Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

My fear for the new season of Community . . .

October 29, 2012

. . . is not that it won’t be as good, but rather that it will be. Which sounds weird, because I love Community and will be sad and will miss it if it returns and isn’t the same. But at the same time, if the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, can be fired for being too difficult for the studio/network to work with and for being a self-described asshole and crazy person, and a team of showrunners can be hired to replace him and the difference is minimal, then what does that say for the assholes and crazy people of the world?

The characters of Community are great because they are so messed up, and the show is great because it is so messed up, and they are messed up because they are the product of a specific mind, vision and personal experience, which are themselves probably messed up. What’s left for the world’s prickly, maladjusted people if that can be replicated by professionals who play well with others and don’t appear to be crazy?

I guess this is just another of my illusions about the world falling down (and I’m only just recovering from the realization when I started working in an editorial department that editors drinking whiskey out of their desks all day seems to only be a thing in movies from the 1940s and ’50s—imagine my disappointment). A part of me really wants to think that the entertainment I love could only come from the damaged people that make it, and I do seem to gravitate toward entertainment created by people who aren’t shy about sharing their damage. I know that this isn’t entirely true, since I’ve worked with plenty of professional, seemingly well adjusted writers and artists in my job as a comics editor. But if Community comes back and still feels like Community, that would shake my understanding of the world a little bit, just like how drunk I’m not at work every day shook it (I hasten to add that this is not the entire reason I became an editor).

No one I’ve explained this to has been sympathetic, largely because this is the complaint of a crazy person, albeit one without any particular creative talent. I should want the show I love to stay good. I want the best for the cast and everyone else who’s still with the show, since they’ve brought me so much entertainment and pleasure. Dan Harmon has other projects starting up (and his uproariously funny podcast) and doesn’t particularly need my loyalty in this respect. But I still believe that even more than it is anyone else’s, Community is his show and a product of the particular, unique way in which he is crazy—I understand that it’s perfectly likely that the new showrunners are equally crazy, but not in the same way, and apparently in a more network/studio–pleasing way—and as sad as it would be if the show was no longer as good without that particular crazy, it would just be disturbing if it was.

My God, I am placing so much more emotional energy and anxiety into the return of a TV show, whenever it comes back, than is remotely healthy. Once again, Internet, family, loved ones, people who are worried that I might be drinking at work: I’m sorry.

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The Bagdad’s Zombie Hordes and the Untimely Death of Hepcats – My Week in Comics December 5–11

December 19, 2010

This week: How a beered-up crowd reacts to The Walking Dead, which anthropomorphic comic of the ’90s needs to make a comeback, and What I Read, complete with sentimental essay on the Vision For Space Exploration program.


SO MANY BEARDS AND TRENCH COATS: THE WALKING DEAD FINALE AT THE BAGDAD

Spoiler alert: With the exception of the last sentence, the first five paragraphs below are spoiler-free, a report on the experience of watching The Walking Dead’s season finale in a crowded theater. After that, proceed with caution if you don’t want to know what happens.


IS THIS A PORTLAND THING? I don’t know if they do this in other cities, but Portland is full of cheap, second-run movie theaters that serve food and beer, the revenue from which allows them to show a variety of things other than movies on their screens for free: Trail Blazers games, college football, the Oscars, that sort of thing, as well as TV series that they think will bring in thirsty customers every week, which has previously included Battlestar Galactica.

This year, McMenamins’ Bagdad Theater showed every episode of AMC’s Walking Dead adaptation, and I meant each week to catch an episode and see what the experience of watching a hit TV show with a repeat audience was like, but it never quite worked out. The combination of a 10PM show and the late-night bus schedule would have meant getting home after midnight, which never seemed like a great idea on a Sunday night. Apparently a lot of people disagreed with me, because when I finally made it for the season finale, the hosts asked who had made it every week and a good-sized cheer went up. An even bigger cheer accompanied the announcement that all 13 episodes of the next season would also screen at the theater.

As might be expected of a late-night audience at a pub theater, there were also lots of cheers every time anyone on screen took a drink, which happens a lot in the finale. An ad for the Serenity Lane alcohol and drug treatment center also got a big ovation, though commercials in general received jeers. It’s definitely a very different experience from watching a show at home. The show generally benefited from the big-screen treatment and looked surprisingly clear, though it wasn’t framed quite right, a little of the top and bottom of the image trimmed off. TV shows seem to have become more cinematic in style, perhaps because larger TV setups are more common, but there is still a greater reliance on closeups, which doesn’t play quite as well on a cinema screen.

The theater was packed, with many patrons of the beard and trench coat variety. Since it was the first time I’d gone, I don’t know if the line was comparable to previous shows or if it was filled out with other people like me figuring this is their last chance. One guy ahead of me said that he’d come later on previous weeks and seen less of a line. In any case, by the time the doors opened at 9PM, the line stretched the length of the block and had begun to wrap around the opposite side. I had no trouble finding a seat, having come alone, but by 10 they were pretty scarce.

