Saturday, December 7, 2013

Review: XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun

Review XIII Volume One Thirteen Jean Van Hamme William Vance Dargaud Cinebook Cover original graphic novel ogn Franco-Belgian comic book
Writer: Jean Van Hamme
Artist: William Vance
Collects: XIII #1 (Dargaud, 1984)
Published: Cinebook, 2010; $11.95

A few weeks ago, I watched the first three films in the Jason Bourne series. (In the truest sense, these are the only three. The title character doesn’t actually appear in The Bourne Legacy – the fourth, most recent film.) While I first saw The Bourne Identity around the time it was released on DVD, I had avoided its sequels until now. At the time I saw it, the first film had struck me as an unintelligent, convoluted thriller with motion-sickness-inducing camerawork and a color palette evoking dirty snow. Having watched it again now, ten years later, I realize that my first impression may not have been completely accurate. Although I still think it’s a lackluster film, there are characters, and even a plot, if you look hard enough.

The third entry (The Bourne Ultimatum), by contrast, is an impenetrable, utterly incoherent film. It has no characters, only talking chess pieces – grim and implacable – that screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Paul Greengrass seem to move around the proverbial board at random. In one of its most baffling moments, the final scene from the first sequel (The Bourne Supremacy) appears halfway through the film, cheapening what had previously been one of the series’ few human moments. The film is almost a pastiche of all the negative qualities I’ve spent the last decade projecting onto Identity, its final scenes perhaps the most muddled of any in the series. In other words, I had been perfectly right about Jason Bourne – I was just a few years early.

I bring up my experience of the Bourne films as context for a book I read shortly after watching them – XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun, the first entry in a Franco-Belgian comic book series which takes as its inspiration the Robert Ludlum novels on which the Bourne films are based. XIII, similarly, is the story of an amnesiac on a quest to piece together his own mysterious past. Both XIII and The Bourne Identity begin with their protagonists bullet-ridden and comatose, saved from watery graves by kind-hearted, unsuspecting people. From the start, though, XIII makes a more concerted effort to humanize its supporting cast. When tragedy befalls the people who care for Thirteen (as XIII’s protagonist comes to be called, after the Roman numeral tattooed on his shoulder), we feel actual, palpable grief.

The main appeal of the Jason Bourne films, I think, is the globe-trotting aspect (i.e., “where in the world will Matt Damon turn up next?”). Incidentally, this is a quality the James Bond films used to hold as their claim to fame, before they became mired in what I think could aptly be termed “post-Bourne malaise.” I have the feeling XIII will eventually send its hero around the world, too, but it doesn’t get there in the first volume, much of which is spent on Thirteen being chased around New England by assassins who seem to know a lot more about his identity than he does. Although the story doesn’t exactly feel rushed, it moves at fairly breakneck speed while still providing clues about Thirteen’s past. The book is less than 50 pages long, which is almost unbelievable given how much plot it contains.

The level of detail in XIII’s artwork is remarkable. Artist William Vance treats each page as a discrete unit (which makes sense since the series was originally serialized – in one- or two-page installments, I’m guessing), and that has its advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, there’s a formal quality to the layout and structure of each page that you simply don’t often see outside of adventure strips like Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant. On the other, though, this means conversations rarely have the space to become very detailed or to go on for more than a few panels. As a result, continuity between pages is occasionally a little awkward.

Overall, XIII is beautiful to look at, and it makes a better case for the continued existence of narratives like those in the Bourne series than the actual films do. And, of course, Thirteen has one other pretty distinct advantage over Jason Bourne: while his story may not be perfect, at least you can read it without getting motion sickness.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Review: Batman: The Black Mirror

Review Batman The Black Mirror Scott Snyder Jock Mark Simpson Francesco Francavilla Detective Comics Dick Grayson Nightwing James Gordon DC Comics Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Collects: Detective Comics #871-881 (2011)
Published: DC, 2011; $29.99 (HC), $16.99 (TPB)

Batman: The Black Mirror collects the entirety of writer Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics (first published just prior to DC’s line-wide “New 52” relaunch in 2011) with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla. As such, it is one of the longest – and, I believe, the final – creative run to feature former sidekick Dick Grayson, and not Bruce Wayne, as Batman.

The book’s main plotline has to do with James Gordon (the murderous son of Commissioner Jim Gordon), who returns to Gotham with shadowy intentions after several years’ stay in a mental institution. Despite the fact that the series these stories were published in is titled Detective Comics, there is fairly little detective-work, or even mystery, involved in exposing James’s true motives. In fact, The Black Mirror is more a horror story than anything else, and it trades on a theme that has characterized some of the best works of the horror genre since the late 1960s: the notion that today’s monsters emerge not from somewhere “out there,” but from within the apparently normal, all-American family unit. Furthermore, James conforms to this archetype by specifically targeting his own family for destruction. His father and his sister Barbara, in turn, come to view James as an irredeemable force of evil that must be stopped at all costs.

