August, with a new direction for A Comic A Day beginning on Labor Day, but the San Diego Comic Con wiped me out completely. Blogging the Comic Con was an enjoyable introspective experience, but the effort added an unexpected creative crust on an already hectic weekend, so, since then, I've felt exhausted of comic book oriented insight. After five days of back issue flipping, movie trailer viewing, and obscure celebrity sighting, what more can I possibly explore? The challenges of my day job (no, I don't blog for a living, though sometimes I wonder) certainly don't help, either. So, I've been thinking, am I done? Is this year-long exercise over, bowing out of the blogosphere with an uncharacteristic whimper? Has 'nuff truly been said?

No way! In fact, the comic book as a storytelling medium is a veritible how-to guide for overcoming a personal or professional slump! Whether Peter Parker is struggling to pay for Aunt May's medicine, or Tom and Lily are overcoming the trials of a long distance relationship in the indie fan favorite True Story Swear to God, comics reveal that even a superhero is challenged by the commonplace obstacles of the average Joe. Further, how they leap over those hurdles is what makes a protagonist a hero in the first place . . .

I'll never forget learning about "the elements of literature" from my elementary and junior high school teachers, particularly the various kinds of conflicts. You remember them: person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. self. (If I've forgotten one, forgive me, Ms. Wisdom. Yes, my seventh grade literature teacher's name was Ms. Wisdom.) These paradigms, an obvious concise interpretation of real life's struggles, pervade every medium of art, from still-life painting to sculpture to comics. Especially comics. The cover of Action Comics #1 is a classic example, setting a standard for the superhero genre in more ways than one. Yes, on the cover of the first superhero comic book, Superman isn't battling an evil scientist or an alien warlord. He's smashing a car on a rock, while bystanders (possibly criminal, nevertheless pedestrian to the first-time reader) flee in terror. See, the Man of Steel's first depicted conflict wasn't person vs. person. His struggle was, and perhaps always has been, person vs. society.

Comic book protagonists have always been outcasts, from the orphaned millionaire to the Flaming Carrot to the Eyeball Kid. While obscure indie characters like Serenity Rose or Dim-witted Darryl claim a certain success in the recluse market, they owe a great thanks to, of all icons, Captain America and the incredible Hulk, the former of whom exists out of his own time, and other of whom blatantly just wants to be left alone. Could Jade Jaws' cries for peaceful isolation be the precursor to Serenity Rose’s gothic, existential murmurings? Would the Hulk have spent lunch in high school smoking under the bleachers with the rest of the rejects?

Though our heroes face these societal struggles, they manage to remain, to operate, and oftentimes even to uphold society’s standards – but not without a price. Many times in its rich history, comics have gone to war, from the likes of Our Fighting Forces and Cheyenne Kid to the more secretive or Kree-Skrull varieties. In latter examples, ever since our national morale stopped depending on these protagonists’ victories, the price of combating evil has become more apparent, as if the comic book as an entity is warning us, “Sure, we’ll parallel the trials of reality, but not without a price!” Enter Bucky, or rather, exit Bucky – or would his death, summarized after Cap’s return in The Avengers when Stan Lee remembered Winghead had a sidekick, have been as embraced in the midst of World War II? ‘Twas the beginning of the end for comics as an escape from reality – Spider-man’s late rent turned into Harry Osborn’s drug addiction, and Superman’s shaking hands with the President turned into the gruesome assassination plot of the recent Warren Ellis opus Black Summer. “You want us to become more like you?” comics challenged. “You got it . . . in spades.”

Still, our heroes persevere. They fight and get moody and have a cosmic team-up or a nervous breakdown, and they get through it. They’ll even claw their way out of the grave, if they have to. (Or retro-punch. Whatever.) Really, how many times have we been “promised” that “after this story, things will never be the same again,” only to have things return to sameness a year or two later. Can you believe that an entire generation of comic book readers hopped onboard when four Supermen roamed the Earth, an armored Batman killed criminals in the streets, two Spider-guys battled for the wall-crawler’s mantle, and the Hulk was gray? How long did all of those epics really last? So, too, are life’s hardships – trying while in our midst, but eventually just as fleeting. We should be so grateful that an old foe isn’t attempting to clone us in a lab somewhere. Considering our individual hardships, what would an army of us endure?

