Thursday, November 05, 2015

Nerd Rant: Creators vs. Franchises (Or How to Stop Worrying And Learn to Love Lens Flare)

Yesterday on the Tweeters, I posted this picture from the most recent issue of Invincible Iron Man:

I put it up because I love the pacing of the page. The six-panel pause joke is a move I really like. I think it looks great as a static page, calling attention (but not overly) to the form at the same time it makes use of it, and I think it's effective for timing out this kind of joke. Jeff Smith's early Bone issues are the master class for this move, by the way.

Of course I couldn't communicate that in 140 characters, so what I said was that people who hate Brian Michael Bendis will hate this page. Because it is "A Thing That Brian Michael Bendis Does". It happens to be A Thing Brian Michael Bendis Does Well, but for people who determined a long time ago that they don't like Bendis as a writer, it's a tic, a waste of a page, 1/20th of a four-dollar comic burned on a joke.

Bendis, for those of you who don't know but are reading this anyway, is probably the biggest writer at Marvel Comics right now. He pretty much moves from one high-profile project to the next. He wrote a long run of Avengers, then a few years of X-Men, and now Iron Man, who Marvel is working hard to establish as their flagship character (suck it, Spider-Man)*.

He's also a writer with a particular style. He comes out of crime comics (Goldfish and Torso are particularly good) and writes snappy dialogue, which has a very different effect when you read it on a page rather than hear it. I mean, imagine reading an Aaron Sorkin script. Don't imagine it for long, just for a second. Dense verbiage, is what I'm saying.

And I dig it (surprise!). There are things I don't love about Bendis, but those things relate to his weaknesses (not great at closure is the big) rather than his strengths or just the Things That He Does. But there exists a crew of fans who just hate on Bendis for the way he writes. Which is fine and is a problem with a simple solution.There are a lot of writers I don't like: I don't read them. But because Bendis happens to be writing characters that people love, people who hate his writing read his books anyway, then hate on him for Bendis-ing them up. He's writing the X-Men as if he's...writing them! That's not the X-Men!

Here we get to something that is not particular to comics: the weird phenomenon of people consuming stuff made by creators with a discernible style that they hate and then complaining about that style. I'm going to posit that the most prominent and vehement of these in nerd culture right now is the bloc of Doctor Who fans who can't stand Stephen Moffat. Every week when a new episode of Who airs, they light up message boards and comment streams complaining that Moffat has done another Moffat-y thing and should be immediately shit-canned for Moffat-ing up Doctor Who.

Moffat-y things include: sexual tension between the Doctor and his companion, everything with River Song, jokes, ret-conning classic Who, mentioning classic Who, incorporating classic Who, disrespecting classic Who, using time travel as a plot device (in a show about a time traveller).

And brace yourself, but the big one is coming. There was plenty of howling when J.J. Abrams took on Star Trek, but I can already hear the wailing butt-hurt when he Abrams-up Star Wars by doing Stuff That J.J. Abrams Does. Mystery Box! Lens flare! You're ruining it!

But this "ruining it" is substantively different from the way the prequels "ruined it". Because those films are examples of a creator's weaknesses on display. George Lucas writes shitty dialogue. He always has. In some of his stuff, this weakness is overcome by other strengths, but it's a weakness that's always there (I'm just going to say the word "sand" and let the cringing ensue). Moffat and Bendis don't write bad dialogue, they just write dialogue in a style that might not be to some people's tastes. J.J. Abrams plotting is quite good, it just leans on certain tropes and tricks (mystery box!) that might not be your jam.

Even within his strengths, Lucas has quirks that have become part of the language of Star Wars (swipe cut. All the time. So many swipe cuts) and no one, except apparently me, gripes about them. In fact, we sort of love them. Ditto for Chris Claremont's myriad verbal tics on classic era X-Men ("the focused totality of my psychic powers!", for example). And on Who, you don't have to look further back than the Russell Davies era to see habits of a particular creator incorporated into the vocabulary of the show. But since Davies has his own set of haters, head on back to the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe era, which is (rightfully) almost universally beloved. Hinchcliffe has easily as many narrative go-to's as Moffat or Davies. Return of the suppressed is a big one, as is the genre mash-up. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find an episode of the Hinchcliffe era that doesn't include one or the other of these tropes. But over time, they've become essential bits of Doctor Who vocabulary. They've been written into the DNA of the show, even though they started out as one guy's little quirk.

Does this mean lens flare is the new swipe cut? Does it mean the next X-Men writer (or set of writers) is honor-bound to include page-long jokes, or whole issues of snappy interpersonal dialogue? Does the next Who showrunner have to incorporate River Song?