Less interesting than this plotline are the several shorter ones that precede it, which involve the daughter of the man who killed Dick Grayson’s parents and a criminal organization that auctions super-villain paraphernalia. These issues are drawn by the artist Jock, and while his linework is perfectly competent, it pales in comparison to the colorful energy of Francavilla, who illustrates most of the material featuring James Gordon. Still, there is something at least a bit refreshing about the pace of the book’s plot development, which hearkens back to an era before “writing for the trade” was as prevalent as it is today. Elements of the James Gordon story are intermittently seeded throughout the other arcs, building suspense for Snyder’s big finale.

It would be inaccurate, though, to say that all of the smaller stories come together neatly in the end. Snyder tries to have it both ways by having James reveal himself, in a long-winded final monologue, not just as the psychopath his family has suspected him of being all along, but also as the mastermind behind all the conflicts Batman has faced in the previous ten issues. The reveal falls particularly flat when Snyder attempts to position James and Dick as dramatic foils, with James having somehow known, all along, that it was Dick under Batman’s cowl. Although James has appeared in Batman comics before, Snyder essentially treats him as a new character here, leaving any history that might justify his malice toward Dick unexplained.

The book also tries, but fails, to make the argument that Gotham is a “city of nightmares” which corrupts everything (and everyone) it touches. The trouble is not just the fact that this theme is never quite addressed head-on – there are only a few narrative captions and exchanges between Dick and Commissioner Gordon that allude to it – but that it directly clashes with the one theme the book develops most fully. For the James Gordon subplot to work (and it mostly does, up until his final monologue), James’s “evilness” must emerge from that unlikeliest of places: a loving, “normal” home. But for his evil also to be the cause, somehow, of Gotham itself (and for his ultimate plan to be the poisoning of Gotham’s infants with a drug that will supposedly make them sociopaths like him) totally confuses the book’s message. The Gotham-as-excremental-city theme is one Snyder will return to, in both Batman: Gates of Gotham and Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls, but here it remains under-developed and at odds with the rest of the book.

Dick’s starring role makes for a few narrative innovations, the major one being that Batman now works with a support team composed of Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl). However, this turns out to be little more than a slight cosmetic change. Dick’s radio contact with the others always seems to drop out at the first sign of danger – making him as much a loner, when it really comes down to it, as Bruce Wayne ever was. Dick is also Bruce’s preternatural equal in matters of technology and forensics, removing much of the naiveté we might expect from a young, inexperienced Batman.

Franchises as big as this one must always revert to square one eventually – in fact, Gates of Gotham, published concurrently with The Black Mirror, ends with Bruce telling Dick that he will soon be returning to Gotham – so it’s too bad that Snyder passes up the opportunity to do something significantly different with Batman here. In the end, Dick doesn’t have any adventures that Bruce couldn’t have had, and he doesn’t go about resolving conflicts much differently either; even the conflict with his primary antagonist is weighed down by run-of-the-mill super-villainy and a genuinely incoherent combination of themes. Although the artwork, especially Francavilla’s, often seems to leap off the page, this is a story that could otherwise probably best be classified as “business as usual.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Review X-Men God Loves Man Kills Chris Claremont Brent Anderson Colossus Cyclops Nightcrawler Wolverine Cover Marvel Premiere Classic Hardcover hc original graphic novel ogn comic book
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Brent Anderson
Collects: Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
Published: Marvel, 2011; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

The collapse of America’s confidence in public institutions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate set the stage for a corresponding shift in American genres. Within the crime genre alone, the early and mid-1970s saw the emergence of several new subgenres in film, including the “vigilante revenge” film (Billy Jack [1971], Walking Tall [1973]) and the “paranoid conspiracy” film (The Conversation [1974], All the President’s Men [1976]), as well as the transformation of more traditional subgenres, such as the film noir. In The Long Goodbye (1973), for example, the detective Philip Marlowe – a character previously portrayed by an even-headed Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) – is reimagined as a bumbling wiseass virtually incapable of putting two and two together. On the whole, genre narratives of the time displayed a largely pessimistic attitude toward state institutions, which were depicted as naive and ineffective, if not wholly corrupt.