Interestingly, the end of any given comic book story is bittersweet. While Peter Parker manages to pay Aunt May medical bills and Tom and Lily come to grips with their torrid romance this time, what will next issue bring? Despite the conflict type, they all have their endurance in common, which is ironically exactly what one needs to overcome them. In the case of my year-end analysis, what’s a little wasted time between a blogger and his objective? Labor Day is right around the corner. Seems I have some work to do.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 4: Comics Go to Hollywood

A Year Called Comics, part 4: Comics Go to Hollywood*
* Alternative Title: Hollywood's People Will Call Comics' People . . .
(The fourth of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

Before I dive into this week’s retrospective topic, I would like to join the fan community and offer my condolences to Mike Wieringo’s family. Wieringo’s passing was untimely and unfortunate considering the talent he offered the industry and the connection he maintained with his readers, both evident through his frequently updated website and consistent contributions on various message boards. I was already reading Robin when he became the regular penciller, but his dynamic style breathed new life into that book and truly captured the essence of a youth-oriented title, bordering on cartoony while still maintaining a sense of realistic motion and emotion. His work on Ex Parte #1 was an unexpected treat during the A Comic A Day challenge and still stands as one of the few first issues that stirred me to find the ones that followed. ‘Ringo had that effect on people – his work and personality inspired fans to enjoy the intricacies of any single sketch, panel, or page, while simultaneously eagerly anticipating what came next. The only good thing that can come from his early passing is more artists wanting to be the kind of gentleman he was.

Transitions truly fail in cases like this; so, here comes my regularly scheduled essay, already in progress . . .

This year’s Comic Con is almost a month old, but headlines and analyses are still breaking like the press is still in San Diego. Orange County’s free liberal newspaper OC Weekly just published an extensive article on their reporter’s Con experience, and my NBC affiliate aired a half-hour special last Sunday morning “from the convention floor” as a thinly veiled promotion for their upcoming fall line up, including the heavily hyped Chuck and the return of The Bionic Woman. Thanks to its plunge into the mainstream, Comic Con coverage has become schizophrenic at best, reinforcing the show’s “nerd prom” status with montages of attendees’ freakiest costumes while boasting the venue as “the next Cannes” for science fiction film. When Nic Cage and Dane Cook squeeze the Con into their respective promotional tours, San Diego is the cat’s pajamas; when friends march around the Gaslamp District as the Emperor’s Imperial Guard, it’s a dog and pony show. Either way, this collision of subcultures speaks to the current state of comics.

Bruce Campbell. Rosario Dawson. Leonard Nimoy. Mr. T. No, this isn’t a casting call for a straight-to-video sci-fi thriller about mutated vegetation versus the military (though I’m still fleshing out my screenplay, The Roots of All Evil, coming to a dusty video bin near you). These are some of the celebrities that have contributed to comic books that I reviewed during the A Comic A Day challenge. Now, despite Hollywood’s recent cannibalization of all things comic book lately (including, as I explained, Comic Con), the line between comics and the silver screen has been blurred for some time, most notably since a certain George Lucas set up shop in a certain San Diego convention center some thirty years ago. The sign on his simple table, proclaiming, “Star Wars: Novel – December, Ballantine Books; Comic Book Series – February, Marvel Comics; Movie – April, 20th Century Fox,” was a prophetic look at the state of print entertainment, evolving from mere words on the printed page to their interface with sequential illustration in comics, then to their inevitable reinterpretation on film. Actually, I can understand Hollywood’s inherent connection to sequential art – most movies essentially begin as a comic strip anyway, more popularly dubbed “a storyboard.”

The real question is, why has the door swung the other way? What compels actors and directors to consider comics as a creative outlet, when they have all the machinations of Hollywood at their disposal?

Considering the examples I’ve already cited, and a few more from the A Comic A Day canon, I can think of three engrained answers: (1.) clouting creativity, (2.) eliciting exposure, and (3.) laboring legacy. When I first read Man With the Screaming Brain, published by Dark Horse Comics, I knew that the miniseries was based on a screenplay co-written by Bruce Campbell, but I didn’t know the screenplay was shot as a Sci-Fi Channel original movie that aired a few months after the comics’ release. Such ignorance sparked the following comment from my review of Screaming Brain #3: “Maybe the real benefit of filtering a screenplay through this graphic format is to visually study what would translate into reality, and what’s best left on the page. If Bruce Campbell tested this process at the beginning of his career, something tells me he’d have plenty of comics to his credit today.” Thankfully I visited Campbell’s on-line resume before biting my cyber tongue, where the actor/director himself commented, “The comic is closer to what the original intent was – dark and noir-like.” Therein lies my first point; some natives to Hollywood may have discovered and utilized comics as an outlet for the creativity they couldn’t express via cinema. Based on my haphazard point, sometimes the restrictions of reality filter our otherwise boundless imaginations, and sometimes a capable artist is simply more capable of capturing our ideas than a camera can!

While some actors are keen to express their creative sides, I wonder if some perceive the comic book industry as merely another medium to conquer. When I saw Rosario Dawson’s name and likeness on the cover of Occult Crimes Task Force #1, I assumed that her role in the series was just that – a name and a likeness shared for mutual benefit. However, after saying as much in my initial review of O.C.T. #1, an angry comment encouraged me to do some research, and I found the following statement by Dawson: “O.C.T. – Occult Crimes Task Force . . . It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my career. I get to be creatively outspoken. I have total say on the look and sound of it. As an actor, I usually show up for my part of the movie, but I don’t get to talk about the edit or how they sell it. With this, though, I really get to be involved.” So, Dawson contributes a look and some character development – just like an actress would with any other script. As I’ve mentioned before, though her name follows the writer’s credit with an ambiguous “with,” I’d feel more comfortable with it after the artist’s listing. She contributed a visual, just like an illustrator, to a story that used the first act of Men in Black as a plot template. I’m not ungrateful for the attention garnered by her participation, or other actors that volunteer their ravishing good looks, but I’m also not willing to let her reputation overshadow the medium by exaggerating her role or input. What’s the point of using a comic book as some celebrity’s vehicle if it only drives you back to her?

