Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Comic Book Fans! Dismount your High Horses! An Addendum

I've received some criticism for my last post, particularly a response on Tumblr by missingkeys. I've been reflecting on it all day. I do still think that a lot of the criticism that creators and comics companies receive on the internet is unfair. I think the fact that someone like Grant Morrison has walked away from a genre he loves partly due to, in his words, "a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time" should be something of a wake up call to us all.

But I think I was also unfair in a lot of what I wrote. I used Morrison's decision as a springboard to launch into my own thoughts on fan culture, and I think I was too quick to lump all dissenting voices into one big grumpy package. It's not fair for me to put those who call for greater diversity in the same boat as some poser who eats books, or a blogger who views working on Before Watchmen as the moral equivalent of child abuse. I wanted to make a point about how a lot of fan responses these days seem out of proportion to me. But I'm writing from a certain position, and as missingkeys says, it is a position of privilege. For example, my relationship with a character like Stephanie Brown is going to be completely different to the relationship of a young girl who loves superheroes but feels that there aren't that many identifiable characters for her within the superhero genre. Am I in a position then, where I'm able to judge that her reaction to the character's absence is out of proportion? Probably not.

This is a short post because I'm still reflecting on this, but I wanted to at least acknowledge that there were things in the original article that I need to reconsider. Perhaps I'll revisit this in a future article.

In the meantime, for no particular reason, here's a picture of Aquaman sitting on an octopus and looking mighty pleased with himself.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Comic Book Fans! Dismount your High Horses!

Grant Morrison: Is he really such a villain?

The New Statesman published an interview with Grant Morrison this week in which he discusses his reasons for stepping away from superhero comics. It seems that his run on Action Comics and Batman Incorporated are coming to a natural end and a lot of his ideas seem to be leading him away from superheroes. He also states that he's finding the pace of writing monthly comics and having to co-ordinate with multiple artists to be a hectic experience. But there also seems to be another, more depressing reason. He's sick of being the bad guy. Morrison's sums it up in the following quote;
So I kinda felt that.. it just began to feel too unpleasant to work within a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time and giving you responsibility for legal cases and things that I have got honestly nothing to do with in my life and will shortly have zero connection with. But I felt that. There was a sense of, a definite sense of the temple was being burned down and it was time to run away. 
It does seem that a lot of the criticism of DC Comics' ethical practices and overall creative direction has been directed towards Morrison. One fan (this twat) even protested by eating Supergods, Morrison's book chronicling the history of the superhero genre. I'm not going to defend Morrison's views here, because he does a pretty good job of that himself in the interview. But what I will say is this. When Morrison writes superheroes, it sells. For example, sales on Action Comics went up 93% during the past year during Morrison's run. Morrison's superhero work then, is obviously admired by a lot of people. But Morrison has left superheroes behind due, at least in part, to the behaviour of a vocal minority. So it would seem that a minority has got it's way at the expense of the enjoyment of the majority. The behaviour of a relatively small group of people has resulted in a larger group of people not being able to enjoy new superhero work by Grant Morrison. Does that sound fair to you? 

To be fair, this "unpleasant comic book culture" isn't the only reason for leaving that Morrison has given. For all I know he would have moved on to other genres anyway. But this interview does highlight an irritating trend amongst comic-book fandom. Fandom has developed a habit of shouting and stamping its foot until it gets its own way, and I'm sick of it. 

These days, if a person doesn't like a comic it can't just be a case of "this isn't to my taste" or "this was poorly written or drawn". A poor comic is taken as a personal slight against the reader and an ethical and moral failure on the part of the comics industry. Spider-Man's not married any more so Marvel must have a vendetta against a certain demographic of fans, or the institution of marriage itself! Stephanie Brown hasn't appeared for a while so obviously DC don't care about their female demographic. Superman's dating Wonder Woman so there's a misogynistic plot to undermine the character of Lois Lane!  It's not enough for some one to be upset because their favourite character has been changed, it now has to be dressed up as a serious issue that affects everyone! The problem with all this absurd hyperbole is that there are conversations to be had about serious issues like gender and race and ethics in comics, but when someone hi-jacks these topics because their favourite character isn't getting enough face time, it undermines the larger debate.

One of the common criticisms levelled at Marvel and DC by this kind of critic is "They're not listening to the fans!" For example, "By having Barbara Gordon as Batgirl instead of Stephanie Brown, DC aren't listening to fans" is a complaint that I see crop up a lot on Twitter. The fact is, sales on Batgirl have risen 96% in the past year. Barbara is selling more than Stephanie did. So what are DC to do? Revert to Stephanie, even though the majority of fans seem to want to buy Barbara's adventures? That really would be not listening to the fans! When people say "They're not listening to the fans" they really mean "They're not listening to me!" This is a perfect example of the arrogance on display from a lot of fans these days. By claiming that DC or Marvel "aren't listening" to you, what you're actually doing is saying that those who have views and tastes that differ from yours aren't worth listening to and somehow, don't count. 

