Posts Tagged nerds

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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Grow up?

Avengers-InvadersThis is the Ilium Gazette’s 100th post! If anyone actually reads this, thank you for taking the time. Now, on to business…

I’m very thankful for the fact that no one has ever told me to grow up. I’m a college graduate who reads comic books and watches cartoons, so I’ve been expecting a cold dose of adult reality for awhile. It hasn’t come, and that’s fine with me.

Adulthood made more sense when I was in kindergarten. Adults worked, worried, and generally put their own happiness aside for the betterment of their families and society in general. Now, things seem more complicated. Many supposed adults act like selfish children, while others work hard and get nothing but scorn and misery in return.

I guess real life can be pretty unsatisfying and unfair, which is why I want to hang on to immaturity as long as possible. I’m not trying to shirk responsibilities; I’d welcome the opportunity to get out there, get my career going, and make even a microscopic impact. I just wish real life was more like science fiction.

Being the captain of the USS Enterprise sounds tough; how do Kirk and Piccard stay so cool while facing down Romulans with no shields and a warp core ready to explode? Yet their lives are much easier than the average American’s. They may be going up against hostile aliens, but at least they know what to do: attack! defend! whatever! There is no relativity in Star Trek, which makes every decision obvious.

The nerd world is also a world of idealism. Most superheroes do what they do with only slight justification. They have superpowers. They are good people. They do good things. Done. It’s only in the real world that people need a reason to be good.

These characters, with their brightly colored costumes and corny dialogue, have always been paragons of good, and I’ve tried to follow their example as best I can. I known that we’ll probably never live up to our own myths, or build a future like the one in Star Trek, but it’s nice to dream.

Reality isn’t black-and-white, but people seem to use that as an excuse for gratuitously selfish and callous behavior. When I need a break from that, I open a comic book. After all, maybe it’s maturity that sucks.

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How to kill a superhero

They say you should never meet your heroes, but maybe you shouldn’t see them on the big screen either. The modern crop of superhero movies has included a few masterpieces, such as Batman Begins and Spider-Man, that manage to appease comic fans and be legitimately good films. On the other hand, Green Lantern shows just how wrong things can go.

The small budget (only $150 million) Green Lantern film, starring Ryan Reynolds, has nothing in common with the comic book that inspired it. Reynolds’ goofy, incompetent Hal Jordan is nothing like the self-confident hero fans admire. Instead of seeking to overcome his limitations, as the comic version did, this Hal Jordan brings everyone down to his level of childishness.

Green Lantern as drawn by Ethan van Sciver. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The aesthetics of Green Lantern are also completely skewed. Every character sports overly-textured skin, with either scales or exposed muscle fiber, that makes them look completely different (and much uglier) than their pencil and ink counterparts. The Lanterns’ headquarters on Oa, a modern city bathed in the light of a giant lantern-shaped “Central Power Battery” in the comics, looks like a cave. They even got Hal Jordan’s mask wrong.

Some might argue that none of the above matters: pleasing comic fans and pleasing the general public are not the same thing (for example, Watchmen was a faithful tribute to the graphic novel it’s based on, but was a little too strange for non-nerds). But that would mean the resulting movie should still be good, and it was not. Green Lantern was full of lame jokes, awkward dialogue, and Reynolds was so two-dimensional that I had more sympathy for the villains.

In the pantheon of superheroes, Green Lantern has never had the fame of Superman or Batman. Superheroes in general have little inherent appeal outside specific audiences; most people expect a man in tights and some explosions, which seems a bit silly. The superhero films that succeed do so because they show audiences why they should care about these characters; the filmmakers take them seriously.

Comic fans already take superheroes seriously, and rightfully so. Superheroes were created in and for that medium, and trying to turn them into anything besides comic book characters will always end badly. Just ask Hal Jordan.

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