Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I am Iron Man. You are Iron Man. We're ALL Iron Man! -- Iron Man DVD Release

After I saw Jon Faverau's teaser for Iron Man at the 2007 Comic Con, I told anyone that would listen to brace themselves for the next big superhero trend, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the first Spider-man film, despite the numerous superhero movies that have been released since. Something about the sheer spirit of that trailer, which managed to capture the glamor of Tony Stark's wealth, the horror of his capture and escape, then the raw recklessness and fun that comes with a brand new toy, seemed so transcendent from its comic book origins that I knew even the cool kids would clamor for an Iron Man backpack in August, an Iron Man costume for Halloween, and an Iron Man action figure for Christmas. So distracted was I by the minutia of that moment that I failed to recognize the bigger picture: Iron Man was poised to kick off one of the most fulfilling summers in geek history.

Today, Iron Man is poised again to launch a similarly fulfilling season of DVD releases -- and, post-Dark Knight fervor, is ready to reclaim its mantle as the best superhero movie ever made. Yes. I'm going on the record. Batman is by far my favorite superhero character, but Iron Man made for a much more enjoyable film. Consider the following accomplishments.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Jon Favereau and Robert Downey, Jr. made Iron Man a household name. Prior to the movie's release in May, Iron Man was at best a B-list superhero, just a supporting fixture in the Marvel Universe. Hear me out, here: like Obama, I'm talking about Main Street -- Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow. Prior to May, ask the average American to name five superheroes, and chances are you'll get the same five answers: Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Spider-man. The Hulk and Aquaman are possible runners-up, as all seven of these characters have appeared in various broadcast incarnations. (Remember, Aquaman was a headliner in Super Friends, and I think his name has a certain mainstream resonance people fondly remember.) But Iron Man? No, that shortlived '90s cartoon doesn't count, not in the shadow of the more tenacious X-Men series. The Armored Avenger was little more than a hood ornament in the grand scheme of America's general consensus about superheroes.

Now? Well, I'm no Nostradamus, but kids are wearing Iron Man backpacks. Kids are buying Iron Man Halloween costumes. And I reckon come Christmas those Iron Man action figures are going to fly off of Target toy aisles all over again. If the film's appeal was just its special effects, I wouldn't deem it worth much further analysis -- besides, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull cornered the market for special effects for special effects' sake this summer. No, on a much more challenging level, Tony Stark gave America a Bruce Wayne it can believe in. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is Paris Hilton, definitely a compelling creature, but a celebrity by blood and wealth only. Without his training and "wonderful toys," Wayne is dismissive TMZ fodder. On the other hand, Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark has earned his arrogance and fame through his brilliance and ingenuity. True, the son of a successful corporate mongul, but Favereau gives us Ultimate Bill Gates in Stark, or Richard Branson sans the creepy grin. Stark is all business, but we'd love to play at being him.

Also, unlike DC's conscious disconnect from the real world, the Marvel mentality has attempted to convince its audience that their world is ours, too. Spider-man swings through the widely recognized New York skyline, in contrast to the ambiguous (and ambitious) Metropolis or Gotham City. Is any awkward teenager just a radioactive spider bite away from saving the day? On a much more grim level, is any billionaire industrialist just a tragic trip to Afghanistan away from creating the most interactive weapon ever invented? Yes, while Spidey gave us New York, and Daredevil Hell's Kitchen, Iron Man briefly but poignantly gives us the Middle freakin' East, for once making the audience subconsciously wish that the terrors of the superhero world weren't so much like ours. Now, Heath Ledger's Joker was truly frightening . . . but how far are we from the the Clown Prince of Crime compared to the Mandarin's Ten Rings terrorist circle?

Finally, Iron Man has begun to build an entire universe, effectively offering the first beloved crossover between his movie and the almost-as-awesome Incredible Hulk a month later. "The Avengers Initiative?" Please. You'd think Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was working an erotic phone service, the way the audience geek-gasmed during that post-credits scene at the first midnight showing, then again when Stark joins Colonel Ross at the end of Hulk. Now, some superhero flicks have dared to reference their broader contexts before; Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne mentions Metropolis in Batman Forever, and J. Jonah Jameson discounts Dr. Strange as a possible alias for Doc Ock because it's "already taken," but this . . . An Avengers film has been promoted from the stuff of Internet rumor to now eagerly anticipated reality. Remember when Marvel's properties were so widespread among film distributors that such a crossover was deemed impossible? DC's stable has always been under the Warner Brothers umbrella, and the best they've given us in a defunct Batman vs. Superman billboard in I Am Legend. But I digress.

