Upon Further Reflection, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Breaks My Heart

Here be Spoilers. And foul language. Fair Warning.

I know this is about a month out of date. I had to reflect on this for a while. By now, everyone who wanted to see ASM2 has seen it. These are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

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I hate this franchise. I fucking hate it.

But before I really get into this review, let me be clear about the exact nature of my hatred. Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man movie franchise inspires in me the kind of hatred that can only be inspired by something you love.

Have you ever been cheated on? The pain and the anger generated by that betrayal is only possible because you’ve been wounded by the very person you love the most. The very person you put your faith and trust in, is the one who stabs you in the back. So, if you’re with me, I am Elin Nordegren and Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man is my Tiger Woods. I want to chase it down the street with a fucking 9-iron. I want to smash its stupid, smirking face in.

This movie gets lots of things right, and then gets so many others so very, very wrong. And the things it gets wrong are stupid, stupid things.

Let’s start with the planes. Late in the film, Electro drains all the power out of New York City (which, right there, is stupid – just juvenile, uncreative, stupid action). The loss of power means that the airport loses contact with two passenger planes and they end up on a collision course with each other. Spider-Man then turns the power back on and the planes are saved. It occurred to me about halfway through the airplane episode that this was useless action filler. Stupid. Stupid. Fuck, stupid, fuck.

There were no recognizable characters on the planes. They were random collateral damage – a trumped up, unimaginative action movie catastrophe to which there is no emotional connection, no spectacular pay-off, no sigh of relief when the planes are saved, because, who the fuck cares about these stupid planes?! Spider-Man and Electro are fighting a climactic battle at a power plant (cliché and stupid, but whatever) and we keep cutting away to see these pointless planes.

Compare that scene to the ferryboat scene at the end of The Dark Knight. The Joker orchestrates a prisoner’s dilemma that has everything to do with the plot of the movie and its commentary on the darkness and resiliency of the human spirit. It’s an unforgettable piece of film. Amazing Spider-Man 2 answers that with two planes that maybe are going to crash, but don’t because Woosh! Woah! Cool!

There are so many interconnected webs of rage-inducing awfulness in this film that I just need to break it down by character.

Electro. Jamie Fox is fine, good even. Except that his Electro is the worst written super villain since Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. He’s all special effects and no soul. The motivation for this character is all over the place – totally incomprehensible. He’s got a stalker crush on Spider-Man. He wants to be “seen” by people. That gets twisted, (Instantly!) into a desire to kill Spider-Man because Electro decides the wall-crawler is “selfish”. Also Oscorp stole his schematics for a power plant, so he wants revenge… I guess? And to make everyone “Live in a world without a Spider-Man.” Basically, Electro’s origin story is “Yadda, Yadda, Yadda… Hey look the Sinister Six!” Oh, and also Electro is Dr. Manhattan now.

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One other thing: if a soulless, cutthroat, exploitative company like Oscorp discovered one of its employees was smart enough to design a high-tech power plant that solved the world’s energy problems, probably they would exploit that person further, as opposed to completely ignoring him and treating him like a glorified maintenance man. Probably. Probably they would, you know, see if he had any other ideas that could make the company more money. They probably wouldn’t just let B. J. Novak treat him like a bitch. Fuck.

Okay, now Gwen. Emma Stone is a really great Gwen Stacy. She and Andrew Garfield have obvious chemistry on screen. For a good chunk of this movie I thought Webb was doing a good job setting up Gwen’s inevitable death.

Then the final 30 minutes of the movie happened. Maybe I was living in a cave, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be Gwen’s swan song. I thought she was sticking around for another film. I kept thinking that all the way through this film. Mostly because I thought there was no way that the Green Goblin – who looks ridiculous by the way – is going to kill Gwen Stacy five minutes after he first acquires his powers. But… yep that’s what happens, in a fucking clock tower! A clock tower! Symbolism!

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And how does Gwen end up in harm’s way? She follows Spider-Man to the super high-tech power plant. And why does she follow him? Because she’s SEEN THE SCHEMATICS and knows how to fix the damage Electro has done. SINGLE-HANDEDLY! She’s in high school! But y’know, she’s the valedictorian so she can pretty much fix a power plant by herself.