Nope. Not a bit. But now these are tools in the narrative toolbox. These things get handed off and a whole new quirky, idiosyncratic creator is allowed to play with the toys, to clash symbols together however they see fit. And you can love it or hate it or leave it alone. What you can't do (with any kind of hope, or validity, or whatever) is whinge that THIS ISN'T WHAT IRON MAN IS LIKE!! Or THAT'S NOT DOCTOR WHO!! Or YOU'RE NOT DOING STAR WARS RIGHT!!

Because that's exactly what these things are like. They are idea sets that change, that evolve, that are sturdy enough to be passed from hand-to-hand, through tonal shifts and new plots. Their status quo is a state of change, because story can't exist without change**.

So buy your Star Wars ticket and suck it up. Or don't, and quit your whining. Or buy your ticket and then whine about it, because probably they will fire J.J. Abrams if six people don't like a light saber with a handle guard or whatever.

*I don't mention Bendis's Daredevil run here because DD was not a top tier character when Bendis took on the title. But Bendis's Daredevil is maybe his most successful front-to-back run on a book, if you ask me.

**Yes, the nature of that change includes a return to start, a putting back in the box. I am open to the accusation that there is no actual change, particularly in superhero comics.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Research Notes: Just Kids

Poncho and Lefty (heh).
A few years ago, I was at Book Expo, which is basically a boat show but with books. The best part of Book Expo this particular year was that they'd scheduled a conversation between Neil Young and Patti Smith. Young was about to publish his memoir, and Smith had just won all the awards ever for hers. The talk was in the basement of the Javitz Convention Center, which is kind of like a Holiday Inn ballroom, only dark and industrial. The two of them, pretty obviously stoned, sat in plush chairs and just talked about, you know, whatevs. Model trains, Lou Reed, Kent State.

It was when the last of those came up that I got a bit of a shock, which, looking back on it, is sort of where this current project started. Because when they talked about the 48-hour turnaround between news of the shooting at Kent State and acetate copies of "Ohio" hitting the hands of DJ's, it became clear that Young and Smith were not, as I had in my mind, talking across a generational divide. They were contemporaries, affected by that moment in similar ways. Of course, by the time Smith's first album was released, Young was almost a decade into his musical career. But they were both (just) kids who came out of nowhere and created themselves in the middle sixties.

And yes, not realizing this sooner indicates a lack of thinking on my part. Got it, noted, thanks.

I should say right off that Just Kids is as fantastic as people say it is. I made the excellent life choice to consume it via audiobook, read by Smith in her amazing Midwest-meets-New York accent (side note: if you can track it down, listen to Amy Goodman interviewing Smith. Their voices are remarkably similar. It's kind of awesome), a sort of slow, soft speech pattern that runs at odds with the auditory idea I had of Smith from her recordings. In fact, the book as a whole runs counter to my conception of Smith, which was revelatory and really opened up my thinking regarding what I'm working on.

I'm really interested in female anger and the way it's "dealt with". Being a dude, it's always been clear to be that anger is an acceptable tonality in which to operate. Male artists are allowed to affect/perform anger as a sort of base state; it doesn't need to be explained or justified. I'd say music and stand-up comedy are the easiest fields where you can spot this. I can think of a half dozen male comics whose personas are basically anger-schtick, and Angry Young Man is practically a musical genre. But female anger in the arts is different, and I mean this not just for artists, but for characters. I'm not going to argue that Patti Smith invents the idea of the Angry Female Artist, but certainly the way she enters the cultural landscape is unique.

There's the fact of her independence, the fact she is not connected to or guarded by a male. Even when her band gets billed along with her, it's the Patti Smith Group: the boys in the band belong to her. Think about this in contrast with, let's say, Debbie Harry or Chrissie Hynde. And she is staunchly playing on male turf. There is a prescribed role in the culture for the female singer-songwriter by 1975, but it's located within the folk tradition. Rock is for the boys. Smith shows up at the party not playing anyone's game. She doesn't present as a sexual commodity (a la Harry). Not only is she not a chanteuse, she opens up Horses by warping "Gloria", a song that provided hits for Van Morrison's Them and The Doors which is basically one of rock's iconic "Hey, Look At That Girl" tunes. Smith injects the song with a female subjectivity it had previously lacked, then screamingly melds that with Gloria as a visual object, owning the song, eclipsing every other version of it.

The anger on those early records is largely absent from the book, which is sweet without being cloying, warm without being nostalgic. Smith is brutally, brilliantly honest about the difficulty of living in New York at this time (she's also great on the economics of it, detailing the myriad jobs she had to work to make her rent) and the complex relationship with Mapplethorpe as the two of them became their best selves, even as this evolution moved them apart. But it's not an angry book, and the cynical part of me wonders if it would have been as widely praised had it been a little more vicious.

To return to the other side of the anger issue, I've been finding that people respond strangely to angry females in fiction. The project I'm currently editing (not this one, a different one) has at its core an Angry Young Woman. Now it was my belief when I started, that she could just be angry. Because some people are just fucking angry: it is almost always a valid response, if not a long-term healthy one, to one's environment, or to the social conditions one finds themselves in, or just the existential suck-fest that is your limited time on this planet. But the response to the character from some of my early readers has been, "What's she so mad about?"

