Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - "We're not exactly a team..."

This was previusly posted to my other blog; you can read it at http://watercolour-horizons.blogspot.ca/2013/09/review-agents-of-shield-were-not.html

Joss Whedon just handed us some of the best (geeky) television you're likely to find...again.

I was going to start this post with "Marvel just handed you...", and then realized that Marvel actually has very little to do with this show. I'm reasonably sure you all now now what I'm talking about here, since a significantly large chunk of the world just finished watching the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. And yeah, it was frakking great.

But yes, back to Marvel, and how little we can blame them for the sheer level of awesome on the screen. As we all know, everything Joss touches turns to gold: vampire slayers, Shakespeare, talking toys, you name it. This time, it isn't even just him. This show's credits include Jed Whedon, Jeph Loeb, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch...big guns in the comics industry and brilliant creators every one. This show is going to survive because of the sheer creative force it has behind it. And because it's not DC...

I went there. I have innumerable issues with the way DC Comics is running things these days, and you can read my griping in previous posts. Not all their content is terrible; Jeff Lemire is writing a pretty damn solid Green Arrow storyline right now and giving that title the creative stability it was pining for ever since the reboot, and hell if I don't find myself loving Arrow in all it's artifical CW-ness. I'm a sucker for a Mike Grell homage. But DC has none of the brilliant consistency that Marvel has managed to weave through its properties, and the damage is ever so painfully visible. Marvel is seeing none of the massive conflict erupting over the canonical validity of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, which has nothing to do with DC's monthly titles except having influenced a "new" (2008) way of drawing the Joker, and the more recent post-New 52 Man of Steel, making yet more costume changes to Big Blue. Kudos to Jeff Lemire for gradually bringing the Emerald Archer abstractly in line with Arrow, since that's pretty much the extent of DC's storytelling cohesion. If they were on top of their game to the same extent as Marvel, there would be a Wonder Woman movie in the works to complement Grant Morrison's upcoming graphic novel. We'll just keep dreaming...

With the immense success of The Avengers on the silver screen came the launch of the Marvel NOW! event, a regrouping of Marvel's properties into what Skye would call the "brave new world". In a genius move they canonized the events of that most recent blockbuster, moving fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson off the screen and into the comics. He features in the Secret Avengers title, a good read, if you get the chance, with more than a passing resemblance to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are obvious differences, of course. The "brave new world" of Agents is new to the idea of superheroes, while the universe in the comics is anything but. I think I understand why this is so effective: Marvel is solving the long-standing issue of new readers in a way DC never considered. New readers approaching superhero comics have long faced a dilemma; with decades of back-issues piling up, where's a gal or a guy to start reading if he wants to get a handle on a character's backstory? Instead of taking their comics titles back to origin and retconning 70-odd years of story coughnewfiftytwocough, Marvel decided to tell their heroes' stories from the beginning on the silver screen and bring their comics to bear on a similar course. It's an elegant solution. In the words of Mike Peterson, it's no longer a disaster, "it's an origin story."

So, yeah. Coulson's back in action, there's a serious Iron Man 3 connection in play, and between the flying cars and witty banter this new show has enough Whedon-level awesome to keep me watching for...well, forever, really. It will be great fun to see how the show leads into the upcoming Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron feature films. As for comics, the show offers a great new jumping in point for those intrigued by the world of superheroes. So with beer in hand I applaud you, Joss Whedon. You've done it again.

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We Got So Angry We Missed the Point - Harley Quinn's Nude Suicide via The Fourth Wall

This post was first published on my other blog; you can read it at http://watercolour-horizons.blogspot.ca/2013/09/we-got-so-angry-we-missed-point-harley.html

DC comics blew it this month, and let's be clear: I am far from the only person writing about this.

It started when an editorial team walked off the job. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced last week that they are leaving the staff of DC's Batwoman title, citing editorial interference from their higher-ups when it came to the marriage of Kate Kane (Batwoman) to her lesbian fiancee, police officer Maggie Sawyer. Williams' Twitter feedback on the issue was heartbreaking. "We fought to get them engaged," he wrote, "but were told emphatically no marriage can result." DC rep Dan Didio has made it abundantly clear in the past days that DC is steadfastly opposed to their heroes having anything approaching a normal personal life.