A prime example of how such self-righteous overreactions have gotten out of control occurred last month when one blogger decided to mark the passing of comics legend Joe Kubert by comparing him to Joe Paterno! That's right, in this blogger's view Kubert's contribution to Before Watchmen against the wishes of original Watchmen creator Alan Moore was the moral equivalent of covering up and ignoring child abuse. To be fair the blog published an apology and has since taken the piece down, but the fact that it was published in the first place demonstrates to what offensive levels fans are now taking their criticism, all the while claiming that they're fighting some morally just crusade!

I'm not saying that people shouldn't complain about their comics and I'm not saying that Marvel and DC are completely blameless and never make mistakes. All I'm saying is, sometimes a bad comic is just a bad comic. It's not the death knell for the industry, it's not a personal insult towards any specific group of people, it's not indicative of a creator or company's contempt for the readers, it's just a crappy comic. This self-righteous belly-aching is having consequences. At the very least, it has contributed to Grant Morrison's decision to leave behind a genre that he clearly has a lot of love for! So dismount your high horses people! Just remember, next time it could be your favourite writer who decides it's not worth the hassle.

A short addendum to this article can be found here.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever! (That aren't Year One or Dark Knight Returns)

Everyone knows that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns are the best Batman stories ever. You don’t need me to tell you that when the whole internet is screaming it at you. But if you’re new to the wonderful world of superhero comics you may be wondering where to go next? Fear not! Here is a list of the Top Ten Best Batman stories that aren’t Year One or DKR.
Firstly, let’s cover a few stories that narrowly missed getting into the Top Ten.
Honourable Mentions
The Untold Legend of The Batman and Batman: Hush seem very different on the surface. The former was a 3 issue re-telling of the origins of Batman and his supporting cast first published in 1980, the latter was a 12 part storyline from 2002 that introduced a new villain, Hush, to Batman’s world. Despite this they both have essentially the same strengths and weaknesses. They’re both beautifully drawn ‘greatest hits’ packages. By this I mean that most of the different aspects of Batman’s world, from supporting characters to villains get some face time. However as stories in their own right they’re a bit flimsy and so they’ve failed to get into my Top Ten.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) is by beardy comics legend Alan Moore and is the ultimate Joker story. Moore explores the idea that Batman and the Joker are not so different from each other while also telling a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. As brilliant as this story is, it’s really more of a Joker story than a Batman story, and so it hasn’t made the final cut.
Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run (2006-Ongoing in the pages of Batman INC) is absolutely breathtaking in its scope. Morrison set out to return Batman to his 1970s status as “hairy chested love god” or as Batman describes himself during the run, “alpha male plus”. While taking Batman down this path Morrison has had him father a son, face the Ultimate Evil, die, journey through time, return to life and start a worldwide Batman franchise. Morrison has also had former Robin, Dick Grayson take over as Batman and face disturbing new baddies such as Professor Pyg and the Flamingo. Morrison’s run is loads of fun, but it’s also complex and interwoven, with seemingly throw away incidents paying off in a big way several issues later. For a new reader it’s potentially a big job to take on board all at once and the stories are enhanced by at least a familiarity with some older Batman tales. For this reason I’ve kept it out of the Top Ten, but if you want to get started on Morrison’s ongoing (as of this writing) epic then check out Batman Vs. The Black Glove (Deluxe Edition).
So much for the runners-up, let’s start the countdown!

10) Batman: The Cult (1988)

Batman gets kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed by an evil cult led by the charismatic Deacon Blackfire, a man who may or may not be centuries old! If you liked Dark Knight Returns then you’ll probably like this, as writer Jim Starlin does his very best to homage/rip-off Frank Miller’s style on every page. From the hard boiled, first person narration to the TV talking heads to the tank-like Bat-Mobile, this story wears its debt to Miller on its sleeve. But it's more than just Starlin copying Miller. The timeless story of a hero getting broken and then coming back and kicking ass is hugely entertaining and Berni Wrightson’s art is wonderfully grubby and really conveys a nightmare world of torture in the sewers and hallucinations brought on by hunger and drugs.