By the late 1970s, however, the New Left’s failure to effect any real social change – as evidenced by the fizzling of the movements for black, female, homosexual, and labor rights – had resulted in a renewed public desire for strong leaders and institutions. That wish came to fruition as economic (and thus political) power shifted to the union-free South, leading ultimately to the election of a right-wing president at the decade’s turn. Among the many institutions restored to power in the era of Reagan was organized religion – which, although not state-sponsored, gained unprecedented political power in the 1980s as organizations like the Moral Majority attempted, for the first time, to legislate the moral dictates of the Christian Right beyond the borders of the Sunbelt.

As quickly as American genres had adjusted to the cultural shift of the early 1970s, so they conformed by the decade’s end to the triumph of social and political conservatism. Fantasy genres such as science fiction, in particular, lost their political edge as blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Superman (1978) came to define the mass entertainment landscape. What was true for the American cinema held for mainstream superhero comics as well, which by 1980 had all but abandoned the social and political undercurrents that had once defined such Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations as the X-Men.

Chris Claremont’s graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, originally published in 1982, is a superbly articulated comment on this shift in political power and ideology. It is remarkable, as well, for the fierceness with which it launches itself against the intense conservatism of its time, producing what remains an incredibly radical message for a mainstream superhero comic. The book pulls few punches in its portrayal of a hateful televangelist, William Stryker, who believes that mutants are genetic affronts to God – beings with, in his words, “no right to live.” The parallels between Stryker’s views toward mutants and those of the real-life Jerry Falwell toward homosexuals are impossible to ignore. Furthermore, Claremont’s setting of Stryker’s headquarters within the World Trade Center aligns the villain – and the evangelical right, by association – not with religious devotion or moral teaching, but with the corporate concerns of big business.

When Stryker sets his target on the X-Men, the team goes down without much of a fight. In a single stroke, Stryker’s radicalized followers kidnap Professor Xavier, Cyclops, and Storm, leaving the rest of the team to believe the three were killed in a seemingly random accident. While they eventually learn the truth, it is only when Magneto, their archenemy, arrives to help that they make any real headway. This is one of the first stories by Claremont to depict Magneto not as a megalomaniac, but as a man whose system of ideals has been thought out just as clearly as Xavier’s. Originally, the character was actually meant to die in God Loves, Man Kills (the original artist, Neal Adams, even drew the story pages), but Magneto’s role was de-emphasized in the final version – a decision that works strongly in the book’s favor.

Before the story is through, two more characters – Kitty Pryde and Colossus’s sister, Illyana – are captured by Stryker’s forces. The team’s relative ineptitude throughout the story (after all, have the X-Men not dealt with greater threats than a few zealots with guns before?) recalls, in many ways, that of the incompetent protagonists of 1970s genre narratives – the sort of characters Thomas Elsaesser has described as “unmotivated heroes.” With the addition of a superpower or two, it’s safe to say that the Philip Marlowe of The Long Goodbye would be right at home on this team.

The consistent inability of the X-Men to measure up to Stryker and his forces is underlined most obviously in the story’s conclusion, when it is not a super-powered mutant who saves the day, but a non-powered human with a gun. Although the book ends with the X-Men engaging Stryker in a televised debate about the hypocrisy of his views, their efforts fail: it is finally a nameless police officer, tired of Stryker’s rhetoric, who guns the man down in his own megachurch. The suggestion that social change can only be effected by the average American who “wakes up” and “strikes back,” so to speak, is surprisingly radical for a superhero comic, especially for one published at the height of Reaganite conservatism.

According to Claremont, God Loves, Man Kills was essentially written as a treatise on racial tolerance – there is even an early scene in which the slur “mutie” is passionately compared to the N-word – but today, as mentioned earlier, it resonates even more strongly as a comment on the continuing struggle for gay rights in America. Its ethos is all the more admirable for its adherence to that particular brand of political pessimism espoused by 1970s genre narratives, an attitude which had all but disappeared from popular entertainment by the time of the book’s publication in 1982. That it remains so relevant more than thirty years later is, on the one hand, a sad testament to the state of modern society; on the other, though, it serves as a welcome reminder that even popular forms and genres carry the potential to advocate for social justice.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Roots of the Swamp Thing

Review Len Wein Bernie Wrightson Nestor Redondo House of Secrets Alec Holland Anton Arcane Matthew Cable Abigail Arcane DC Comics Classics Library Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Len Wein
Artists: Bernie Wrightson and Nestor Redondo
Collects: House of Secrets #92 (1971), Swamp Thing #1-13 (1972-1974)
Published: DC, 2009; $39.99 (HC), $29.99 (TPB)

Most discussions about Swamp Thing revolve around Alan Moore’s influential tenure on the title during the 1980s, but comparatively little is ever said about the character’s first appearances, published over a decade earlier. And while the early-’70s comics collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing, written by Len Wein and illustrated primarily by Bernie Wrightson, don’t have the same philosophical heft as some of Moore’s stories, they frequently make for a kind of genre entertainment which, in its own way, is just as fulfilling. In fact, if Moore’s creative run was paradigmatic of the more literary-minded approach mainstream comics were to briefly take in the late 1980s, I would argue that Wein’s run was similarly emblematic of the best that horror comics were capable of in the 1970s.