“They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck….Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” (Dan Didio, Baltimore Comicon 2013)

I have a lot of feelings about that edict, and you can read about them in terms a different incident here. There's a ton of baggage that comes with the news that DC vetoed this marriage, including their over-the-top publicity when Green Lantern Alan Scott came out as gay last year and the impending writing run of notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card on the Adventures of Superman title. DC has played with cat-and-mouse with homosexuality in the New 52, and all of it has been blatantly non-committal. This last move crossed the line for a lot of readers, regardless of Mr. Didio's assertions that it is in no way related to the characters' sexual orientation. I, and my fellow perturbed readership, refuse to believe that DC is so wholly ignorant of the social climate into which they are dumping comics. And if they are...well how the hell did that happen??

On the heels of that faux-pas came the announcement of a contest. As a young, aspiring comics illustrator I used to dream of opportunities like this: DC holding open tryouts to have your work published in an upcoming issue. And now it's happened, and the comics community at large is somewhat aghast, while the feminist community is downright outraged. I can't really blame them, at all. The scenario is this: DC set out criteria for four comics panels to be drawn and submitted by participants. They depict the mentally unstable character Harley Quinn repeatedly attempting to kill herself using outrageously creative methods. It is the fourth of these panels that has garnered the bulk of public backlash:

PANEL 4Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen. (http://www.dccomics.com/node/305151)

It blew up in DC's face right off the bat. Talk about the depiction of women in comics is hardly new fodder for the online debate machine, and all the old axes were pulled out of the shed, ready to grind. Jezebel.com got their hate on. Twitter exploded with accusations of misogyny and the sexualization of suicide, and Jim Lee (bless his heart) stood forth in a "Twitter Essay" to defend DC and their rationale for the contest. To be fair, he made some good points. There is a lot of wiggle-room in the area of creative interpretation to take those guideline and produce something, if not "wholesome", at least comical. Writer and inker Jimmy Palmiotti thinks so, at least. He allegedly claims that the whole contest was meant to have slapstick, Looney-Toons-esque flavour to it. Whoever wrote the contest guidelinesforgot to mention that bit of information. And since Harley has been portrayed in her recent comics as increasingly disturbed and hyper-sexual, it is not unreasonable to assume that DC is looking for submissions with a dark, deranged flavour to them. We are talking about the infallibly devoted lover of a man who recently skinned off his own face and left it spiked to the wall of an asylum for the criminally insane. Kiddy-style Saturday morning cartoons aren't exactly the same realm of entertainment. Now, the kicker...

September is Suicide Prevention Month.

Let that sink in, and know that you are wondering the same thing as everyone else: What the f*** were they thinking?

It is one thing to refuse marriage rights to LGBTQ characters that are, yes, your creative property, and then argue that the decision is in no way connected to their sexual orientation and feign ignorance at the concern of your readership. It is quite another to be so utterly oblivious to real-world issues that you ask the public to participate in a celebration of violence with the tagline "Breaking into comics was never this fun. ;)", and unleash it on the world during a month when real people are struggling with and coming to terms with these issues. This goes beyond mere ignorance, outside the realm of honest-mistake-driven insensitivity. It's at a point where we, the many critical readers of comic books, are starting to wonder if DC is on a campaign of "deliberate self-sabotage."

It should be pretty clear at this point why people from various public camps are miffed at DC right now. Angry. Furious, even. I myself would describe my response as being twofold.

Baffled and disappointed.