9) Batman: The Black Mirror (2011)

This is the most recent tale on the list and also one of the most unusual, in that Bruce Wayne doesn’t feature at all. In this 7 part story by Scott Snyder, Dick Grayson has taken over as Batman and just as Gotham City threw twisted reflections of Wayne at the previous Batman, so too does Dick face ghastly, inverted, mirror images of himself. See, Black Mirror, get it? Through these grim opposite numbers (one character in particular actually) we really get a solid idea of who Dick is and why he’s such a different Batman from Bruce. As well as an excellent portrayal of Dick Grayson we get some great insights into Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon, a chilling look into how the Joker views his relationship with Batman, and some truly spine-chilling moments with the story’s baddie that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading.

8 ) Batman: A Death in the Family (1988-89)

Another Jim Starlin tale makes the Top Ten! Once again we have the Miller-esque, hard boiled, first person narration from Batman, and once again it’s brilliant. At one point Batman is confronted by an assassin who’s determined to fight him, even though Batman seeks only to ask her some probing questions about her sex-life. Batman thinks to himself “It’s a lot like being in the Old West. When you’re the best, every jerk and his sister wants a crack at your title.” Absurdly macho but hugely entertaining stuff! But of course, this story is best remembered for the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, murdered by the Joker. Actually the real murderers were the 5,343 fans who phoned in and voted for Jason to die! That’s right, DC had set up a 1-900 number to decide Jason’s fate. Who says DC don’t listen to the fans? Despite the tacky way Jason’s fate was sealed the story handles it really well. Jason is utterly believable and relatable as a kid bubbling over with anger who can’t meet Batman’s rigid expectation of discipline and control. Obviously Batman’s angry when Jason is killed, but in a stroke of genius Batman’s rage is rendered impotent when the Joker is given diplomatic immunity by his new status as a member of the Iranian government! Batman has more reason than ever to want to beat the living crap out of the Joker, but he can’t touch him without causing an international incident! Brilliant.

7) The Laughing Fish (1978)

Earlier I described The Killing Joke as the ultimate Joker story. If that tale has a valid competitor for that title it’s The Laughing Fish. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers give us the Joker we would later see Jack Nicholson portray in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie; “the world’s first homicidal artist.” Each murder has an imaginative flair that makes it unique to the Joker, and each murder is pretty much motiveless, which makes the Joker all the more difficult for Batman to predict and catch, and the story all the more creepy and disturbing. Add to this Batman’s doomed romance with the iconic Silver St Cloud and a sub-plot about a corrupt politician haunted by the ghost of his last victim, Prof. Hugo Strange, and you get a Batman classic.

6) The Demon Lives Again (1972)

When Morrison spoke of Batman as a “hairy chested love god” he was probably thinking of this story. This 3 part tale by Denny O’ Neil, Irv Norick and Neal Adams shows Batman on an epic, globe-trotting quest to rid the world of his immortal arch-foe, Ra’s Al Ghul! Along the way he press gangs some unlikely allies to aid him, but eventually Batman is left facing Al Ghul alone in the desert in a sweaty, bare-chested, sword fight. So many parts of this story became so iconic that almost every single subsequent Ra’s Al Ghul story seems like a rip-off of this tale in some way. But it’s the story’s depiction of “alpha-male-plus” Batman that I find the most entertaining. Batman outclasses Al Ghul in the sword fight but is felled by a scorpion sting. He receives the antidote from Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, who is motivated in her betrayal by her love for Batman. After rising from near-death Batman storms into Al Ghul’s tent, knocks him out and then steals his daughter, and he does all this without a shirt on! What a guy!

5) Batman: Blind Justice (1989)

This story was written by the writer of the 1989 Batman movie, Sam Hamm. It has a pretty packed plot involving a conspiracy within Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne being framed as a spy, some of the men who trained Batman, two new supporting characters and a body swapping villain. But it’s also rather a grim tale about the price Bruce pays for being Batman. Despite the dense plot and grim central theme it’s an easy, engrossing read and it’s repercussions are still being felt today. The story introduced the character of Henri Ducard, an assassin with an awesome ‘tache who appeared in Batman Begins (sort of) and whose son recently appeared in the pages of Batman and Robin.