The biggest cheer of the evening naturally came when the show started, but it quieted down pretty quickly, with the crowd immediately sucked in. Seeing how The Walking Dead plays to an audience, it’s not surprising how successful it’s been. It commanded attention, though the audience, there for a good time, reacted pretty strongly to everything that went on. I’m not sure if it was the most comedic episode to date, or if a laughing audience just made it seem that way. Certainly the writers and actors made the most of how unaccustomed the characters are to the relative luxury of the CDC bunker they find themselves in.

The bulk of the episode was underwhelming, in spite of the nice moments adjusting to the bunker allowed. While the series started very strongly with an atmospheric first two episodes that extracted horror from an achingly slow pace and strong central mission of “find the family,” the remainder of the series has depended on poorly-defined characters that don’t really make sense together and deeply inorganic plotting, with much of what’s happened a transparent setup either for lengthy exposition or artificial peril.

The finale is the most guilty of the season of that latter complaint, comprised of a series of contrivances to further either explanation or unearned tension. While the countdown to the bunker losing power that drives the second half of the episode is a nice dramatic device, it makes no real sense. The notion of a unalterable time at which power will run out contradicts an earlier scene in which Dr. Jenner, the last CDC holdout in the bunker, requests that everyone conserve energy. Similarly, Jenner justifies locking Rick and the rest of the cast in the computer room with him by saying that they’re locked into the building anyway, so it doesn’t matter, meaning of course that there is also no reason for him to do so, except to allow for a few minutes of moral argument that exceeds the episode writer’s grasp, and to shorten the window of escape to a few minutes. That escape is the best thing the episode has going for it, with a cute reversal of the usual zombie visual—instead of the dead banging on windows to get in, the living are banging on windows to get out—but is ultimately undercut by another plot convenience, in which a character forgets she has a hand grenade capable of breaking the windows until it is most dramatic for her to remember.

The season did, however, end on a good note, with the crew piling into cars and driving back into the infested wilds, where they now understand they will spend the rest of their probably short lives. It’s the best mission statement the show has provided so far, and bodes well for a second season less tied down by temporary goals and more invested in its characters resigning themselves to their new lives. I can’t say how long that second season will hold my interest, but the shakeup in the writing staff, widely reported online and addressed by the event hosts at the beginning of the evening, is promising so long as showrunner Frank Darabont takes a firmer hand in enforcing the excellent tone and drive he injected the series premiere with (though my interest in the comics series did eventually flag, so we’ll see). My experience at the Bagdad, with its blissed-out crowd that almost hid the leaden drama of the finale, convinced me that I should try to catch at least a few episodes there, though the half-hour wait for the bus in the below-freezing Oregon December has me equally confident that I won’t be doing it too often.

BRING BACK HEPCATS!

  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 1: The Collegiate Hepcats
  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 2: Snowblind Part One by Martin Wagner

I’M BOTH new to Hepcats and not. Until recently I hadn’t thought about the series in years and hadn’t read any but the first issue of the comic-book series, but my first exposure was in high school, when I discovered The Collegiate Hepcats at the height of my love for comic strips. At the time, I aspired to be a comic-strip artist when I grew up, and even though I wasn’t familiar with Martin Wagner, the promise of seeing the kind of work a comics artist had done in college was something I couldn’t pass up. My memory is of reading it voraciously and then not really thinking about it again, though it did deepen my desire to draw my comics, and on a recent reread I was surprised by how much I remembered, so the characters must have dug deeper into my brain than I realized at the time.

The strip is a surprisingly comfortable mix of funny-animal aesthetics and Doonesbury/Bloom County-style humor. True, Bloom County is a funny-animal strip, but it features both animal characters and human characters, whereas Hepcats stars characters meant to be human, all of whom have animal heads. Actually, Bloom Country and Hepcats share a genesis at the University of Texas at Austen’s Daily Texan, where Shannon Wheeler and Chris Ware also had work published. (I was familiar with Wheeler and Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed at the time, though I don’t think I’d yet heard of Ware.) While, by Wagner’s own admission, blatantly derivative of Doonesbury and Bloom County in style, Hepcats has its own cast of relatable characters and is visually accomplished for the age of its author, with a mix of topical UT humor and relationship soap opera, as well as a somewhat inexplicable second cast in rural Texas who never interacted with the main college cast. Though some amusing stories came out of those characters, they didn’t make the transition to the comic-book version. Wagner at times over-relies on metatextual humor to gloss over plot problems, but the strip is generally quite funny and its characters grow on the reader.

(When I eventually went to college, at the University of Southern California, I studied film, but still nursed a fantasy of drawing comic strips and so put together five weeks worth of comics to submit to The Daily Trojan. The editor I spoke with did me what in retrospect turns out to have been an enormous favor: without looking at the material, she told me that the Trojan didn’t run comic strips. She was wrong; when I put out the word online asking whether college comics were a thing of the past, I was informed that the Trojan had run daily comics only a few semesters previous. As it turns out, the staff is elected every semester and therefore has no institutional memory. Before I left, she looked down at the packet in my hand and saw the first strip. “It looks really good,” she said. “Sorry.” Over the following years, my presence in the Trojan was limited to an interview about a charitable program I administered in my dorm building and a letter to the editor during the 2004 election, and given everything that’s happened to newspapers since, I thank that editor.)