Because I don't understand how a massive corporation driven by the consumption of creative product, which must be running research programs to figure out what will go over well with the fans, could possibly blow it on this scale. I mean, isn't that exactly the reason we haven't seen a Wonder Woman feature film yet? At least that's the online speculation: DC doesn't know how to do a film with a complex female lead without pissing people off, and so...they haven't. But let's go ahead and tell people it's going to be fun to draw an emotionally troubled character killing herself during Suicide Prevention Month. This distresses me because I have for several years now been working on a thesis concerning the social relevance of comics. The medium has a history of tackling socially relevant issues head-on, such as drug abuse in the 70s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. So I'm pretty confused. Has comics completely lost touch? Or is this an ass-backwards attempt by DC to touch on Suicide awareness in their own (funny?) way?

Now, something escaping a lot of the critique is the fact that there is a very specific purpose for this contest. The work chosen from the contest submission will be included as a page in an "audition issue", Harley Quinn #0. The character is getting her own title, and the creators have decided to audition a number of artists by having them draw segments of the story and then breaking the Fourth Wall. Harley Quinn herself will be walking through the issue and critiquing each artist's representation of her (in a very Deadpool-like manner, for those of you familiar with Marvel's nefarious character). Jim Lee has weighed in on the intended nature of this exercise, as has Jimmy Palmiotti. If all were to go according to plan, they'd end up with something very similar to the 1953 Looney Toons episode "Duck Amuck". It might, in fact, be a perfect example of what they're looking for. And you know what, good on them. They're thinking outside the box, asking new artists to insert themselves into an artistic tradition in comics that includes Grant Morrison's groundbreaking Animal Man run. It's good to note in all this discussion that Morrison's character Crafty was a "thinly-disguised Wile E. Coyote; even a proponent of comics as influential as Morrison could be seen drawing from Looney Toons as he manipulated fourth-wall precepts. DC clearly had nothing but good intentions, and nobody out there needs any more reminding about the construction work that gets done with good intentions. The wording in the contest guidelines suggests that Harley is conscious but not in control of her actions within this comic (ie "She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.", "...she cannot believe where she has found herself.") With that in mind, I want to re-analyse the request that DC is making of the artists.

The artists are being asked to put a character in self-induced, life-threatening situations, while assuming that said character is unwilling, distressed by these situations, and conscious of what is happening. DC has asked artists to force Harley Quinn into attempted suicide against her will.

Or so it appears on the surface.

Now, I'm a Fine Arts major. There's a lot of philosophy that comes into play at this point regarding Death of the Author, creative intention, and so on. We've pretty much established that DC's intention were pure, albeit grotesquely naive. What is left is fairly simple: what will be submitted. There are a number of campaigns out there right now to flood the submissions inbox with either inane shit or blatant social commentary, and at the end of all this Jimmy Palmiotti will choose a piece, and some young artist will get a huge break in the world of superhero comics. That choice will say a lot about the effect all this controversy has had on DC's editors and on the artists who chose to still take the contest seriously and put their best foot forward. I myself will walk to my local shop which I love so dearly and buy a copy of Harley Quinn #0, and I'll probably read it with a mug of coffee on a Saturday morning, as is my wont. I want to know exactly who succeeded in breaking down that fourth-wall, because they had some serious nerve.

Cheers,

Asher

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When Working in the Realm of Our Own Imagination

I'm going to kick this off with a good, long quote. It's from the first pages of the book a friend of mine wrote, the introduction to Jason Tondro's Superheroes of the Round Table.

"Aleister Crowley, The Great Beast of the Victorian occult revival, had a favorite joke. He claimed that this joke contained within it the secret of all magic. it went like this:

