Archive for the ‘Comickry’ Category

British Steel

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

cavillclarkkent

Full disclosure: I’ve been an admirer of Henry Cavill’s work (by which I mean his bone structure) for a while now. I’m fairly confident that he’s the most handsome man in the world (a position previously held by George Clooney), and he’s overdue a shot at the big time, so I was giddily over-excited to hear that he’s been cast as the new Superman.

From what I’ve seen, the general response online has been very positive. Most agree that he looks the part. He has the jawline, brilliant blue eyes and dark hair. He’s not a bad match for John Byrne’s definitive modern interpretation of the character, though no human being could look good with the bulging neck that Byrne always drew. In fact I’d say Cavill’s only flaw is that he’s perhaps too good looking for Superman, who is the most sexless of all the superheroes. Cavill is also one of the shorter actors to play the role,  but short here means 6′ 1″, so I think the magic of cinema can make it work.

As you may have heard, some people do have a problem with the casting - because Cavill is not American, and Superman is an American icon. The objection is frequently underscored with the question; “How would you feel if an American played James Bond?”

Yet it’s hard to think of a British icon who has not been portrayed by a non-Brit. Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Queen Elizabeth I and, yes, James Bond have all been played by foreigners. In fact the first actor to play Bond was an American named Barry Nelson. Technically Woody Allen also played an American Bond in the 1966 Casino Royale. Even if you don’t count that, two of the five major movie Bonds were Australian and Irish, and plenty of Americans have been considered for the part, including  Adam West, Clint Eastwood, James Brolin and Burt Reynolds.

A better example than James Bond would be Doctor Who (or the Doctor, if you’re picky), who has always been played by British actors on the show, though he, like Superman, is an alien. Some fans probably would be appalled if an American took the role, claiming there is some quintessential British quality to the character that an American can’t hope to grasp, but I would put them in the same crackpot category as the Cavill bashers.

There are some characters that probably should only be played by someone from the right country. Captain America springs to mind. He actually, literally stands as a representative of his country, down to his very name, and I think a substantial crowd would boycott an un-American Captain America. I don’t think many other characters fit in the same category. For all the rest, it’s more important that they are played as the right nationality than that they are played by the right nationality.

And when you get down to the nitty gritty, it actually makes perfect sense for Superman to be played by a non-American. I don’t mean because he’s an alien, since that obviously limits the casting possibilities (and Rene Zellweger would be wrong for the part), but because he is an immigrant. He’s an American icon because he represents the dream of coming to America to achieve. His creators came from immigrant families, and their view of America was through immigrant eyes.

Super-nerdy side note: If you read Action Comics Annual #1 from 1991, it’s established that Superman was legally recognised as having been born in the US (”from an artificial womb”) so that he would be eligible to run for president, but (a) we know that Superman was born on Krypton, (b) this is obviously a very stupid story, and (c) the immigrant reading of Superman is much more romantic and pro-American than the needlessly defensive ‘artificial womb’ reading.

A few people have also complained that Tom Welling should have got the part. You know, the kid from Smallville, who plays pre-Superman Clark Kent. There is so much wrong with this idea that it’s barely worth rebutting, but the most obvious objections are that Welling is a terrible actor with wet eyes, and making a movie that’s associated with a crappy CW show with an audience of three million would needlessly hamper the movie’s appeal. We should all be very grateful to be spared a big screen Tom Welling Superman.

On the other hand, he is an American.

Let Them Eat Beefcake

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

A recent Batman story had the character flung back into prehistory, where he communed with cavemen while dressed in underpants. The story was illustrated by Chris Sprouse, who is a superb draftsman in many ways, but he has a particular gift for archetypal square-jawed, broad-shouldered masculine men.

I saw Sprouse at a convention over the summer, when he had just got back the original art for the story. He could barely have had a chance to set up his table, and already one of the key images in the story had been snapped up by a collector. This is that image:

sprousebatman

Can you guess why it sold so quickly?

This seems to happen all the time. Any comic book image that presents a guy in a masculine, attractive, and preferably flesh-bearing pose will sell like a shot.

Partly this is because there is a hungry and under-served gay audience. I also met Archie Comics illustrator Dan Parent at a con this summer, shortly before the publication of the issue of Veronica that introduced gay character Kevin Keller, and the art for that story had already sold. It sold even before Parent got the art back from the publisher.

But it’s not just the gays, of course. Another artist at the same convention has a gift for drawing pretty fellas, and the poor guy doesn’t quite know what to do with the swarms of young women who come to him asking for commissions and throwing hundred-dollar bills in his direction.

Here’s a great unspoken secret about comic art. There are people out there who want to see hot guys. And they have money. And very few people seem willing to take that money from them.

Most comic artists today are honestly a little lost when it comes to the notion of attractive guys. Women are objectified all the time in superhero comics, and you’ll sometimes hear it said that the guys get exactly the same treatment. They’re hunky and handsome and dressed in skin-tight costumes. It’s the same, right?

blackpantherohotmu1

It’s not the same. Female characters are sexualised. Their sexual assets are amplified by their poses, by their costumes, and by their mutant anatomy. Males are not drawn sexy or sexualised. They’re drawn strong and hyper-masculine. That can lead to attractive images, but usually only incidentally – and accidentally.