It’s probably fitting, then, that the first Wein/Wrightson story to feature a swamp monster was published in House of Secrets, one of DC’s two flagship horror anthology titles during the 1970s (the other being House of Mystery). Between its second-person narration and moody linework and coloring, this story wears its debt to 1950s EC horror on its sleeve; it’s a worthy homage, with an ending as powerful as that of any story illustrated by the likes of Al Feldstein or Johnny Craig. Interestingly, though, this story was merely the prototype for what was to come in the ongoing series Wein and Wrightson would begin the following year.

In Swamp Thing #1, the duo reinvents their title character as Alec Holland, a scientist whose “bio-restorative formula” possesses the ability to “make forests out of deserts.” His discovery is naturally the envy of villains like the mysterious Mr. E, whose agents sabotage Holland’s lab and murder his wife. Holland survives, but he is forever changed – saturated with his own formula and set ablaze, he plunges himself into the heavily-vegetated swampland surrounding his home and mutates into the “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” that will come to be known as the Swamp Thing.

Holland proves a remarkably affecting character for a shambling monster virtually incapable of speech. Wein rarely loses sight of the character’s sorrow over the death of his wife, and while the book’s third-person narration is often heavy-handed to the point of campiness, the writing that conveys Holland’s thoughts is soberingly down-to-earth. But while the character at times seems well on his way to full-blown existentialism, his development is repeatedly cut short by the introduction of too many villains, too early in the series (in fact, there is already another one, in addition to Mr. E, by the end of the first issue). The worst of them is the Cthulhu-esque monster M’Nagalah, which spends half an issue babbling about its role in the evolution of mankind. At one point it claims to have “touched the minds of your greatest scribes,” who it lists as H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe; what is the 1970s equivalent of a facepalm?

The story is at its best, however, in the issues detailing Holland’s search for answers about Mr. E. His hunt takes him from Louisiana all the way to Eastern Europe, and in stories equal parts gothic and Universal Studios horror, Wein pits the character against werewolves, the mad scientist Anton Arcane, and even a contemporary version of Frankenstein’s monster. At the same time, he develops a supporting cast consisting of Matthew Cable – a government agent convinced Swamp Thing is the murderer of Holland and his wife – and Arcane’s beautiful, white-haired daughter Abigail, who joins Cable in his dogged pursuit of the mutated Holland. The journey ends in Gotham City, where Holland’s run-in with Batman makes for a tale as clever and engaging as the best issues of Marvel Team-Up and The Brave and the Bold. This issue also brings the Mr. E subplot to a satisfying close, seemingly setting the stage for Wein and Wrightson to take the character in any number of new directions.

Instead, however, the quality of the book nosedives almost immediately. It’s around this point that the page count for each issue drops from 24 pages to a mere 20, and while the stories are more compressed from here on out, that doesn’t necessarily make the plotting any tighter. It’s not long before certain tropes rear their increasingly ugly heads again and again. By issue 8, even the main character seems sick of the endless repetition: “Oh, no…not another mindless mob,” he thinks as he wearily attempts to bat away a crowd of pitchfork-wielding villagers for what feels like the series’ hundredth time.

Things go from bad to worse after Wrightson’s replacement by artist Nestor Redondo in issue 11. As it turns out, though, Redondo is the book’s biggest saving grace in these issues; it’s the plots themselves that descend into Lovecraftian silliness and, for the first time, begin to rely heavily on cliffhanger endings. Before long, Holland is doing less of the well-written introspection that characterized Swamp Thing’s early issues than he is traveling through time to fight dinosaurs and Roman gladiators. It’s clear in the final issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing that, without the collaboration of Wrightson or the Mr. E subplot to give his stories more long-term direction, Wein was floundering. Issue 13 was his last; afterward, the title’s writing duties passed back and forth between David Michelinie and Gerry Conway. Redondo would remain the book’s artist until its penultimate issue just under a year later, when it was finally cancelled.

