Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Playing Favorites excerpts, pt 07

Every Tuesday, I post excerpts from my best-selling at not-selling super blog, Playing Favorites.

My other blogs are Giant-Sized this week, and so is Playing Favorites. Enjoy.

Full disclosure; I’ve only read, like a half-dozen individual Black Panther comics. That’s not even ‘Black Panther’ comics where his name was on the title. Half of those were ‘Fantastic Four’ issues where Reed and Sue were on vacation after Civil War and newlyweds Black Panther and Storm were filling in. I honestly only picked those up because they ended up dimension-hopping to the Marvel Zombies Universe. I got one from after that arc where they were on racist retard Skrull planet (just like in the classic Star Trek episode, “A Piece of the Action”), but that…had to be an accident; I don’t think that comic came out while I was still drinking heavily.

Anyway, I like Black Panther because he’s the trifecta; the technology, magic, and national support of Doctor Doom, the drive, abilities, and wealth of Batman, and the something something of someone else who isn’t memorable because they aren’t Doctor Doom or Batman(maybe ‘integrity’ and ‘Captain America’). But really, aren’t Batman and Doctor Doom enough to make a trifecta? Possibly more? Is the sum of two and two three? No, it would be foolish to say such is so, but it would not be so foolish to say that two and two is greater than three.

But The Black Panther manages to be more than either Batman or Doctor Doom alone (Yes, between my fingers refusing to type that and my computer bursting into flames, it took about a dozen tries to type that out.). What I mean by that is that Black Panther isn’t a solitary, obsessive figure whose entire existence is circumscribed by his one-man quest to…protect Wakanda from the outside world.  He follows his conscience and protects his country. Sometimes, this gets him into trouble, especially with the more traditional members of Wakanda’s vaguely defined tribally-based governmental structure, but just as I’ve only had a taste of Katy Kane’s civil conflicts to spark my interest in the character, the small bit of internal strife I’ve seen in Wakanda (I didn’t pick up ‘Doomwar’ after the first few issues because it was the final comic for me that had Deadpool and didn’t need Deadpool. It was pretty mediocre to bad on its own, and I did know that while Deadpool wouldn’t make it a good political story [with superheroes!], he could indeed make it a worse story that was kind of about politics, but was mostly stupid.) has excited me with the prospect of seeing more. Black Panther can be a rogue actor in any large-scale conflict (just as he was in Civil War, when a distinctly-American registration act went into effect) who can be either protagonist or antagonist (though it’s hard to play protagonists renown for their integrity as antagonists, because then it looks like they’re being aggressively bad or indifferently bad, neither of which is good for them.)

Black Panther is a versatile supporting character. I’d like to say that I’d like an arc where he gets this to happen, or that to happen, but honestly, that arc has probably already been done but no one cared because it was the Black Panther and I don’t know because I’ve really only read a tiny bit of his stuff. I like Black Panther because he has potential, but I should look into him more before putting him onto my top ten list.

So, as it sits right now, my list is:

The Midnighter(Warren Ellis/Mark Millar)
Jenny Sparks(Warren Eillis/Mark Millar)
The Batman
Booster Gold (???)
Damian Wayne (Grant Morrison)
Steve Rogers(Ultimates Vol 1 & 2)
Cloud 9 (Dan Slott)
Superman (All-Star Superman)

Which leaves me two men (or women) down. This is actually pretty hard. I mean, let me go down another short-list: Crusader, Freedom Ring, anyone from the Divided We Stand miniseries(which includes Mageneto, even though all he did was sip fucking tea and tell Hellion to quit love-hating on the X-Men), X-Men (I know, it’s almost conspicuous that the closest I’ve come to an X-Man is a guy who recently married one and the only X-related thing I mentioned is ‘Doomwar,’ which I did not-- if you’ve been keeping up--like very much.), Nick Fury is cool in everything. Ever.