Anyway, Hepcats and I didn’t really cross paths for the next dozen years. I was aware of the comic-book continuation, which ran 12 issues and got a good deal of press, including mentions in Wizard magazine in the mid-’90s (which would have been my actual first awareness of it), rare for a self-published series, and knew that there was a collection of the more serious later material, but it wasn’t until Thanksgiving this year, when a comics-loving friend was home from CalArts for the break and wanted to visit some comics stores, that I actually noticed that collection, the Snowblind Part One hardcover.

Snowblind is excellent. Previously confined to the four-panel format, Wagner clearly feels liberated by the room provided by full-page comics. His storytelling isn’t always clear when there’s a lot of movement, though it is improved from the first issue, reprinted in The Collegiate Hepcats, but his detailed crosshatching benefits from having more space, and he makes great use of contrast between heavily detailed pages and others in which the book’s narrator Erica appears against vast white backgrounds. The story is, animal heads aside, straight drama about regular people with no genre elements and not starring misanthropic man-children, making it still a rare specimen in non-autobiographical American comics.

Wagner also proves deft at adapting his previously comedic characters into a dramatic setting while maintaining their personalities. There’s no noticeable change in Joey, Gunther, and Arnie, who are still somewhat goofy, and they react as expected to the considerably less silly events around them, but also display an ability to take things more seriously only hinted at in their comic-strip iterations. Erica is the most changed, but it feels a natural reaction to what goes on in the book, as her past, never addressed in the strip even as we met the others’ families, catches up with her. Wagner writes the four main characters believably, and shows tremendous sensitivity as he slowly unfolds what is happening to Erica without ever quite getting into great detail. That is promised for the next volume.

Except the next volume never happened. This is what I didn’t realize as I stayed only vaguely aware of the continuation of Hepcats: while I occasionally saw mention of Snowblind Part One, I never saw similar evidence of Snowblind Part Two. The first book covers the series only up through issue #10, so there are two more out there for me to find, but the story doesn’t actually conclude—despite relaunching the series at Antarctic Press, Wagner was discouraged by sales and after the initial 12 issues were reprinted never completed the 13th. Wagner has spent much of his time since working in film and hosting the Austen program The Atheist Experience, though he has maintained that Snowblind will be completed as a webcomic, most recently stating in November that there may be “some news to relate soon.” While no one can begrudge him prioritizing paying work in the current economy, I hope that really does come to pass, because I want to see the completion of this story.

True, I haven’t waited for it the way many of Wagner’s fans have, but Hepcats got me while I was young, and my reread of The Collegiate Hepcats before getting into Snowblind proved to me how much it had gotten under my skin. These characters mean something to me, which is the most one can ask from the creator of serial fiction, and I hope Wagner eventually finds the time and financial freedom to bring closure to the story he’s put into his fans’ heads. Furthermore, the serialized comics world needs more of the kind of unadorned human drama (with animal heads) that made Hepcats unique then and now. So, as patiently as I can say it: more Hepcats!

READ THIS WEEK 12/5–12/11:

  • 10 by Keith Giffen & Andy Kuhn
  • Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant
    Probably the best superhero story of the decade. I didn’t buy the standard-sized collections of this material, because an Absolute edition was a foregone conclusion, and now that it’s here I’m so glad I waited. Morrison and Quitely did a superb job of creating single-issue tales that built into a single story, and reading them close together makes them all the richer. The main attraction, though, is of course the size, and Quitely displays a truly rare quality in his work, somehow managing to create an overall aesthetic of spareness while still packing frames with subtle detail. The larger size made so many things clearer—bits of text here, small actions there—while the simple fact that I was reading the material for the third or fourth time made Morrison’s equally intricate work more apparent (for instance, the method of Luthor’s escape from prison in issue #11 is set up in issue #5). Despite playing at that scale, not many superhero comics actually earn the term “majestic,” but All-Star Superman easily makes it over the bar, and the Absolute edition leaves it miles below.
  • Adventure Comics #520 by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe, Mario Alquiza, Jeff Lemire, Mahmoud Asrar & John Dell
  • The Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaohs by Hergé
    Wow, these are breathless little stories. The story logic is strained, there’s no variation in pacing, and character motivations are non-existent, but I understand that is balanced out by the breathing room provided to the wonderful artwork. Unfortunately, the recent edition that I read this story in is reprinted very small, so I didn’t get the effect.
  • Batman Beyond #5 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
  • Doom Patrol #17 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
  • Gantz vol. 14 by Hiroya Oku
  • The Question vol. 6: Peacemaker by Dennis O’Neil, Deny Cowan & Malcolm Jones III
    A really fascinating end to O’Neil and Cowan’s run. I’ve heard this talked about in terms of its reinvention of the Question character, its social relevance, allusions to Eastern philosophy, and recommended reading lists in the letters columns (sadly not reprinted in these volumes), but I don’t recall hearing much about how it documents the deterioration and collapse of a city in more or less real time. This is what they call “gritty urban drama,” and barely fits in the superhero genre, with the title character having two identities, sure, but the gradation between the two is so slight by the end as to be nearly invisible. The Question is also pretty ineffectual by this point, not even a Band-Aid on a city that is fundamentally broken—with a dozen cops and no doctors left, it’s a postapocalyptic scenario without an apocalypse—while his love interest who has been elected mayor takes over as protagonist. I’m hard-pressed to think of another series that ends with the costumed main character admitting defeat and escaping the city while his girlfriend stays to fight the fight. Dated and over-the-top in places, sure, but gripping and unlike any other superhero comic I’ve ever read.
  • Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon & Chris Samnee
  • Superboy #1–#2 by Jeff Lemire & Pier Gallo
    Sweet Tooth #16 by Jeff Lemire

