Writer, Editor, Author

Tag: Grant Morrison

Happy! is upbeat, but not ecstatic

Happy! #1-4 (Image Comics, $2.99 each) is a creator-owned miniseries from Grant Morrison — his first in a long while after a very long stretch writing big superhero franchises for, mostly, DC Comics. 
The art is by Darick Robertson, of Transmetropolitan and The Boys fame, and the pair are quite well matched for this story of a cop turned hitman whose life is saved by a flying blue horse named Happy that appears before his eyes and guides him through a rough Christmas misadventure. 
Robertson’s art really sells this hard, and mostly succeeds. The story itself reads like Morrison is channeling Warren Ellis, though maybe that’s just the unavoidable Transmet link, and works reasonably well without rising to the level of Morrison’s signature work. I think three issues might have worked better than four, but it makes for a decent, slightly off-kilter read with some really nice art.

First Batch of New 52 Releases Delivers Solid Comic-Book Entertainment

Sometimes, life is great. Yesterday afternoon, FedEx rang my door and had me sign for a package from the publicity folks at DC Comics. Quickly tearing open the package, I found inside all 13 of this week’s releases of The New 52.

It was tough to not just stop working and dig right into the big pile. I took a little break and read Hawk & Dove #1 followed by Action Comics #1. I read the rest of the books last night and now will delve into them for your reading pleasure.

The good news is these books are overall quite good. After the mild letdown of Justice League #1, I found every one of the 13 new books to deliver a satisfying and entertaining story. These read a lot like comics from the late 1980s or 1990s, with more story, more action and fewer talking heads than superhero comics have delivered of late. They also have some sharp art and, thankfully, overall good coloring. The books look quite sharp. I still wish there was some kind of introductory text page and maybe a house ad promoting comic shops, explaining digital availability and an ad offering subscription info.

I don’t know how truly new readers will receive these books, but I give DC great credit for doing a pretty good job delivering on material that I think has a wider appeal than superhero comics have delivered in a while.

So, let’s go through them, one by one. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but if you’re a stickler you might want to wait until you’ve read the books to proceed. Also, this may take multiple posts.

I started with Hawk & Dove #1 just because a comic by Rob Liefeld always evokes some kind of interesting reaction. Yes, the anatomy on the cover is awful, but the image still has that unique energy Liefeld brings to his projects. Inside, the story by Sterling Gates was better than I expected, though in a crazy, comic-book kind of way. It at least delivers on action, complete with monsters, zombies (or maybe monster/zombies) and a close call between a plane and a national monument. The books keeps it simple, though some of the ideas in here are a bit puzzling (what is a “science terrorist”?) if you think about it too hard. The dialog is a bit hammy, especially from the slightly one-note characterization of Hank Hall as a hothead. Still, this works in a very basic way thanks to lots of action and a couple of good twists toward the end.

Action Comics #1 is THE high-profile book of the week, featuring Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ anticipated revamp of the Man of Steel. And boy, does this get the blood pumping. If you go back and read my take a few months back on how to fix Superman, it looks like Morrison had a lot of the same ideas. This issue is all about the action, and features some great, gritty sequences. Morrison takes Superman back to the beginning — this version of the character is surprisingly similar to the original concept by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This Superman is a crusader, tackling the powerful interests of Metropolis that are otherwise above the law. His power levels also are scaled back and he leaps more than flies, and has the potential to be hurt. This Superman also is young, but not mopey — he’s out there acting on his convictions and doing what he sees as right. This is a great first issue and it succeeds at being an exciting and fun take on the Man of Steel.


Stormwatch #1 was a slightly more confusing read for me. The plot centers on the new Stormwatch, which includes as members the Martian Manhunter from Justice League and most of the cast of the Authority, as they are faced with no less than three interesting challenges: Finding the superhuman known as Apollo, dealing with something very strange on the moon, and a third mystery involving a horny mystery in the Himalayas. There’s definitely a different vibe to this book that recalls in ways the spirit of the best Stormwatch/Authority stories (most of them written by Warren Ellis).

