Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dork Awards After-Party

So now that the big fancy awards show is over, we can all just sit down and talk like folks about the funnybook scene of 2010. The highs, the lows, the trends and surprises, the books we missed readin’ here on the Dork Forty… In fact, let’s start there…

The Ones That Got Away

Nobody can read everything, and there were some mighty good funnybooks I missed out on this year. The biggest, to my way of thinking, has to be James Stokoe’s Orc Stain.

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A grungy epic fantasy series, this book somehow sailed under my radar til the year was almost over. And I still haven’t read it. The trade’s on order, mind you, but all I’ve gotten my hands on are some free online sneak previews and ten incomplete pages of a story Stokoe put up on his blog (http://orcstain.wordpress.com/2010/11/25/the-orc-dont-fit/). I like what I’ve seen, though, and I’m looking forward to more. The art’s cartoony-gorgeous and insanely detailed, and it just overall looks like the kind of funnybook I live for.

Another fantasy book I missed is CF’s Powr Mastrs. But not just in 2010; this book’s been out there for, like, three years, and I haven’t picked it up yet. I think the “primitivist” artwork has been keeping me away, “primitivism” often translating more to “can’t draw” than anything I find very interesting. Some pages I’ve seen from 2010’s volume three, though, have convinced me that there is something interesting going on here, so that one’s on order as well, right alongside Orc Stain.

I’ve also gotten behind on Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, which I started reading early in 2010, then kind of forgot about. I got volumes five and six for Christmas, though, and I’m sure those will propel me straight on into 2010’s volume seven (the series’ finale). Then I’ll start back on Urasawa’s other major series, 20th Century Boys.

And finally, there’s the book I sort of intentionally missed out on, Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit 2. I liked the first volume, with its crazy inventiveness and entertaining obscenity. It was like something a middle school kid would sketch out in his notebook. But enough’s enough. I got the joke, and I’m done with it. A second volume just seems like belaboring the point.

Honorable Mention

In addition to books I just didn’t read in 2010, there were also lots of really good funnybooks that just didn’t get mentioned in the Dork Awards proper. Regular readers can probably guess at most of them from my on-going reviews: Sweet Tooth, Jack Staff, Criminal and Incognito, etc.

But the biggie is the third volume of the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets: New Stories. Alongside a couple of glacially disturbing Gilbert pieces, it featured what is probably Jaime’s best work, “Browntown.” That story should have vaulted this L&R volume into the Best OGN category all by itself, and in retrospect I‘m not sure why it didn‘t. I know I was a bit disappointed that Jaime returned to Locas; I’ve gotten increasingly bored with those characters as time’s gone on, and would like to see Jaime explore other fictions and settings. After the very energetic super hero work he did in the first two volumes, it was kind of a let-down to see him go straight back to Maggie in her mundane world. But, still. What was I thinking?! “Browntown” is brilliant, whether I find Maggie dull or not. So we’ll call it an oversight. Or maybe just a really stupid decision…

Year-in-Review

Moving further away from the Dork Awards, I also wanted to say a few words about the overall state of the funnybook industry in 2010. More than anything, I think this was a year of flux. We saw lots of things change, or begin to change, in 2010, as the shape of the next decade’s worth of funnybooks began to make itself known. To whit…

Comic Box or Interweb?

This year saw both Marvel and DC experiment with same-day releases for both the print and digital versions of some titles, including the Dorky winner for Best Single Issue, Matt Fraction’s Iron Man Annual. I haven’t seen any numbers showing how these experiments went, but it’s only a matter of time before it becomes common practice. Is this the future of comics distribution? More importantly, is this the end of the comic book specialty shop as we know it?

In the long run, I’d say yes. Barring a complete collapse of our economic and electrical infrastructure, digital publishing is the future, and stores that sell paper books will go the way of the dodo (or, if you prefer, the music store). Now, as long as old comics remain a collectible item, there will be a place for shops that specialize in back-issue sales. But they’ll be more like antique or rare book shops, and the “clubhouse” atmosphere of even the best modern funnybook stores just won’t exist anymore. I’ll miss them, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the comics medium as a whole. Getting into digital marketplaces brings comics to audiences that won’t venture into the funnybook clubhouse, and may drive the creation of comics in a greater variety of genres and for a full range of interests and age groups. You know. Just like regular books with words in them and stuff.

But that’s a ways off yet. In the immediate future, I think we’ll see more experiments, and more books seeing digital release at the same time they come out in the comics shops. Eventually, we’ll see the first digital-only funnybook from one of the major publishers (though I think that’s a ways off, too). Along the way, we’ll see a struggle to find a standard format, and a price point that will slow piracy down a bit. You know. Just like the music industry spent the last decade doing.