Jack Hawksmoor, Elijah Snow, Hardball, Gauntlet, Aaron Stack, Captain Marvel(cancer), Captain Marvel(light), Captain Marvel(Boy), Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Gargoyle from X-Men 2099, the Sentry’s wife for shooting him that one time, Morgan LaFey for killing The Sentry that other time, Molecule Man for dissolving The Sentry between both of those other two times, Apollo, regular Superman, Dick Greyson as Batman (referred to hereafter as Dickbats), Owlman (complete with twisted logic about how Owlman could be seen as a protagonist because he is so cool and James Woods is cool for voicing him), Martian Manhunter for having a top-notch power suite, Hellfire (because it’s an awesome answer and you know it), Thor (who’s had  some good books as of late), Elisa Bloodstone, Jakita Wagner, Plastic Man, MVP, Drums, The Engineer, Deadpool(Cable & Deadpool), Deadpool(The Circle Chase), Cable (Cable & Deadpool),The Pene-Traitor, Bob-Agent of Hydra, Trauma, The Captain, Havok, Polaris, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Multiple Man, etc..

A lot of these guys are here because they were part of exceptional ensemble casts: Planetary, X-Factor, The Authority, Nextwave, People Who Killed The Sentry, The Initiative, The Starjammers (yes, I read stuff with Papa Summers in it. No, it wasn’t very good, but it had Havok and Polaris in it, and they were both in X-Factor once upon a time and I was dating Octavio and it seemed like a responsible thing at the time and please don’t judge me it was terrible.)

For the most part, the ensemble books I have read have been pretty awesome (most likely because I’m a comics consumer of the highest discretion and taste, but even more most likely because I take good advice from smart people), but that doesn’t mean that the individual characters in them are great heroes. Now, ‘Nextwave’ is all too easy an example, so let’s look at ‘Planetary’ instead. It does transmute from a comic with a theme of fiction from the past century well-mixed with recognizable superhero elements into a balls-to-the walls mission to fuck up Those Guys Who Aren’t The Fantastic Four If The Members Of The Fantastic Four Who Weren’t Reed Richards Were Dicks Too. Elijah Snow is obviously our guide through this; we’re introduced to Planetary through his eyes and he’s the one that turns it back into a proactive force. That said, it isn’t until they actually begin fighting The Four that any heroics happen.

And I haven’t really gotten that book yet, but I’m sure it’s awesome and once I read it, Elijah Snow may kick Batman in the balls and occupy the top three slots of this list (no, the list is not in order), but as of right now, Elijah Snow is just a gripey, crotchety old man who’s relearning that he can do some good in this world. Likeable? Yes. Human? Yeah. Top-tier superheroics? Not quite.

The Authority, in case you and I have never talked in person, is a really good series. The characters are all pretty good, and deep. Well, deep considering that they pretty much just punch global threats until they get some breathing room, then come up with cunning ways to finish them off in a cinematically appealing fashion because punching it until it shrivels up and dies, even if it explodes like a giant cosmic spoilsport in the process—Anti-Monitor—isn’t quite big enough for The Authority. It’s a fun series, and if there’s any crime committed, it’s that there isn’t room for more than characterization beyond Jenny Sparks and spicing up the brutal, superhuman assaults beyond The Midnighter.

X-Factor is an ensemble book. It better be anyway, because it features just shy of a dozen B- to C-List characters. I think we seriously need to confront Peter David; he is hoarding X-people.
    “Peter David, how many mutants are in X-Factor currently?”
    “Um, I don’t know exactly, it couldn’t be more than five or six. Seven at most.”
    “There are twelve.”
    “Did you count Threnody?”
    “You should. I just added her while we were talking.”
    “Peter, your friends think you have a problem. They think you’re hoarding X-people.”
    “That’s not true. I don’t have that many. Look at Chris Claremont; he got an entire universe of them.”
    “Yes, but he’s using most of them. When was the last time Siryn had a story?”
    “When…when she had Jamie’s baby.”
    “And how long ago was that, Peter?”
    “About a year.”
    “It was two years. Look, why don’t we take Syrin off the team?”
    “No! I need Syrin. She’s Jamie’s love interest, it’s just that grown-up future Layla is sort of here right now, but she’s going to end up with Shatterstar after he and Darwin-“
    “Alright, Peter. Alright. What about Guido?”
    “He…he flirts with Monet. See? It was in issues 502 and 514…by the 700th issue, they’ll be ready to start dating!”
    “And how big will the cast be by then?”
    “700. I wanted it to fit logically…oh my god…I…I think I have problem. Oh, god…I think I’m…hoarding mutants.”
    “Admitting you have a problem is the first step, Peter David. Congratulations”

But seriously, I love X-Factor and contrary to what you just read, Peter David does an excellent job of working with a massive cast and having pieces of story for each of them. That said, Jamie Madrox is the best characterized of the lot, and he doesn’t have much more than two, equally glacially-paced plots: his dupes are becoming dicks and he has a romance developing with Layla Miller (Yes, the girl that advances slow moving plot lines. Don’t worry, she got SORASed, so it’s not that creepy).

