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The Post-Game Show » 2009 » June

Archive for June, 2009

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

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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.

fasaud

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.

A President, Like Any Other

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Barack Obama has never impressed on the subject of gay rights. He made a few encouraging promises, and it was refreshing to hear him mention gays and lesbians in his speeches, but despite claiming that he is a “fierce advocate” for gay rights, he has no record of substance, and on the campaign trail he made it clear that he supported civil unions rather than same-sex marriage - a separate-but-equal position that was shared by the opposition ticket. I think the widely held hope was that this was just politics; Obama was being cautious on the campaign trail, but he would show more social liberalism in office.

Then came the inauguration, and Obamas’ choice of Reverend Rick Warren - who had then only recently compared homosexuality to incest and bestiality - to lead the inaugural prayer. For many of us that choice rang alarm bells - how could the hope-and-change candidate be so tone deaf as to choose a bigot to represent him as the nation’s pastor? - but it was Obama’s first day on the job, and to ring that alarm bell too loudly was to be off-message. The gays would not be allowed to ruin this historic moment for everyone else.

The alarm bell should have sounded louder.

In January, press secretary Robert Gibbs gave a one-word answer to the question of whether Obama would repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT); “Yes”. A couple of months later that seemed to become ‘maybe’ when the language on the White House website went from ‘repeal’ to ‘change’. In fact, Obama could have issued an executive order suspending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as soon as he entered office, putting all investigations on hold until the law could be repealed. He did not do so, even at a time when polls show two-thirds of conservatives, and a majority of churchgoers, now support gays serving in the military. That was the second alarm bell.

Here’s the third. On Friday, the US Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in response to a case challenging the act’s constitutionality. DOMA states that, “No state … needs to treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state”, and, “The federal government may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states”.

There is some debate about whether or not the Department of Justice was obliged to defend DOMA at all, let alone insist that it was constitutional. Certainly, the last four presidents have all filed briefs in opposition to existing laws, in line with their policy platforms. Perhaps Obama doesn’t want to govern that way, and is determined to uphold existing laws until they can be overturned through the proper channels. Certainly that’s his official position on why he hasn’t ended DADT. In contrast to his predecessor, he’s apparently working to limit the executive power of the president.

But even if Obama felt that the DoJ had to defend DOMA, the language of the brief is erroneous, disingenuous, and gratuitously offensive. It echoes Michael Steele’s disgraceful notion that withholding rights is good because it saves the government money, even though gay Americans pay the same taxes as everyone else. It implies that limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples is necessary to protect ‘traditional’ marriage.

It dredges up the old bigot’s saw that says gays already have the same rights as everyone else - to marry someone of the opposite sex. It argues that homosexuals should not be deemed a minority class deserving of special protection from the courts. It goes so far as to undermine the arguments that helped end restrictions on interracial marriage. Perhaps most damaging of all, it enshrines the view that same-sex marriage cannot be considered a fundamental right. Then, for good measure, it equates same-sex marriage to incest and statutory rape.

This is the Obama position. This is the position of the ‘change’ administration. These are all familiar arguments that we expect to hear from bigots opposed to gay equality, but coming from Barack Obama, this is devastating.

As with DADT, Obama initially pledged that he would repeal DOMA, which he called “abhorrent”, but as with DADT, that pledge disappeared from his website in May. With this brief, Obama has now made the legal landscape of the United States more hostile to gay rights. He is working backwards. Far from being a fierce advocate, Obama now appears to be a threat to gay rights.

There is still time for this to change. There is still time for Obama to keep all of his promises to the gay community. What there is not, any longer, is hope that he will. Now the presumption for anyone who supports gay equality is that Obama is the opposition, and he will have to be fought against rather than worked with. Obama has no empathy for gay rights. It turns out that what he said on the campaign trail was just politics, but he wasn’t hiding his social liberalism; he was masking his social conservatism. On the civil rights issue of our age, Barack Obama is our villain.