I used to have a convention sketchbook where the theme was ‘beefcake’. It was not a huge success, because too many artists would visibly flounder and panic at the idea of drawing a guy ‘sexy’. Though they would try their best, and though most of them produced terrific sketches, most of them failed to grasp what ‘beefcake’ meant. Some put the men in cheesecake poses, or cheesecake outfits, as if just swapping out female anatomy for male would achieve the desired ends. Many of them made a joke of it, giving the character a funny word balloon, as if it were too embarrassing to commit seriously to the idea of an attractive man. Some of them just drew a picture of a man, and neglected to give him a shirt. And a very few of them did a great job. Mostly the gay guys. Or the lady guys.

For future reference, here’s what beefcake is about. It’s the sexualised presentation of masculine men. Men as sex objects. It is the masculine equivalent of cheesecake art, and it can be humorous and charming, but it isn’t a joke in itself, and it isn’t just ‘cheesecake with men in it’.

The men in beefcake do not lie down and stick their bottoms in the air, or bite on a fingertip and flutter their eyelids. Beefcake is not submissive. Even when the guy is beaten, bruised, or tied to a chair, he should be confident and defiant. (Beefcake icons like The Spirit and Nightwing are constantly beaten up or tied up. You usually wouldn’t see cheesecake that explored these motifs because ‘tied up’ paired with ’submissive’ moves you into different territory.)

nightwingbound

Beefcake guys may offer a knowing sneer or a glowing smile, but they do not offer themselves up the way cheesecake girls do. Rather, they present themselves. That’s a subtle but important difference. They are still there to be looked at, but they’re not there to be taken. They alsowon’t dress in nipple pasties and a scanty thong, but they should show some skin – not because they dressed up sexy, but because their shirt got torn, or they just finished swimming in the lagoon, or, hey, they just weren’t wearing a lot of clothes today. It was warm on the ranch!

A cheesecake girl coming out of the shower may blush and try to cover her curves with a too-small towel. She will playfully pretend she’s been caught out. A beefcake boy coming out of the shower will let his tiny towel slip a near-indecent degree while he smiles and wipes back his hair with a conveniently popped bicep. He hasn’t been caught out at all. (Importantly, neither image should cross the line into nudity. In my view, explicit nudity has no place in either beefcake or cheesecake art.)

You’ll notice that these suggestions play in to sexual stereotypes that are better left to the past in our real world interactions. However, these are still the fantasies that work. Fantasies were never meant to be the basis for polite social engagement or sound legislative policy. Fantasy is not correct.

I admit, despite the message, and despite my gayness, I love cheesecake art. I love the aesthetic, the joy and the wit. Just about every artist I see at conventions can manage a little cheesecake art. Most Artist’s Alley tables will have a cheesecake print or two. Evidently it sells.

I think it would be worth those artists’ time to try their hand at a little beefcake as well. It may push some artists a little outside their comfort zone, but that’s a good place for an artist to be.

So here’s my challenge to comic book artists. Make a print. One good beefcake print. See what happens. The audience is out there. You just haven’t tried to tap in to it yet.

And here are some final tips for achieving good beefcake. If you’re using an established character, steer clear of the leading man – he’s too squeaky clean. Go for the underdog or the bad boy; the Jason, not the Mark. Always remember that the V line, from the broad shoulders to the tight stomach, is as essential to beefcake as the hourglass is to cheesecake. And finally, steer clear of gags and punchlines. No-one wants to see a beefcake  clown. No-one.

SDCC 2010: The Vindication of Dr Wertham

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Over half a century ago, psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham warned about the corrupting influence of comics. He drew special attention to the ‘injury-to-the-eye’ motif, a common comic trope showing eyes being threatened by sharp objects. It was Wertham’s belief that such gruesome images were encouraging delinquency in America’s youth. “The injury-to-the-eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books”, wrote Wertham, adding, “it causes a blunting of the general sensibility.”

soti-eyemotif

It took about 55 years, but yesterday, one nerd finally stabbed another nerd in the eye. If only Dr Wertham were alive today to see the promise of his fearmongering realised!

The incident happened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and reports are fuzzy, but it seems that two nerds were fighting over seat-squatting in the big hall where the major movie panels take place. And they weren’t even good seats! The police said it was off to the side of the hall! The good news is, the attacker stabbed the victim in the eye with a pen, so comics can still be tied to a culture of literacy in America’s youth.

It will be tempting for the nerd blogs and forums to read far too much into this incident over the next few days. Questions will be asked about security at SDCC (no more pens at book signings!), about the ethics of seat-squatting, and about whether rooms should be cleared between panels - though those questions are raised every year anyway.