(To be fair, DC has certainly cornered the TV market, from Batman: The Animated Series to Smallville. Still, who doesn't take our now weekly offerings of a young Superman for granted, particularly in the shadow of feature film hype? How many fans prefer that live action Justice League to the unlimited animated incarnation of yesteryear? That's another entry altogether!)

From a B-list cartoon character to a movie franchise's founding father, Iron Man certainly has come a long way this year. The question is, will he take the relatively shorter trip from the sales rack to your DVD collection? Heck, some special editions come with an Iron Man mask, asserting that devilish maxim applicable to all men's men like Tony Stark: the guys want to be him, and the girls want to be with him. Like the origin of Iron Man itself, I guess this DVD set proves that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chasing Obama: Savage Dragon #137

I'm not Jewish, but I figure today, Rosh Hashana, is as good a day as any to give this thing a fresh, new start. If you've bookmarked to RSS'ed A Comic A Day, thank you, and you don't need me to remind you that, a few years, I decided to read and review a comic book from a different title every day for a year. Despite a few challenges that included a brief lack of Internet connectivity, the project went really well. Then, when I decided to do it again . . . not so much. Sure, I had more reliable access to the Internet, but a flurry of self-aggravated personal obstacles prevented the same level of commitment I had exhibited the previous year. I had touted it in this blog's bannerhead from the beginning; if you're a comic book geek like me, you probably read at least a comic a day already, either nostalgically from your long-boxed collection or obsessively from your weekly pull-list (and, TMI alert, most likely on the toilet -- Am I right?), but to post a thoughtful review of these issues just as frequently? "It's not as easy as it sounds."

Not if you have a life, anyway.

So, what's a fledgling blogger to do? Well, I've decided to combine the two phenomena: the struggle of daily distraction with the persistence of passion for comics. In other words, A Comic A Day is often going to focus less on an individual comic book issue and more on a specific personal issue directly affected by comics; further, though my life has become plagued by my beloved graphic medium (more on that in posts to come), these entries may come as rapidly as several times daily to as inconsistently as once every few weeks (you know, like a real blog), depending on the tenacity of comics in pop culture. Theoretically, such a direction could easily dictate daily dedication, since I usually have my comic book goggles on anyway, but considering the variables of everyday life, it also allows for opportunities to retrospect in case I voluntarily or otherwise miss any given day. While the premise seems shamelessly introspective and self-serving, my hope is that my entries will reflect comics' influence on Every Geek, that they will illicit an "Oh, yeah, that has been happening on the fringe of my life" kind of response.

If not, perhaps somebody will finally comment on how crazy I really am.

Consider this, my first topic, my recent quest to acquire the Barrack Obama variant cover of Savage Dragon #137. (An appropriate beginning to this latest incarnation of A Comic A Day, as I've thoroughly documented how Erik Larsen is inadvertently responsible for my collecting comics in the first place.) I heard of Dragon's endorsement of Barrak Obama a few weeks before the issue's release; as Larsen undoubtedly intended, his comic's connection to current events made for fantastic headline fodder, so one needn't frequent the standard industry news sources like Comic Book Resources to hear about it. So, I anticipated the issue as one might await another Avengers/JLA team-up (or, to a lesser extent, another Star Trek/X-Men team-up); see, just like the renewed vision for this blog, Larsen had managed a comic book life/real life crossover, a rare phenomenon in an otherwise uber-insulated medium. I couldn't wait to see how he'd pull it off.

Here's the problem. Wednesday is generally the busiest day of my work week, so if I really want to hit the comics shop, I either have to manipulate my schedule accordingly or visit a store closer to the one I favorably frequent, which, as fellow collectors know, is like asking a vegetarian to eat at McDonald's over their preferred salad bar because of the convenience of a few miles. I get the regulars' discount at Tustin's Comics, Toons, 'n Toys, okay? (Yes, it's the same discount any customer might get on new releases, but Obama would be the first to tell you, these are difficult times! Now get off my back and back on topic, already!) So, I waited until Thursday to pick up Savage Dragon #137. I can hear those fellow collectors collectively booing even as I type that. Yes, the few Obama'ed editions they had received were looooong gone.

