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Commentary Track for the July 28th Buy Pile

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Every week I do a column full of comic book reviews as I’ve done since March 2003 and currently published at Comic Book Resources. Then, after the reviews post, I try to come over to my blog and expand on the thoughts and ideas listed there. Sometimes it’s profound, sometimes it’s gibberish, but it’s always about comics … let’s see what we get this week!

What? This week’s reviews

As noted, the reviews from last week did not post on CBR, and the apparent cause was that somebody didn’t check an email address that I was allegedly told to stop using. I can’t find any record of that communication, but time marches on and waits for nobody to complain about some old isht.

I already hyped up the big movie deal struck by Stranger Comics for their new (and as yet unpublished) property The Untamed, which has a host of big names involved (produced by Lloyd Levin from Watchmen and Andrew Sugerman from the very creepy, very involving Shopgirl, plus Eureka creator Andrew Cosby directing and Matrix effects guru Ken Locsmandi making with the pretty). This week, I dropped a blog on the fixation on the lone anti-hero and why that’s important culturally for Stranger Comics’ blog. Big things developing over there, and I’m keeping my eye on it.

Now, this week’s comics … yuck. I’m tempted to cover last week, let’s see …

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: I use some terms in the reviews that may not have a definition posted, and you can get a look at some of my rules, gleaned from a lifetime of consuming fiction as well as my training as a writer. They are as follows …

TV GOOD: When you’re flipping through channels and you land on something that looks interesting enough to sit and watch. You might even set a TiVo for it or add it to a Hulu queue. The point is that it’s good enough to enjoy if it doesn’t make you go to any extraordinary lengths: it’s not a pay-per-view, it’s not a premium service like On Demand, it’s just on the TV you have and you are willing to look at it as long as it doesn’t cost you anything extra or make you work for it. Many “okay” comics fall in this category for me (and therefore for the column). Often used in conjunction with or in place of “not bad.”

PLOT’S NOT TIGHT/DRIFTING: There are comics that feel perfectly balanced on each and every page. Most of the issues of Dingo for example or a couple of Astro City pieces (the one with Beautie, for certain, and the Infidel’s dinner with the Samaritan). On the other hand, there are issues that start strong and peter out near the end (the first issue of that recent Black Widow series) or ones that chatter on endlessly without having any real story beats (most Avengers books) or hit plot points without making them mean anything through characterization (a lot of Kirkman books like Invincible). Those are all examples where a plot tune up is needed, likely by a more certain editorial hand (and many of the sure editorial hands have seen their workloads increased while the number of assistants they can call on diminishes).

THE TRAILER PARK THEORY: This was huge through DC’s onslaught (52 and Darkest Night/Brightest Day in particular). It goes like this. Show a few pages of something happening to somebody. Move on. Martian Manhunter gloomily considers his past, and gets an idea to go somewhere to check something out. Cut to the new Black Aqualad standing dreadlocked in the middle of a desert looking around like “WTH?” Cut to Hawk punching somebody and Dove looking worried. Cut to Aquaman and Mera with some oceanic backdrop. Cut to some supposedly suspenseful scene with Aliveman or Whiterstorm. End comic book. That’s not a story. That’s a series of movie trailers, stapled together and sold for three or four bucks. Not cool. It’s like decompression’s ADHD little cousin.

BALANCE OF BANTER AND BASHING: A good comic compels. There are issues of Transmetropolitan that had literally nothing but people talking, yet contained such dramatic tension that it didn’t matter. The average capes-and-masks book needs to balance action scenes (mostly melee combat, but you can make with a good chase scene or even a particularly thrilling rescue) with plot development/character scenes (talking/working on stuff in labs/pointing at the sky/fixing stuff/et cetera). Balancing this is hard. I went to college to learn it and still stumble. When it happens it’s amazing. When it misses wildly it can disappoint or break your heart. There’s a lotta ground in between.

RETROGRADE: Let’s say you started reading comics in the early 1990s. Let’s say, suddenly, you have a chance to write for a major comics company. You start pitching a story where a super powered team of misfits who sometimes have problems getting along work for the government, bringing down the bad guys. Or, as many people would call it, “X-Factor” or “Stormwatch” or “many iterations of The Avengers” or “Suicide Squad,” et cetera, ad nauseum. Does your approach have a really unique spin (don’t say “Some characters are gay!” or I’ll scream “The Authority, in their Stormwatch days” and don’t say “they’re people of color!” because I can dig through and find some examples of that, just probably not from major companies)? What’s different about your approach, so much so that it’s worth my money?