Animal Man #1 was a true standout for me, with a terrific story by Jeff Lemire and equally good art by Travel Foreman. This one really is the best of all worlds, as it recasts the lead character into a new role, makes him and his family interesting characters in their own right and features some unique action and promise of more to come. I know I’ve read comics drawn by Foreman before, but he’s obviously raised his game significantly because I was never blown away like I was with this issue.The colors by Lovern Kindzierski are also outstanding. I have to put this up there with Action Comics as the best of this week’s bunch.

Men of War #1 surprised me. War comics have never been my favorite — Marvel’s 1980s series The ‘Nam being the lone exception — because I usually find them either unrealistic or too chaotic, confusing and repetitive to follow. This book, however, avoided all those issues while at the same time recasting the venerabel Sgt. Rock into contemporary times. In the lead story, Ivan Brandon delivers a story full of soldi war action (with a tantalizing hint of the superheroic) and good character development. The second story, Navy Seals: Human Shield, by Jon Vankin and Phil Winslde, is even more compelling than the Rock story. It’s a bit more procedural, but it’s done clearly and vigorously, leading to a compelling cliffhanger.

More in the next post.

Fixing the X-Men: Shorter, crazier stories based in the real-world

X-Men has been thoroughly dethroned as the top franchise in comics, replaced in sales and popularity among superheroes by Green Lantern, the Avengers and Batman. Sales are down, interest is down and the X-Men line is just kind of dismissed by bloggers and podcasters as a property coasting on past successes more than one that innovates, entertains and is a commercial success.

No one who’s read this blog or my book or spoken to me about it at a con or online will mistake me for anything other than a big fan of the X-Men. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a ton of crappy X-Men comics have been published over the life of the title. But I do think the X-Men stands apart from pretty much every other superhero out there because its concept is capable of delivering a great deal more emotional depth. X-Men is, at heart, a science fiction concept that features many conventions of the superhero genre. You could do X-Men without code names, costumes, secret identities and crime-fighting elements that define most superheroes. But by making the X-Men mutants — granted powers by accident of birth — and turning them into a race or even a class of potentially dangerous people pitted against normal humans, X-Men has a greater potential to become something deeper and more significant than the superpowered cops commonly found in Avengers or Green Lantern.

The X-Men’s current decline easily began the moment Grant Morrison left New X-Men, ending the last great run of innovation the title has seen. That was 2004, and was followed in 2005 by Marvel placing renewed emphasis on the Avengers, beginning its ascension to the top of the charts starting with Avengers: Disassembled and The New Avengers. I think there were a lot of reasons for this shift, but the most interesting was that also was about the time that Marvel began planning to make its own movies. With the X-Men movies rights and profits locked up at Fox indefinitely, it simply makes sense for Marvel to put all its efforts into building up the Avengers into the most recognizable and profitable brand.

I dropped all Avengers books shortly after the recent relaunch because I think writer Brian Michael Bendis’ style has grown increasingly stale and lazy. How long can you quote movies from the 1980s in a pastiche of David Mamet and Kevin Smith before people stop calling it brilliant? How many issues can you write where superheroes sit around eating and drinking coffee and chatting about nothing while all the action happens off-panel? Bendis is on track to find out.

The X-Men books these days are not horrible, but they’re not great either. What they lack more than anything is the kind of wild energy and the constant sense of elevating danger that marked the best days of the series. The former is a problem that afflicts most comics these days, while the latter stems from the need for the X-Men metaphor to evolve and reflect the nature of being an outsider.

So how to fix that? I have some ideas:

Stop writing comics like they’re movies or TV shows and starting writing them like they’re comic books again.

This is a problem that affects most mainstream comics these days. It’s not uncommon for dialog scenes in superhero comics to run two or three pages, with four or five panels per page. This works for Tommy Schlamme on The West Wing, but in comics, it is extremely boring. Flipping through the current arc of The Uncanny X-Men, “Quarantine,” there’s a LOT of talking. The first issue, #530, starts with two pages of Emma talking to Kitty, followed by a page of almost-naked Emma talking to Scott, followed by three pages of Anole talking about getting sick, a page of Northstar and Dazzler having dinner, two pages of The Collective talking and one of them tearing up a convenience store, followed by a super-exciting two-page press conference, and on and on. Boring.