The Rise of the Pop Comic

The Noughts saw comics become very writer-driven, with more complex plotlines and characters. But in 2010, we started to see the backlash, with books that were more about big fun ideas and beautiful artwork. I mean, this was the year that saw Brendan McCarthy and Shaky Kane return to comics (the former at Marvel, no less!). It saw JH Williams make Batwoman worth reading, James Stokoe excite imaginations with intricately detailed tales of Orcs, and no less than Dave Lapham and Kyle Baker take on Deadpool! Grant Morrison took Batman in ever-more-poppy directions, too, culminating in Batman Inc, the most pure-fun pop-art Batman we’ve seen since Adam West. Things are getting crazy out there, and promise to only get moreso.

This style will, of course, lead to an incredible array of shit comics eventually, once editorial catches on and tries to imitate the vibe using the typical funnybook hacks. And lord knows if the intelligent, writerly comics I love so much will survive the onslaught. But as it stands right now, it looks like Nextwave was really just a couple of years too early…

The Great DC Implosion

Paul Levitz stepped down from his role as publisher at DC Comics this year, and in the wake of his departure, a Warner Brothers suit stepped in and (with the aid of an in-house creative committee) immediately started cleaning house. The Wildstorm line was shut down, which was probably a mercy-killing in the case of their work-for-hire super hero comics. But it also leaves DC without an editorial office friendly to high-quality creator-owned adventure fiction (and, to hear some talk, without an editorial office that‘s, well… friendly at all).

And then there was what happened to Vertigo… Most DC-owned properties were stripped from the Vertigo line and returned to the control of the super hero editorial offices, several Vertigo editors were also stripped of their jobs, a handful of borderline on-going series were cancelled, the Vertigo OGN line and a Swamp Thing project from sci-fi bestseller China Mieville were killed aborning, the line’s contracts for creator-owned work were renegotiated in such a way that many creators won‘t be able to make money at it anymore, and new hire Bob Harras was essentially given trump over Karen Berger‘s editorial power. This doesn’t kill the line outright, of course, but it’s definitely been left diminished, and I‘ll be really curious to see what, if anything, new comes out from it in 2011.

So where Levitz took chances as a publisher, making a place for work that pushed boundaries and helped get comics in the hands of people who don’t normally read them, thus contributing to the long-term health of the industry as a whole… His replacements have decided to look at the short-term bottom line. That’s not an entirely fair assessment, of course. Publishing is a business like any other, and it’s not unreasonable for a publisher to ensure that all its publications are making money.

But considering how fast the current comics specialty shop market is shrinking… I’m not sure how smart it is to cripple one of the few offices in your company that‘s turning out work with any hope of appealing to readers beyond that market (especially in light of the inevitable digital revolution). Granted, Vertigo’s track record in the Noughts wasn’t great. They had a few hits, but nothing like the monster success of books like Sandman or Preacher. I’d say that calls for tighter quality control, certainly, and perhaps a concerted editorial effort to attract top creators back. But not the kind of gutting-by-inches we’ve seen the line get in the last few months.

I’m also concerned by the less-friendly stance toward creator-owned material. I’m sure that Warner Brothers sees DC as a protector of their valuable copyrights moreso than a legitimate publishing arm, but I always got the sense that Levitz wanted the company to be more than that. And, considering that I generally prefer the kind of work my favorite funnybook writers turn out on things they actually own… I’d like to see the biggest publishers in the funnybook business be more than copyright factories, too.

(An aside: Grant Morrison is the only exception to the above rule, I suddenly realize. He turns in the same quality of work whether he owns the property he’s writing or not. Of course, telling stories about our culture’s most iconic figures is something of a religious experience for him, so I guess that explains that…)

Another change that’s come about at DC in the wake of Levitz’ departure is the removal of his personal sense of what’s acceptable in a super hero comic and what’s not. Which brings me to…

The Millaring of the DC Universe

Say one thing for Mark Millar: he knows how to squeeze every possible ounce of sensationalism out of a story. The meltdown between him and Paul Levitz over content issues in Millar’s Authority run was one of the more public blow-outs in recent funnybook memory, and was sort of the beginning of the end for DC’s relationship with some of its most critically-acclaimed writers. Levitz’ policing of content also ended long and lucrative relationships with both Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis in the past decade, just to name two biggies. So it’s doubly ironic that, before Levitz’ seat was even cold, the mainstream DCU went right in for the very sort of thing Millar got sacked over.