Voodoos & Don’ts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

bro-voodoo4

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:

brovoodoo1

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’.

bro-voodoo-2

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.

All The Pixel Ladies

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I watched Pixar’s new movie Up at the weekend, and I think I now have a new favourite Pixar film. Previously that sought-after accolade went to The Incredibles, but Up is so wonderfully eccentric and unexpected, and so beautifully heartfelt, that it may have edged The Incredibles out. There aren’t many movies that can make audiences cry with laughter and sadness in the same 90 minutes.

It seems extroardinary that a story about an old man and some balloons should be so compelling, but this is Pixar. Though they’ve only released ten movies in fourteen years, their hit rate is astonishing. All their movies are either near-perfect (The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2), brilliant (Ratatouille, Wall-E, Finding Nemo), or… Cars. (Cars is terrible, but even it made money, so now they’re making another.)

Their films are so good that I hadn’t even noticed what they were missing. Women.

pixarladies

OK, Pixar movies do have some well-rounded female characters, like Toy Story 2’s Jesse, The Incredibles’ Elastigirl, or Ratatouille’s Colette. But how many Pixar movies have a female character as the principal lead?

None. Out of ten. Woody, Flik, Woody, Sully, Marlin, Mr Incredible, Lightning McQueen, Remy, Wall-E and now Carl Fredricksen; all male. That’s a poor score. Compare that to Disney, which has given us numerous female leads from Snow White to Lilo by way of Cinderella and Mulan, and it looks really bad. Admittedly Disney has had seventy years, and its perepetuation of the princess-waiting-for-a-prince ideal is not the best message to promote, but at least they’re in the game, and wouldn’t it be nice if another animator was out there putting out a different message?

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Even in the secondary lead roles, Pixar peforms badly. Disney gave us the likes of Perdita, Lady and Miss Bianca (all animals, but still female), while Pixar has given us Buzz, Atta, Buzz again, Mike, Dory, Elastigirl, Mater, Linguini, Eve and Russell. Most of Pixar’s females exist only to inspire the hero, with sleek, silent Eve being the best (or worst) example of this, though it’s also prominent in Up.

Dory is one of the only gender-blind roles Pixar has ever created, where the character could have been a man but happens to be a woman, and apparently that’s because the part was written for a man. Even Dreamworks, which favours ensemble casts, scores better when it comes to making its women independent actors in the story.

There are plenty of explanations one can come up with for why women are underrepresented in Pixar movies. The most obvious one is that computer animation is a boys’ club, and these guys write about what they know. As more of the boys become fathers to little girls, we may see their focus change.

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Then there’s the anti-Disney thing. A big part of Pixar’s philosophy seems to be that it doesn’t want to be Disney, relying on musical versions of old fairy tales with slapstick sidekicks and hero princesses. Girl heroes are the collateral loss. (That said, Pixar is releasing a movie with a female lead in 2011, and the hero is… a princess.)

Pixar also favours buddy stories over love stories, which could equally be an anti-Disney thing or a boys’ club thing, but the end result is that most of its movies are about an all-male odd couple. None of these explanations is meant to suggest that Pixar is sexist, and I absolutely do not think they are; they’re just a bit oblivious.

Regardless of why Pixar movies are so male-dominated, there is also the question of whether it’s actually a problem. The movies are still good, right? We don’t want to ruin them with a lot of politically correct nonsense.

But why shouldn’t there be more women in these stories? Sure, the girls in the audience can identify with male characters as well - they can love racing, or monsters, or robots or, gasp, cooking - but why shouldn’t they have the chance to see more characters like themselves on screen?

Lack of representation is a problem that a lot straight white men perhaps don’t understand. If you’re one of them, trust me when I say that, if you’re forever presented with a vision of the world that does not have you in it, where you can’t see any options or get any idea of where you might fit in, it does have an impact. And maybe if you’re, say, a redheaded guy, or a nerd, or a Canadian, and one day you see a hero up on screen who shares those qualities with you, then maybe  you do understand the difference it can make, at least a little bit.