In all fairness, my harshness toward this collection’s last few issues has less to do with their respective strengths and weaknesses – they are perfectly competent, if fairly by-the-numbers, superhero tales – than it does with the unfavorable way those stories compare to the earlier issues. It seems to me that the mood and character established in those first issues allowed them to tell stories that were noticeably different from the ones being published in other Marvel and DC comics at the time, and it’s a shame to see such potential fall to pieces in the end. Still, the first seven issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing are 1970s horror comics par excellence, worthy of attention by those interested in the history of comic books and American horror stories alike. While the other issues may hold interest for some, it’s probably safe to say that, compared to the earlier material, they seem little more than a curiosity in their protagonist’s long publishing history.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn

Review Batman The Dark Knight Golden Dawn Vol. 1 Volume One David Finch Paul Jenkins Jason Fabok Grant Morrison DC Comics Cover deluxe hardcover hc comic book
Writers: David Finch, Paul Jenkins, Grant Morrison
Artists: David Finch, Jason Fabok
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #1-5, Batman: The Return #1, Superman/Batman #75 (2010-11)
Published: DC, 2012; $24.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn is one of the latest entries in the seemingly endless parade of comic book stories that rely on inserting new characters into the “never-before-told” pasts of established ones. In this case, as in most others, the new character makes a surprising return in the hero’s present, dredging up old memories and inevitably involving the hero in some conflict which is further complicated by the nature of the characters’ past relationship.

The dilemma faced by all such stories, of course, is how to make the reader interested in the new character and his or her relationship to the protagonist. Unfortunately, writer/artist David Finch fails spectacularly in addressing this issue in Golden Dawn. In this book the new character is named, without any detectable irony, “Dawn Golden.” Finch tells us that she was Bruce Wayne’s best friend before the death of his parents as well as his first romantic interest, and that now she is a young socialite in Gotham City who has gotten herself into some trouble. (As far as I can tell, we’re not supposed to wonder why she seems to be at least a decade younger than Batman in the present, despite the two appearing to be roughly the same age in flashbacks.)

Since Dawn spends most of her time on-panel either unconscious or with her mouth agape in wordless terror as Batman attempts to save her from peril, there’s little space for the most crucial aspects of this sort of plot: making the new character matter to the plot and to the reader. Dawn is little more than a cardboard cut-out of a damsel in distress, a role that could have been filled just as well without any of the murky backstory. Furthermore, she and Bruce Wayne never even meet in the present – her only interactions are with Batman. The fact that she and Bruce were childhood friends is entirely irrelevant to the story.

The paper-thin plot is perhaps to be expected – the series these issues come from, Batman: The Dark Knight, was created for Finch so that he could write and draw whatever Batman stories he wanted, regardless of what was happening in other Batman comics at the time – but that does not make its faults any more excusable. The comic doesn’t even succeed as a vehicle for Finch; apparently unable to keep up with his deadlines after just three issues (which were released over the course of eight months), Finch is replaced in issues four and five by Jason Fabok and a team of no less than six different inkers. It’s around this time, as well, that Paul Jenkins comes aboard as Finch’s much-needed co-writer (although he goes completely uncredited in the collected edition).

The issues Finch does manage to draw are filled mostly with splash pages of monsters and demons drawn in the dark, neo-Image style that he’s become famous for. More than anything, in fact, the story seems a fairly blatant re-writing of Spider-Man: Torment, the first story arc in Todd McFarlane’s early ’90s Spider-Man series. Both stories attempt to equate philosophical questions about life, death, and memory with uninspired (if not necessarily ugly) drawings of the supernatural; both also feature giant reptiles as major villains: the Lizard in Torment, and Killer Croc in Golden Dawn. The irony of these similarities is that Torment was itself an attempt to transplant the dark-and-gritty essence of late-’80s Batman comics into the Spider-Man franchise (the cover of Spider-Man #1 even sported a nonsensical caption that read “The Legend of the Arachknight”).

But for whatever other problems Golden Dawn has, its treatment of Dawn Golden is by far the most troublesome. Even worse than the book’s failure to characterize Dawn in any but the shallowest of ways (she’s extremely beautiful, in case you hadn’t guessed) is its “resolution” of her “character arc” (note the quotation marks); in the end, she is strapped to a table, tortured, and murdered by demon-worshipers. Etrigan (a “good” demon, apparently) shows up in a deus ex machina plot twist to defeat the bad guys, and his absurd, rhyming eulogy for Dawn is reflective of the blasé attitude the book has held towards her all along: “The spirit is gone, you must let her go. Know that you saved her, even so.” And then poof, he vanishes.

