Monday, March 30, 2015

WWKKD? So many many #1's, so many mash-ups and watching the parade go by

San Diego Comic-Con has been ceded to movie and television hoopla, which has meant that big announcements tend to arrive in two forms now - if you're DC or Marvel, you find an actual press outlet like USA Today with which you apparently have a corporate symbiotic relationship and friendly mouthpiece to do your announcing - or you announce at a more comics-centric con like the just completed ECCC.  Here's coverage from The Comics Beat talking about new stuff from Valiant and Dark Horse announced at Emerald City Comic-Con.

We'll raise an eyebrow at the formerly legitimate-ish press carrying comic book news and the downfall of modern society some other time, but for today, let us consider the actual news about new comics about which I should be getting excited.

In a very weird way, all new comic series basically look the same to me.  And The Steam Man #1 solicitation copy is a pretty good example.

The Old West (but not as we know it): Giant robots that run on steam power are created to take down invading Martians and armies of killer albino apes in an all-out brawl. The Steam Man, a giant metal man operated by a team of monster hunters, seems to have the town protected and the West under control, until a crazed and powerful vampire comes to town to bring forth the apocalypse.
So what are we getting in this solicitation copy and that of so many other #1's?

1.  setting that is not here and now
2.  wacky overarching concept that's been done before, often endlessly
3.  with mash-up conflict from another recognizable but previously unrelated familiar thing
4.  extensive mythology in place from issue 1

you would not believe how many images come up when you Google "Robot Abraham Lincoln" to help illustrate your point

So, this comic looks to me to be:

1.  More or less The Wild, Wild West
2.  With a Power Rangers Zord in Steampunk drag
3.  Fighting War of the Worlds and John Carter Apes (because Mars!)
4.  Uh, oh... Draculas from the past

Comics have been about familiarity and nostalgia during the entire tenure of my comics reading.  Dark Knight Returns was groundbreaking in that it shattered the concept of Batman as a kid's character with a batpole and turned him into a Charles Bronson pastiche.  And, frankly, if we want to get reductionist, Batman and Superman were always copies of other characters blended and melded together (Batman is Zorro, The Shadow and The Bat, Superman is John Carter, The Gladiator, Doc Savage and name your favorite fictional creation pre 1938).

I'm just not sure that today's version of that mash-up doesn't feel like overly calculated fake fun.  I mean, at one point do I just say:

1.  In the ancient city of Atlantis, before it sank beneath the waves
2.  A young My Little Pony trained in the art of ninjitsu with a team of ninja ponies
3.  When the villainous Teddy Ruxpin and his horde of robotic animal-trons invaded
4.  Ninja Pony must battle the Evil Teddy Ruxpin while uncovering the mystery of the Matrix of Leadership that his father left behind before mysteriously disappearing with other Pony Scientists.

Boom.  Cut me a check.

it's a lot of robot Lincoln

I mean, I get that this is how you tell a story - it has a setting and a conflict and character - just, does it need to be ones we necessarily already know?  I'm not sure that inserting unrelated but familiar objects into that formula is necessarily the way to go.

Is it because we get that little laugh at the meta-context of pitting these things against one another?

To demonstrate my hypocrisy appropriately, I'm currently reading Star Trek/ Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive.  It's a comic I simply could not believe existed and one issue in, holy smokes, does the writer have a feel for both series, and it feels like a true mash-up.  But I also know - this is going to end in 6 issues and we can all move on with our day.  It's fan-fiction as buyable, licensed content, and I don't feel good about it, but whenever I flip one open, I can't believe what I'm looking at.  The same way I feel looking at Godzilla fighting King Kong or Mad About You crossing over with Friends.  It's a novelty fit for a spurt of enjoyment at the friction of those two wholly realized concepts and what the meeting implies, but is such a thing sustainable as a series?  Do I really want to see 75 issues of Kirk and Taylor on the same page?  At what point does what one say about the other as meta-commentary end and the drone of a 30-part fan-fiction where now Taylor is dating Yeoman Rand begin (he doesn't get Uhura.  She has her own life where a tall, chubby 21st Century man from Texas has been sent to the future and they are in love in my fan-fiction)?

heh.  Gorilla Star Trek funny

With each new press release of de-licensed but familiar ideas munged together, it's just become a wall of same to me.  I blame myself and my age for not getting excited about this blending and melding of ideas, and I get that there's nothing new under the sun and one of the last people to make any of this feel new was Jack Kirby stuff when he was allowed to cut loose.

After 30-odd years of reading comics, I may be a bit past the point of getting excited about All New #1 Issues, and I may have seen way, way, way too many series that seemed like they were never going to work beyond that first cover image - no matter how dynamic that image was.  Too many 22 page starts that felt the same empty rapid-fire pacing, same empty characterization of stock characters, same absurd conflicts that used to feel fun now just feel like no one ever told a writer about character and motivation.

Basically, I sometimes wonder if anyone involved really thought much past the initial concept that made them giggle a bit.

I've seen so many #1's, and so few #40's - the point at which the series is really on it's rhythm, and the creative team is feeling confident that they've built something beyond that now kind of juvenile appearing first issue, but before the series becomes either a parody of itself or becomes an object that is best set and immutable for economic and narrative purposes (see: superhero comics).

One of the oddities of the formula is that it does come out of the box with that preconceived and sure to be a slow reveal secret past that is impacting the events of the story.  If most of the characters that are still around today who were introduced between 1938 and 1970 have in common is that they didn't have this massive built-in mythology hinted at in issue 1.  Superman was built piece-by-piece, as were Batman and Spidey.  Any "history" for the characters, as we think of it, was tacked on over the decades.  Superman and Batman had no particular formula they had to deal with.  They were characters of the present.  The stories and momentum pointed ever-forward rather than living in the past - until Mort Weisinger started using Superman comics to illustrate his therapy sessions, anyway.

I don't know if there's a solution.  I know that reading solicits that sound like people randomly pointing at pop-culture-y stuff and cramming it together is, at best, kind of lazy, at worst - cynical in its process.  And, more than anything, it's certain that what's rewarded are these short giggles, making it that much harder to find an audience in comics that - as was the dream of the 90's - looks at comics as a legitimate form of literature rather than a pop culture candy shop.  It becomes all about the cheap giggle.

We're all going to be a little complicit, and if this post is nothing else, it's me sorting out the difference between influence and impact of what came before versus uninspired mix-mastering of the generic until it all feels threadbare and meaningless.  I dunno.

There are good and better #1's out there every year that have, at least, understood their place as a metatext, and there is stuff out there that is new and original.  As an older reader, it's just that less of it's going to feel fresh and more of it will feel like old hat.  But, as always, I want for creators to try, and I like it when I see creators truly pushing themselves and their audience.  We'll always have comfort food pop culture.

I just think - if you're coming in with a new #1, swing for the fences.  If you haven't made me re-read the solicit to want to get excited, at least make me say "I don't get it" because you're getting so far out there.

What Would King Kirby Do?

Because Jack stopped listening to anyone but Jack at some point, and - holy cow, the stuff the man produced during that era.  You saw it in his work at Marvel, and some of the DC stuff we still can't get over today and keep trying to recreate that lightning strike.  And his independent work was just a whole new level of madness.

We need the madness.  We need the wild creativity.

A few series running now I think do a decent job of swinging for the fences:

  • Saga
  • Sovereign
  • Sixth Gun

anything starting with an "S", I guess...

So, y'all pitch in and name a few.  And show your work.

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