    Still enjoying Sweet Tooth every month. Superboy has promise, but Lemire still seems to be finding his feet with hero books, falling back on convention, so the writing isn’t as strong. Poison Ivy has no real motivation for her presence in #2, and when Superboy referrs to Smallville as “her,” it sticks out because it feels like a signpost for a level of emotional connection to the place that has yet to be earned by anything he’s done or how the town has been depicted so far in these two issues—it’s certainly not James Robinson’s Opal City. Superboy’s sidekick combining Lex Luthor with Jimmy Olson is promising, though, and his parasite frogs were cool, and a nice payoff of the “training frogs” bit from #1.
  • Temporary #1–#3 by Damon Hurd & Rick Smith
    Discovered these in a quarter bin. Issues #2 and #3 are okay, hurt by a clichéd portrayal of Multiple Personality Disorder, but issue #1 is a brilliant piece of storytelling, sending the titular temp worker into a mental hospital for a day’s worth of filing, where a series of miscommunications land her in a fake office in which patients are being experimented on. Sent to “work” each day, the patients play out a sadistic version of office work, which in its bizarre demands and capricious inequities resembles nothing so much as a regular workplace. The system is so insane that it cannot recognize a sane person, yet so familiar that the sane cannot recognize it as insane. The artwork looks similar to a lot of other thick-lined, cartoony books, but it’s confident enough work and doesn’t betray the unbalanced nature of any of the characters, while making their instability believable once the story makes it clear. Both writing and art keep the main character a cypher, appropriate to her role as observer, though we learn just enough about her on the last page that the subsequent opening up of her personality in later issues feels natural. It’s the freaky mirror of the real world the first issue reveals that is the real accomplishment, though.
  • Thor: The Mighty Avenger vol. 1 by Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee & Matthew Wilson
    The many people singing this series’ praises are not wrong. Having never read a Thor comic before, this was completely accessible and thoroughly entertaining. That the story should be simple yet engaging is no surprise, as I’m a fan of Langridge’s Muppet Show Comic, and Chris Samnee somehow makes innocence and power sit side-by-side like they were natural complements, working in perfect tandem with colorist Wilson to create images that look more detailed than they actually are, thanks to the skillful application of a line here, a color hold there. Some panels feature characters that are little more than stick figures, but posed just so, so that their gestures are clear, and you even fool yourself into thinking that you know what their facial expressions are. A perfect little comic that makes all-ages superheroing look easy. I understand there will be one more trade, one fewer than originally planned; hopefully they can wrap things up okay in time.

     The two old Journey Into Mystery reprints are the first I’ve ever read of the original Thor comics stories, and they are very, very different, making me curious how a man given the power of Thor by picking up a walking stick has evolved into the modern version, a character who is Thor, cast out of Asgard. Also, he has a “T” on his belt, which is hilarious. It reminds me that the original Galactus had a big “G” on his chest. Did most Marvel characters used to have their initials on their clothes? Is Captain America the only one that never gave it up (and why him? No one really thinks of America when they see the letter “A”—hell, “A” is the only one we leave off the acronym when we say U.S.)?

     Only problem I had was the pricing at $15, $3 more than the combined price of the issues. I get why a marginally profitable comic to begin with isn’t bargain priced, but at least match the price of the issues, yeah?

  • Tiny Titans/Little Archie and His Pals #3 by Art Baltazar and Franco
    Archie runs amuck in the Batcave! And Batman has a phone that allows him to call up the Joker! He wants to get rid of Archie, who is clearly not Robin, despite the “R” on his shirt. Batman explains, “I’m a detective, y’know. I can tell.” Plus, other stuff happens. I love the regular Tiny Titans, but adding the Little Archie cast has shaken things up to an extra degree, making this miniseries even more fun.
  • Twin Spica vol. 4 by Kou Yaginuma
    President George W. Bush and I agree on precious little, but I was excited by his Vision for Space Exploration program, announced in 2004, which proposed establishing the Constellation shuttle and a greater human presence on the moon, as a stepping stone to wider exploration of the solar system. It was by far the most forward-looking program of his presidency, though even at the time it was criticized for taking money from other programs, and President Obama’s next proposed budget, while actually increasing NASA’s budget over the next five years, calls for Constellation to be cut and more space technology to be outsourced to private industry.

     In that context, Twin Spica is not only a delightful read, but a timely one, too. Published in 2003, shortly before President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration program, it’s about the pull of space despite the presence of more immediate, earthly concerns. The fourth volume includes the first instance we’ve seen of protest against the resurgent Japanese space program, as picketers declare it both dangerous and a waste of taxpayer money. That gives main character Asumi pause, as she’s never before considered the expense of the program and how else the money might be spent, and the moment hangs over the rest of the volume. But it is ultimately overcome by the intense need that humanity feels for space, and for learning.