There’s also bound to be some attempt to define and expand upon the phenomenon of ‘nerd rage’, and to link this incident to the sort of frothing, intemperate anger that manifests on online message boards, where fanboys in the comfort of their homes thoughtlessly and senselessly hurl out violently invective at writers and artists whose work they don’t appreciate.

These people are not representative, they’re just loud. There’s an inclination in some professional quarters to dismiss all online criticism because of this vocal but unpopular minority, and that’s a shame. The crazies are easy enough to identify, and their impotent anger should easy enough to dismiss. Let’s remember all the people at San Diego this weekend who have never stabbed anyone in the eye.

godhatesnerdsPhoto source.

This incident is the second brush with real-life news at this year’s Comic-Con. The first occurred on Thursday when the bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church went through with their promise to picket the convention. I’m told they lasted about half an hour, and photos reveal that they were substantially outnumbered and outclassed by the counter-protesters, who revelled in their sin of idolatry with signs boasting, ‘All Glory to the Hypno-Toad’, and, ‘Magnets How The *?*! do they work?!’ Nerd pride!

In terms of actual comics news, I’ve been disappointed by how little of interest seems to have seeped out of the convention. Last year’s big announcement from Marvel was that they had acquired the rights to Marvelman - and what an exciting rollercoaster of Marvelman comic releases we’ve had since then! This year, Marvel was a little more stealthy in hinting that it will be bringing CrossGen books back into print.

CrossGen was a publisher with promise. It boasted of having the money to present a serious challenge to the market dominance of Marvel and DC, and it offered up an interestingly diverse slate of titles. Of course, the money thing turned out to be an exaggeration, and the line folded in 2004. Disney acquired the assets in bankruptcy court, and with Marvel now owned by Disney, there was already some speculation about a CrossGen revival under Marvel.

Hopefully that’s what we’re going to get, and if this means new CrossGen books, that’s great. If it only means reprints, that’s also kind of great, just not as great. One thing that I’d really like to see the major publishers get better at is repackaging and republishing old out-of-print material - both their own and other people’s. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy some more Marvel trades that don’t have ‘Dark Reign’ or ‘Siege’ on the cover?

The big ‘other media’ news yesterday was the formal unveiling of the frighteningly handsome Avengers movie cast.

avengerscast

That’s Robert Downey Jr, that SHIELD agent guy, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and writer/director Joss Whedon. More pertinently, it’s Iron Man, that SHIELD agent guy, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye and the Hulk.

This is a much stronger cast than I think anyone ever expected, for a movie that seemed unlikely to ever get made. It should be manageable, though, as all the characters bar Hawkeye will have been introduced by other movies (and even Hawkeye is likely to cameo somewhere, probably in the Captain America movie). It also seems plausible that the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) could be one of the threats in the story, in keeping with Marvel tradition.

Two things jump out at me about this cast. First, there’s no Don Cheadle/War Machine. That actually makes sense; what’s the value of having two Iron Men in an already crowded ensemble? On the other hand, that makes it a very white cast, but it’s fair to say that the Avengers have always tended a little towards the Aryan. As great as it would be to have Black Panther or Luke Cage in there, I’d rather they were introduced in their own movies first.

Second, there’s only one woman. I would hope that they can add at least one more to the roster, and given Joss Whedon’s penchant for nerd madonnas, I’m sure he’ll find the room. Whedon has confirmed that Ant-Man won’t be in the movie, but Wasp still could be, and as Thor already brings magic into this world, it wouldn’t bend the genre to introduce the Scarlet Witch. Ms Marvel could be a lot of fun - I don’t think ladies with the basic Superman power set have been shown on-screen since Supergirl. I assume they’ll save Mockingbird for a Hawkeye spin-off.

I also have a couple of reservations about this movie. It’s going to be released in 3D, but there’s no word on whether it will be shot in 3D or converted. I’ve yet to see a live action 3D conversion that worked, and besides, I’m already bored of 3D movies - I suspect I won’t be the only one by the time this movie comes out in 2012.

I’m also reticent about Whedon as writer/director. Like Avengers comics writer Brian Bendis, Joss Whedon is very talented, but like Bendis, he has a very distinctive voice as a writer, one that tends to overwhelm the voices of the characters. I don’t think Bendis’s idiosyncracies serve an ensemble cast very well, and though Whedon has had better luck with ensembles, he still feels like an awkward fit for the Avengers.

Of course, Bendis’s Avengers books have been a big success for Marvel, and Whedon’s Avengers will likely be a huge hit as well. That’ll be one in the eye for me.