Look, I recognize that Webb wants to disrupt the whole damsel in distress narrative. He wants to make Gwen capable and heroic in her own right. Great. I’m down with that, but make her heroism plausible. No one can fix an exploded power plant by herself. Stupid. Have her invent some doo-hickey that short-circuits Electro’s powers or something. In comic books as in superhero movies, the willing suspension of disbelief only operates in particular zones. Can people come back from the dead? Yep. Do people get superpowers when struck by lightning? Totally believable. Can a really smart high school kid pilot a submarine because her grandfather was in the navy and told her all kinds of underwater seafaring stories? No.

Lastly, let me talk about the whole secret origin sub-plot. Webb has spent a lot of time on this. It’s an interesting question, whatever happened to Peter Parker’s parents? But the revelation that Peter’s dad was an Oscorp scientist adds absolutely nothing to the plot or the mythology of Spider-Man. It’s pointless.

Look, part of the reason this movie makes me so angry is because there are other moments where Webb absolutely nails it. Like, near the end of the film, after Spider-Man has gone into semi-retirement and that kid puts on his Spidey jammies and stands up to the Rhino… I nearly cried. That is everything Spider-Man is supposed to be. That’s what he was to me as a kid. Spider-Man never has it easy; he always does the hard thing because it’s the right thing.

There are little pockets of greatness here, but it just seems like the fingerprints of studio execs are all over this film.

If you want to turn your brain off for two hours, Amazing Spider-Man 2 will let you do that. But turn your brain off, because if you think about any of this stuff it will make you crazy.

Bring on the X-Men.

Pretty Deadly & Ten Grand: Occult Comics Done Right and Wrong

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For awhile there, back in the summer of 2013, Ten Grand was one of my favourite comic books. The first offering from J. Michael Straczynski’s Joe’s Comics label over at Image, Ten Grand was a film noir story with a supernatural twist.

Now, from the get-go, Ten Grand was derivative. Joe Fitzgerald is a mob enforcer. When he and his girlfriend, Laura, are brutally murdered, she goes to heaven and he goes to hell. Except that an angel intervenes and offers Joe a deal: work for the forces of good and every time he dies in a righteous cause he’ll get to see his beloved again for five minutes. The five minute thing is weirdly specific, but whatever.

So, mix together Hellblazer, The Crow, and Spawn and you kind of get Ten Grand. But early on, the mixture worked.

It worked in part because of imaginative little details. Joe had a variety of talismans and gimmicks he used to ward off and take down demons. There were a few clever and creepy confrontations with otherworldly creatures. And there was a cool hardboiled vibe to the comic; Joe was trying to solve the mystery and that gave the series a natural narrative drive.

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Ben Templesmith’s art on those early issues was also something to behold. Templesmith created a compelling urban landscape, it was sooty and greasy. It had a really distinctive style, something really special. Templesmith left the book after issue #5. It was a weird situation. Apparently, Templesmith was having trouble getting the work done, and Straczynski decided to make a change… or maybe it was Templesmith’s decision. It’s all a little murky.

I appreciate the desire to get books out on time, but looking back, Stracynski should have done whatever he had to do to keep Templesmith. No offence to C. P. Smith, Templesmith’s replacement, but the book hasn’t been the same since he took over.

However, the decline of Ten Grand isn’t all about the art. In the second half of the series, the main character, Joe goes on an adventure in the afterlife. The whole trajectory of the series changes. Instead of a cool supernatural crime story we get watered-down, warmed-over Milton. The whole series is heading towards a climactic battle between heaven and hell that really doesn’t feel very climatic. Ten Grand is the story of a once promising comic that went terribly wrong.

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Image’s supernatural western series, Pretty Deadly, has followed a different path. I was a little skeptical of Pretty Deadly at first, a little worried it was more hype than substance, but the series is starting to come together.

There isn’t anything else like Pretty Deadly out there. For that reason, the first few issues were actually a little disorienting. The main character of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s comic is Death’s daughter. Her name is Ginny and her story is narrated by a butterfly and a rabbit skeleton. (Yes, that is a thing you just read). Ginny’s world is populated by half a dozen other wanders and gunslingers all of whom seem to have mysterious, shadowy pasts.