To see a female character developed so poorly and treated with such contempt (by her own creator, no less) is both sad and disturbing, especially in a comic as high-profile as this one. If art has just one obligation, it’s not that it need be entirely original or even technically well-crafted; it’s that it be created with good intentions – because if the aim of art is not to make the world a better place, then why bother? I’ve tried, but I see little that is good in Golden Dawn – only a book far uglier at its core than its glossy artwork would have us believe.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Review Marvel Comics The Untold Story Sean Howe HarperCollins Cover hardcover hc comic books nonfiction history
Writer: Sean Howe
Published: HarperCollins, 2012; $26.99

Most published histories of Marvel Comics have been decidedly narrow in their scope. Several have focused on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the superhero explosion of the early 1960s; others, like the Marvel-endorsed Marvel Universe and Marvel Chronicle, have centered on the evolution of the company’s characters and continuity. One book, Dan Raviv’s Comic Book Wars, has been written about Marvel’s legal wranglings in the 1990s (including its two years of bankruptcy and eventual sale to Toy Biz), and to my knowledge, it’s the only book to devote itself fully to a single period in Marvel history other than the 1960s. No other book has attempted to look as broadly (or as candidly) at the company’s business practices, publishing strategies, and editorial philosophy as Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

The enduring figures that emerge in Howe’s book aren’t fictional characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Hulk, but real-life personas ranging from Lee, Kirby, and Martin Goodman in Marvel’s early years to Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and Jim Shooter (among many others) in more recent ones. Of course, Marvel has published so many comics, and its characters have been the focus of so many cross-media tie-in products (ranging from action figures to billion-dollar movie franchises), that it would take far more than one book to detail the entirety of the company’s output. A book like this must utilize some principles of selection to narrow its focus, in other words, and the ones Howe chooses are fairly transparent: the longest and most detailed sections of the book cover the 1970s comics – written and illustrated by a motley crew of acid-trippers that included Gerber, Jim Starlin, and Steve Englehart – which introduced Howe to comic books when he was young.

At other times, though, Howe’s focus seems more arbitrary, and he makes some startling omissions. For example, there is little discussion of Marvel’s forays into licensed properties like Conan the Barbarian, Transformers, He-Man, and the Micronauts during the 1970s and 1980s. Even the acquisition of the Star Wars license merits a mere half a page, with no follow-up on Marvel’s subsequent exploitation of the franchise or the manner in which the company ended up dropping most of its licenses by the early 1990s. And while Howe is quick to point out Marvel’s penchant for allegorizing real-world issues during the 1960s and ’70s, he fails to comment on the often frighteningly conservative nature of so many comics that attempted to do the same in the 1980s, ranging from Secret Wars to The ’Nam (which briefly toppled The Uncanny X-Men, one of the comics Howe discusses most, as the industry’s highest-selling comic book).

In the end, although it’s respectable on the one hand that so much information on Marvel’s history has been gathered in one place, Howe actually tells us fairly little that hasn’t been “told” at some point before. There are even places where he uses misinformation to construct the “story” he wants to tell; Jack Kirby’s tale about encountering a crying Stan Lee as movers carried furniture out of the Marvel offices, for instance, has long been considered apocryphal. It certainly aids Howe in his aim to undermine Lee whenever possible, though, as well as in his characterization of the Lee/Kirby relationship as little more than a decades-long feud.

The book’s almost immediate status at the time of its publication as Marvel’s “definitive” history is interesting, since Howe’s book probably tells us less about Marvel’s history than it does about prevailing opinions toward Marvel (and mainstream superhero comics in general) today. In fact, with its focus on the battles fought between writers, editors, and corporate management, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story actually emerges as a sort of vague protest on behalf of creator rights. The ethics of staging such a protest in a book like this are complicated, though – more complicated, I think, than Howe seems to want to acknowledge. That’s especially true when it comes to his characterization of individual creators as essentially either saints to be pitied or sinners who deserve every lick they take – as people who have either “earned” or forfeited their rights as creators, by virtue of the quality of their work.

Howe’s heart may be in the right place, but linking a creator’s rights with the “quality” of his or her creations, even implicitly, is problematic – not just because “quality” lies in the eye of the beholder, but also because Howe often equates quality with sales figures. (It’s for this reason, I assume, that Howe feels comfortable heaping praise on creators like Frank Miller, despite the casual misogyny inherent to even the “best” of Miller’s work.) Accounted for this way, the efforts of writers and artists are of merit only in proportion to their contribution to an employer’s bank account. Sadly, this is an attitude toward creator rights tacitly espoused by a huge percentage of readers and even creators today, who are either unwilling or unable to stand up for the rights of artists and writers – or even for such universally acclaimed figures as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Alan Moore – when they (or their estates) are deliberately and blatantly wronged by Marvel and DC.