     At a glance, the space program doesn’t seem like the best use of money in bad economic times, but the expansion of human knowledge is ennobling, and as we learn more about the universe, we become a better people. Our lives have been changed by countless discoveries from the space program, even if we ourselves will never visit space, and the simple fact of a photo of the Earth from space changed the way we saw ourselves and became an instant symbol for the peace movement. The withdrawal from space has been devastating to America’s self esteem, to the point that it’s hard to imagine any great goal being tackled with the courage and ambition that the race for the moon inspired, and the proposed cutting of the Constellation program feels like just one more admission that this country no longer reaches for greatness, though I take some comfort in NASA’s announcement that it will plan further out in response, and that those plans involve manned missions to Mars.

     Twin Spica is obviously not about the plight of the United States in 2010, but Japan is no stranger to issues of national self esteem, and the balance of dealing with the problems right in front of us and reaching for the stars is universal. Here, it is charmingly embodied by Asumi, one of the students at a high school focusing on space science, who is incredibly small for her age, but who has nurtured dreams of space travel her whole life. The art is beautiful, with round, expressive characters, and a clean depiction of technology, realistic-looking but without a distracting fetishism for detail. The stories are warm and thoughtful, with a leisurely pace and the easy mix of science and magical realism that manga seems to excel at. It is a pleasure to read and, as the previous paragraphs have demonstrated, inspires further thought on its themes well after it’s been put down. I think I said this before, but this series reminds me why I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.

Photo of Bagdad Theater © McMenamins, I guess. It was on their website. Images of Hepcats © Martin Wagner. Images of Temporary © Damon Hurd and Rick Smith

Another Garry Trudeau interview

December 8, 2010

The same day I was posting about Garry Trudeau appearing on On the Media, he was interviewed on The Colbert Report. It’s naturally not as thorough, but Trudeau and Colbert have plenty of funny interplay, and they got into a few details I didn’t know.

Video at Colbert Nation.

Trash and the Littlest Curmudgeon – My Week in Comics September 26–October 2

October 4, 2010

This week: If TV and movies are embracing superheroes, maybe comics can let them go; whatever happened to “guilty pleasures”; and what I read.


SUPERHEROES DON’T NEED COMICS ANYMORE

NBC’s Heroes isn’t coming back, and CW’s Smallville is in its final season, but superheroes are nonetheless becoming a primetime staple, as ABC is keeping the genre going with its new family superhero drama No Ordinary Family, which debuted Tuesday. I had no particular interest in the series, but I’m trying to live in the future like everyone else, so when iTunes offered several of this season’s pilots as free downloads, it seemed like the most appealing option to experiment with watching shows on my iPod Touch. I gave it a shot on the bus today, holding the iPod sideways and staring into my lap instead of reading on my way to and from work (as it turns out, my roundtrip commute is exactly the length of an hourlong network show, minus commercials).

While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about all the different media that superheroes show up in these days and wondering if the old argument that the genre dominates comics because comics does superheroes better than any other media could finally be put to rest. Which is not to say that No Ordinary Family is better than any superhero comic out there—it’s not—but what I saw when I watched the show made it clear that there’s no longer any reason why television can’t do superheroes as well or better than comics does.

The primary reason that comics have been touted as the ideal medium for superheroes is the “unlimited special effects budget” available to comics, but computer effects have reached the point where an unlimited budget is no longer necessary to create credible superhero action. The level of digital effects now available to network television shows easily matches that of midbudget movies of ten years ago, while the fact that superheroes have made it to network primetime means that the budgets available to the shows is higher than ever before. It doesn’t hurt that the trend even within superhero comics has been away from brightly colored costumes and toward a more lo-fi, “realistic” depiction of superheroics, which is much more camera-friendly.

And that’s just television. In movies, superhero blockbusters are a familiar part of the summer schedule—next year will see The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters—and I suspect that superheroes will become a bigger and bigger presence in videogames, which may prove to be the true ideal home of the genre. After all, the second most popular iteration of Batman after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is Rocksteady Studios’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Even in my limited videogame-playing experience, webslinging in the Spider-Man games I’ve tried out has been more fun than all but a handful of Spider-Man comics.

I certainly don’t expect the superhero genre to loosen its death grip on comics anytime soon, and I doubt that this development will help that happen much faster, but it is one less argument for the legitimacy of that death grip, and that’s good news as far as I’m concerned. No doubt, the recent success of superheroes in movies, TV and videogames have proven that the public at large has a taste for the genre, but it’s just as clear from the reporting of potential superhero overexposure that a general audience prefers it understand its place as one genre among many.

As for the quality of No Ordinary Family itself, it’s always hard to say from a pilot. In my experience, very few pilots truly represent the flavor of a show, and not many are much good on their own. The last pilot I remember that on subsequent viewings felt like just another episode of the series was The West Wing, and that was over ten years ago. Still, some elements of No Ordinary Family and the ways that it differs from a comic book treatment of superheroes are apparent right away. Certainly there are comic book connections, such as Mark Guggenheim’s role as producer, and nods to comics, like the presence of “the Simonson Building,” but the structure and characterization owe considerably more to television conventions.