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It wasn’t until issue #4 that the relationships between some of the characters were clarified and things started to come together. That’s a long time to wait for a new series to pay off, but Pretty Deadly has something – an it factor. It’s been compared to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and those comparisons aren’t too far off the mark. Obviously Pretty Deadly has a long way to go before it matches one of the greatest comic book series of all time, but the magic and the mood and the kooky narrative framework do remind one of Gaiman’s work.

Emma Rios’ art is mostly gorgeous. There are some moments where it’s hard to tell what’s happening. The violent fight scenes can be hard to follow, and characters are occasionally hard to distinguish from one another. That said, there’s a vivid and eerie visual atmosphere to this book. It doesn’t look like anything else on the shelves.

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I’m not a TPB reader, but those who are might appreciate reading Pretty Deadly in trade form. The first arc will come off best if read all at once. And I’d recommend you do check out Pretty Deadly; it’s fresh and different. I used to feel the same way about Ten Grand, but sadly, that series has failed to deliver on its initial promise.

Shocking Comics and Binge Television

So, Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead was pretty shocking. I won’t spoil too much. I’ll just say some characters died in dramatic fashion. That episode got a lot of fans talking, in much the same way fans were all a twitter last year after Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding episode. The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards began with a similarly shocking turn of events.

Episodes like these really mark the divide between the new “binge television” and traditional serial dramas.

The objective with most traditional TV dramas is to get on the air and stay on the air as long as possible. The recipe for that seems to be finding a formulaic plot that can be run repetitively over and over again.

Every episode of NBC’s Law and Order or CBS’s CSI is essentially the same. There’s very little variation in the plot structure from week to week, and there’s almost no character development. The same goes for comedies like The Big Bang Theory: the jokes are essentially the same in every episode. In traditional TV, nothing significant changes from episode to episode, season to season. Change is the enemy. When a key actor leaves a series, or when characters get married or have babies, it often means the end is near.

One might say that a lot of the material coming out of the Big 2 comic publishers, DC and Marvel, works the same way. Batman is always pretty much Batman. Peter Parker dies, but then, a year later, he’ll come back to life. Does anyone really believe that Wolverine isn’t going to get his mutant healing power back? Sure, maybe it takes 12 months instead of 22 minutes, but as story arcs end and creative teams move on, the status quo is always reestablished.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC have been doing something very different recently. They aren’t trying to produce shows that casual viewers can pick up and drop and pick up again. They don’t care about making it easy for the uninitiated to jump on at any point and immediately pick up the plot.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC use a different model. They want to “hook” a committed audience of viewers who they expect to tune in every week, or binge watch a series in a weekend. They then try to grow that core audience through word of mouth. Hooking an audience, getting them addicted to a series depends in large part on shock and awe. There need to be unexpected twists. Viewers need to feel as if they can’t miss an episode because something significant could happen at any time.

My impression is that, more and more comics are applying this same storytelling model.

Disclaimer: the rest of this post contains SPOILERS for Sheltered, Jupiter’s Legacy and The Wake. To be clear, I’m only talking about things that have already happened in these series. I have no knowledge of what is going to happen in future issues. 

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The first issue of Ed Brisson’s Sheltered: A Pre-Apocalyptic Tale (which has recently been optioned for a movie) has a shocking finale. As the story begins, the end of the world is coming, and a band of survivalists are preparing for the worst. The first issue catches the reader off guard; just as we feel we’re getting to know the guys in charge of the compound, they’re all brutally executed… by their own kids! The series that looked like it was going to be about the beginning of the end of the world, turns out to be a re-imagining of Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Recent issues of this series have turned the tables again; we’ve gotten our first glimpse of the world outside of the compound and it’s possible the apocalypse is not as imminent as it seemed to the well-armed anti-government types we met in the series’ first arc. All those people stockpiling guns and living in trailers might not be survivalists, but rather paranoid conspiracy theorists. 