This is a (fictional) nineteen year-old girl growing up an environment with almost no opportunities for women to advance socially, no roles for women that are not dependent on men. A smart girl who has her education truncated at age seventeen because it is illegal at the time to educate women past high school age. Who cannot own property, who has virtually no legal rights. And I have to explain where her anger comes from.

But here's Patti Smith. Amazed by the world, in love with everything, and struggling to find her place in it. Looking back, she seems almost bemused at her hardships. She is, perhaps, softened, or maybe only changed to a person who no longer needs to snarl and spit. And here's Patti Smith, coming up on thirty years old, part of a scene that is almost exclusively male (both the music scene and the poetry scene). And she grins, and spins. And she snarls and spits. And feels no need to tell you why, because the why is obvious and permanent and all around her, always.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Research Notes: City on Fire

This is not the book cover. It is just a city that happens to be on fire.
Here's a weird thing that happens. You sell a book, and awesome, you are an author now. And probably you'll be able to sell another book, unless this first one tanks (which it could. It totally could. I can imagine seventeen different ways in which it could tank).

But also now you are out in the marketplace. You meet with things like "We're going to pass on your book that includes a nine-year old boy on a road trip with his mom, because we've already got a book about a seven-year old girl on a road trip with her grandpa coming out next year" (this is actually why an editor passed on my book, for real). So when something comes out that is a huge book, both in sheer physical bulk and in the amount of attention/money it garners, and is in the realm of a project you are working on, you sort of have to pay attention.

I think this is what people feel like when they say "They stole my idea! I was totally going to write a television pilot about puppets who run a late night talk show!"

Anyway, I'm still in early days on this project and I start hearing about this big NYC 1977 book. Dude got $2m for it (I know this is just a "rumored" number, but yes, he got at least that much), sold the development rights before he sold the book. A dear friend has taken to calling it Great American Novel as she spitefully hauls it around the city. So I dutifully bought a copy the day it came out and launched in.

We should start by saying I was primed to dislike it. I even mentioned in an email to my agent, "I'm about to hate-read this book." And I did, I seriously hated it. I made it through about 400 pages and then I stopped, because hate.

Let's talk about what Hallberg does well. He's excellent at writing about wealth and its trappings. When the book moves through the luxe apartments and houses of the New York uber-rich, the author's prose style really finds its match. This is perhaps less true when he turns to the corridors of power: the office buildings where the money is being made seem vague. I pictured the board room of Queen Consolidated/Palmer Industries from Arrow. Probably because I kept thinking I could be better spending my time catching up on Arrow. In fact, I'd say work gets the short end here. Most of the characters don't seem to have jobs, or at least not jobs that take up much of their time.

Wait, I'm supposed to be saying good things.

There is an abundance of period detail. Strike that, there is an overabundance (fuck, I'm doing it again). At least once a page there is a THING FROM THE SEVENTIES. I understand the intent was authenticity, but it ends up feeling like an overly-intricate lie, and rather than noting the finely-wrought detail work, I found myself fact-checking. This is totally spiteful, and for the most part pointless. I mean, it's a big release from a major publishing house. Shit's been fact-checked. But I would like to note that it's almost impossible that Sam would be able to dub a record onto eight-track for Charlie, because that wasn't really a consumer-grade technology at the time, outside of serious audio-heads. Suck it, dude.

All right, time to let rip. I thought the prose was terrible. Clumsy, overwrought, thick with modifiers. Also, his tenses are a mess. He repeatedly makes this move from fuzzy time to the definite which drives me nuts. Something something something. And now, sitting on steps and drinking the eponymous beverage he purchased at an Orange Julius, he thought... There's nothing wrong with it, it just bugs me, especially because the movement of time in the novel is pretty fuzzy in general. Even in the (much lauded) opening chapters, there's this kind of slack formulation of time when it feels like we should be spiraling tightly around the inciting incident.

Speaking of which, I don't like offing a young girl so that you can have a plot. It was cheap and unearned. Maybe he manages to earn it post hoc by making the character more three dimensional, but I'm doubtful. She's an object of desire, a punk Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, and then she's dead (or in a coma, I guess). Her shooting serves as Charlie's ticket into the world of the novel (which is to say, into New York) and connects several of the characters by Dickensian coincidence, but she's not really there. To borrow a comic book term, she gets fridged.

The female who remains conscious doesn't fare much better. She's introduced to us drunk and high (which is to say, fuzzy, ineffectual) and, in the chapter where I finally decided to bail, is going all twitterpated at the nearness of a younger guy with exceptional hair who's new to the office. If it's a general rule that you can endear a character to an audience by having them demonstrate mastery, the reverse is just as true: if you want to inspire audience contempt in a character, show them being needlessly inept, particularly at work.