The show opens with Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis, best known for starring in The Shield, but with a comics connection courtesy of the Fantastic Four movies, in which he played the Thing) speaking directly to the camera, his wife Stephanie (Julie Benz) soon joining in the narration. At episode’s end it is revealed that they are speaking to a therapist, a common framing device. Their two performances are strong, but the cast doesn’t feel like a family yet.

The pilot is largely given over to the plane crash which gives them their powers and their subsequent discovery of their various abilities. The show is presented as a family drama, but the point-of-view character is clearly Jim, as we spend most of the episode with him, and he is the one who has a real problem, feeling stuck in a rut and unable to connect with Stephanie, who is an incredibly busy scientist of some kind. We’re told in dialogue a few times that Stephanie also feels pressure, with a life too full and not enough time for her family, but she seems happy when we actually see her at work and doesn’t give any real indication of dissatisfaction. Jim, meanwhile, plays homemaker and apparently keeps his own schedule as a not-very-busy police sketch artist. It’s his quiet desperation that our attention is drawn to.

Once everyone gets their powers, it’s a reminder that, while superhero comics may not be the most progressive outlet for gender politics, they still have it over mainstream TV, which generally shows little more imagination that to reinforce prevailing societal roles, in this case the traditional nuclear family. Each character’s powers are gendered along stereotypical lines: Jim’s strength and toughness allow him to be a better protector, while Stephanie’s speed allows her to balance her career with the homemaking role that Jim previously filled. Meanwhile, their son JJ (Jimmy Bennet) develops cognitive abilities that make him good at math, and their daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) discovers that she can read minds, making her aware of the feelings of those around her. Again, this being a pilot, there’s no way of knowing if the writers will eventually play these characters against type, but on the basis of this episode, it’s painfully paint-by-numbers.

Jim’s DA buddy George (Romany Malco) and Stephanie’s lab tech Katie (Autumn Reeser), have a bit more potential. They haven’t been given much yet, but as the regular people that Jim and Stephanie confide in and who play sidekick to different extents, they help keep the whole thing from getting too serious, and Katie has the funniest line of the episode in her introductory scene. The introduction of a powered villain in the first episode is a mixed bag, since it opens up the world beyond the main characters, but the mystery established in the last scene could easily hamper the series’ growth. Overall, the pilot is not a disaster, but it will need to be much more surprising and much less conventional to have any chance of being more than an interchangeable family soap with a gimmick.

WHITHER GUILTY PLEASURES?

SPEAKING OF TRASHY ENTERTAINMENT, reading this defense of M.O.D.O.K. and general comics whimsy on npr.org, I was reminded of something I’ve noticed in recent years. Kudos to NPR for praising silliness, because while this is purely anecdotal, and therefore likely wrong, I feel like I don’t see things described as “guilty pleasures” often anymore. There instead seems to be a movement to claim that whatever one likes is high-minded. I often think of myself as a fan of trash, but others react poorly when I refer to things we both enjoy or that they enjoy as “trash,” and I get blank stares when I try to draw a distinction between trash (material that is not high-minded, whether it is enjoyable or not and whether it is well-crafted or not) and crap (material that is unenjoyable and poorly crafted, whether it is high-minded or not).

To return to TV for an example, my TV-viewing leans toward trashy—while I think of Mad Men and Friday Nights Lights as semi-high-minded, I make no such claims about House M.D., Castle or Glee, all of which I watch for their trashiness to varying degrees. So it’s alarming to hear things like “No, Battlestar Galactica is a profound meditation on religious difference and the security state,” because the words “Battlestar Galactica” and “profound” in the same sentence are always a mistake.

It might be that those particular high-minded claims are mostly evident elsewhere, since comics is known for its inferiority complex, but certainly the impulse to take material seriously without the commensurate seriousness of subject matter is common in mainstream comics. So much of what readers and commentators complain about in mainstream comics—the “extreme” violence, sexual themes and drawn-out, overly complex stories—are symptoms of a genre that takes itself too seriously, that has come to think of itself as high-minded in a way that is at odds with its conventions. With very few exceptions, superhero comics are trash, and thank goodness for it. Trying for something else can produce work like Watchmen, but I would argue that it can’t do it very many times, since you can’t base a genre on the act of defying its own conventions. Most of the time, you just get “serious” stories that inevitably become laughable since they are inhabited by people in brightly colored, formfitting costumes. It happened because a certain subset of comics readers chose not to change their reading habits as they grew up, but instead demanded that the work they were already reading change with them, going to places it was less than ideally suited for.

And then series that are trash (though not crap) clean up at comics award ceremonies, because it might make people feel bad if the stuff that they read isn’t up to Eisner and Harvey award-winning quality. But do they really have to be award winners, do we really have to defend them as serious? Isn’t it good enough to say, “It’s trash, but I like it?” Isn’t it enough that it sells a lot? Slate’s Dana Stevens put it well in her review of The Social Network, which she praised for genuinely having something to say, “I know I sometimes feel like cc:’ing a memo to all the Hollywood studio heads: Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar.” I feel the same—Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time (unless you adjust for inflation, of course, in which case it’s Gone With the Wind); why was it also necessary that it be in serious contention for Best Picture? Similarly, just to look at this year’s winner, while it is well crafted, must we pretend that The Walking Dead, a zombie comic, is really the best comics had to offer in 2010?