Inter-Planetary

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

planetary

Things that happened (or started) between the first and last issues of Planetary:

  • The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy
  • The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy
  • The X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk and Fantastic Four movies
  • Two Pierce Brosnan Bond movies
  • The first six Harry Potter movies
  • The last five Harry Potter books

pattinsonpotter

  • The Twilight series, from conception to completion
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • A Tom Wolfe novel
  • President George W Bush
  • The War on Terror
  • The Euro
  • Paris Hilton
  • Lindsay Lohan
  • The marriage of Jon and Kate, and the births of Plus 8

kanyefish

  • Kanye West
  • Pop Idol, Survivor, Big Brother UK
  • Tina Fey
  • CSI - all flavours
  • The Wire
  • Six Feet Under
  • Napster
  • Windows XP
  • Wikipedia

ythelastman

  • Y The Last Man, by Vaughan and Guerra (60 issues)
  • 100 Bullets, by Azzarello and Risso (100 issues)
  • Robert Kirkman
  • Bill Jemas
  • Brian Michael Bendis at Marvel
  • America’s Best Comics, including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and JH Williams III’s 32-issue run on Promethea
  • 25 issues of Astonishing X-Men, with art by… John Cassaday
  • Thunderbolts, Fell, The Authority, Astonishing X-Men, Gravel, and much more from… Warren Ellis
  • The ’00s, basically.

Bonus! Things that happened (or started) between the releases of Planetary #26 and Planetary #27:

  • President Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Prime Minister Gordon Brown
  • President Barack Obama (and the entire US election campaign)
  • The execution of Saddam Hussein
  • Governor Sarah Palin
  • Former Governor Sarah Palin

sarah-palin-wink

  • The Wii
  • The PlayStation 3
  • The Writers’ Guild of America Strike
  • 28 issues of Buffy: Season Eight
  • Lady Gaga
  • Hulu

lolplanetary

  • I Can Has Cheezburger?
  • The Twitter phenomenon
  • Torchwood
  • Two Daniel Craig Bond films
  • One Harry Potter novel and two Harry Potter films
  • The relaunch of Planetary’s host universe, the Wildstorm Universe.
  • Twice

The first issue of Planetary hit the stands in May 1999. Planetary #26 came out in October 2006. The final issue, Planetary #27, is due out tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

Two Houses, Both Alike in Dignity

Monday, August 31st, 2009

The House of Mouse is buying the House of Ideas. If you don’t speak cutesy corporate nicknames, that means Disney is buying Marvel - but you knew that already. You’re on Twitter. You’re on the internet. This is not the first blog you’ve been to today. Nerds are flopping all over the place about this one. This is big news!

There have been three main responses that I’ve seen. The first is a dropped jaw, because this has come completely out of the blue - even people working at Marvel have been taken by surprise. The second response has been to identify humorous synergies between superheroes and cartoon characters and chortle about them, because Disney produces neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences, and Marvel… hey now wait a minute…

The third has been to ask in shocked tones, ‘but what does this all mean?’ And because the gag reel is best left to Twitter these days, I’m going to dwell on that third option, although this is all rootless speculation on my part, and responsible people will tell you not to listen. With that caveat in place; what does this all mean?

It might mean nothing at all. At least, that was the official line this morning from Marvel editor CB Cebulski on Twitter; “We’re told it’s like when Disney bought Pixar… everything Marvel stays as is.” So, don’t worry, everybody! Disney spent four billion dollars on Marvel (four billion dollars) because they plan to leave everything exactly as it is! And, in other news, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true!

The Disney/Marvel deal is not going to be the same as the Disney/Pixar deal, wherein Pixar’s Steve Jobs became a major shareholder in Disney, and Disney’s animation arm was eaten by Pixar. (If Disney’s comics get eaten by Marvel, that won’t be quite the same shiny plum.) Disney brought Pixar in because they wanted Pixar to provide creative vision for Disney.

Marvel is not going to exercise that degree of leverage. The best Marvel can hope for is that it retains creative control over Marvel. Walt Disney President Bob Iger says that this is indeed the plan; the philosophy is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But who gets to say what does or doesn’t constitute ‘broke’ in the world of comics publishing today? It’s quite a broken industry.

A lot of the online speculation says that this is about movies - a field where Marvel characters have enjoyed unprecedented success in the past decade. Yet the X-Men franchise remains at Fox, the Spider-Man franchise remains at Sony, and the Avengers franchise (including Iron Man, Thor and Captain America) remains at Paramount. If Disney wants a big Marvel movie franchise, it’ll have to build one from scratch, and without any of Marvel’s biggest brands. All existing third-party licensing deals are being honoured, including video game deals.

(There is talk - from John Lasseter himself - of Marvel and Pixar doing something together, which is sort of exciting, except that it would be Pixar’s first foray into licensed properties, and that sort of isn’t exciting, that’s sort of compromising.)

The official press release says that the plan is to “significantly build” both Marvel and Disney through this acquisition. The investor call went further, stating that Disney wants to develop Marvel’s catalogue of lesser-known characters “across multiple medias and territories”. (Yes, they said “medias”, at least they did according to my datas.)

If Disney doesn’t get the hit movies and isn’t going to touch the comics, where does that growth come from? Well, it’ll come from theme park rides and consumer products, according to the PR storm. All I know about theme park rides is that I like them; I don’t know how much of a role character branding plays in convincing people to go on a rollercoaster. Do spider-webs on the car maketh the ride? Given that there are already Marvel-themed rides at Universal Studios, how much demand is there for Aunt May’s Amazing Stairlift-O-Tron?