If this argument seems far-fetched, or overly cynical, then consider the example of The Avengers, the 2012 film directed by Joss Whedon. Whedon was paid more to write and direct the film than Kirby was paid by Marvel in his lifetime (and Whedon will be paid even more to work on the sequel), despite the fact that Kirby co-created nearly the entire cast of characters and toiled on the stories Marvel’s films are largely based on for nearly two decades, in some cases. Furthermore, unlike Whedon, Kirby’s name did not appear in the film’s marketing and only appeared in its end credits after controversy was raised over reports of its absence. All of these things were apparently non-issues for casual filmgoers (most of whom likely were not aware of them) or even, more surprisingly, for long-time fans in a better position to know the facts; with a worldwide gross of over $1.5 billion, The Avengers remains the third highest-grossing film of all time. Amidst its success, it was Whedon, not Kirby, who got the credit (and the paycheck).

Whedon is an exception to the rule, though; Avengers was destined for financial success, with or without him. The film was heavily marketed as “Marvel’s The Avengers,” reinforcing a disturbing perception that has entered the public consciousness in the last several years. This perception, aggressively fostered by movie-marketing campaigns but nonetheless bought into (literally) by movie-going audiences, is one of Marvel and DC not as corporations, but as the literal authors of the adventures of their franchised characters (again – “Marvel’s” The Avengers). This is the precise mentality which proponents of creator rights have long struggled to combat, and which threatens constantly to absorb the ideas of so many writers and artists within the ever-widening corporate maw that has already swallowed up so much of America’s intellectual property.

But, more to the point, it is a mentality which histories like Howe’s, in spite of its author’s seemingly good intentions, subtly reinforce. This is perhaps most obvious in the book’s title, which claims “Marvel Comics” (not “the creators of Marvel Comics”) as the subject of its “untold story.” However, it comes through even more clearly in the book’s final chapter, a sparsely written apologia for the last decade of Marvel’s cultural output which ends not with a discussion of the creators, but of their creations. “Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one custodian to the next,” Howe writes, discussing the pervasiveness of the characters across all forms of media, “and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end.”

With these lines, Howe abandons his sympathetic tone toward comics creators, who are now figured as the mere “custodians” of their own creations. And while on the one hand Howe’s final discussion of Marvel’s focus on corporate synergy is hyper-critical of the company's business strategies, the author ultimately locates tragedy not in the ways the company’s architects have been creatively straitjacketed and legally mistreated over the years, but in the fact that a collection of corporate-owned, fictional characters will never receive a proper end to “their” stories. In the end, Howe asks us to feel moral outrage on the part of multi-billion-dollar franchises rather than for the men and women who built them from the ground up, many of whom have died (or are currently dying) completely impoverished, forced to turn to fans on the Internet for help paying their medical bills.

And so, as with “Marvel’s” The Avengers and so many other examples we might draw from popular culture today, the torch of moral ownership is passed smilingly from creator to corporation. The seduction of Howe to this attitude, despite his affection for the individuals whose creative efforts have resulted in the rich history he celebrates, may well be indicative of more than the failings of a single historian. Indeed, it may point to the ultimate inability of our culture to resist the constant sensory bombardment, staged by multimedia corporations, which we face, morally and intellectually, on a daily basis. It is a frightening world, in which corporations can be popularly imagined as both the legal and moral owners of intellectual property, and in which the obligations we perceive to fictional characters and their corporate masters take precedence over our obligations to other human beings.

A Return (of Sorts)

Here’s the short version: I’m back, and I will be posting more reviews. The first one goes up later today. For the long version, read on…

A lot of things have happened in the world of comics since the last time I posted here: line-wide crossovers and big-budget superhero movies have come and gone, publishers and creators have seen their individual stars rise and fall, hundreds of new graphic novels and collected editions have been released (even as the shadow of “digital” looms over print as the inevitable way of the future), and overall, comic books have penetrated the mass culture to an extent never before seen. It’s an exciting time, fraught with the uncertainty that always accompanies transition.

There have been changes for me on a personal level, too. I finished my master’s degree and I’ve now been teaching college writing courses for two years. Fittingly enough, I’ve come to realize that teaching college freshmen to be better writers makes you a better writer yourself – or, at least, it makes you think more about the kind of writer you want to be. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last two years, most of which I’m extremely proud of. Some of it has had to do with comics – my first presentation at an academic conference, in 2011, was on the Vietnam War comics of Don Lomax – but most of it hasn’t. It took me a while to realize how much I missed it.