There's a certain queasiness about homosexual sex throughout. Hetero sex is an act of pleasure, but gay sex is presented as A) risk-taking, B) bargaining, or C) an act of athleticism/violence. Of course, by the time the author gets around to describing hetero sex acts (I'm going to paraphrase here, but roughly: "as part of him entered part of her, another part of him wondered..."), readers might be relieved the author skirts homosexual intercourse with euphemisms like "in flagrante" and "athletic fucking."

But I've skirted around perhaps the most relevant fact, for my purposes. This book is terrible at writing about punk. It's annoying enough that he's imagined a world where the Ramones and Patti Smith exist but not Television (because Ex Post Facto/Ex Nihilo stands in for the band). But the author doesn't seem to really enjoy the music. In the early chapters, Charlie pores over an Ex Post Facto record, making sure he hasn't missed a chord, and when the author pays any attention to music, it's with that same clinical detachment. Charlie, who is notably Jewish but really into Jesus, is also our entry into the punk world while really being more of a Bowie fan. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you want to talk about glam, go ahead and talk about glam. New York 77 would provide ample opportunities to talk about glam as a music and as an aesthetic. The author seems like he's been shackled with punk as his soundtrack.

Probably the worst of this is when Nicky Chaos is explaining his philosophy to Charlie (this is, I think, the chapter before I bailed). It comes off as a sloppy mix of Situationism and nihilism, without giving proper respect to either. In addition to being utterly charmless, Nicky Chaos is being set up as a false prophet (I can only assume Will would have ended up the True Prophet, had I kept reading), but as the only one who speaks on behalf of punk, his freshman year philosophy schtick hobbles it as a cultural movement/artifact. The fact Charlie is taken in by it makes him another contemptibly inept player in the piece. The author doesn't trust punk to bear any narrative weight; it's a convenient subculture, a place to run away to, a youth culture ready to be coopted, by the novel's sinister asexual land developer as much as by the author.

The good news? Even one moment of New York is still a big place, and I'm happy to work in the spaces the author largely ignores. It's what I was going to do anyway.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Research Notes: I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp

Tom Verlaine and Richard HellRichard
There's an old Simpsons episode where George HW Bush is writing his memoirs. "And, having achieved all of my goals in my first term," he writes, "there was no need to pursue a second."

Or something like that. Then there are locusts, as I recall.

That sort of labeling failure as triumph is all over Richard Hell's memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp. Something along the lines of "And, having invented punk with the Neon Boys, I was happy to be sort of kicked out of Television and then kind of fuck around on heroin for a number of years before retiring from music."

Going into this book not a massive fan of Richard Hell (when Hell describes the split in Television, between his idea for the band, which ends up sounding roughly like the Voidoids, and the band as they ended up, I can't hide my preference for Verlaine's version), I was not inspired to become one by the text. I know it's maybe silly to say that a memoirist is self-aggrandizing, but holy shit is Richard a fan of Richard. And a huge shit-talker regarding everyone else, particularly Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith. He's got some choice words for other folks who either tried to help him out or tried to screw him over, but rest assured that every choice Richard Hell made was the correct one.

That said, there's a lot to pull out here, although some of it comes from reading across Hell. The first and biggest thing, and something I'm likely to return to a lot, is the idea of running away and inventing yourself. "My favorite thing to do was run away," Hell writes. "The words 'let's run away' still sound magic to me." And, later, "We lived in the suburbs of America in the fifties. My roots are shallow." Note the present tense in the last sentence. I like the idea of Americans as being essentially unrooted and drifting, and I particularly like the idea that, growing up in the suburbs, you hit a point where you either have to invent yourself or replicate the lives of your parents. Maybe that's changing and maybe it isn't. I wonder a little to what extent the internet replaces the role of the city when it comes to self-invention.

I think it's important to situate Hell and his cohort right alongside the hippie generation. We (or at least I) tend to think of the hippie sixties and the punk seventies as separated by ten years, but there's a lot of bleed there. Hell talks about what it felt like to hate Sgt. Pepper when it came out, to feel like it was just a bloated piece of crap. The sixties become so monolithic in our thinking, to the point we imagine two forces: the hippies and the establishment, in perfect opposition. But of course the hippie movement is fractured and factional and not really a movement at all, and there are other fringes, other cracks to fall into. Or worse (better?), there is a space that is both outside the culture and outside the counter-culture.

Hell is exacting in cataloguing the women he slept with during this time. He describes many of them as muses, which is to say they paid his rent or provided him drugs. It's a particularly awful form of misogyny that labels the female as a kind of creative force/erotic charge which is itself unable to create; it can only be channeled by the male. It allows him to both praise women and negate them. It's ugly stuff.