4) Batman: Prey (1990-1991)

Batman: Year One has had many sequels. The overrated Long Halloween and Dark Victory follow the continuing exploits of characters featured in Year One. Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder purports to show the “same” Batman we see in Year One and DKR (that’s right, Miller has arrogantly claimed a Bat-Universe of his very own). And of course there’s Batman: Year Two and Year Three. But for me there’s only one true sequel to Year One, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Prey. While Year One depicts the origin of Batman’s close relationship with Jim Gordon, Prey shows how he won over the rest of the police force. The main antagonist is Prof. Hugo Strange, brilliantly revamped from a mad scientist to an even madder, fame-hungry psychoanalyst. Strange asks the questions of Miller’s Batman that we as fans are too scared to ask; isn’t Batman just a deranged fascistic bully acting out some childish revenge fantasy. Moench then shows us that this isn’t the case by having Batman posses the inner strength to overcome Strange’s mental manipulations, and also by giving us a vigilante character who really is a fascist bully (the Night Scourge) to contrast with Batman. Year One is brilliant but the Batman that Miller depicts in that story needs Prey. Without Prey, Batman ends up as an unpleasant and deranged character, hmmm, kinda like in All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

3) Batman: Venom (1991)

Another entry for legendary Batman writer Denny O’ Neil, Venom actually has a lot in common with Starlin’s The Cult, in that it depicts Batman hitting rock bottom before picking himself up again and triumphing over evil! This is a story about a young Batman at the start of his career and it’s one of the few stories of that sort (other than Year One) that depicts him as a character with a lot to learn who still makes mistakes. And boy, what a mistake! After failing to save a little girl because of his inability to move a heavy rock, Batman gets addicted to an experimental strength enhancing drug. Of course Batman eventually realises the error of his ways and wreaks vengeance on the makers of the drug. The great thing about this story is that even though Batman inevitably kicks the habit the story doesn’t cop out by depicting Batman’s withdrawal as anything other than a horrific ordeal. Also, Batman fights a shark!!! That sentence alone should convince you to read this story!

2) Batman: Gothic (1990)

Once again this is a story from the early days of Batman’s career. This story chronicles Batman’s first encounter with the supernatural. He battles Mr Whisper, a three hundred year old monk who made a pact with the devil. The twist? The monk also happens to have been Bruce Wayne’s old headmaster! This story is genuinely spine tingling. The flashbacks to Whisper’s crimes at Bruce Wayne’s school are chilling and Batman seems temporarily out of his depth as his familiar world of gangsters and criminals is overrun with the inexplicable. The dark, scratchy art of Klaus Janson adds to the general spookiness. Writer Grant Morrison gives lots of nods to Batman’s “real” first encounter with a supernatural foe, 1939′s Batman vs. The Vampire, such as Batman’s use of his Bat-Gyro. This isn’t a tale with any lasting repercussions for the Bat-Universe, but it will stay with you. It’s a testament to how versatile a character Batman is that he can fit so perfectly into a supernatural, horror story as good as this one.

1) John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s run on Detective Comics (1988-1990)
(Detective Comics #583-594; 601-621)

Okay, this is a bit of a cop-out as I’ve failed to pick one storyline out of this run, but you know what? I don’t care. Seriously, this is the most perfect version of Batman ever. Wagner and Grant’s Batman is the gritty, damaged Miller version, merged with Morrison’s “love god”, merged with the father figure who raises and nurtures Robins, merged with the super-hero from the pages of Justice League. He’s every Batman, it’s all in him!
Breyfogle is the perfect artist for this most versatile of Batmen. He can draw a Batman flushed with pride at his new Robin, a Batman reflecting in quiet sadness at the plight of homeless children or a Batman pumped full of Scarecrow fear toxins and crapping his pants, all within pages of each other. One of the things that I feel sums up Breyfogle’s versatility as an artist is the way he draws Batman’s utility belt. Now this may seem like a minor detail but when I first encountered Breyfogle’s work as a child it was the first time I had ever seen Batman’s belt drawn as if it could conceivably hold Batman’s entire arsenal. It’s bright yellow and chunky with capsules and pouches hanging off it, a proper superhero gadget belt. And yet in the very next panel the belt is only barely glimpsed as Batman fades into the shadows and the gadget loving superhero becomes a dark creature of the night. I would go as far as to say that Breyfogle is the best Batman artist ever.
But this isn’t just about the art. Wagner and Grant are British writers famous for their work on 2000AD (in fact Wagner co-created Judge Dredd) and 2000AD’s dark creativity is apparent on every page of their Batman stories. They created a vast array of villains that straddled the line between the ridiculous and the terrifying and enriched the Bat-Universe. These villains included The Corrosive Man, The Ventriloquist and Scarface, The Ratcatcher, Anarky, The Obeah Man and Cornelius Stirk. They were also equally adept at handling established villains. One memorable story involved a team comprising of every version of Clayface while another involved Batman teaming up with and then battling Jack Kirby’s Demon.
Creativity and versatility are two words that are inextricably linked with all the best Batman stories and I would argue that Wagner, Grant and Breyfogle’s ‘Tec run embodied these qualities more than any other story or run in Batman’s long history. It really is that good! These stories are slightly harder to get hold of than the others on this list because they’ve inexplicably never been collected together in a trade paperback or hardcover. They’re usually cheap on ebay or in second hand shops and if you’re a Bat-fan or a fan of good comics, they’re well worth tracking down!
So there’s the list. The Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever (that aren’t Year One or Dark Knight Returns). What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Does anything not belong there? Leave a comment and let us know!