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Jupiter’s Legacy, an Image title written by Mark Millar and drawn beautifully by Frank Quietly, is another kick at The Watchmen can, insofar as it’s a superhero comic that really tries to grapple with the nature of superheroes. One could also say it’s a mix between Kingdom Come and The Fantastic Four. The series focuses on a tight-knit group of superheroes who received their powers after a trip to a mysterious island. Now though, they’re older and somewhat jaded after a lifetime of superheroing. Their children have inherited their parents’ powers. Through these kids, Millar is able to analyze the young Hollywood set, the Brody Jenner’s and Paris Hilton’s of the world, people who find themselves famous simply by nature of their existence.

The series takes a radical turn when, three issues in, super-offspring Brandon kill’s his Super-dad on the advice of his ambitious uncle, who has dreams of using his powers to turn the United States into a socialist utopia.

Issue 4 of this series was just released after a very, very long hiatus. It’s a high quality book, so fans are likely to stick with it, and maybe in the interim, Jupiter’s Legacy picked up some buzz. I know I didn’t start reading it until after the third issue was published. However, mixing cliff-hanger endings and unreliable publication schedules can be a dangerous game.

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Scott Snyder’s The Wake is among the most interesting comics being published today. Snyder and artist Sean Murphy have done some amazing things translating the conventions of the horror movie genre to the comic book medium. They’ve also chosen a highly imaginative and unfamiliar antagonist for their book: humanity’s underwater “cousin,” evolved over millennia into highly intelligent, predatory mer-people.

The Wake is a 10-issue mini-series, and five issues in, Snyder did something totally unexpected, killing all of the main characters, and destroying the earth as we know it. The sea monsters won! The second half of the series, unexpectedly, flashes forward a century into the future. The world is a completely different place and we’re introduced to a whole new cast of characters. It’s not at all clear where The Wake is going and that’s a good thing. It’s a thrill ride, totally original and filled with unexpected twists.

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that the three titles I’ve mentioned here are published by Image and Vertigo, two publishers that specialize in mature and off-the-wall stories. I think it’s fair to say that Image and Vertigo are the AMC and HBO of the comic industry. Image in particular has published a plethora of hot, “must-read” series in the past 12 months. That success might have big time consequences.

Four or five years ago, the big networks like NBC, ABC, and Fox weren’t really worried about boutique cable channels like AMC and HBO. Now, however, those networks, along with Netflix have started redefining the way people watch TV. The Walking Dead has become a ratings juggernaut. More and more AMC and Netflix seem like the future. Meanwhile NBC wonders why viewers aren’t interested in their new Matthew Perry sit-com? 

One wonders if the comic book industry will move in the same direction. Will Image’s more mature, less conventional series start to threaten the publishing paradigms that have governed the Big 2 for the past 30 years? Only time will tell.

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I Think Every Superhero You Love Should Die and Come Back to Life: A Response to View from the Gutters

I read a thoughtful piece over at View from the Gutters, and thought I might respond, mostly because the argument was in direct contrast to my recent defense of reboots. I’ll quote a few choice passages from Tobiah’s op-ed here, but his is quite a nuanced argument – really worth reading. So, go read it, before you hear what I have to say.

The View from the Gutters piece is a reflection on the relationship between superheroes and history. It’s a problematic relationship (as DC readers know especially well). The Big 2 universes have always been set in the modern day, whether that’s 1982, 2001, or 2013. However, many of the characters origins are tied to particular historical events. For a character like Captain America, whose origin is bound to WWII the connection is factual. For others, like Black Panther, whose identity is tied up with the Civil Rights movement in the 60s the connection is more, say, metaphorical.

Tobiah makes the good point that over time it becomes harder and harder to repurpose origin stories and advance them into the future:

Even for those characters that can be moved, the changing times present something of an obstacle. Why was Bruce Banner working on gamma bombs in a post-9/11 world? How on Earth did the Kents cover up a crashed space-craft, or for that matter how did they finagle the adoption of an utterly anomalous space-baby without anyone questioning it? That might have flown in 1910s-20s Kansas, pre-satellites, pre-radar, and pre-SETI. But it seems a hell of a lot more dubious in the 1990s.