What’s that? You just wanna retell the stories you grew up on, adding gratuitous violence, pop culture references or prurient content for shock value to show how extreme and hip you are? I’m sorry, we already have The Ultimate Universe. BE ORIGINAL … or as original as you can be, or I’ll label your work “retrograde,” meaning “been there, done that, no improvements found here.” To be fair, there’s nothing new under the sun, but even when Image Comics asked me to come up with a way to have “Luke Cage done right” I changed almost everything I could, from geography to family to power set to source of the powers. That never got made, but whatever, let’s stay on target here!

PEDESTRIAN: I don’t remember when I first saw a fan image of Hal Jordan as a White Lantern, but I do recall that it was at least six months before it actually happened in a real comic book. If plot elements are that easy to predict, that far out, then it feels like anybody could be coming up with this stuff, as common as any of the feet falling on concrete and blacktop.

MOMENTUM: You’re telling a story, and you somehow manage to draw the crowd in (doesn’t matter how, be it stunning visuals or intriguing developments or an action sequence that grabs you by the throat, flips you over and has its way with you, like the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan). Once you’ve captivated them, you veer off into a nineteen point dissertation on procedural points for a fictional governing body. In developing your story, you might need to know those details and intricacies, but unless you’re producing a reference work, your reader probably doesn’t need to. Stay on target. Keeping momentum once you have it helps create those “I couldn’t put it down!” kind of reads, and those are far too few in the comics world, IMNSHO.

NAZIS/ZOMBIES/PIRATES: Sorry, if I see any of these types of characters, my eyes starts to glaze over. The Nazis perpetrated the largest atrocities of the twentieth century, and were the last people to help push an entire world towards war with their fascism. This is the twenty first century. Terror is the enemy, whether your opponent is a suicide bomber, a Predator drone or a paunchy cop with a bad attitude. It’s a new day, and the horrors of yesteryear served their purpose. I believe in looking forward while still being able to remember what happened before.

BUY ON SIGHT: The opposite of the above. For example, Fables has consistently been the best series on the stand … like for years. I pick it up and I have a reasonable expectation of a level of entertainment worth the money. I’ve come to trust the series and its creative team, and rarely has that trust been misplaced. On the other hand, Wonder Woman has barely been interesting since the Embassy days, and then it was a thin margin. I have no trust, so each issue must try to win me over, as I want to like everything I pick up. Yes, that means I live with a lot of disappointment. I deal.

If three issues in a row are worth owning, I label a series “buy on sight.” If three issues in a row of a “buy on sight” title are bad, I drop that designation. Simple rule. I’ve been waiting for, say, X-Factor to quit messing around in third gear and haul ass like it used to, becoming a “buy on sight” title again. Ditto Legion of Super Heroes and G0dland. Off the top of my head, some “buy on sight” titles include …

  • Invincible Iron Man
  • Secret Six
  • Doomwar (although it needs a kick in the pants, and I’m not sure Deadpool is it)
  • Almost anything that is from the Astro City line
  • Gravel (took a while to get there)
  • The Great Ten
  • Almost any book with Amadeus Cho as a lead character

There’s probably more, but those leap to mind easily. I’m not in much of a mood to go with the “ones that almost never get it right” list.

More than I expected there, but that should help me when people ask me repetitive questions. I do love a good reference work.

WHAT ABOUT THE ACTUAL COMICS YESTERDAY, JACKASS? Oh, right, sorry. Interrogator was cooler than his name, and I liked that a lot (much like the reworkings of Xamot and Tomax — that’s a way to avoid being “retrograde”). Deep Six is an underwater version of Tripwire without having any of his motivations revealed. It could do better.

Kieron Gillen has a great grasp on Thor as a character and keeping the Asgardians in an awe-creating position but making them relatable as well. There’s no simple definitive like last issue’s matter-of-fact “To Hell,” but Mephisto is a delight, as was (honestly) Ultimate Captain Marvel. Less “drift” could have helped both. (I like this reference system already, I should put anchor links in … and done).

Incorruptible is literally inches away from being a “buy on sight” book.

I am afraid that Artifacts is too ambitious.

The Black Cat book made me wanna check out the show Leverage. Well, that and the Kung Fu Monkey blogs about it.

BEFORE I FORGET … Oh, did wanna note from las: week: there was a bit about ancient Egyptian (once called “Kemetic”) spirituality in Prince of Power #3 where Sekhmet was transformed into “Hathor” (it’s really “Het Heru,” but the Kemetic approach to vowels often confounds westerners), which was mostly accurate except for the fact that the Kemetic goddess of love actually has the head of a cow. Making that work visually, transforming a lion-headed angry goddess into a nice cow-headed one … that would have been tough. Sure, she looked like Bast (who’s been revealed as the 616’s universe’s Panther God for the Wakandans), but I can actually allow that one.

Okay, screw that noise, off I go.

Playing (Music): “Thank God” by Malcolm & Martin

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