We should talk about negation, because it's at the heart of things here. If there are two bits of language often attached to Hell, it's Please Kill Me and the word Blank. As in Blank Generation and as in ______. But, as Hell points out, negation as an end point can be difficult as an artistic project. 

This created a kind of paradox. If your message is that you don't care about things, how can it be delivered? Where's the initiative? Even though I didn't understand this contradiction consciously, I intuited it. And its ruinous consequences were becoming more and more obvious.
It's a bit of a central dilemma of punk. If punk is best summed up as a very loud NO, why say it? Why produce art, even if that art is intended, in a dadaist/lettrist sense, as non-art or no-art. Why is a no wave still a wave?

I wish there was more about New York and "the scene," but to be honest, much of what Hell writes about the burgeoning punk scene at the time is self-serving, suspect, and contradicted by other sources. A lot of it is Hell's attempt to "set the record straight", and anecdotes often begin with phrases like "Verlaine and Ficca will tell you..." before recounting a version of events in which Hell is the conquering hero and his bandmates are obstacles he's narrowly able to overcome.

I also wish there was more here about his relationship with Verlaine, but Hell is so sure he was in the right that he's unable to really look at the dissolution of their musical partnership and friendship. Maybe the most poignant moment in the book is the ending where he runs into Verlaine at a used book shop in the West Village. "We were like two monsters confiding," Hell writes. I'm interested in the way art can destroy a friendship, and the ways in which personal conflict can fuel art, but Hell is so caught up in affirming himself as the creator of capital P Punk that he manages to miss many of the moments that create it. The book comes off as one man's attempt at an origin myth, but for something that seems to come from everywhere at once.

One thing the book makes clear, despite itself, is that "the punk moment" is one that never happens, it has always already happened, and attempts to imagine a single Big Bang moment are both misguided and misguiding.

Research Notes: Introduction

So I'm working on a new thing.

Okay, even that's not quite right. I've written...maybe twenty pages. So I'm not even sure yet I'd call it a new thing. I certainly would not call it a novel. I would call it a project. And even then, I'd do it cautiously.

Mostly what I'm doing right now is research. And it's a kind of grazing research, not yet zeroing in on particulars. Looking for ideas rather than fact-checking.

Here's what it is, more or less. I'm thinking about music scenes in New York. Particularly the worlds of punk and avant garde music from around 1975 through 1987. Maybe beyond that, I'm not exactly sure where the piece is going to go. And before you start, yes, I am aware there is a very large novel that just came out about New York City in 1977. And yes, I tried to read it, but then I bailed. Because it's kind of terribly written, for one thing. And for another thing, it's particularly bad when it talks about exactly the stuff I'd want to talk about (that is, the book is overly enamored of wealth and its trappings, but when it deals with punk, it becomes clear the author doesn't like any of the music he's talking about). I'll probably address the book in question here later. But, moving on.

Because research for this project is probably more interesting to other people than, say, the research for a book about Warsaw in 1889, I'm going to keep some notes here. Feel free to read them or not. Feel free to comment or suggest other sources. Again, I'm casting a pretty wide net to see what I haul in, so tangents and side streets are not only acceptable, they might be preferable.

Onward. Or, more to the point, one two three four.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unstability: Reading Kirby & Lee's The Fantastic Four #2

The Fantastic Four #2

The Skrulls. A war-like intergalactic empire. Constant cosmic threat to the Marvel Universe. Total ass-clowns.

Arriving in issue two, we find that the Four are famous. Intergalactically famous. Based, apparently, on that one time they beat up that ugly guy in a cave.

Fame and public presence have always been a key part of the Four. In fact, I’d say Marvel in general is more concerned with the public perception of its heroes (we’re talking within narrative here) than DC. But the Four, the First Family of Marvel, are always public figures. I guess I thought that would develop a little more organically.

In this issue, shape-shifting Skrulls from outer space impersonate the Four and wreck an oil derrick, steal a diamond and melt a statue so that the world’s militaries will hunt down the Four and destroy them, freeing the Skrulls up to invade the earth. Because the only thing currently stopping them is the Fantastic Four. Who can be defeated by the military, which doesn’t really present a threat to the Skrulls. Got it?

The Four is chilling in an isolated hunting lodge while all this goes down. Probably to deal with all the fame. Despite the isolation, they still make Ben dress up in his Claude Rains duds. Ben has a couple “This man, this monster” rages, throws a bear head out the window. Then they all get captured by the army. Then they all escape.

Interesting quirk of this particular reproduction: whenever Sue goes invisible, she’s rendered in white with some dotted lines. Meaning there’s no ink on the page, a true blank. It's more noticeable in the reprint. In a pulp printed comic, the ink soaks a little deeper into the page, rather than sitting on top of it and giving the page an added sheen. Here's a picture that entirely does not illustrate what I'm talking about.

