Monday, March 19, 2012

Kick ass 2 #1-7

Debuting in 2010, "Kick ass 2" was envisioned to continue the plot and themes introduced in the original and serves largely to keep interest in the property until the premiere of the proposed second movie adaptation. As such, despite the trademark over the top violence and the continued characterization, the derivative nature of the work turns out to be crucial. To put it simply, Mark Millar and John Romita junior's "Kick Ass 2" is an exercise in maintaining the franchise and strengthening the brand and feels significantly less provocative as a result.

This is most notable in the closing credits, that slyly re-brand the seven issue package as "book three", to make way for a tie-in. The writer has already announced the plan to release a "Hit-Girl" mini-series in order to bridge the two existing "Kick ass" volumes, with the co-creator Romita junior replaced on the art by Leandro Fernandez. Millar is obviously feeding the market he so methodically created, but at this point it's questionable how it will impact on the property. What's at stake is not only a case of a contrived spin-off diluting the brand integrity, but also if the derivative works challenge the very concept of subjective reality he has created, in effect turning "Kick ass" into yet another fictional superhero universe. This is not only visible in terms of keeping up with the inter title continuity, but in the fact that with "Kick ass 2", the project is starting to play by the rules of Marvel and DC superhero universes.

By the middle of the second series, Millar has already tied up the loose ends from the original's lukewarm epilogue and the effects are very telling. Its laudable that the co-creators put the new story front and center and utilize unwanted carry overs to make up for the protagonist's motivation when it comes to his present predicament. Yet, in the process the writer makes a fundamental choice to drown out the human element. Thus, two of the original's principal non-superhero characters are savagely punished for their connection to Dave, while his school friends quickly join in and become superheroes themselves.

As for the theme that puts all of this into perspective, Millar and Romita jr. choose the growing superhero movement. Again, this puts the book one step away from the reality. The original series' basic premise dealt with the consequences of a troubled teenager's decision to follow his comic book idols and become a neighborhood superhero. Even then, the creators proceeded to put his decision in perspective by introducing imitators, which makes the follow-up's superhero explosion somewhat easier to understand. Yet, seeing that there are no organized superhuman communities in the real world, the second "Kick ass" book basically consists of the writer's extrapolations of the continued criminological and socio-legal ramifications of the first series' events in a way that feels much more akin to something like Marvel's MAX line's micro continuity.

By the very nature of the project Millar poses a comparison to the genre milestone "Watchmen", and with "Kick ass 2" the connection is much more explicit. The long time industry gold standard, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel's main premise is built upon the idea of superheroes in the real world. The level of craft and invention involved with the 25 year old finite series is still remarked upon, thus Millar is being very confident when he directly quotes it, featuring a break in into a superhero's home and the subsequent brutal slaying the veteran crime fighter. With the recent news of company-owned follow ups to Moore's venerable work and the creator's subsequent vehement protestation, its telling that the "Kick ass" creative team seem much more comfortable in exploiting the spin-off potential.

Of course, Millar and Romita junior's story involving their creator owned is a much happier one, with the creators taking a direct role in the movie tie-in, yet their mind set still reflects on "Kick ass 2" as a separate creative entity. With the participation of inker and finisher Tom ("The Avengers") Palmer and colorist Dean white, the production values involved with the severely delayed series seem particularly high, which could easily lead a fan of the series in thinking that he's being presented a credible effort that improves on the original and continues the story. The bold and confident look of the lushly painted pages certainly eases the reader into trusting Millar to tell at least a diverting piece of entertainment, but "Kick ass 2" could hardly be called a satisfying reading experience.

For one, the writer never truly brings life to the new characters, as the new additions, particularly Captain Gravity, feel one dimensional and gimmicky, even when compared to what amounts for Kick Ass and Hit-Girl's shaky characterizations. There is some plausibility in the idea of the makeshift local superteam basically adopting the monikers of the well established traditional comic book brethren, but even then, the writer never goes too far with the idea. The reason is a relatively sudden mid-story shift for greater emphasis on the title character, which sidesteps his Justice Forever cohorts until the big finale, which is again teased in the opening sequence.