I don’t know what leads people to proclaim trash to be transcendent. Entertaining people is itself an accomplishment, and a significant one. There are times when I will pick entertainment over enlightenment—just look at this week’s “What I Read” section—but I strongly believe in recognizing when one has done so.

(So, yeah, getting closer each week to just admitting this blog should be called “The Littlest Curmudgeon.”)

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Baltimore: The Plague Ships #1 by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden & Ben Stenbeck
  • Gen13: Superhuman Like You by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Kaare Andrews et al.
    Gen13: Meanwhile by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Yanick Paquette, Rick Mays, Lee Bermejo et al.
    Gen13 #71–#77 by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Rick Mays et al.

    I didn’t grow up with Wildstorm, and I don’t have the nostalgia for it that several commentators have expressed since the announcement of its closure, but I was moved to revisit one Widstorm run that I remember having affection for. Adam Warren’s time on Gen13 is pretty much how I remember it, a not terribly deep but surprisingly sweet year and a half spent with a believable bunch of kids who are almost incidentally superhumans (hell, the first collection is called Superhuman Like You). The Wildstorm universe came to an interesting point in the early aughts, in which, at least based on this series and Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.S., a lot of the original storylines established for the various series had come to an end and the characters of each found themselves in a kind of limbo. In WildC.A.T.S. the alien invasion they were fighting against had been successfully prevented and the team didn’t know what to do with themselves; here the government organization that had been controlling the main characters is no more and they’re trying to live normal lives.

    Warren writes the team convincingly on the verge of adulthood, starting for the first time to have to take care of themselves without some obvious goal except that which they devise for themselves. So far, though, that has meant splitting time between relaxing in their newly restored La Jolla home and partying. It’s impressive how many of the stories in this run have no serious supervillain. When villains do appear, Gen13 are rarely the actual target, as at different times members of the team are used by parties they have nothing to do with as weapons against third parties they barely know.

    As a whole, it’s charming and sexy, but I can see why it may not have connected at the time, a low-key story of characters coming into their own rather than an explosive superhero punch-up. The good-girl-style art of Ed Benes is a perfect fit, and is considerably more enjoyable than his recent DC art, which tends to be over-rendered and lacking in the differentiation between characters that he seems to have no trouble with here. His work on Gen13 is expressive and funny, with nice character work. Yanick Paquette’s smooth line and Rick Mays’s more manga-inspired work also both complement the material perfectly.

    I had remembered the series ending with the death of the team, but there are actually three issues of denouement. #77 follows some supporting characters on a last mission with a nice revelation, but it’s #75–#76 that are the real goodbye to the characters. Two issues worth of hanging out with the team ends in a character moment that was more moving than I was ready for. It’s one of the most emotional send-offs to a bunch of silly superhero characters that I can remember, especially impressive since I have no history with these characters, having only previously read a few Warren Ellis one-offs. It’s too bad it ended when it did, but I’m glad it got to have a moment like this.

  • Legion of Super-Heroes #5 by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela & Wayne Faucher
  • Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman
    The most ambitious thing I read this week, and no exception to my experience of Hickman’s creator-owned work being more interesting than his Marvel gigs to date. However, this didn’t connect with me the way that The Nightly News did. The info graphs don’t feel as organic here as they did in a story about media and information, and the more plot-driven concept of Pax Romana is at odds with the presentation. Characters are introduced not through action but through paragraphs explaining who they are, and they don’t really advance beyond what we learn from that text. The ideas are at times exhilarating, but they don’t ever quite resolve into a story. That’s not such a terrible thing, of course; it’s exciting that a greater variety of styles are developing in comics, but this particular book doesn’t find a comfortable balance between information versus story. The plot involves a time-travel mission to ancient Rome to reshape the course of history, and the important thing is not how it ends but the moment when the planners begin to turn on each other. However, Hickman apparently isn’t entirely confident that he’s gotten his point across, as instead of ending it there, he includes several pages charting the next few hundred years. Thematically, his story is over once the main characters begin to betray each other, but in terms of plot it isn’t done until it reaches the point depicted in the framing sequence, and he ends up having to include that information, but oddly not as part of the story. It will be instructive to see what effect his current work on the much more plot-driven Marvel comics he is writing will have on his future creator-owned projects.
  • Superman/Batman #76 by Judd Winick, Marco Rudy, Oclair Albert & Julio Ferrera
  • Ultimate Hulk Vs. Ultimate Iron Man: Ultimate Human by Warren Ellis, Cary Nord & Dave Stewart
    Considerably denser than I expected. Quite a lot of this book is taken up with people talking about science, and when the smashing comes it feels earned. I thought this would be a slightly smarter than average punch-’em-up, but it was an engaging story, with very nice visuals courtesy of Nord and Stewart.
  • Ultimate X-Men vols. 9–13 by Brian K. Vaughan, Stuart Immonen, Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert, Tom Raney & Steve Dillon
    Picked these up at a Things From Another World online sale, each volume costing less than an issue of a new Ultimate comic, and it was definitely worth it for the price. I’d heard great things about this run, and while it wasn’t the sustained story that I expected, each arc was a fast-paced, entertaining yarn. Each volume is a discrete story, but there are soap opera elements that build over the course of the books, and how they come together by vol. 13’s confrontation with Magneto is pretty satisfying. There’s not a lot here, but it’s pretty great action comics.