Now, I could've picked up the regular cover edition of the issue, but I wanted the Obama cover for nostalgic value. According to Image Comics' website, a second printing was already scheduled for the following week, so I decided to wait. After half a summer, what was another seven days? Of course, that week, I didn't get to the shop until Sunday. I didn't think a second printing would be as coveted, and, even if it was, that my retailer would over-ordered to compensate. Heck, I'm still finding Savage Dragon #120, featuring Bush and Kerry from the '04 election, in twenty-five cent bins . . . and I guess shop owners learned their lesson. My store didn't even order that second printing.

So I decided I had to do what any good voter would do to support his candidate. I started to work the phones. I called every comic book shop in Orange County, and a few in the Los Angeles area. Of the dozen or so stores that I contacted, I found one first printing copy -- marked up to $20. Nostalgia shouldn't cost that much. I finally opted for the standard cover.

Now, I thoroughly enjoyed Savage Dragon #137, and for an issue that received an unusual amount of attention from the mainstream press, Larsen was wise to exploit his platform to push as many comics as possible. The first pages are surprisingly domestic, as Dragon deals with his daughter's insubordination in school, then transitions into an interesting Superman allegory that contributes to the issue's overall climax. The balance between character development and superhero action would've been approachable enough, but Larsen effectively pitches both Mike Allred's Madman and The Amazing Joy Buzzards, as well, to the unsuspecting general audience that picked up the issue for its political relevance or possible collectibility. (The Popgun mention in his letters column was courtesy borrowed colorist Dylan McCrae, whose vibrant style totally suits Larsen's proud superhero camp. Hope he sticks around.) Those looking for an Obama cameo will be disappointed, though, as the Senator only appears on that coveted cover and in mention when a press-hounded Dragon endorses him for President.

Therein lies the issue's real viability, anyway. The question that will haunt Savage Dragon #137 for years to come is whether or not Dragon's endorsement implies Larsen's, and whether or not a creator's politics should affect the content of his work. My opinion? Please. DC and Marvel crossed that line decades ago every time Superman or Captain America punched out Hitler; their stand against the Nazis simply wasn't as controversial or potentially divisive as today's bipartisan political climate. (In fact, Dragon fights Hitler's brain this very issue! Er, it's a long story.) The political climate has influenced artistic trends for years; the earliest example I can cite offhand is Hamlet, specifically the Prince's use of theater to expose his royal uncle's treachery. If audiences accepted this motif, then the trend couldn't have been too uncommon. Now, I'm not saying that Savage Dragon is Shakespeare, but the persistence of the art-as-soapbox phenomenon is obviously as timeless.

Consider when Dragon ran for President in 2004; the political commentary was as third person as much as Dragon was a third party, so no one questioned Larsen's affiliation then, but now he's picking a side, and I'm intrigued by the readers that would denounce his title because of it. Never mind their political affiliation; even more liberal readers might believe that such political opinion has no place in comics. Where were they when Dragon proclaimed his atheism, despite meeting God that one time? (That's another long story.) Where were they during any one of several issues depicting Dragon's way with the ladies? Politics are a no-go, but religion and sex are bias-free entertainment? You can't say you don't like M&M's because you just hate the green ones, you know what I mean?

Some might comment that this life-imitates-art is the result of a creator-owned property. DC has attempted to tackle similar political issues, first when Lex Luthor ran for President and now in a miniseries with fictional bipartisan candidates, but the disconnect from reality makes these efforts safe, and consequently harmless. Larsen doesn't suffer from the sanctity of a corporate filter, but is his opinion really that important anyway? Has anyone opted for Obama because Dragon told them so? Because Martin Sheen told them so? Because Oprah . . . ah, I won't go there.

Even Dragon wouldn't condone his opinion as an end-all for anyone -- but I'm not putting words in Dragon's mouth. That's Erik Larsen's job, and this month, he did it well, dropping a stone in the proverbial comics pond and making waves out in the real world. While Savage Dragon #137 states a political opinion, I think its real message is that we should all make a decision before the time comes to cast your vote. When an alternate cover edition sells out, you have to go with the standard, but when it comes to electing the President of the United States, the choice is solely yours.

Savage Dragon #137, August 2008, Image Comics, by Erik Larsen, with letterer Tom Orzechowski, and colorist Dylan McCrae.