A young Englishman decided to take the train north to visit the country. when he boarded, however, there were very few seats remaining, so he took a spot on a bench opposite a middle-aged gentleman with a curiously large box on his lap. The young man noticed that this box had several holes pierced through its lid; in time his curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "Excuse me sir. I hate to interrupt, but you wouldn't happen to have some sort of animal in that box?" His fellow traveler smiled, nodded amiably, and confirmed that the box did indeed contain an animal. "Is it a small dog?" inquired the younger man. "Or a kitten? Perhaps it is a bird." But the other man shook his head and said matter-of-factly that no, in fact, the animal in the box was a mongoose. This revelation took our young man by surprise, and he started and exclaimed, "A mongoose! Why, that is a very unusual creature to have on a train, sir. What are you doing with it?" At this, his companion sighed heavily with despair, and he related the sad truth. He was on the train to visit his brother, who lived alone no small distance away. This brother had become a terrible drug addict, and now saw terrifying hallucinations around every corner. Even now, the poor fellow believed his house was infested with poisonous snakes, and he was so frightened of them that he could not even make it to the front door of his house and safety. The traveler was on an errand of mercy and would rescue his brother; he brought the mongoose to kill the snakes. Now, the young man was at first puzzled by this, and then he felt ashamed for his new friend, and he kept silent for as long as he could because he did not want to make the other fellow feel foolish. But at last he blurted out, "But sir, they are imaginary snakes!" Whereupon the other man smiled, nodded, and patted the top of his box. "But this," he said, "is an imaginary mongoose."

Crowley's point - that when confronted with an intellectual problem we must tackle that problem on its own terms, not using external values we bring with us - is no less applicable to texts than it is to magic."

I read a lot of foolishness on this site. I read a lot of comments from people who blame comics for being ridiculous, overblown, exaggerated, sappy, or idealistic. It's the equivalent of criticizing Superman for flying, because really that's just silly. People can't fly; why would I read this garbage? Of all people we as readers of comics should know that stories told in the medium of the comic should be approached and interpreted as comics. It's what they are, it's where they've come from, and there isn't a lot that's going to change that legacy any time soon. When we read comics, particularly superhero comics, since that's what this site is primarily focused on, we need to recognize that we are walking in the realm of our own imaginations. We, people of the real world, created this heroic romance. Should we not be aware enough of it to properly engage it. So I beg you, leave your real-world criticisms at the door. Forget the ins and outs of reality. Step into the fantastical and engage it on its own terms.

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Fatherhood and Batman: R.I.P Damian

The more I think about Damian Wayne's death, the more pensive it makes me. I take the role of a father pretty seriously. Much of the fiction that shaped me as a child had themes of fatherhood woven through it. We all watched as Luke confronted the black, armoured figure of Vader and faced the reality of who he was. It affected us. In the end we saw that relationship redeemed. We've watched Aragorn Son of Arathorn pick up the sword of his ancestors, seen the return of the King. We've felt Thor's struggle to lift the hammer that his father deemed him unworthy of, and joined Kirk at the helm as he strove to make his father proud. Fathers make heroes. Batman has worked at being a father forever. Since the character was created back in 1939, Bruce has taken these boys, Dick, Jason, Tim, under his wing and mentored them. He's tried his best to be a father; because of the nature of the character, this brooding tragedy that follows him everywhere, he's never been particularly great at it. Or at least, so they have written. Why not? There should be nothing more heroic in the world of romance these figures walk than the bond between father and son. They should grow to be brothers in arms, like Odysseus and Telemachus. And while Bruce has played father figure to all these lads, Damian was actually his son. Should that not have been worth something?

So here are my questions. Where is it written that character development in comics must be achieved through death of a loved one? Always someone close dying to push the hero to new lengths? Why not bring some redemption to Batman? What if he was allowed by writers to become a successful father, form a bond with his son and be the stronger for it? Imagine the Bat Family...as a real family. Imagine the bond that the Fantastic Four have, the lengths that Peter Parker has gone to to keep aunt May and MJ safe. Picture the drive that comes form having something that powerful to fight for. Wouldn't that be the greatest honour that Bruce could do his parents? And then, what about us? As creators, is it not our duty to honour the characters we bring to life? To quote Alan Moore in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, "Two sketching hands, each one the other draws; the fantasies thou've fashioned fashion thee." Moore references Escher's famous hands to bring home his lesson; that the fictions we create in turn shape us, our children, our readers. It's a great responsibility to write a story. You have a responsibility to the characters, for you control their experiences and shape their lives, and you have a responsibility to the readers who will encounter those experiences on the page and be shaped by them also. I think at this point the writers at DC are dishonouring Martha and Thomas Wayne. They are cheating Bruce. And they have, in some way, failed their readership, for at this point I find myself doubting that batman will ever be redeemed. Is that what we want, to see Bruce Wayne forever in pain? I could be wrong; maybe it is. We get a kick out of it, don't we, that pain? We love to watch him suffer, the way he's suffered for decades. And it will never change. Dick will die, and then Tim; maybe Stephanie Brown will have her throat ripped out by an ageless Joker fifty years from now. And Batman will never be whole. He'll always be the butt of the joke, "I am the night, my parents are dead", and never see his dream fulfilled.