Because the Four is awesome at planning, they come up with a plan. What if one of us actually destroys something, in order to confuse our impersonators? Brilliant! Johnny wrecks a rocket, then gets picked up by Skrull Reed and Skrull Sue in a Studebaker, which may or may not be a Skrull. Luckily for everyone, none of the Skrulls is in Johnny form right now, because actually that was a huge potential flaw in an otherwise flawless plan.

But here’s my favorite part.

The Four decide to impersonate the Skrulls and go to the Skrull mothership, which has been waiting in orbit for that one last obstacle to invasion to be removed. Then they fool the Skrull leader by showing him pages from other Marvel comics. But not superhero comics, pages from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery (which would later feature Thor, but at this point I guess had giant ants?). The Skrulls, despite the fact they’ve been monitoring the planet and have found no evidence of scary-ass troll monsters and giant ants, are like “Oh crap, let’s hightail it.”

And they do. Menace defeated.

On the return trip, they pass through some more cosmic rays. Which, understandably, Ben gets pretty upset about. Of course, everyone else is less than sympathetic, because they are jerks to Ben all day.

And finally, because Reed has not had a chance this issue to prove that he is a dick, he forces the three Skrulls who remained on earth to turn into cows. Permanently. This is an awesome idea and nothing bad could ever come of introducing aliens into the food supply.

My plot summary might seem snarky, but this issue is exponentially better than the first. Sure, the various plots and schemes are ludicrous, but they’ve got room to breathe a bit. This issue seems competent, on the plotting front. The art has some standout moments, particularly Ben’s brief reversion to human form. Some of the panel pacing is odd for a narrative that’s so compressed. Like this sequence.

There’s plenty to say about Sue, and as she develops, I’ll want to say more about her here. But one thing worth noting is that invisibility is not a particularly fun super-power to draw. Kirby seems to revel in panels of Johnny leaving flame trails in his wake and Reed’s limbs distending across the frame (although none of the Reed panels can touch Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, which rivals Eisner in its early formal innovation). But when it comes to Sue, there’s not a whole lot to work with other than showing the consequences of her visual absence.

Next issue: costumes! The Fantasti-car! The Miracle Man (but not MiracleMan).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Unstability: Reading Kirby and Lee's Fantastic Four #1 (continued)

Fantastic Four #1 (part two)


Let’s do a quick note on prose and art.

Stan Lee never uses one word when three will do. Of course, there’s the standard comic trope of narrating what’s happening in the panel, which is particularly clunky here because Kirby gets a lot across in his panels. The exclamation points, double exclamation points and double question marks are also flying fast and free throughout. It's funny that in his huckster mode, Lee's letter column prose has a certain energy to it that is hokey but undeniable. This stuff is just leaden.

As for the art, look, Kirby’s an acquired taste at the best of times (see below). And this is not the best of times. He’s still stretching (get it?) his legs with these characters, and the first issue matches the Four up with some pretty generic monsters, so the Kirby design sense that will come into play later in the run isn’t on showcase here. Also absent is the weighty line-work that usually marks something as Kirby-esque. He's efficient, in an Alex Toth kind of way, but paging forward a bit, it looks like it takes him about eight issues to really hit stride.

Another aside: I'm reading these in the quite nice Fanastic Four Omnibus. Nice paper stock, the recolorations that were done for the Marvel Masterwords editions. It even includes letter pages, which I'm looking forward to.

Which brings us to the story. In quick summary, it goes like this: Reed uses a science-y machine to discover a bunch of atomic plants have gone missing. In “French Africa”, an atomic plant gets eaten by monsters or something. The Four use the science-y machine to figure out that Monster Island is at the exact center of the disturbances. They go to Monster Island after an exchange that goes something like this:

BEN: There ain’t no such thing as Monster Island.
SUE: There’s only one way to find out.
NARRATOR: Minutes later, on Monster Island…

Seriously, everyone in this comic is a jerk to Ben Grimm all day. Remember when he warned you guys about the cosmic rays? Does that earn him zero credit whatsoever?

Once there, they are separated in some way I’m not totally clear about. Reed and Johnny fall into a crevasse, where they are blinded, dressed in blue hazmat suits, and meet the Mole Man. Meanwhile, the Thing wrestles a big rocky monster who looks a lot like the thing and Sue does absolutely nothing to help. Back underground, we learn the origin of the Mole Man, who is basically an exceptionally ugly guy who also fell down a crevasse on Monster Island, became master of the underground creatures there (who we never really see) and developed…mole powers. Which are sort of like bat powers? Only underground. He beats the crap out of either Johnny or Reed (we can’t tell, since they are in blue hazmat suits) using aforementioned mole powers. He reveals his plan thusly:
Another strong argument for solar.

The Thing and Sue show up! But they don’t really do anything. Johnny burns through his hazmat suit and scares off a big-ass monster. The Mole Man pulls a “signal cord” and summons those underground monsters he was telling them about:
None of them look especially mole-y.