One could argue willing suspension of disbelief, or respond that creators should have more freedom to modify origin stories as necessary, but the real problem is a deeper one.

Are the heroes of the 30s and 60s still appropriate to the 2010s? Tobiah’s argument is, in a way that they aren’t – indeed, cannot be.

70 years past the end of WWII our concerns, our place in the world, the problems we face, and the solutions to those problems are very different. Attempts have been made to repurpose those characters with the greatest mythic resonance to fit new roles, and to provide reassurance in the face of new doubts… But the more time goes on and the further we get from the gravitational pull of the 1900s, the more I believe that 1930s dilettantes and 1960s cold warriors don’t have the answers we need.

Tobiah goes on to say that DC had it right when they had generations of heroes, the Justice Society, the Justice League, and the New Teen Titans, some aging, some in their prime, and some emerging. He suggests we could get more authentic, more interesting stories if we allowed Batman and Superman to get old and be replaced by new generations of characters.

I sympathize with the sentiment. To give an example, the most recent issue of Superior Spider-Man featured a splash page that I found quite powerful.

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Unfortunately, Dan Slott found it necessary to explain the vision on the next page.

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The exposition here really undercuts this otherwise mature moment in the story; instead we get backfill, an explanation of why it’s meaningful for Spider-Man to be staring at a bridge. Presumably this is for readers who don’t know Spider-Man mythology well enough. I understand that writers always have to think about new readers, but that first image (I think) justifies Tobiah’s argument about what the passage of time in comics makes possible. If writers allow history to actually play out in the comics, they can generate these rich and pregnant moments.

I guess where Tobiah and I differ is that I do consider superheroes to be mythic. That’s always been their closest analogue in terms of genre. Comic book stories are about moral dilemmas – sometimes simple dilemmas, sometimes complex ones, but the thing they try to work out is the nature of heroism and ethical conduct.

And structurally too they’re like myths. The story of a character is scattered across multiple texts written by multiple authors. The identity of any one superhero is a composite, by nature. I have a hard time understanding why people (and I’m not talking about View from the Gutters here) get so upset about consistency and coherence.  It always baffles me when I see people online complaining that a character has been brought back when they were supposed to be dead or when some aspect of a character’s canon has been ignored in the interest of the current story.

My suspicion is that as readers we’ve been screwed up by the novel, which has been the dominant literary form for a couple hundred years now. We have novelistic expectations of superhero stories. We are trained to expect linear character development and realism, for example. It’s important to understand that these are genre-specific conventions. Not all literature is like this. Read anything before the 18th century and you’ll encounter a very different understanding of character and plot. I think we expect comic books to be too much like novels.

Personally, I think we’d all be happier with comics if Marvel and DC actually cared less about the internal consistency of their chronology. Marvel has done a better job of this recently. It seems like they have a practiced amnesia that just allows them to keep on telling stories as if the past never happened. DC, by contrast, has always seemed desperate to resolve the tension between comic books and history, or maybe to outrun that tension… I really wish both houses would just let writers tell more self-contained, and more daring stories.

Tobiah’s two most powerful points are 1) that the superheroes we’ve inherited might no longer be applicable. And 2) that in trying to make superheroes ageless, we’ve missed out on some great stories.

On the first point, two points:

First, I would love to see new characters that speak to the concerns of the modern day, but that’s easier said than done. DC’s terrible and justly cancelled The Movement, is a good illustration that a politically “timely” story isn’t necessarily a good story. Still, I’m  totally behind a call for more original, more modern superheroes.

Second, I’m not sure Spider-Man and Iron Man are as “anachronistic” as Tobiah suggests. Iron Man, for example, has never been more popular and that’s because the character’s dependence on technology speaks powerfully to the iPhone age. Also, some of the crises and tensions to which these characters were initially designed to respond are not as historically contingent as they may at first seem. The X-Men are maybe the best example. Originally an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, they have acquired additional resonance in the wake of modern debates about race relations and gay rights.

On the second point, just one long point:

A mythic understanding of comics, one that is less anxious about chronological and canonical consistency allows for a greater plurality of storytelling. I’d love to read about an aging Cyclops or a world without Nightwing. I wish publishers would let writers tell those stories. I think the real reason they don’t is because they’ve only got four-issues to spare before the next big crossover event.