As for consumer products; a search for ‘disney consumer products’ took me to disneyconsumerproducts.com, where you can read about Disney pyjamas, Disney dolls, Disney bedding, Disney laptops, Disney Eggo waffles, Disney Princess dress-up sets, Disney furniture sets, and even Disney wedding dresses. Now imagine all of that with X-Men logos all over them, or flocks of Silver Surfers. Maybe you too will soon be able to buy the fishtail fluted wedding dress that Mary Jane Watson wore when she married… on second thought, maybe that’s not the best omen.

Even if Disney can now put Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, it presumably can’t put the movie Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, and isn’t that the one boys want? If Disney’s stategy really is to develop second-stringers into merchandisable brands, I’m fascinated to know how they’ll manage it, and to what extent it will rely on Marvel’s pool of creative talent over Disney’s. One wonders if Disney got roped in on the line about Marvel’s impressive stable of 5,000+ characters, when what that really amounts to is a lot of obscure Spider-Man villains that can’t be used because they’re Spider-Man villains.

And of course, if Disney does want to make the characters marketable, how can it not touch the comics? How can they not bring in content guidelines? The obvious parallel to the Disney/Marvel deal is Warner Brothers’ ownership of DC, and it’s no secret that Warner has been nanny-like in its protection of DC trademarks. Can we expect a lighter whip from the company that didn’t want Aladdin to have nipples because nipples are too racy? Is Emma Frost going to have to put on a coat?

Honestly, I think we might be surprised. After all, I was being unfair (for hilarious comic effect!) when I implied that Marvel and Disney only put out neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences. Even on Disney’s family entertainment channel, ABC Family, you can currently watch an interracial teenage male-male relationship unfolding on Greek, and that’s consdierably more progressive than anything Marvel has ever put in front of a family audience. And this was a TV channel that Disney liberated from the grisly talons of Pat Robertson! So long as Sleeping Beauty’s castle isn’t on the packaging, Disney can be quite a broad church. Dogma and Kill Bill were both produced under the Walt Disney umbrella. Disney really might leave Marvel alone to do its own thing.

Corporate ownership might even free Marvel up to be bolder than it has been in the past. The notion that you need to be indie to innovate is passé in a Pixar world, and Disney is not Warner Brothers, and Spider-Man is not Superman. The security of having a major company at its back - and the reach that such a company can provide - could actually push Marvel to flex its creative muscles more liberally than before.

CB Cebulski followed up his earlier twittering by adding, “From all I’ve heard up here these past three hours, Disney merging with Marvel is a VERY GOOD thing for us”. I hope so, and I can believe it, and not just because the editors have probably just had their health insurance upgraded, or because freelancers might finally be getting a comp box.

What Disney brings to Marvel is a media machine that vastly outstrips what they’ve been used to, and if that means the talents of folks like Skottie Young or Stuart Immonen might now be exposed to a wider audience, or that Marvel will have more money and resources to scout and develop talent, that’s terrific news.

And maybe that’s the real benefit that Disney gets out of this deal. We already know that comics have become a form of R&D for other media, but that need not only apply to stories and characters; it could apply to creators as well.

(For the record, my favourite joke from a long, grinding morning of Disney/Marvel mash-ups on Twitter, came courtesy of Andy Khouri: “No more muppets”.)

Kissing Cousins

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Spoiler warning: This post contains text and image spoilers for this week’s X-Factor #45 and this month’s Agents of Atlas #6.

Here’s a recent image from Agents of Atlas, Jeff Parker’s excellent series about a revived team of unconventional ’40s and ’50s superheroes:

namornamorita

The fella is Namor, ruler of Atlantis, and the lady is Namora. Namor and Namora. Odd coincidence, you might be thinking, but no, she’s actually named after him, because she’s his cousin. Well, they’re royalty; what are you going to do?

Namora’s sexual infatuation with her cousin goes back to the character’s early days, and Parker has wisely opted to tweak the status quo so that Namora is only Namor’s adopted cousin, so it’s not really incest. It just looks a lot like it.

I only mention all of this because the above kiss between cousins came out a couple of weeks ago, which means it beat this kiss in X-Factor #45 to the shelves:

ricstarkiss

These fellas are Shatterstar and Rictor, members of the extended X-Men family (not a real family this time, so it’s all right). Paralleling Namor and Namora, Shatterstar was long ago shown to be smitten with Rictor, but this is the first time Rictor has been shown on-panel to reciprocate his feelings. Of course, this was a cliffhanger moment, so it could all be undone next issue. Mephisto did it.

What’s extraordinary about this moment is that it appears to be the first male-male romantic kiss ever shown in a Marvel superhero comic. Marvel has had other gay couples - Wiccan and Hulkling; and versions of Northstar and Colossus; and… I think that might be it, actually - but neither of these couples ever kiss, even in situations where straight couples might (like, when one of the pair was about to die, which gay people do a lot in the Marvel Universe).