And finally Johnny “blazes a fiery swath which melts the soft earth”, probably killing all the monsters, because whatever, screw monsters. And the Mole Man too, except probably not, because the comic ends with this:
"Someday he'll thank us for burying him alive."

Yes, Sue, that is absolutely the stupidest thing you can say in a comic book.

And thus, comic books were revolutionized, apparently.

So what’s different? Why is the Fantastic Four #1 a landmark comic, while Challengers of the Unknown from three years earlier is largely (wait for it) unknown?

My suspicion (based on reading all of twenty-four pages) is that it had something to do with Lee and Kirby’s frantic, kitchen sink approach to this comic. There’s a little romance comic stuff in here (Lee had been writing romance comics before publisher Martin Goodman assigned him to come up with a superhero team to rival the Justice League), there’s a bunch of monster comic action. Not to mention there’s cosmic rays, a Monster Island, an underground Valley of Diamonds. There’s a lot of ideas thrown into the blender here.

But I also think it’s not so much a revolutionary comic on its own as it is part of a revolutionary moment in comics. The introduction of the narrative organism that is the shared Marvel Universe and the “Marvel style” of superhero, which stresses the personal over the archetypal has an amazing cumulative effect that’s difficult to locate by dissecting the individual comics involved.

Because, I’m just going to say it, Fantastic Four #1 is not a particularly good comic. It’s easy to write that off as “It was 1961, comics in general weren’t particularly good by modern standards.” But there are pre-1960 comics that read as very modern to a contemporary audience. This is not one of them. The origin story is well done, but the story in which it’s embedded clunks and chugs and then suddenly ends as if no one told them there’d be a page restriction. The plot is resolved in literally one panel, as opposed to four panels devoted to a French legionnaire who feels the earth quaking.
There were no ways to make this bit character more French unless they replaced his gun with a baguette.

I’m guessing it’s not going to get better fast. The stuff I really want to check out is the cosmic stuff, the Inhumans and Galactus and all that, but those are a ways down the line.

In an article published yesterday, Greg Carpenter compared Kirby as an artist to Dylan as a vocalist, in the sense they’re both things you need to learn to love. I’m not there yet with the King and as a pretty direct result, I’m not convinced getting there will be half the fun. But I think about people “subjecting themselves” to Dylan albums knowing there’s something there if they can just get at it, and I’m willing to give it a shot.

Tomorrow, there will be Skrulls.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Unstability: Reading Kirby & Lee's Fantastic Four #1

Given that this week would be Jack Kirby’s ninety-seventh birthday, and that I’m about to go into heavy re-writing on a novel whose working title, Unstable Molecules, is taken from one of the brilliantly science-y concepts that came out of Kirby and Lee’s original run on the Fantastic Four, which I’ve shamefully never read, I figured it was time to delve into the source material. Plus it’s a good way to stretch the writing part of my brain a bit. So here goes.

The Fantastic Four #1
So many exclamation points! So many!!
Note the definite article, which sticks around until issue #16. I'm not sure I have anything to say about it just yet, but, you know, note it.

If you’re a comic book fan, it’s impossible not to come to these issues with a lot of baggage. Much of it centered on the Lee vs. Kirby issue, which is to comics what Lennon vs. McCartney or Jagger vs. Richards is to music.

Let’s put it out there right off: along with most folks, I’m in Kamp Kirby. Not because Stan Lee comes off as a huckster (he does) or because the prose and dialogue that he claims credit for is six kinds of unbearable (it is), but because of this:
The incredible Human TorchHands.
That’s the cover of Challengers of the Unknown #3 from 1958, written and drawn by Jack Kirby. For decades, Stan Lee has made the claim that the idea for the Fantastic Four, a group of intrepid space explorers who are buffeted with cosmic rays and hideously transformed, sprang from his fertile imagination. But this issue by Kirby, five years previous, features intrepid space explorers who are buffeted with cosmic rays and hideously transformed. Just saying.

Structurally, Fantastic Four #1 is a twenty-four page comic divided into three chapters, the first of which is sub-divided into intro and flashback. I admit, I am a little obsessed with the comic’s opening line of prose, which gets echoed in Gravity’s Rainbow’s opening line, “A screaming comes across the sky.” But that’s because I’m a jerk.

The three awesome words are "The Fantastic Four". By the way.

The next panel introduces Reed as a shadowy figure with a gun, one we’d likely assume is the villain of the piece. He very well might be, depending on how you look at it. More later.

Nothing menacing here at all. Nope.

Oh, and we should note that the first issue doesn’t take place in New York City, but in a DC-style New York City stand-in, Central City. I’m interested to see when they make the switch, since the mythology of the Four is deeply connected to New York.

Do we need to get into the gender politics of making invisibility a woman's superpower in 1961, or can I assume?