    Oh, and aside, I did not know that they kept using Threnody after The Legacy Virus thing. I mean, she has a Wikipedia entry. Most webcomics can’t get a Wikipedia entry. How fucked up is that? Here’s everything you need to know about Threnody, “Sinister almost used her to stop The Legacy Virus, but then a Russian farmboy made out of metal did it. Then she fucked Nate Grey. She does zombies now.” The actual article is three pages long.

Alright, you know that The Authority is awesome, but it tops out at The Midnighter and Jenny Sparks. You know Planetary is good, but I haven’t quite gotten to the part where its heroes come through their greatest challenges and count themselves amongst the greatest heroes of Earth. If you haven’t put it together yet, Warren Ellis is one of the best contemporary comic book writers. Depending on just how Morrison’s “Batman, Inc.” goes, he may be the absolute best. Depending on how much crazier Alan Moore gets, perhaps the best of all time (including hypertime).

It should come as no surprise to you that Nextwave is a hilarious parody of modern and somewhat-less-than-modern superhero comics. More importantly, it’s fun to read. Even if (like me) you don’t immediately catch that everyone is wearing trench coats or get the nationalistic references to Ultimate Captain America, you get that these are the types of superheroes you would be if you were a dysfunctional superhero team. Exposition is melded seamlessly with action and jokes and not a word or panel is missed where it could be funny, witty, or set up another for the same.  Nextwave sets the standard for superhero action/comedies that could only be surpassed if Ellis somehow ended up penning the graphic novel adaptation of The One True Trifecta of Entertainment: True Lies.

The characters are good; this isn’t a series where there isn’t enough time to focus on the cast or the cast isn’t active enough to define themselves with respect to the challenges they face. With the exception of Tabby (or ‘Taby,’ depending on who’s spelling), most of these guys get adequate action, storylines, and backstory to flesh them out in detail. Yes, even The Captain, who’s pretty much just a guy of average intelligence and moral values with superpowers trying to make his way in a world where having superpowers is supposed to generally work out for you (Comparing his story of having Captain America kick his ass for being Captain ****** to Booster Gold’s story of Superman taking away his cape because he “couldn’t handle a cape”…well, you don’t need to compare. They’re both awesome stories and I’m immeasurably pleased that I’ve read them both.) is worthy of mention even though he is almost by definition a generic superhero.

The thing about ‘Nextwave’ is that I know that if I ever pick up a comic book with these guys in it, they won’t be the same characters (I believe that Tabby has already been recharacterized in “X-Force” and even the official editorial line is that while ‘Nextwave’ is [somehow] [miraculously] [unbelievably] [seriously, unbelievably] canon, the Nextwave Corporation/H.A.T.E. chemically altered their personalities and memories before they went rogue.). I know that’s true for Cloud 9 and I know that no other Superman will be All-Star Superman, so I shouldn’t bother me when Monica Rambeau shows up in Heroes for Hire (or something) for more than two panels and doesn’t mention how she used to lead The Avengers. Hell, it should bother me if she did, since there’d be a pretty big chance that she’d just be a one-note character after that (and it would. Whoever the hell is writing ‘Heroes for Hire,’ take note; skip Monica Rambeau, you’re screwed either way).