So here we are in 2009, and Marvel has finally decided that it’s all right to show one man kissing another man on the lips in a romantic context. I might be applauding the moment if it weren’t so tardy, and if it hadn’t come hot on the heels of Marvel deciding it could ashow cousins kissing each other on the lips in a romantic context. It’s not progress; it’s just giving up.

There is another notable Marvel first here; Rictor may officially be Marvel’s first male bisexual superhero - the first Marvel hero shown to have relationships with both men and women. It’s still not exactly radical, but it is a positive step.

It’s also worth mentioning that Shatterstar creator Rob Liefeld has reportedly responded to these events by saying, “I have nothing against gays, I have gay family, nuthin’ but love here. Ditto gay characters if thats’ (sic) what their true origins are. As the guy that Created, designed and wrote his first dozen appearances, Shatterstar is not gay. Sorry. Can’t wait to someday undo this.” Maybe Rob could get in touch with his gay family members and try to explain to them how upset he is that his own ‘kid’ grew up gay, and how he’d like to ‘fix’ him.

As a final note; X-Factor and Agents of Atlas are two of the best comics Marvel is publishing at the moment, and I’m a big fan of Jeff Parker’s work (and, full disclosure, I consider Jeff a friend). Parker brings an often-lacking sense of fun and scale to superhero comics, and guys like Parker, Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron stand in stark contrast to a lot of the mandated misery that bogs down the Marvel Universe. When they do something implausible, it’s fun-implausible, like a talking gorilla firing guns with its feet, not dumb-implausible, like a known psychotic killer being put in charge of a government superhero agency.

Comics’ Night of the Long Boxes

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

longbox

This past weekend at HeroesCon saw the announcement (but not the launch) of Longbox, a digital distribution system for comics that formula dictates I must compare to iTunes. It’s going to be like iTunes.

I’m excited about this. I’m an out-and-proud comics nerd, but my credentials are dented by one small but crucial detail; I rarely buy comics. After twenty years amassing thousands of the damn things, I was forced by financial necessity to go cold turkey some years back. When I found myself sufficiently solvent to go back to reading comics, I realised that the addiction had passed. I’d broken the habit. I no longer bought indiscriminately.

At one point I was spending around £20 a week on comics that gave me all of a couple of hours’ of entertainment, even while ranting on about the rising cost of cinema tickets. Comics are terrible, terrible value for money. God knows how anyone who both reads comics and smokes cigarettes can afford money for beer. So money was definitely a key factor in dropping the habit, but not the only one.

Comics are also inconvenient - you can only buy them from specialist shops, via a monopoly distributor. For too many people, comics are a weekly appointment they feel obligated to keep. Comics also produce clutter. They accrue in every available nook and cranny like tribbles or wet gremlins. No-one can own both an extensive comic collection and a nice house.

Oh, plus, they’re shit. That’s a generalisation, of course, but 90% of anything is shit, except comics, where the number rises to about 97%. That’s because comics are a Cinderella medium that rarely benefits from best efforts or high standards, and because the major publishers often hold their own audience in contempt, and anyway the audience mostly deserves the shit they get shovelled; it’s not like they’re exercising critical judgement.

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I’ve been hoping someone will come along with something like Longbox for a while now, becasue it solves most of the medium’s problems. Digital distribution brings the price point down to within the realms of ‘value’. It bypasses the comic shop distribution monopoly and the need to go to a specialist store. It completely eliminates the need for actual physical longboxes, and that’s no small deal - I’m quite certain that the clutter factor is a major reason why many people give up comics as they get older, even as they keep playing video games and watching sci-fi - it has nothing to do with ‘outgrowing’ it. I’m at the point in my life where I no longer want to live like a student. I no longer have shelves full of CDs or DVDs - everything is tidied away or digitised - so spending money on clutter goes against the grain, and disposing of comics seems like a hassle. Better to just not buy them in the first place.

Longbox might even help with the ‘quality’ problem. That’s not to say that digital distribution will get rid of bad comics; but it should increase the number of good ones, because independent creators will be able to increase their reach while simultaneously reducing their costs. That should change the landscape of the industry significantly.

Digital distribution also benefits the big publishers, who have real problems launching new titles, and instead are forced to stretch their known brands ever thinner. By the time critical buzz has grown on a title like Captain Britain And MI:13, the only way I could sample it is to buy a twenty dollar trade paperback. Frankly, even four dollars seems too big a punt to risk on something I may not like. And this is why that book got cancelled, despite strong reviews and good word-of-mouth. Yet if I can buy an issue for a dollar - or the first six issues for, say, four dollars - I’m much more likely to suck it and see. (Note: sucking on digital comics is dangerous and should not be tried without proper supervision.)

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Marvel and DC have come up with some really inane solutions to the challenge of comics’ dwindling marketplace - apparently ending Spider-Man’s marriage was going to save the whole industry - but digital distribution has always been the sensible option that they were too big and too creaky to properly pursue, which is why it takes a fresh-faced third party like Longbox to get the revolution started.

