Posts Tagged comic books

A dream of flying

Miracleman 2014 #1This week I got to read the first chapter of a truly legendary comic (insert cliche story hook here).

Imagine two of the greatest comics writers pouring their twisted genius into an epic tale, one that redefines what people think about superheroes. Yet the story is lost, and never finished.

Miracleman is that book. A revival of a British superhero from the 1950s (originally called Marvelman, and based on Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel), the title was resurrected by Alan Moore in 1982, and passed on to Neil Gaiman before its publisher went broke.

More than a decade of legal wrangling ensued, putting Miracleman at the center of an intractable copyright dispute, even by the standards of an industry that seems to thrive on litigiousness.

The battle ended earlier this week when the first reprinted issue–published by Marvel Comics–hit the stands. Gaiman will also get to finish his original story, an event that may be without precedent in the comics world.

So what’s the big deal?

In the Digital Age, it’s rare to be denied access to information or media, but since Miracleman was locked down in the 1990s, it’s been off limits until now.

The feeling was a lot like reading about a new sports car in a magazine, but never being able to drive it.

Any work by Alan Moore (or Neil Gaiman) is worth reading, but Miracleman is legendary because of Moore’s unhinged reconstitution of the superhero. It probably won’t be uplifting (no pun intended) but it promises to be as radical and unusual as anything with panels and word bubbles can be.

It all begins with a man who dreams of flying. For better or worse, that dream is about to become reality once again.

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Superman: one blogger’s essential reading list

Action Comics 122 coverSuperman may be the first superhero, but he’s also one of the least popular. From his spit-curled and square-jawed visage to his ability to move faster than a speeding bullet, Superman is the perfect defender of justice. That also makes him perfectly boring.

In an age of sophisticated comics readers, and the wonderfully conflicted and nuanced heroes they demand, the guy known as the Big Blue Boy Scout doesn’t have much to offer.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Growing up, I always preferred Green Lantern and Batman to Superman, but over the years I’ve found a few great stories that even the most jaded nerd will enjoy.

In honor of the premiere of Man of Steel, here are five depictions of Superman that helped me take him seriously. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for the Metropolis Kid too.

Superman and StalinSuperman: Red Son

If you’re having trouble taking a guy who wears blue tights and a cape seriously, this might be a good place to start. You don’t have to love Superman to find the idea of turning him into a Soviet dictator entertaining.

In this re-imagined tale, Kal-El’s rocket lands on a Soviet collective instead of the Kents’ farm, leaving him to grow up under the wing of that other Man of Steel, Joseph Stalin.

The concept isn’t just amusing, it’s well-executed. Writer Mark Millar rearranges the entire DC Universe around Superman’s change of allegiance, with tweaked versions of familiar characters both real and historical.

Justice LeagueJustice League

For some reason, DC has always been able to produce great animated versions of its characters. Justice League (and the expanded Justice League Unlimited) is a case in point.

Predictably, Superman becomes the de facto leader of the team, but he actually seems like a good choice for the role. He’s cool and affable, not just a strong man with a rigid Henry Manly-esque sense of honor.

Putting Superman amongst his superhero peers also takes him down a peg. With Batman, Wonder Woman, and others around to question some of his not-so-super judgment calls, we see that the Man of Steel isn’t infallible.

Superman vs Captain MarvelKingdom Come

Like Red Son, Kingdom Come out-of-continuity story, but it’s grimly realistic. In the near future world of Kingdom Come, the perpetual battles between superheroes and supervillains are starting to wear on humanity, and Superman is called on to reign in both sides.

This is Superman when he’s done playing nice; he’s not just enforcing order, he’s creating it. It’s a more serious focus on the character that focuses on the decisions that are normally glossed over in his quest for truth, justice, and the American Way.

If that’s not enough, there’s also spectacular artwork by Alex Ross and an epic fight between Superman and Captain Marvel, which is highly appropriate given the two characters’ intertwined history.

Superman 705 panelSuperman: Grounded

It’s not necessary to read all of Grounded, the last story arc before Superman was redesigned for the “New 52,” just the first four issues. They focus on Superman taking a walk across America, meeting real people and real problems.

After Kryptonian survivors prove they can’t live happily ever after on Earth in War of the Supermen, ordinary humans are starting to resent Kal-El’s presence. After all, even with Superman around, the world is a pretty terrible place. Plus, he causes a lot of collateral damage.

Comics sometimes have trouble addressing real world issues, but Grounded does better than most. It shows the obvious dichotomy between the existential threats that superheroes regularly deal with and the more mundane crimes they often don’t have time for.