Yes, I know this sounds like I’m a “hater” (or so that angry comment said), but I’m not above calling out my own heroes for similar funnybook follies. Mr. T has appeared in at least two comic books of his own (excluding Marvel’s The A-Team series), contributing little else than his likeness and his love for his momma. While his comics portray the morals he tried to instill in his other projects, I’m not too na├»ve not to realize that these titles were the graphic equivalent of Mr. T’s famous cereal – just one more thing to thrust him into the spotlight. Well, I pity the fool that doesn’t enjoy him there!

Finally, since some comic book companies pander to Hollywood types for their involvement, the industry has inadvertently become a refuge to those seeking to cement a legacy. The screenwriter for Tim Burton’s Batman, Sam Hamm, penned a few Detective comics after his cinematic success to secure his Caped Crusader cred, and Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale provided the first Batman “No Man’s Land” arc to remind fans that he could write urban plight better than the rest of ‘em. (Come on, like “Alternate Hill Valley” wasn’t your favorite part of the BTTF trilogy, too!) Specifically, though, Richard Donner’s recent “Last Son” story arc in Action Comics strikes me as the most legacy-grabbing move of all, as if the nostalgia kicked up by Bryan Singer’s cinematic homage granted Donner’s direct involvement (pun intended) in one more Superman adventure. “Don’t forget what I did for the Man of Steel,” Donner subversively shouts from his co-writer credit, “because Warner Brothers certainly hasn’t!” (Seriously, Singer’s last shot of Brandon Routh’s Superman soaring over Earth was the film equivalent of an artist’s swipe; if he could’ve signed it “After Donner & Reeve” he should have.) Embittered sentiments aside, Donner’s name on any given Superman comic book is an unquestionable example of corporate synergy – and my question is, in that case, who is the real star of the show. Just look at the latest Justice League hardcover compilations; New York Times bestselling author Brad Metzler’s credit is larger than the title, Justice League of America! Able to leap a forty-year legacy in a single bound, eh?

Unfortunately, comics are to blame for this phenomenon, whether it’s really damaging or not. When the artist became more acclaimed than their subject matter, “celebrity” became a contending concept in the industry. Look at how far comic book contributors have come, from blatant anonymity in the Golden Age (unless they hid their signature on a splash page) to above-title cover credits today. Who wouldn’t want that kind of artistic acclaim, and how easy can one acquire if he is already in the performing arts business. Heck, how many actors are simply acting like they dig comics just to explore that avenue of success? Is publishing-a-comic-book Hollywood’s new starting-a-clothing-line?

Then I saw Raw Studios’ Bad Planet. Yes, Thomas Jane’s name is first in the list of contributors’ credentials, but if I hadn’t read the press releases and known to look for it, Lewis Larosa and Tim Bradstreet’s striking cover and interiors would’ve struck me first. In fact, Jane’s name is completely unimposing, even on ads for the series. Nowhere have I seen, “Thomas Jane from The Punisher fame dabbles in horror comics with Steve Niles!” He does not “star” in the book, nor is his name attached with an ambiguous preposition (because “and” seems more straightforward to me than “with,” thank you very much). Further, I saw him lurking behind the Raw Studios’ booth at Comic Con, and while he might’ve joined a panel, his name was emblazoned on promotional material like the Cages, whose love for the medium apparently deserved a ballroom-sized forum for one-sided discussion. I haven’t seen Jane in the post-Con press that still plagues blogs and local cred-seeking newspapers, either. Perhaps some celebrities do want to write for writing’s sake. Perhaps, no matter how famous, everybody’s inner child still just wants to make comics! Perhaps, as more comics break into film, more Hollywood types will simply remember their first crush on storytelling and finally decide to make the first move. That’s a special effect to which anyone can relate.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Plug: Geek in the City & LiveJournal

Plug: Although the A Comic A Day challenge is over, and my year-end analysis has slowed to a crawl, I am still contributing "Comic of the Week" reviews at Geek in the City, a Portland-based website with awesome insight into all things film, comics, and generally geek. Check out my reviews of the first three World War Hulk issues, and my latest, Batman #667.

While I'm plugging away, I should also mention that I've updated my LiveJournal three times this week, reviewing my latest encounter with a Monkee, Boy Shakira's impact on entertainment, and the unfortunate demise of The Weekly World News.

Stay tuned for more A Comic A Day news and reviews!