Sue Storm gets brought on stage next with a bit of physical comedy. Check out the timing on this panel. From the stunned expression of the figure on the far left, the folks recovering in the middle of the panel, and the two men falling at the panel’s right or present side. It’s a great bit of pacing by Kirby.

This is, no joke, The Thing lamenting a lack of Big and Tall stores in New York.

Next, we have the real hero of the first issue, Ben Grimm, the Thing, who is pure Kirby monster material: monstrous in the classical sense of being out of sync or size with the rest of the world. He gets introduced in a sort of Invisible Man get up, including shades. This brings up issues of visibility that run through the storyline of the character (Ben ends up finding love with a blind woman) and of course parallels him with the Invisible Woman. But it also highlights an initial problem with the way the character is drawn. Throughout the first few issues, we never see Ben Grimm's eyes, and I'd argue that it's not until Kirby starts drawing Ben's baby blues that the character takes on the deeply human aspects that put him at the heart of the comic and tie him most closely to Kirby as an artist.

Over the course of two pages, the Thing tears up streets, wrecks a car, and is fired on by police. Like Reed, he’s given a villain’s entrance. But while Reed’s is, initially, just visual, Ben’s is more narrative. His actions are destructive and he’s full of contempt for the people he encounters.

Finally, Johnny Storm shows up, bursting into flames and melting some planes. At least he feels bad about it.

"My bad."

On to the origin flashback! Over the protests of pilot Ben Grimm and his fear of cosmic rays, the Four go blasting into space. Ben because he’s the pilot. Reed because science. Sue because she’s Reed’s fiancĂ©. And Johnny because he’s Sue’s brother, and you should always take your teenage soon-to-be-brother-in-law on all of your space expeditions.

There’s a lot that’s unclear here, of course, because things move pretty quickly. It seems the space mission is military in some way, because the Four sneak onto the base and blast off. But Reed’s connection with the mission is never made clear. Even the “Reed is a scientist” assumption is just that at this point. Most importantly, they must beat the commies into space. So they go past the ONE GUARD on duty and essentially steal a space rocket. Well done, Four!

"If only we'd seen this coming!"

Of course, they are immediately blasted with cosmic rays. Which make a sound I imagine is a lot like an active Geiger counter, and calls to mind a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip.

The sounds of science.

Cosmic rays are the sine qua non of Marvel science-y concepts. The bulk of the Marvel Age is irradiated and mutated, and it’s good to note here the difference between American and Japanese attitudes toward radiation. In Japanese film, radiation introduces (or, more aptly reintroduces, awakes or recalls) the purely monstrous. In American comic books, radiation can induce monstrosity as well as heroism.
"I am unsubtle symbolism! RAAARRGH!"

In choosing “cosmic rays”, Lee and Kirby opt for something that is placed permanently outside of understanding, and is science-y while remaining separate from the science of actual radiation. The elements of the unknowable and, maybe more importantly, the elements of chance, have chafed modern writers of some of these characters, who have tried with varying degrees of success to introduce more intentional or spiritual elements into the characters’ origins (most notably, Mark Waid’s Speed Force accounting for the lightning strike with chemical dousing that creates The Flash, and JM Strazynski’s Spider-Totem, about which the less said the better).

It’s interesting, for me at least, to pause here and imagine a world of superhero comics that didn’t arise at a moment of obsession with atomic science. What if superheroes began forty years earlier when spiritualism was at its cultural peak? I’ve tried (again, with varying degrees of success) to come up with a set of Marvel analogues that get their powers from encounters with ancient gods and myths and totems rather than “science”. It certainly works better in a book about the power of stories and storytelling, but there’s something about superheroes having science-y origins that gives them a sense of newness. They don’t draw their power from older stories, and there’s something vital, if particularly American and mid-twentieth century, about that.

Now that they’ve been irradiated, the Four’s powers kick in. And here comes the amazing twist that drives the dynamic of this comic for decades. Reed, Sue and Johnny are all hideously transformed, but they retain a human base state to which they can revert, while Ben is permanently disfigured. Jonathan Hickman will pick up on this idea of base state pretty brilliantly sixty years later, but there are more immediate results.

"I only casually endangered the lives of my friends and loved ones. So back off!"

It’s tough not to read this as a Lee vs. Kirby moment. As the series progresses, The Thing becomes more obviously a stand-in for Kirby, while Reed retains unquestioned control over the group. And maybe there’s part of me that wants to imagine Kirby and Lee mediating their creative disputes through those two characters. This line of thinking makes these two panels all the more cringe-inducing.

"Everyone, on three: Reed sucks. One, two..."

Here’s my favorite of several articles on why Reed Richards is a dick, but those panels kind of sum it up. Total dick move, Reed.

All right, this is taking more space than I’d intended. So, tomorrow, on to the second half of the first issue. Excelsior!