Similarly, a couple of issues later we get a big fight between Emma and Sebastian Shaw, while Northstar et al. are fighting the Collective in San Francisco. Despite most of that issue, #532, featuring some kind of action, these sequences still lack energy and fail to generate any kind of excitement. I think a lot of it comes from Land’s heavy reliance on photo reference. In theory, photos should make good starting points for comic panels, but in practice the artists who rely on photo reference produce work that looks stiff, or even frozen. Good comic art has a natural look and the storytelling flows from panel to panel and page to page. I don’t think you’ll ever get that flow cobbling together panels based on pictures from Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

In movies and TV, time is valuable. In comics, it’s space. And wasting so much space and so many pages on endless dialog and stilted action simply runs counter to the strengths of comics as a medium. Add in the stretching out of storylines over four or six issues, which often ship late, and the number of people who wait for collected editions to read and it’s almost impossible to avoid material that feels stilted, thin and stretched beyond its limits. At a time when communication is speeding up and people are abandoning short forms of communication like email and blog posts for even shorter and quicker hits offered by Twitter and Facebook, this is an even worse approach. I don’t know why comics aren’t more focused on making each issue, each episode as jam-packed full of cool stuff as they possible can rather than boring everyone to death with decompressed, to-be-continued and irrelevant material.

Next: be subversive. I think good comics are a lot like good rock ‘n’ roll (or any good art): it must challenge the reader in some way. In comics’ case, that usually means being subversive in some ways. X-Men was always good at that, featuring characters who are always on the outside of society looking in. It’s a great premise for criticizing just about any aspect of society. And looking at the state of the world today, there is no shortage of things to criticize. However, X-Men in the post-Morrison years has been astonishingly conservative, sticking to an interpretation of the mutants and their relationship with society that fails to evolve and remains exceedingly safe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. Both DC and Marvel’s books have felt increasingly like the products of a corporation in recent years, shedding the personalities that the artists and writers used to bring to them. It often feels like I’m not reading a comic anymore, but a marketing plan or press kit takeaway.

The antidote to this has to be taking some chances with X-Men stories, going beyond what’s been established in the past 48 years of comic books and take a few digs at society. The good news is there is no shortage of conflict in the world right now — economic, political, religious, racial — X-Men could easily tap into. The bad news is that Marvel is a big corporation and can’t be expected to court the kind of controversy subversive comics would bring.

So if anyone were to ask me what could be done to fix the X-Men comics, here’s what I would do.

  • Shorter, punchier storylines. Throw lots of strange ideas in there and see what sticks.
  • Get the X-Men off Utopia. Putting all these characters on a fake island where all they have to do is talk to each other has turned out to be deadly dull. This is a book that needs to connect with the real world, and they can’t do that on Utopia.
  • Return a sense of dread to the book. Claremont did this extremely well, by making mutants powerful enough that it was credible for normal humans to hate and fear them. He also had an ear for the kinds of arguments used in the media at the time to discuss divisive issues and shrewdly injected imagery from the Holocaust to great effect.
  • Tap into real world issues. The Holocaust imagery evoked a universal and undeniable sense of fear and horror in to the X-Men that stood in for a number of different interpretations of the mutant metaphor. It could be about race, it could be about religion, it could be about just being an outsider or it could be about being gay. For too long — ever since Claremont left in 1991 — X-Men has relied a little too much on the homosexual interpretation. A lot of this became more obvious for many folks after Bryan Singer’s movies. But gay rights have come a long way in the last 20 years, and no longer carries the kind of stigma it did in the 1980s and even in the 1990s. With the shrill political, cultural and religious environment found in the United States, there’s lots of ways to move beyond the Holocaust imagery and find new threats for the mutants based on real-life stuff that’s extremely compelling.
  • Put the X-Men in direct conflict with humanity. The idea of an all-out war between humans and mutants has been inherent in the concept from the start. It’s been 48 years since X-Men #1 — isn’t it time we saw this at long last? There’s enough X-books, and I could see this as a great new status quo for the X-Men for the next several years.