I haven’t forgotten that Marvel has its own digital comics offering. It isn’t good. It only allows you to buy the right to access the comics on the site, and what’s on the site is not up-to-date. The ‘newest comics’ section currently boasts Son of Hulk #2 (first published just under a year ago) Annihilation: Nova #2 (from 2006) and Psi-Force #7 (from 1986). It’s a pathetic offering, because it’s completely dissociated from the publisher’s current output. If I wanted to find out what the fuss about Captain America #600 was all about, the most recent issue I’d be able to read is from two years ago. This is not an alternative distribution channel. This is a supplement for the ever-decreasing number of people with the will and the time to go to a comic shop.

If Marvel or DC is worried that putting their current comics online will increase the risks of piracy, someone needs to tell them that this particular horse-faced space-god has already bolted. Music, movies, books and TV are all digital now, and the digital releases go on sale the same day as the store releases. The time when a publisher might have claimed they were being innovative by adopting a synchronous digital distribution strategy has long passed. Now it’s merely ‘the least they should be doing’ - and still they’re not doing it. I’d try to second guess the reasons for their laggardly approach, but I can’t get into the mindset. It’s like trying to see through the eyes of a dodo.

It is better, though, for comics as a whole that Marvel be part of a shared system - like iTunes! - rather than a proprietary one, so in that sense I should be glad that Marvel’s efforts have been dismal. On the other hand, it suggests that they might not sign up to be part of Longbox, and that’s a shame. Where Longbox might once have seemed bold, now it seems necessary, and Marvel and DC - and Dark Horse, Image, Oni, IDW, Devil’s Due and the rest - need to recognise this necessity for their own good, as well as for the good of Longbox. Currently the only publishers signed up for the service are Boom Studios (Irredeemable, Farscape, Warhammer 40,000) and Top Cow (Super-Boob Lady, Gothic-Boob Lady, Unfinished J Michael Straczynski Project), and Longbox needs more and stronger publishers if it’s going to be a viable concern.

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Longbox also needs a sensible pricing strategy. The suggested price point is $0.99 per issue, and that’s reasonable. People talk about how cheap comics used to be on the newsstand - Action Comics was 10c in 1938, and Amazing Fantasy #15 was 12c in 1962. Adjusted for inflation, those comics ought to be $1.50 and $1.00 today, so 99c and down for a comic with low overheads seems like the right ballpark.

There’s also talk of subscription and bulk models, and that’s far more interesting to me, because a regular subscription would presumably reduce the price point further, and encourage users to sample more comics. The digital model also makes free samples more plausible - a huge, huge promotional benefit. In fact, a savvy big publisher would make the first issue of every new ongoing series available free online.

What does digital distrubution mean for comic retailers? It need not be the end for them. I think stores relying on weekly single issue sales could be in trouble, but comic book shops could do well, because digital comics will not entirely replace the desire to own a physical book, and I’m sure digital comics will actually drive people to want to buy collections of their favourite reads. I’ve long argued that digital comics with a voucher for the trade could be a successful strategy. Apparently the guys at Longbox have been listening in on my loud and boorish pub conversations, as that seems to be part of the plan.

But if the Longbox model takes off - and I hope it does, and that others follow suit (because the industry does not need another distribution monopoly) - it will mean the end for a lot of retailers. And, sad as it is for the people who’ll have to find other jobs, that’s as it should be. There won’t be any bailouts for redundant businesses in the comic industry.

What’s more important is that Longbox could be good for the medium as a whole, dragging comics away from the fringe to a place where everyone can access them, without prohibitive costs or geekish mess. If the mainstay publishers don’t want to embrace that, then it’s probably time to say goodbye to the mainstay publishers.

Voodoos & Don’ts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

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Brother Voodoo is back!

This may not be the most exciting news you’ve heard today, but it is a little exciting for me. Brother Voodoo, AKA Jericho Drumm, is a magical Haitian superhero in the Marvel universe. He debuted back in 1973 in the pages of Strange Tales, just a few months after the voodoo-themed Bond movie Live And Let Die. He is kind of awesome, and very much underappreciated. It appears he’s now taken over from Doctor Strange as Marvel’s Sorceror Supreme, which could see the character propelled into playing a much bigger role.

However, his return has raised a few eyebrows. Even though he only appeared fleetingly in a recent issue of Avengers (I forget which flavour; Uncanny or War Zone or Caramel Ripple), and only said a scant few words, those words were enough to merit a double-take. The words were; “My name is Jericho Drumm. They call me Brudder Voodoo. What da hell is wrong wit you people?”

Given that Brother Voodoo is a physician educated in the United States, this broad regional accent seems a little peculiar - and outdated. Writer Brian Michael Bendis observed on his Twitter; “the accent is established. Nothing I can do about that”. But that’s not true.

First of all, one of Bendis’s favourite characters is Luke Cage, another black 70s superhero who used to speak jive. He doesn’t anymore, because it would be ridiculous. Bendis is not averse to making changes to his characters. Furthermore, Bendis is notable for imposing a certain consistency of rhythm on his characters’ speech patterns. Sometimes works very well, but it has also lead him to write the third worst Doctor Doom in comics (after Mark Millar, whose Doom calls another man ‘master’, and J Michael Straczynski, whose Doom likes to have a bit of a weep).