Some of the greatest comic books ever written – The Dark Night Returns, Kingdom Come – exist outside of the chronological canon. Nobody ever complains about whether or not The Dark Knight Returns fits into continuity; it’s just a great story.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is that when we read comics, we’re not actually reading for plot – the engine that drives novels. I’m not even sure we’re reading for character development, though that’s closer. When it comes to superheroes we get pleasure out of reading the same character go through different versions of the same struggles again and again. That’s a different reading experience than we get from other literary forms.

So what is the nature of that pleasure? What do we get out of superheroes and how can we get more of it? Nietzsche said that the ancient Greeks invented the Olympian gods in order to make life bearable. They interposed the gods between themselves and the nihilistic abyss they perceived so that they could live. In essence, the Greek gods, insofar as they are like humans and literally in love with humanity, justify the existence of the Greeks to themselves. It’s possible that superheroes, who champion a particular set of values and fight on behalf of a particular way of life, performed a similar function for 20th century society, and insofar as they persist they may perform the same function for us.

Again, if you haven’t read Tobiah’s piece. Go do so. View from the Gutters also has some great podcasts. One recent episode on Crisis on Infinite Earths is really worth listening to. There’s a great bit on how the New 52 Batman acquired four wards in five years.

Lazarus, Let’s Be Serious

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I’ll be honest: I was all set to write a pretty negative review of Lazarus, the sort-of-new sci-fi series by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. But I waited. I waited one more issue, and they may have turned it around.

My negativity might be a bit surprising. If you’ve heard anything about Lazarus it was probably good. It showed up on a lot of “Best Comics of 2013” lists last month. And I’ll agree the concept is cool. Lazarus is set in a near future in which the predatory tendencies of capitalism and neo-liberalism have gone unchecked. Capital has been concentrated in the hands of a select few “families,” who have then turned America into an aristocracy. The main character, Forever, is a nearly invincible, sword-wielding bodyguard of the wealthy Carlyle clan. Forever is treated as a member of the Carlyle family; she’s referred to as “sister” and “daughter,” but she’s not really a member of the family. Her origins are mysterious. What we do know is that she was trained from a very young age to be a killing machine and she’s been “augmented” somehow by technology so that she’s nearly impossible to kill.

Lazarus is obviously intended to speak to our current political climate. The Carlyle family and their ilk are the 1%; they’re the Mitt Romney set projected 100 years into the future. Instead of gated communities, now we’ve got full on militarized compounds patrolled by private armies. That makes Lazarus timely. I also think it’s part of what makes it trendy.

But Lazarus stumbles on the fundamentals. Lark’s art is shadowy and stark. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere and style here. However, at times, the style gets in the way of basic characterization, by which I mean facial recognition. It’s sometimes hard to tell who is who in this comic and that’s a problem when you’re trying to get to know characters. To be fair, maybe that’s less about Lark and more about Rucka. It’s taken about six months for any of the characters in this comic to take shape. That’s too long.

The first issue of this comic was gangbusters. Lots of tension, lots of questions. The rest of the first arc… was not good. The characters were transparent and uninteresting. Forever’s father is (so far) a caricature of a tyrannical, inhuman CEO. Her siblings are similarly hateful. For months I didn’t care about anybody in this comic. The first arc revolved around a betrayal that was neither surprising nor suspenseful. Speaking of suspense, for several issues now, Forever has been getting cryptic text messages from an anonymous source telling her that the Carlyles are “not her family”. The problem is, we’ve seen that three times now. Forever has made no attempt to track down the source of the texts, nor has the anonymous texter supplied us with any other information. There’s been no movement on that plot line, and as a consequence it’s gone cold before it’s even developed.