Grounded also highlights an important truth about Superman. After rescuing a child from an abusive father (in issue 705), he tells police that the only thing needed to stop the abuse was,someone, anyone, with a pair of eyes, a voice, a phone and ten cents’ worth of compassion.” Like anyone else confronted with such a situation, once Superman knew it was happening, he knew what needed to be done.

Superman’s reflexive do-gooderism can be annoying sometimes, but here it works. We see that Superman has the same sense of right and wrong as most people; he’s just in a better position to act on it.

All-Star SupermanAll-Star Superman

Of course, what really makes Superman great isn’t his corn-fed characterization, it’s his powers. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman throws out origins and conflicts, and just focuses on Superman using his superpowers to do amazing things.

In this out-of-continuity story, a fatal radiation exposure leaves Superman with one year to live, and he decides to make the most of it. He performs 12 Herculean labors, including answering the Unanswerable Question and curing cancer.

Sometimes it’s nice to see Superman being just, well, super. After all, that’s what made him, and the entire superhero genre, when he first flashed his “S” symbol on the cover of a comic 75 years ago.

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Super serious

Iron Man 3I never thought I’d say this, but people are taking superheroes way too seriously.

By people, I mean film critics. They don’t seem to understand that superhero movies are based on comic books.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark won an impressive victory over a fire-breathing Aldrich Killian, but according to certain critics, he destroyed American culture in the process.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the film exploited imagery of terrorism for cheap thrills, without addressing any of the issues behind that imagery, and said that releasing the film so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the real world.

NPR’s Linda Holmes criticized Tony himself, lamenting that his egotism, wealth, and use of technology to cocoon himself make him the “new Captain America.” Steve Rogers doesn’t use remote controlled drones to fight his battles, right?

I’m not saying that Iron Man 3 deserves critical praise, in fact quite the opposite. For movies like this, being faithful to the comic books that form the source material is as important as artistic merit.

Tales of Suspense 50No movie with as many explosions as Iron Man 3 deserves a critic’s approval, but because dodging explosions is what Iron Man does in the comic books, that’s what he should be doing on the big screen.

While writers and directors do have to make certain decisions about how to transform a comic book character into a movie character, or even about which comic books to make movies of, critics still need to stop treating the resulting movies as if they materialized from thin air.

Certain things about Iron Man simply can’t be changed, like the fact that he’s a rich white guy, or that his arch enemy is a guy called The Mandarin, or that he fights people. Without those elements, the cinematic Iron Man might be more nuanced, but he wouldn’t be Iron Man.

Iron Man and most of his colleagues predate the movie craze that is enriching their owners, and many of the political issues they are now accused of exploiting. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, Osama bin Laden was six, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.

People seem to be aware of this. In “The Amazing Spider-Man and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” a dialogue with Dargis, the Times’ A.O. Scott notes that “our superheroes have been around for a very long time.”

Of course, superheroes are capable of changing with the times. Tony fought Soviet-themed villains like the Crimson Dynamo when they were still relevant, and The Mandarin has gradually shifted from an old school megalomaniacal villain into a terrorist.

Still, there are certain things that cannot be changed. In the same article on the “Modern Comic Book Movie,” Dargis acknowledges that superheroes predate the movies that depict them, and claims that is he problem.

“The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense,” she says.Iron Man first appearance

A team of white guys saving the world does seem inappropriate in our post-feminist, post-civil rights world, but this isn’t just any team of white guys, it’s the Avengers. They resonate because of who they are, not because they are white and male.

Superheroes are popular because people like them. They like the idea of them, and more importantly, they like specific characters like Iron Man and Captain America. That’s why, when a movie that does them justice (no pun intended) appears, they turn out in droves.

While it’s not impossible for a superhero movie to have an important message, or to meaningfully engage with important issues, that is all secondary to the “superhero” part of it.

If you’re looking for cultural critiques, Iron Man 3 is not the movie for you. If you want to see Iron Man in a movie, it is.

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Book review: “Superman is Jewish?” by Harry Brod

It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s greatest superheroes were created by Jews. The list of famous Jewish comics creators includes Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. These Jews created comic books, but what, if anything, about those books is specifically Jewish? That’s what Harry Brod tries to find out in Superman is Jewish?

Brod, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, sets up a surprisingly sprawling narrative in just 194 pages. He links comics to a greater tradition of Jewish storytelling, including the golem and El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya, which Brod nominates as a sort of prototype graphic novel.

Of course, most attention is paid to what modern readers would readily recognize as comics. Superman gets his own chapter, where everything from the Hebraic origin of the name Kal-El to Clark Kent’s characterization as a nebbish is parsed out.

A lot of this has been explored before, particularly in Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. Brod’s Jewish lens does add a new perspective, though. He describes Superman’s postwar transformation from sadistic street fighter to big blue Boy Scout as a “whitewashing” of his ethnicity.