The New 52 Continuity: It ain't so bad!

A common criticism of DC Comics' recent relaunch, The New 52 is that continuity is a mess. Click on almost any message board discussion or blog entry that's critical of The New 52 and you'll find someone pointing out some of the many contradictions and problems thrown up by the reboot. Common questions include;

  • How could Batman have gone through all those Robins if he's only been active for five years?
  • How come the original Titans are referenced in Red Hood & the Outlaws #1, despite having never existed?
  • Why is Tim Drake referred to as a former Robin when he's always supposed to have been Red Robin?
  • Where does Batman Inc fit into all this?
  • What big events still happened and how can certain characters exist without them?
  • Where are Stephanie Brown, Wally West and Donna Troy?

There are certainly still knots to unravel with regards to continuity, particularly in the Bat-Universe where characters like Batman's ten-year old son, Damien Wayne, seem to fly in the face of the new five year timeline. But I would hesitate to say that this is evidence that DC Comics don't know what they're doing, or have planned all this in a slap-dash fashion at the last minute. In order to explain why I feel this isn't the case, let's take a look at DC's last big continuity reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis was a 12 issue maxi series that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. Like The New 52 it rebooted continuity in the DC Universe and started the timelines of many characters from scratch. But these changes didn't happen all at once. In fact many of them didn't occur until several years after Crisis had finished. Let's take a look at some of these changes;
  • Power Girl was a resident of Earth 2, a planet that was obliterated from existence during Crisis. For almost a year Power Girl was a girl without a past until Secret Origins #11 (February 1987) established that she was actually from ancient Atlantis. Her origin was still being tinkered with as recently as 2005.
  • Batman and Catwoman's new origins didn't appear until Batman: Year One, the first chapter of which was published in February 1987. Jason Todd, the second Robin's new origin appeared shortly afterwards in Batman #408 (June 1987). For a year DC were still writing about the previous versions of these characters. Indeed, the previous version of Catwoman had featured as recently as January 1987 in Detective Comics #570
  • Much like Wally West, Stephanie Brown and Donna Troy today DC had no idea what do with the Justice Society of America in 1986 and so they were literally packed off to limbo until 1992.
  • Hawkman and Hawkwoman made several appearances in Justice League International throughout the late '80s until DC decided that they needed an update too. This occurred in Tim Truman's excellent Hawkworld miniseries in 1989. This mini-series and the ongoing series that followed it established that Hawkman and Hawkwoman were recent visitors to Earth, and their appearances in JLI were retroactively established to have been made by Thanagarian spies.
  • Wonder Woman had been killed off during Crisis and a big relaunch of the character was in the works. Unfortunately the big relaunch wasn't to be ready until February 1987. DC needed to publish at least four issues of a Wonder Woman title a year or the rights to the character would revert to the Estate of her creator, William Marston. The result was The Legend of Wonder Woman, a four part mini-series published in 1986 in which Wonder Woman's mother looked back on the adventures of her deceased daughter.
  • Aquaman received a new origin in The Atlantis Chronicles (1990). This completely contradicted a re-telling of his origin that had appeared after Crisis in a mini-series in 1986.

I'm by no means criticising the DC Comics of the 1980s but what I wanted to illustrate is that the rebooting of a fictional Universe is obviously a mammoth task. In the '80s it took several years before all of the many changes unfolded and settled into the DC Universe that many of us grew up with. Compare that with what DC have tried to achieve with The New 52. Fifty two titles, all relaunched from issue #1 in the same month, all occupying the same Universe. The fact that there's even anything resembling coherence at all between these titles is a testament to the hard work of the creators and editors at DC Comics. They're trying to accomplish something that took several years to achieve the last time they tried it. Personally I think they've done a pretty good job, but I'm not surprised that there are still inconsistencies. It would frankly be a miracle if there weren't.

So for those of you who don't like The New 52, I wouldn't dream of trying to change your mind, but there is one thing I would ask of you. Be a bit less judgemental in regards to continuity, because I would argue that DC continuity makes a damn sight more sense a year into The New 52 than it did a year after Crisis on Infinite Earths!