I’d love to hear what other fans have to say — fire away in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Thoughts on E3, The 10-Cent Plague and Batman & Robin #1

I got to spend at day at E3 this week for Animation Magazine and walked away pretty impressed by the video game industry, which has changed a lot since the last big E3 I went to in 2006. Aside from toning down the noise, bright lights and over-the-top booth babe pandering, the games themselves were noticably brighter, less violent and more fun. I think a lot of this has to do with the success of casual games, the Nintendo Wii and the runaway success of things like Rock Band. (How cool-looking is that Beatles game? Yowza!)Yeah, there were still plenty of violent games as well, but even those were sharper looking and more stylish than the somewhat ugly and overbearingly geeky fare of just three years ago. Relating to comics, there were some very cool game on display, with Batman: Arkham Asylum looking like the best Batman game ever. There were batarangs to throw, an RPG element, “detective mode,” tons of comics-related cameos including Commissioner Gordon, Oracle, Zzasz and a few others, and some really great action sequences. It was especially cool to watch Batman glide down from the rafters to rescue a prison guard held hostage in one sequence. Next to this, the DC Universe Online MMORPG looked a little dull. I’ll admit I didn’t give it a spin and that the pleasures of that kind of game come from playing with others. But despite the long development, it just didn’t pop enough visually to stand out from some truly cool-looking stuff.Amond the cool-looking, I’ll count Marvel Alliance 2 from Activision. The trailer for this was running on huge screens at the Activision booth in between trailers for DJ Hero (which looks amazing, cool and super sexy) and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. It looks to take a cue from Civil War, with rival teams of Avengers lead by Captain America and Iron Man squaring off, with a third team of more villainous characters entering the fray. The HD visuals were truly stunning — you could see the cloth and chain mail in Cap’s costume, for example. And the lineup of characters itself was promising, including everyone from Luke Cage and Cable to 1980s faves Firestar and Cloak & Dagger. Here’s a look at the trailer:

It’s also clear that video games have a cultural cachet with both youths and adults that the comics industry hasn’t had since the 1960s and likely never will again. But comics do have one thing that video games, for all their immersiveness and entertainment value, still can’t quite match, and that’s in telling stories. Which is not to say that there aren’t good stories being told in games, but the interactivity of the experience scratches a different itch (I think) than the kind of straight storytelling you find in comics, novels, TV shows and movies. All of which leads into my second topic, which is David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), which came out last year and I finally got around to reading just now. For those who don’t know, this is a thoroughly researched account of the anti-comics crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It makes for fascinating and entertaining reading for anyone who ever wanted to know more about this topic. What came through most vividly for me was the vehemence of the attacks on comics, and the accounts of the comic book bonfires are especially chilling. Hajdu does a great job digging into the reaction of the folks on the receiving end of this — the writers and artists who were vilified and deprived of not just their livlihoods but their outlets for creative expression. It also has interesting bits from the kids of the time, who, being kids, didn’t have the tools to really protest their parents’ and teachers’ attacks on the comic books they loved to read. The book is subtitled “The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” and that’s the one area I thought the book fell short — in putting these events into the context of censorship and ratings systems both before and after the Comics Code. It’s interesting to read at the end how the publishers installed Charles Murphy to head up the CMAA expecting him to be a figurehead of sorts. But Murphy turned out to be a hard-core believer in the code and enforced it far more vigorously than anyone expected. It would have been interesting to read more about how the anti-comics crusade compared to earlier American censorship efforts, talk about how the Code evolved and changed the comic book industry, and how these events influenced later attempts to either rate or regulate everything from movies to song lyrics, TV shows and most recently video games. I got a bunch of great previews this week that I hope to read this weekend and write about next week, but I did get around to reading the much-anticipated Batman & Robin #1 (DC, $2.99) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I’m on record as very much having liked Grant Morrison’s first Batman arcs back in 2006 (I think). But I found later arcs to be more arcane and difficult to really get into and follow. (Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, I’m looking at you). This was much better and has some real promise, but I’m afraid I don’t see much reason to get really excited — yet. I think the problem is that Morrison isn’t the best fit with Batman. Morrison’s ability to get weird in interesting ways is a much better fit for the misfits of Doom Patrol (still my favorite long-running Morrison series), New X-Men, or the experimentation with new ideas like We3. None of which will stop this from being a huge commercial hit for DC, but I’ll be quite interested to see how far Morrison can go with Batman and how many folks will stick around for the ride once the novelty wears off.

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