I leave it to DC comics to prove me wrong.

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One Helluva Week In Comics - February 22nd

So, I'm a little behind in picking up my pull this month as the issues trickle in, but it's been a stellar week for reading nonetheless. I only just decided this week to start collecting the New 52 Green Lantern. The introduction of Simon Baz last year had me intrigued, and I jumped in with issue #12. I kept pulling back issues off the shelf whenever I wandered into the shop, and the character was keeping things interesting. Johns had, once again, made a valuable and worthy addition to the GL mythos, and I was loving it. So when I went in this week I picked up #14-16, in which Simon singlehandedly gives the entire Justice League a run for their money, finds the bugger that put him in this fix in the first place while using a basement full of homemade explosives to fend off an alien army, and does the impossible with his ring. Johns' writing is solid as always, and Doug Mahnke's art carries the sort of vibrant vitality appropriate to this title; I wouldn't settle for less, honestly. I decided it was high time I added this title to my monthlies, ironically just days before it was announced that Johns is leaving the title...that, however, is another story. For those of you as yet unfamiliar with Simon Baz, I must recommend you pick up Green Lantern and give it a shot.

After paging through a Marvel: Now preview book I decided to jump on the bandwagon and give it a go. It's been a while since anything new by Marvel really caught my eye, so these first few issues have been a rather pleasant surprise. Secret Avengers #1 is brilliant, a move from the team we gaped in awe at on the screen to a much more covert initiative. A little less explosive, and a lot more shadows. It feels like a crime comic rather than a supers story, which is a move I've been hoping to see marvel make with S.H.I.E.L.D. for a while. It's happening, and it's happening in style. Also from Marvel: Fearless Defenders #1, which is shaping up to be a wild ride. Those of you who know me or have read the little bit of stuff I've written should know that I take a pretty academic approach to comics literature. Part and parcel to that is numerous discussions on feminism in comics, and this series is going to become a major part of that tradition. Our protagonists are exclusively female (thus far), badass, wily, and lesbian. The dialogue is flawless and the panels are just a blast to look at. I'm looking forward to seeing where this story is going on a large scale, but also to hearing the response from the feminist comics scholars among us. Joss Whedon would be proud.

And then there was the random and entirely pleasant discovery of F.J. DeSanto's DC miniseries Insurgent. This wasn't even on my radar until a few days back when I picked it up on a whim at the shop. I am ever so glad I did. The art might not be everybody's cup of tea, but the writing is rock-solid. There are so many terribly written comics on the market today, being able to sit down with something this well-scripted is truly a breath of fresh air. The story presents a gritty look into a drastically dystopic future where cybernetics have turned people into weapons against their will. And then shit hits the fan. I won't say much more than that; you're just going to have to read it for yourself. I believe the first two issues are out, four still to come. It's a shame something this solid is only being presented as a limited run; there's a ton of potential here for a quality story that would outstrip most of what DC is publishing these days. Ah well. You can't win 'em all.

On the webcomics front (an area in which I am woefully behind), I was introduced yesterday to Nimona, the whimsical genius of illustrator Noelle Stevenson. It follows the adventures of wannabe supervillain and shapeshifter Nimona in a hi-tech yet medieval world inhabited by...you know what, nevermind. Screw the synopsis. There are political intrigues, dragons, jousting, and biomechanical arms. Now go read it.