So, I was all ready to write Lazarus off. Then I read issue #5, which introduces a group of ordinary farmers to the narrative. These future-age serfs lose their home in a flood, and then draconian corporate and government policies force them to abandon their land in issue #6. These characters I care about, and not because they’re the noble working class people who struggle under the thumb of their vicious Carlyle overlords. No. Simply because there’s a story here. Something happened to these characters. Their struggles are relatable and I want to see what else happens to them. Meanwhile, we’ve also been getting flashbacks to Forever’s youth. We see her training – late-night pushups while conjugating Latin verbs – and we see how desperate she is for her “father’s” love. It’s twisted and unreal, but not so unlike any kid who plays sports or studies all night or parades around in pageants just to win the approval of a parent. Finally I’m starting to feel something for Forever.

If you’ve been thinking about getting into Lazarus I would suggest you track down issue #5 and #6. Start there. It’s a new arc. There’s nothing in the first five issues, you can’t pick up in a few minutes, and the comic is just starting to pick up steam.

Lazarus may have turned the corner, and it may turn out to be something cool… but there’s one other thing that it has to get right. The comic takes itself way too seriously. It beats us over the head with its allegory. “See! This is about what’s happening right now!” In fact, in case we missed any of that, at the end of every issue, The creators give us a list of recent scientific and political developments that gesture towards the dystopian future he’s presented to us. For example, it’s been revealed that every middle class family has a “Post” in their home. Basically, it’s an Internet box connected to a pole. After the letters page we get this from the Lazarus team:

“The Post really isn’t fictitious at all. The XBox One is filling homes and listening to you say its name, and yes, you can keep it offline, etc, but the fact is, the console was designed to always be on and always be listening (and watching). I’m giving it another month, at the outside, before we hear the first story of an individual or individuals hacking the Kinect security to play Peeping Tom.”

There are a couple of problems here. One way to read this is that the creators don’t really respect the intelligence of their audience. They need to spell out every theme and symbol in the book, so we don’t miss any of their genius insights. The other problem is that its didactic, and didacticism doesn’t make for good art. Part of the problem with the story and character development might be this emphasis on making an “argument.” When characters become ciphers for political movements and economic trends they cease to be engaging.

Anyway, I really think the creators ought to ditch the “News of the World” recap. We get it. It’s about Occupy. It’s about the 99%. It’s about austerity and late capitalism. It’s about biotechnology. It’s as if the comic is shouting and pointing at its own panels: “DO YOU SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE? THIS IS POLITICAL! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS SYMBOLIZES? THIS IS VERY SERIOUS STUFF!”

Comics can say serious things, of course, but when they start to take themselves too seriously, they fall flat. We might do well to remember that the most serious comic ever written, a comic about the most serious subject there is, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, was just a cartoon about some mice and some cats.

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Classic Chrome Age Comics

So the Chrome Age runs, roughly, from about 1992-2008(?). When exactly it ends is open to debate, but it pretty much begins with the Death of Superman and the foundation of Image Comics. (Read about recent comics history here).

I’m interested in defining the runs that came out during that period that we’d consider classic, essential runs. Are there any story arcs written during the Chrome Age that will, in a few more decades, be considered on par with Claremont’s X-Men or the Stern/DeFalco & Frenz run with Amazing Spider-Man?

Four runs come to mind for me:

Ron Marz on Green Lantern (#48-125)

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Marz’s run was polarizing because of Hal Jordan’s plunge into insanity and his subsequent replacement by Kyle Rayner. Jordan fans went nuts, but Marz should be praised for doing something daring with an established character. And Hal’s ouster wasn’t just a “Death of Superman” or “Superior Spider-Man” -style attempt to drum up sales. Things didn’t go “back to normal” after a year or two. This was real change, real character development (insofar as such things are possible in a medium in which universes can be undone and reinvented at any time). In Kyle Marz gave us a likeable and relatable Lantern, a character who because of the responsibility and power suddenly thrust upon him now found himself rubbing shoulders with Superman and Batman. But because Kyle had no history with these characters, the new GL injected an everyman into the Justice League set. One favourite detail of mine: when he wasn’t busy saving the world, Kyle was a professional artist. Imagination and creativity were supposed to be key character traits. Marz promised that Kyle would never use the ring the same way twice, and he never did. He didn’t hit bad guys with a giant green fist in every issue. He was always finding new and sometimes hilarious ways to pound his adversaries to a pulp.