They screwed it up, of course. The thing about Millar’s sensationalism is that he’s good at it. He generally either backs it up with well-crafted drama, or takes it to insane lengths in stories that are meant as broad farce to begin with (Nemesis, anyone?). But DC did the same sort of thing this year in rather pedestrian super hero comics that were meant to be taken seriously in spite of their inexpert execution. I mean, remember this?


All of which leads me to…

Worst Funnybook of the Year

No, it’s not Rise of Arsenal. Lord knows that book wasn’t good, but its execution really wasn’t a whole lot worse than most super hero comics (see my full defense of it here, if you‘re interested). Or at least it wasn’t through issue three. I read up to that just to see what all the fuss was about, and didn’t go back.

None of the multitude of really, really awful comics that came out from the multitude of amateur and barely-professional publishers and creators take the prize, either. Because, though many of those may have been technically worse than the book I’m going with… You can tell that going in. You know that those books kinda suck just by looking at them, and so they’re easy to avoid. That’s not the case with our “winner,” which came out from a major publisher, and a well-respected creative team…

Superman: Grounded

J. Michael Straczynski and Eddie Barrows are responsible for this travesty (though Barrows just drew the thing, and bears none of my ire here). This is the story in which Superman decides to walk across America to reconnect with his adopted homeland after his time living on “New Krypton” (don’t ask me; I didn’t read it, either). I scoffed at the idea at first, but after awhile I softened to it. The idea of a humbled Superman, walking around and talking to people, helping the common man like he did back in the 30s… That had potential, I decided.

Except that’s not what’s going on in Grounded at all. I mean, Superman is walking across America, and he does talk to the common people along the way. But he’s far from humble. In fact, he comes off like an arrogant prick most of the time, telling people how things are and treating them with condescension rather than the respect you’d expect a mission like this to engender in him. Or just the respect you’d expect him to show people because HE’S FUCKING SUPERMAN!

But, no. With a smarmy expression on his face (something Barrows can take blame for, I guess), Supes bats down some very reasonable questions about what he’s doing with flippant non-answers like “I’m going over there” or “I’ll know why I’m doing this when I get there.” Or, in my personal favorite example, he bullies a guy with Thoreau:

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In other memorable moments… He tells an old man that he’s having a heart attack, advises him to see a doctor, then just walks off. He also tells off a bunch of illegal (space) aliens for not contributing more to society. And then there’s the really terrific scene where he sets a bunch of suburban drug houses on fire and walks off without any apparent concern for the possibility of the fire spreading. Actually, this scene is so obnoxious that I’ve gotta share it with you:

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So… let me get this straight. The next neighborhood the drug dealers set up shop in has to fend for itself, and when everybody becomes that self-sufficient, the drug problem goes away? And how, exactly, is that next neighborhood supposed to run these assholes off? Get Supergirl to come by? Shazam, maybe? Because unless you’re bullet-proof, the kind of vigilante justice he’s just engaged in will get your average citizen cut down by automatic weapons fire. And that’s not even dealing with the fact that, as long as there’s a demand for drugs, there will be people who deal in drugs.

And… And did Superman really just tell a small child to deliver a message to a house full of pissed off drug dealers?! Astounding.

Now, maybe I’m not giving Straczynski enough credit here. Maybe we’re supposed to think that Supes is being an asshole, and he’ll learn the error of his ways before the longer story’s done. But there’s no real hint of that in the beginning, and we’ll never know where it was going, because Straczynski has left the book with Grounded unfinished. So, with the evidence at hand, I have to believe that he’s written not only the worst comic of 2010, but maybe the worst Superman story ever conceived. Way to go!

7 comments:

  1. I knew about the whole "Superman tells a guy he's having a heart attack, and then just runs away," and that was about as bad as it got... but the rest of that sounds like it only got worse.

    It seems a bit worse than "One More Day," if only because the Spider-Man reboot was an editorial mandate. But I can't imagine anyone at D.C. was pushing for "Superman Walks."

    ...and if they did, I can imagine much more interesting stories to tell with that. Like "The Straight Story" with capes. Or a POV from random criminals freaking out because "Superman is only 3 days away from Reno! What are we gonna do?!?"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very good ideas indeed! I like "The Straight Story" comparison, especially. That's the tone I had hoped they'd go for, once I got over my initial cynicism toward the idea of Superman needing to get in touch with the American Heartland. Though considering that being in touch with the Heartland is pretty much the character's defining characteristic, maybe I was cutting them too much slack to begin with...

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