Second; it’s not established. On the contrary, in Brother Voodoo’s first appearance, everyone else in Haiti spoke that way:

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But Brother Voodoo did not. The panels below show his first uttered lines, and there’s not a ‘dis’ or a ‘dey’ a or a ‘brudder’ among them - and that’s true throughout all of his original appearances. However broad the stereotypes that Brother Voodoo encountered, however cringe-inducing the caricatures, he himself never called anyone ‘mon’.

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We’ve gone from, “I am called Brother Voodoo” in his first appearance to, “They call me Brudder Voodoo” in his latest. I’m sure there must be a precedent for Brother Voodoo talking this way, but it’s not the case that this is how he always speaks.

Now, Marvel traditionally responds to online criticism by attacking the critic, because Marvel hates people who read their comics, so I suspect their comeback here would be to call me a racist for suggesting that an educated person can’t have a heavy regional accent. Obviously that’s not what I’m suggesting, nor do I think this portrayal of Brother Voodoo is the product of racist attitudes on their part.

I just think it’s dumb, and perhaps thoughtless, to write the character this way. Even if it were how he was originally written, dialogue spelled out in a regional dialect tends to look and read badly. Chris Claremont loves doing it, but at least he largely limits himself to Scots and Southerners. When you get into accents that are associated with racial stereotypes, where those regional tics have historically been used in the media to present a group of people as stupid, or savage, or comical, then you’re entering choppy waters. In just a few lines of dialogue, this version of Brother Voodoo skirts uncomfortably close to evoking a Sambo caricature. It would be like having an Asian superhero mixing up his Ls and Rs.

I’m open to the possibility that I’m being too sensitive. I’m aware that, one panel in, I’m quick to jump to conclusions. I’m also quite sure Bendis didn’t mean to stir up any unfortunate associations. He’s a nice guy and an intelligent writer, and I’m sure he means well. All that said, I know I’m not alone in having looked at that panel and thought, “oh dear”. If we were living in a post-racial world, it ought to be just as fine to write a Haitian character with a thick Haitian accent as to write a Scottish character with a thick Scottish accent (which is to say, it ought be equally awful either way). Even then, though, I think Brother Voodoo earliest appearances suggest that he’s not that guy.

Tremendously Thor

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

This is Thor. He is a god of Thunder.

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He is also a Marvel superhero, and one of a handful of such heroes set to star in their own big screen blockbusters in the next couple of years - this one to be directed by Kenneth Branagh. The other really big hero on the slate is Captain America, and casting rumours have been rife on who would be cast in each of these roles. For a long time, it seemed the most sensible choice for Thor was this fella:

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This is Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan Skarsgård, and one of the stars of both Generation Kill and True Blood. Not only is he tall, handsome, muscular and blond; he’s also Scandinavian! It was pretty much dream casting. Thus I was very disappointed when Skarsgård recently said that he was out of the running for the part. At that point I was resolved to hate whoever they eventually did cast.

Then came today’s scoop from Deadline Hollywood Daily that Branagh has his Thor, and it’s this guy:

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You may know him as Kim Hyde on Home & Away. More likely, you know him as Captain Kirk. Senior, that is. He played the rather dishy George Kirk in the new Star Trek movie.

He’s not as tall as Skarsgård (an inch shorter at 6′ 3″), and he’s not as Scandinavian (he’s Australian), but he is tall, handsome, muscular and blond, so as second choices go, he looks pretty good to me - and he’s about seven years younger than Skarsgård, so he has better mileage for a franchise. Given that the producers were considering Charlie Hunnam (a good looking lad, but an atrocious actor), I’m actually rather relieved.

This still leaves the question of who should play that other tall, handsome, muscular blond, Captain America.

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The names being thrown in the hat by Cap fans include Tahmoh Penikett, Travis Fimmel, Chris Egan, Jensen Ackles, Kellan Lutz, Mark Valley, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.

I’m fairly sure they won’t cast someone who isn’t actually American (it would be a scandal), so Penikett, Fimmel and Egan are out. I also don’t think they’re going to cast a black actor - there was a black Captain America, but 1940s America was not going to choose a black man to be its symbol of hope. They won’t cast Kellan Lutz because, let’s be honest, he looks kinda metrosexual.

Because the character is meant to have gravitas, there’s a temptation to cast someone a bit older in the role, but Cap would have been in his early 20s when he started out, and not yet 30 when he was frozen in 1945, and the movie is expected to cover that period, so the likes of McConaughey, Damon and, especially, Valley should be too old.

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My personal favourite for the role is Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights (above). He was perfect as an iconic blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed hero in Speed Racer, playing big brother Rex. He definitely has the all-American thing going on, and he doesn’t look too lightweight. Of course, if the Marvel movie makers do not follow my excellent advice, their casting on Thor has proved that they can sometimes make a good decision without my help.