The section on Marvel is a little less strong. There is little explicit evidence of Jewish themes in Marvel comics (with the exception of Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing, and a few other Jewish characters), so a lot of this is based on conjecture and interpretation of tropes like Spider-Man’s snarky humor and the general liberal tone of the 1960s stories.

What really makes this book worth reading is Brod’s description of Jewish comics creators deploying all of their talents to tell Jewish stories. He makes a convincing argument not just for the literary merit of Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but also describes the importance of the graphic novel medium to the structure of those works.

Superman is Jewish? tries to be more than just a list of outed Jewish comic book creators and characters, and it largely succeeds. Brod treats a subject that is still largely viewed as a closed-off nerdscape with seriousness, and tries to link it to a larger Jewish cultural tradition. That requires some chutzpah.

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Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.

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Green Arrow loses his sense of humor

More Fun Comics 91Superheroes have conquered the silver screen, something that no one who saw the first Superman movie serials or Captain America starring Matt Salinger thought would ever happen. Joss Whedon and Chris Nolan are the masters of the universe, but where can superheroes go from there? Television of course!

I was very excited for Arrow because it would finally give Green Arrow a little recognition, and because if it turned out to be good, I wouldn’t have to wait two years for another fix. However, it seems like the producers of Arrow are paying too much attention to blockbuster superhero films.

Arrow is dark, literally. Most of the action takes place at night, and the moody lighting means it’s sometimes difficult to see which bad buy “The Hood” (this T.V. Green Arrow needs an image consultant) is pummeling.

It’s not to say that the fights aren’t bad or undramatic, they are just out of character. The comic book Green Arrow (at least the one I know) is a bit more jovial. He’s a peace-loving hippie who cracks jokes, annoys Green Lantern, and has a beard. What happened to that guy?

The new Oliver Queen is scarred (mentally and physically) from his time on a (mostly) deserted island, and is obsessed with a quest for vengeance and redemption.

The television show’s darker Green Arrow is probably the result of an identity crisis. Oliver Queen’s alter ego has always been a rip-off of two characters: Robin Hood and Batman. The Robin Hood parallel goes without saying, and Green Arrow is often described as “Batman with a bow and arrow” because, like Bruce Wayne, he’s a rich guy with no superpowers and a sense of justice.

Arrow’s Ollie tries really hard to be Bruce Wayne. He’s got a secret base in an old warehouse and, like Bruce, he feigns aloofness to distance himself from his alter ego. Ollie may have gone too far, though: Bruce maintained control of his company, giving him resources that could be used in his war on crime. Ollie abdicated in a public display of fake drunkenness.

It’s not surprising that the people writing Green Arrow want him to be more like Batman than Robin Hood; only one of them wears tights. The connection was also downplayed in Green Arrow: Year One, where the costume starts out as a mossy piece of sailcloth that a marooned Ollie wears as a babushka.

So the television Green Arrow is very different from the comic book one. Is he better? I think the change is a bit drastic. Batman works as a dark character because he has always been that way; Green Arrow hasn’t.

Will no one take a more lighthearted Oliver Queen seriously? I don’t know, but not every superhero can be a brooding creature of the night, especially a guy who dresses up in bright green and hunts bad guys with a bow.

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We need another villain

cinematic villainsI’m looking for a good villain. I’ve had enough of relatable bad guys that need to be empathized with as well as feared. Maybe it’s just leftover angst from the Presidential Election, but I’d like to see a character whose two dimensionality I can point out without making me look like a bad person.

What the public needs is someone they can love to hate. Someone whose iPod has a playlist of children crying. Someone who keeps a cat around just so they can maniacally pet it in a revolving chair. Someone who looks good (and by good, I mean bad) with a mustache.

In the world of nerd literature, definitely the best place to look for archetypal bad guys, the opposite is the trend. As writers strive for more depth, characters wearing both white and black hats become more realistic.

That’s great most of the time, but sometimes it’s just fun to watch Captain America punch the Red Skull in the face without having to consider the Skull’s perspective.

Giving a character a detailed set of motivations makes him or her more relatable, but it also makes the character less evil. Audiences were supposed to view the army Voldemoort raised in the final Harry Potter film as the ultimate force of darkness, but it looked like a mob of homeless people. You’re supposed to fear the Army of Darkness, not empathize with it because social stratification left it with no other viable options!

A good work of film or literature needs complex characters, but sometimes readers and viewers need absolutes. Everyday life is a gray blob, we face choices that are morally ambiguous and often inconsequential outside of the moment. Even when someone commits a genuinely bad act, there is usually a reason behind it.

We forgive people’s bad vibes, and wonder if we’re making the right choices, but we often don’t know anything for sure. A little fictional certainty once and awhile is a good thing. Shakespeare had it right when he created Iago.

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