Monday, December 7, 2009

Because I Was Losing Track of Which Earth This Was

OK, so I just learned about this. More details here (warning: link to AICN).

My first thought: this could be big. Very, very big.

Don't misunderstand me. In terms of the actual stories they apparently plan to tell, this sounds, um, inessential. Well, OK: unbelievably boring. But I'm saying that from the perspective of a longtime superhero comic reader. From the perspective of a teenager who hasn't read a Superman or Batman comic before--which, let's face it, is by no means improbable these days--this could only be somewhatboring.

Um. I'm getting a little off track here. Let's circle round and come back.

The crucial thing here is not the story, it's the publishing strategy. These are trade paperback OGNs aimed specifically at the book market, with a major publisher providing the marketing muscle. That's the potential paradigm shift here. In terms of sales, what the Big Two have been doing wrong has has less to do with their subject matter than their ability to break out of their fanatically loyal but tiny audience pool. Recent attempts to do so have largely been well-meaning but somewhat doomed, because they were creating material for new readers with no way for those new readers to get to them. Not only were they sold in the terrible pamphlet format, which in and of itself is forbidding to anyone who isn't a hardcore nerd, they were plunked on the direct market store* shelf alongside Rape Avenger and BoobGirl or whatever. And since "new readers" generally translate to "kids", you can imagine how well these have raked in the newbies.

This all seems pretty obvious to me, and I doubt many people would disagree, though given that a lot of people have a vested interest in the direct market they may balk at what needs to be done. But there's been pretty much no excuse for DC and Marvel to keep doing this; their job, or the jobs of the comic divisions at least, is to get their product out there, and they've suffered from an appalling lack of leadership in this regard. You get the definite sense that it's a combination of nerdy short-sightedness and fogeyism; bizarrely, a lot of comics publishers seem to be genuinely convinced--still--that the gold rush of the early 90s is going to return, and that that was ever a logical model for selling comics in the first place. I think that's part of the emphasis on the pamphlet format, and the reason they charge so much per issue; they're still stuck, if only subliminally, in the collector's mindset. Or rather, a lot of their readers are, and attempts to force them to move on have failed, so they figure they may as well keep catering to that attitude.

This, of course, goes against the whole reason pamphlets were created in the first place: they were cheap. You could buy a stack of them and not be out much money, which meant that your buying habits could be dictated by nothing more than "that looks cool". Which is how people would prefer to buy things, generally. When the prices get jacked up to the level they're at it becomes a matter of YOU MUST BUY THIS ISSUE BECAUSE IMPORTANT CONTINUITY STUFF HAPPENS, which is a pitch that only appeals to the hardcore. I really do think it's as simple as that.

So. Now we have DC launching this series which will be more accessible (it's an odd fact that Graphic Novels, even if they're more expensive than the individual issues that make them up, still feel more satisfactorily priced, because you get the sense that you sat down and read a full story), and are going to be plunked down where the non-hardcore can see them. I don't think a lot of Jane Austin fans are going to be compelled to pick this up, but the vast potential audience of "kids and teens who saw the movie" are actually being reached. Combine that with some actual marketing which, again, will presumably go beyond "Previews", and you've got the potential for superhero comics to actually become a popular genre again.

Now, I still think there are a lot of potential missteps here, starting with the subject matter. No one, and I mean no one, needs a new retelling of Superman or Batman's origin at this point. DC is clearly playing it safe, the way they've done with their animated movie series, but I think they're misjudging the market a little. The kid's and young adult's book audience is not as pathologically addicted to comfort food as the adult superhero audience; they're probably, on the whole, more likely to be looking for something new and different, especially if they're picking up a graphic novel for the first time. A new story featuring either of these two characters would probably go over better with new readers, not to mention the many lesser characters DC can't peddle to geeks but who could be big with kids. (If their next offering is a well-done Wonder Woman story, I think it could be huge--the ratio of girls looking for stuff to read is immensely higher in "real" bookstores.)

And it doesn't look much like these stories are aimed at younger kids, which is already a fairly successful audience for graphic novels that make it to bookstores. Likewise, even aside from the tiresome grim 'n' grittiness of many current titles (and both Straczynski and Johns are guilty of this) there's a sense of self-importance around superheroes that has led to lousy storytelling--decompression, talkiness, cloying pop culture references, you know the drill. These comics are so busy trying to be REAL ADULT DRAMA that they've forgotten the fun and imagination that appealled to kids, which is how they saturated the culture in the first place. If these new books are too heavy on the "standing around angsting" school of comics, they may not find traction.

But this might not matter. I think that a lot of comics fans--and I'm guilty of this--focus too much on the nitty gritty of the stories, thinking that there's some magic element we're missing that will achieve popularity. It's good in a sense, because it keeps us honest, and anything that can draw superhero comics back from the morass of self-referential wankery that they're constantly threatening to fall into is a good thing. But the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of cruddy movies, TV shows, and books that achieve massive popularity, and they're not, on average, any better than the average lousy comic. So I'm led to believe that yes, it is a failure of delivery rather than a failure of content that's been holding comics back. The new approach is a huge step, and it might be all it takes to break the logjam. I'll be watching this with interest...