Maybe that’s what bugs me. The characters in ‘Nextwave’ are not having fun. The Captain has a few sheepish grins, but everyone else is deadpan. Hell, I think that a few panels with Monica actually grimaced a hole in the opposite page. There are a few moments where they enjoy what they’re doing (“Oh my god. They explode!”), but for the most part, their collective emotional spectrum ranges from anger to desperation to rage to satisfaction to annoyance. Maybe part of why ‘Nextwave’ works is because we’re convinced that this is the real world for these people; red tyrannosaurs with snifters of brandy and revolvers are dead serious things that are deadly and serious. I mean, yeah, T-Rex with gun is serious—more serious than a regular T-Rex and a T-Rex armed with anything short of Velociraptor-Chucks—but it’s ridiculous unless you’re staring one down. The next time I see any one of these guys, they won’t be a serious team of self-unaware misfits fighting against ridiculous enemies in a context so lethal they can’t step back and laugh at it; they’ll be someone else somewhere else.

But again, the context should be irrelevant. Why isn’t Monica Rambeau as good as Cloud 9? She doesn’t have an arc, really. None of them do. They learn a few things, but that “fail, lesson, and success” model of showing character growth doesn’t happen here. They just fight through, succeeding as a team though one or two of them fall short, then pull it out and straight up rule in the final battles. The characters have informative backgrounds and they even work together as a team in the end, but the real triumph isn’t one for any single character, but for the group as a single unit.  The individual characters, in terms of growth and depth, can’t be separated from the group. In fact, when it comes to pacing downtime, there isn’t much of that in either ‘The Authority’ or ‘Nextwave.’ I guess that’s a drawback of Ellis’ decompressed storytelling.

If I get rip-roaring adventures out of it though, I guess I can live with that.

Seriously, True Lies is the Action/Comedy/Romance movie you should watch on your next date.

‘Irredeemable’ is another good book that is good. It's written by Mark Waid, who's probably the best comic book writer who's written something you've read and enjoyed, but doesn't get much acclaim for anything beyond “Kingdom Come.” Despite the fact that “Kingdom Come” is in my top three comics of all time, I haven't really seen myself as someone who sees him deserving acclaim; I've been of the mind that he deserves recognition for consistently putting out good comics, but acclaim as an icon of comics was something I wouldn't argue against, but couldn't see myself supporting. “Kingdome Come” as a high-quality book, but it was essentially a reaction to Dark Age sensibilities with a 'what-if' future stuffed full of apocalyptic scripture. I'm not saying that doesn't deserve praise or that it isn't an amazing piece of comics (some say it even marked the ending of The Dark Age, and I wouldn't argue with that either), but I couldn't see putting Waid onto that next tier.

‘Irredeemable’ was the comic that got me agreeing with all of those things I wouldn't commit to earlier in this paragraph. On the surface, it’s about a superhero who's totally not-Superman with super-strength, speed, hearing, vision, laser eyes, etc. getting fed up with acting like a paragon and never being loved quite enough by the populace and always paying for his mistakes (I talk about superhero karma a little further down) and—well, as you read more of the series you find out that there's a lot of reasons that govern why he stops trying to be a paragon and starts wreaking violent righteousness upon the Earth (Except instead of say, collaring purse thieves, he sinks Malaysia because their UN representative lied to him. Dude has a shit-list a mile long and super-speed. Thankfully for both the readership and the series itself, he also develops a flair for the dramatic, so you've got some time to appreciate super-dickery that puts Silver Age Superman to shame. “Choose ten.”). It's an amazing series that's just as much about how his former teammates—who aren't the Justice League—react to the fact that he's gone insane and try to stop him/save themselves. While a lot of comics have been touted as 'realistic' superhero tales, “Irredeemable” does the best job of convincing me that it is the holder of that title (with the accompanying, boring, obligatory remarks about yes, there's a dude that flies and shoots lasers out of his eyes and another guy with a lumberjack build who flies with wings, but you get what I'm saying here). No one from ‘Irredeemable’ makes this list because they're all just normal guys who tried to do good, fucked up on occasion, and looked after each other until The Plutonian went insane. Now they're just trying to survive and find a way to save the world and themselves from The Plutonian, the super-villains who might be able to stop him, and even each other. It's great, but while a lot of these characters are developing and have a lot of depth, none of them have flaws or benefits which make them fascinating in any context but ‘Irredeemable.’ Well, maybe they do, but being in ‘Irredeemable’ isn't giving any information on them aside from that which feeds directly into the plot at hand. Maybe some of them will survive and we'll see more on them in other comics, but I doubt it.

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