Mark Waid on The Flash (#62-129)

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Long before he was breathing new life into Daredevil and scripting The Fox, Waid was building a reputation for himself writing the adventures of Wally West. Like Marz, Waid was handling a “next generation” incarnation of a fan-favourite. After Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally took his place. And while Wally had been the man in the red pyjamas for five years already, it was Waid who really define West’s tenure as the Flash. One of the exciting elements about Waid’s Flash was the scope of Wally’s powers. Every new arc seemed to stretch the Flash’s capabilities. Towards the end of the arc, the Flash, who could channel the “Speed Force” to a variety of effects seemed equal to the Green Lantern’s, Wonder Woman’s and even Superman’s of the DCU. Waid made good use of the Flash’s colourful rogues gallery, and through Linda Park, Waid was able to add a human dimension to the Flash, the kind of thing usually reserved for Spider-Man comics.

Erik Larsen on The Savage Dragon (1-Present!)

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Erik Larsen deserves more praise for what he’s accomplished with The Savage Dragon. Dragon was one of the original six concepts that launched Image Comics. Of those six, only The Savage Dragon and Spawn remain, and McFarlane long ago handed off responsibility for Spawn to other creative teams. For sheer longevity alone, Larsen’s run on The Savage Dragon is unprecedented. Larsen’s early years developing the character were a wild ride. The comic was goofy and violent, funny and sexy. It was filled with classic superhero slugfests and witty dialogue. Larsen developed a mythology and rogues gallery that was diverse and crazy imaginative. It left the reader feeling he was engaging with all of comic book history in some bizarre and delicious amalgamation (i.e. Iron Man + the Punisher + Captain America = Super Patriot). And along the way, Larsen’s Dragon really changed, sometimes radically. Lovers died. Villains were slain. Dragon left the police force and joined a government-funded super-team. This kind of storytelling can be attributed to Larsen’s vision and dedication.

Todd McFarlane on Spawn (#1-70)

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McFarlane remains one of the greatest comic book artists of all time. And at the dawn of the Chrome Age he also gave us one of the most interesting characters of all time. McFarlane’s Spawn suffered perhaps from overexposure. That might be one reason why the character’s star has fallen in the past 10 years. In the early-mid-90s though, Spawn was it. He was an antihero with a tragic past and a cursed future. He made a deal with the devil and was trapped in a sentient costume. He spent his time fighting with demons and living in an alley among homeless people. Among the highlights of this series is an arc from 29-32 in which Spawn travels the American south while his Hellspawned costume goes through a kind of metamorphosis. There’s a reason Spawn was one of the bestselling comics during the 90s; it wasn’t all flash. There was a great and original story being developed there with outstanding art first by McFarlane and later by Greg Capullo.

What’s Wrong With Reboots?

An hour ago I was in a discussion forum reading some fan reaction to the All New Marvel Now! reboot.

People posting over there were decidedly pissed. There was no ambiguity. No “let’s wait and see” comments. The odd thing to me is that a lot of people seemed to be saying, “Marvel is rebooting things again. This is bullshit!”

But why? Honest question. What’s the big deal? Why, for example, is it a problem if Marvel restarts Wolverine every time a new creative team signs on to do the book? Seriously, why the knee-jerk, reboots are bad reaction?

I explored this a bit in a post on Ret-Con Anxiety awhile back. I get that people don’t like to see favourite characters and character mythologies rebooted out of existence. But this message board angst seemed like something else.

To be honest it seemed a bit like stereotypical hipster speak: “Everything new sucks! Everything old was way better!” Do comic book fans suffer from some of that?

Look, reboots are obviously about capitalism. Maybe at the root of it, that’s what people are uncomfortable with. I sympathize with that (I’m pissed off about “The Trial of Jean Grey,” for example). But let’s not pretend that comics were ever not about money. They’ve always been about money. The industry has just figured out that reboots are an effective way to make money. And listen, sue me, but I don’t think that necessarily gets in the way of telling a good story.

Lots of people hate the New 52, but everybody loves Snyder’s Batman, right? So maybe reboots aren’t automatically bad. It’s about whether or not you tell a good story. Always has been; always will be.