Images of No Ordinary Family © ABC Studios. Images of The Walking Dead © Robert Kirkman. Images of Gen13 © DC Comics, Inc.

Ditko’s Back Online

October 22, 2007

In my review of In Search of Steve Dikto, I included a link to the program on YouTube, courtesy of Mark Evanier. Youtube’s taken it down, but this is the Internet, so it’s popped up elsewhere.

Doug Pratt is currently hosting the program across seven blog posts:

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4.
Part 5.
Part 6.
Part 7.

Check it out; it’s good stuff.

Apparently Steve Ditko’s Gone Missing

September 22, 2007
In Search of Steve Ditko
Hosted by Jonathan Ross
BBC Four

THE HIGHEST AND MOST RELEVANT PRAISE that can likely be given to a documentary on an artist is that it makes you want to seek out their work. That can definitely be said of In Search of Steve Ditko, the recent BBC Four documentary on the reclusive artist and co-creator of Spider-Man.

Of course, in my case it’s less “seek out” than “actually read the books you already own” since I was already perfectly aware of Ditko but hadn’t had the necessary push to get me to investigate him the way I have his Marvel-era contemporary, Jack Kirby. Despite the fact that I own the first Essential Spider-Man and actually used the original Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15 in the high school comics class I teach, I’ve never read all the way through the book. After watching the documentary while flipping through it, I definitely will be.

The title of the documentary is a bit misleading, as it’s not really about trying to find someone who has skillfully vanished from sight (Ditko proves easily found), but is mostly a documentary on Ditko’s career. The commentary comes from host Jonathan Ross, Marvel editors like Ralph Macchio and Joe Quesada, artists that shared the Marvel Bullpen with Ditko like John Romita Sr., and high profile fans like Alan Moore (himself often labeled a recluse, but really just someone who’s happy to stay at home––he’s a warm interview subject here) and Neil Gaiman.

The title largely refers to the final segment, in which Ross and Gaiman arrive at Ditko’s office in New York There’s no particular reason to believe that this is the culmination of his research; it’s simply the sequence that comes last. After Ditko rebuffs Ross’ request for an interview by phone, the two head upstairs and visit him sans camera. When they return to the street, they gush together about the experience, and it’s charming and amusing to hear Gaiman excitedly say, “He gave us comics!”

However, though this structural premise is a little shaky, the bulk of the documentary is very informative. It gives enough background that viewers don’t have to be very familiar with comics to understand why Ditko is important to the field and what his impact on pop culture has been (as Ross points out, who hasn’t heard of Spider-Man?), with plenty of footage from the recent Spidey movies to underline the point. Certainly it provided enough to engage someone with relatively little knowledge of Ditko like myself from the start.

As for people who are already fairly familiar with Ditko’s work, there’s still plenty to see. Interviewees break down several Ditko pages, talking about how the imagery, panel choices and layouts work, focusing particularly on a sequence from a Ditko Spider-Man story called “The Final Chapter.” Amongst several insightful comments on Ditko’s style, Alan Moore also has a funny anecdote about Ditko’s reaction to Watchmen’s Rorschach. And the documentary is full of plenty of ‘60s Marvel gems. I had already heard the Marvel bullpen goofing around on the flexidisc record given to members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, but I hadn’t heard the MMMS’ theme song, which is also unearthed for the documentary.

Finally, there is the interview with Stan Lee. Lee comes off pretty well, truly believing that he deserves the credit for Spider-Man’s creation––with a defensible, if self-serving, rationale––but proving agreeable in his willingness to share the credit publicly. However, neither of these positions were what interested me the most. When asked if he thinks he deserves sole credit, Lee dodges the question, and says that’s the best answer he’ll give. But once pressed, his eagerness to please takes over. It’s the other side of Stan the showman, who will “take any credit that isn’t nailed down,” but who also can’t quite bring himself to disappoint someone by not answering a question fully, even against his better judgement. So he actually continues, giving a very candid answer that addresses both his desire to make Ditko happy and his own thoughts on the matter.

It’s a very satisfying hour, both light and informative. Jonathan Ross brings a dry humor and exuberance that it’s rare to see in historical documentaries in the US. There may not be a lot of new biographical information on Ditko, but it’s probably the first time that this much has been collected in one place on film, and the inclusion of many comics pros’ takes on Ditko, along with Stan Lee’s conflicted feelings about credit are more than enough to keep it interesting.

Mark Evanier has kindly compiled all of the segments of In Search Of Steve Ditko from YouTube on his website, so definitely watch it.

UPDATE!: Doug Pratt has now remastered both MMMS flexidiscs, The Voices of Marvel and Scream Along With Marvel. Courtesy The Beat.