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The Archer and His Bow: Technological Musings on Green Arrow

A friend asked me recently why I like Green Arrow so much. I said it was a loaded question, and her response was, 'well, I have an evening to kill; hit me'. So I started running through reasons and elaborating on them. What struck me was just how much the technological aspect of the character fascinates me. I've heard a lot of people argue that he's really just "Green Batman"; he has a lot of gadgets, he's really rich, his parents died, therefore.... In many ways they're correct. The Emerald Archer was created as a Batman knock-off in the '40s, complete with an Arrow Car, an Arrow cave, an Arrow signal in the sky, and a young red-clad sidekick. But the characters have diverged in the years since then, taken very different paths. So to those of you who say the gadgetry makes the characters essentially the same, I'm sorry, but you're wrong.

Green Arrow's tech is an integral part of his character, but he doesn't flaunt it. Not the way Batman and Iron Man do, at any rate, showboating and playing up the theatricality and intimidation factor of the toys at their disposal. The toys are a functional part of Ollie, and by following the progressive changes in his gear we can learn a lot about the character. In the Silver Age he used a longbow and gadget arrows designed specifically to incapacitate in a non-lethal manner. To phrase it differently, he chose a skill-based, traditional military art to deploy hi-tech projectiles that reflected his respect for human life and his desire to defuse a situation with minimal violence. This was Green Arrow in the '70's, written by Dennis O'Neil. Mike Grell, in the mid-late 80s, took a new approach to the character. Ollie relocates and retires, opening a flower shop called "Sherwood Florist". When he is forced out of retirement he goes back to basics; the longbow and hunting tips. We see the retention of tradition out of respect for days past that he wishes he could hold on to, but with this comes a realization that the world has changed and become much darker than it used to be. Ollie becomes a vigilante and a hunter, hardened by the brutality that he is fighting and taking life deliberately and repeatedly (this, for the record, is the series from which Arrow is drawing most of its cues).

Now, contemporary comics are another story. The respect for tradition has been lost and replaced by: a) the use of a compound bow and b) artists who have no idea how archery actually works. Having trained as an archer myself for thirteen years, nothing bothers me more than an illustrator who hasn't done his research. So now we have modern tech being flaunted and gadget arrows with no discernible purpose other than to maintain the characters tropes and put on a good show. Move the character to the screen, you have a similar story; Smallville took the equipment and had Ollie using a compound bow with tracking software but not shying away from lethal force when he deemed it necessary. Here there's a move away from the skill required in traditional forms of archery; the hero uses a modern edge to deliver whatever it takes as efficiently as possible. The CW's Arrow has brought us, in a way, full circle. We find ourselves back at Grell, a move that many have attributed to the modern movie-goer's love of gritty super-vigilante noir, which I can't disagree with.

That, in a very large nutshell, is the technological fascination I have with the Green Arrow, and part of the reason why I shall continue to pursue traditional methods of archery myself.

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Starling City: The Reasoning Behind The Name

There's been some complaining about the CW's new superhero series Arrow. I've heard complaints about cheesiness, about actors, but the complaint that had me the most intrigued was the city's name: why would they change the comics' perfectly good Star City into Starling City? So I did some digging. And some reading. And came up with a hypothesis. Those of you who have Mike Grell's 1987 Longbow Hunters run may have realized by now that Arrow is channeling Grell pretty directly. Longbow Hunters was keystone for a number of reasons. It was the first time comics saw Green Arrow deliberately take a life, making a blatant shift from his trademark gadget arrows to plain old broadheads designed for one thing. The character was never referred to as Green Arrow; in fact, the whole time Grell wrote the character there was no real mention of superheroes. If Ollie ever interacted with other characters from the DC universe (Hal, for example) it was on a man-to-man basis, not as heroes. He never wore a mask. And Grell decided to move the character to Seattle, a city notorious for its uncontrollable population of...starlings. So my theory is that, as a nod to Mike Grell and the way he helped shape the character, the CW has opted for a name that echoes the city we all associate with the character but has a referential connection to the setting Grell chose for the Emerald Archer.

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