I did think about returning to this blog a few times, but something has always held me back. It’s tempting to make the excuse that I’ve simply been too busy – that may have been the case at certain times, but it wasn’t always. A large part of my staying away for so long was that, truth be told, I’ve become fairly dismayed with the direction the comic book industry has taken over the last few years. The downright Machiavellian tactics that Marvel and DC have leveraged against former writers and artists, along with the lowest-common-denominator blockbuster mentality espoused by both companies toward their comic book lines and movie franchises, has weighed heavily on my conscience, especially as someone who once patronized both companies without a second thought.

For a long time, I think I felt that to write about the books Marvel and DC published would be in a sense to condone actions that I found deplorable. I was still very much locked into the perception that a review was fundamentally either a recommendation or a non-recommendation – a mentality that simply couldn’t coexist with my belief that to financially support these companies, out of some naive desire to be “entertained,” was, for me, morally reprehensible. I still often feel this way, although I am trying to see things in less black-and-white terms and to be more understanding of those who have made choices different from my own.

The main thing that’s changed for me is the way I think about criticism. One of the main reasons I stopped posting here was that, by the time I started teaching (shortly after my last post), I was having a hard time seeing writing comic book reviews as being “my place” anymore. I enjoyed doing it, but it was awfully time-consuming and it didn’t seem like the kind of “academic” writing that leads to a tenure-track job – not because of the subject matter, but because criticism is widely perceived as a non-academic form of writing.

Then I came into contact with the work of the film critic Robin Wood, who has expanded my outlook toward many things – not the least of which is the role of criticism itself. According to Wood, the critic is “committed to self-exposure…s/he must make clear that any response to a work of art or entertainment is grounded not only in the work itself but in the critic’s psychological makeup, personal history, values, prejudices, obsessions” (Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan xiii). In this respect, the work of the critic is more personal than that of the scholar or theorist, and as such it is intrinsically braver and riskier. In the hierarchy of criticism, scholarship, and theory, Wood argues, “criticism occupies (or should occupy) the highest position, simply because the critic is the only one centrally and explicitly concerned with the question of value, which is the most important – the ultimate – question” (xiv).

True criticism, in the sense that Wood discusses it, is exceptionally rare. Most reviews of comic books – and, for that matter, of movies, television, literature, and music – do concern themselves with the question of value, but only superficially: “is this a work that’s worth your time, your money?” Far fewer reviews address the question of a work’s intellectual or ideological value: “What arguments, implicit and explicit, does the work make about our society, about how we should live? Carried to their logical extremes, do the arguments hold up?” Frequently they do not, and because so many reviews concern themselves first and foremost with superficial questions, they miss the most crucial aspects of the works they discuss.

I think I came close to writing true, un-superficial criticism a small handful of times on this blog, particularly in my reviews of 9/11 Heartbreaker and Monkey vs. Robot. Those were reviews in which I wrote very personally, with little concern for specifically “recommending” the books in question, and they are among the reviews I remain proudest of having written. By contrast, the posts I’m least proud of are the ones which, in the end, were little more than long-winded recommendations (or non-recommendations). Recommendations have their purpose – in fact, I contribute to a weekly post at the Collected Comics Library which spotlights noteworthy upcoming collected editions – but they are not criticism in the true sense.

I’m not sure whether I have the ability to consciously and consistently produce true criticism or not, but I would like to try. I think it’s what I always wanted to do with this blog, although it took a few years away for me to begin to see how I might go about it. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I approach my writing here with such a clear objective in mind. The reviews I write going forward will be significantly different, I hope, from most that I wrote in the past – I will not give the books numerical scores, for example, and I will not presume to tell “you,” the hypothetical reader, how to spend (or not spend) your time or money. I can speak only for myself – or, more specifically, as Wood writes, from my own “beliefs and values, political position, background, [and] influences” (xiv). I hope the result will be something unique and interesting that can stand next to the work of the critics and bloggers whose writing I most admire.

I’d like to close this post by giving thanks to several individuals who have played a part in my return to this blog: to fellow bloggers Matches, dl316bh, Kris Shaw, Mark Ginocchio, Doug Glassman, and Collected Editions, for producing excellent content and entertaining my ramblings in the comment sections of their own collected editions blogs over the last two years; to the “regulars” of IGN’s Comics General Board, the community that has been my home on the web for more years than I care to count; to my fellow contributors for the Collected Comics Library’s “Six Collected Editions” column, for producing stellar recommendations each and every week; to all of the people who have left a comment or emailed me about the blog during my absence; and to the CCL’s Chris Marshall, for ultimately getting me back in the game.

See you here later today for the first of the new reviews.