*I happen to be lucky in that I have always had access to appealing, well-run comics stores; Toronto probably has more of these per square mile than any other city in North America, except maybe San Francisco. But even here, I've encountered enough of the traditional fleapits run by people with terrible social skills to relate to the horror stories, and let's face it, the very material offered by the comics industry lends a certain off-colour character to all but the most specialist of stores.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Look at the awesomeness! I got this piece of Lemuria fanart from one Steph Cherrywell:

Steph, it turns out, is the creator of Intragalactic, a comic that I shamefully hadn't heard of--shamefully because I love space travel humour strips. I've been letting my webcomic trawling slide quite disgracefully over the past year, actually. Anyhoo, the strip's about a futuristic ice cream truck...ship and its zany crew, led by captain Benjamin Glee, who despite the name is a woman. In fact, she's an almost dementedly brave, cheerfully oblivious woman who's packing some extra pounds.

I think you can see Ms. (Mrs.?) Cherrywell and I seem to be of one mind here.

The strip's absolutely hilarious, and the archives aren't too huge, so go read it right now!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Origin You Glad I Wrote This?

So apparently the filmmakers, or at least the star, of the upcoming Green Lantern movie are saying that it "won't be a laboured origin story". This is the kind of thing that makes fanboys breathe a sigh of relief, since the common wisdom would have it that spending too much time on the origin is a mistake in a superhero movie. And I agree...except...

What do we mean by "origin", exactly?

Because when I started to think about it, I realized that there are very few superhero movies that don't have their hero gaining their amazing powers within the first twenty minutes or so. It sometimes takes longer to get them into the costume and adopting the pose of superpowered crime fighter; Batman Begins was nearly half over before Batman made his first appearance, and Spiderman in his classic suit wasn't much faster on the scene. You can see why they made those decisions, though: Batman was rebooting the franchise, setting themselves apart from the Schumacher films with a new beginning, so it made sense to tell that story, and Spiderman--well, more on him in a moment.

All the others usually have their powers and costume by the end of act one (Iron Man has a prototype version of his costume, but it's still a costume). That seems reasonable to me; so why do so many superhero movies feel kind of pedantic and slow to begin?

I think it's because there's often a lot more to a superhero's "origin" than how he got his powers and costume. There's also the question of how he (or she, but let's face it, if it's a lone hero, it's always he) got his personality. And that's exactly the kind of thing that can make for the plot of a movie, so naturally it's going to form the spine of his first outing. So far, so good. Except...

A lot of people who make superhero movies seem to think that a superhero's character arc needs to be "how he became a hero". And this is where the problem arises.

There's only one superhero character who's journey towards heroism, in the movies, is legitimately interesting: Spiderman. You could maybe make a case for Wolverine, too, but his attitude towards heroism doesn't strictly change much, it just gets recontextualized (i.e. he's the Clint Eastwood-type loner who learns to care about the people around him/becomes politically aware). All the other superhero characters were given fairly simple, straightforward origins in their respective origins, and no one's ever been able to retcon these satisfactorily. Few have even tried. That's because, in the comics, if the hero doesn't take a relatively heroic pose early on, it's awful hard to get them fighting crime and thus make the story happen.

The end result is the plot element I hate most in any superhero movie: The Hero Must Learn To Use His Powers (usually while coping with everyday life). That might seem like a weird thing to hate on, but I think it gets to the root of what I'm complaining about here.

Look at Iron Man, for instance. Decent enough movie, but it's marred by a second act that is comprised almost entirely of The Hero Must Learn To Use His Powers (or, uh, THMLTUHP, I guess). He foils a few villains, low level terrorists, who are essentially just the classic Bank Robbing Thugs you always see get taken out in these movies. They may as well be practice dummies. Meanwhile the Big Bad Villain is scheming away with his evil schemes, schemingly, but doesn't do anything until act three. The fact that this works at all is because Robert Downey Jr. is always fun to watch, and director Jon Favreau knows how to direct actors noodling around and hanging out, but it's still a loooooong stretch of nothing much that could easily, from a writing perspective, have been trimmed.

The Fantastic Four movie is the worst offender. I've heard that the early Fantastic Four scripts opened with the FF already in their classic forms, having already become world famous heroes, and I think that's exactly right; everything about the FF that's interesting comes after the basic setup has been taken care of. So of course, in the movie we got, director Tim Story lets that setup last for most of the movie. Forget exploring anywhere or going on adventures or anything; most of the movie is spent sitting around the Baxter building, while Johnny Storm almost, but not quite, does something interesting with his powers, and Dr. Doom slooooowly morphs into the form we all know him in.

I think every superhero needs their own pace in terms of this stuff (I don't really have a problem with the first X-Men, for instance, because it was bringing together a large cast in a complex world), but the point is that THMLTUHP is frequently a dull patch that drags down the middle of a movie while we wait for the good stuff to start up again. Future superhero movie directors: If you MUST have THMLTUHP scenes, make sure they go along with the actual plot, or provide some interesting character scenes, or something.

And if you're pulilng this crap because you don't have the budget to fill the movie with superhero stuff, maybe you, y'know, shouldn't be making a superhero movie at all. I'm just sayin'.