John Romita junior lends some credibility to the derivative designs so that Kick Ass' new friends at least maintain a semblance of individuality, yet undoubtedly the best part of the book remains in the burgeoning relationship between Kick Ass and Hit-Girl. It's obvious that Millar has already recognized her as making up for most of the project's commercial potential, thus limiting her appearance to the role of a supporting character for most of the second series, before she returns to have a larger role in the final issue. Having such an overblown and unlikely character even survive the first series already strains credibility, with the creators already treating her as a scene stealer feels oddly calculating and somewhat detrimental.

For narrative purposes, her continued role in the book continually undermines the main character, even if it gives some the heart to the work. The relationship between the two co-leads thus remains the closest thing to genuine emotion in the series and will probably result in the controversial love affair between barely adult Dave and Mindy just entering her teens. Likewise, the conclusion, echoing Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" routinely assigns her a crucial role in the not yet formally announced "Kick ass 3" that is set to debut sometime after the conclusion of her owns series.

Likewise, Millar succeeds in wringing some sympathy out of the dynamic between Dave and his father, which can't really be said for his infatuation with Katie, the love interest of the previous series, who would have been better off if she was completely left out of the follow-up. They are included seemingly only to bring some gravity to the senseless violence, but in the case of the latter, Millar strives for his most cynical and inhumane, bringing to mind his opening for Marvel's "Civil war" event. Seeing innocent bystanders riddled with bullet holes is not so much gory as manipulative, and feels so wrong and misjudged that it almost stops the story altogether.

Still, the creators use the incident to pull away from their exploration of the emerging superhero scene and reestablish the premise as that of Kick Ass versus his opposite number (the change of focus probably accounts for the seventh issue being added to the series at a relatively late date, production wise). The drug using Red Mist is renamed in proceedings, to match his completely out of control role the plot asks him to fulfill, which for the most part feels like a misstep. Seeing Kick ass continue in his relatively down to Earth personality as opposed to his former friend's turning into a mass murderer more or less completely destroys the character dynamic, the semblance of which can be seen only in the very ending, as the two once again interact in a way that actually resembles two friends who have parted ways less than amicably.

Interestingly with Red Mist Millar departs from his own idea of Kick ass being just a member of a local superteam, and has the villain lead the opposite organization, which is precisely where the book falters the most. It forces the writer to come up with a completely bizarre second in command in Mother Russia, where simply a stronger and more calculated villain, heavily influenced by Dave's former friend, would have brought at least some credibility behind the series of atrocities.

As presented, the chief culprit behind the attacks on Dave's loved ones and the city is simply the creative team, who benefit from the raised stakes and the perverse thrill the carnage supposedly bring to the work. The reality is that the reader already familiar with the first series feels largely numb to the carnage, with the repulsion largely replaced by genuine genuine need to question the creators' motivations. Did "Kick ass" succeeding far above all the projections locked them into thinking that the gracious, over the top violence had to be included at every opportunity, and did they really have to present it in such a crass and forced way?

The point is moot, and Dean White's dark purples are left to do what they can to recast the slaughter in a semblance of subdued storytelling. With "Kick ass 2", the co-creators largely abandon any defense that their work should be read as a satire, and simply present it as a relatively grounded superhero universe. Likewise, the ending brings no real sense of closure beyond putting a stop to Red Mist's gang, with most of the cast perfectly poised to play the roles in the obligatory sequel.

When Millar's big idea of superheroes as a new outlet for social activism boils down to baiting the reader for the Mother Russia/Hit-Girl fight sequence, "Kick ass" is revealed to be simply a rarely successful mature readers superhero title, and nothing more. That the said sequence turns out to be as brutal as it is anti-climatic comes as a no surprise, as Millar and Romita jr. seem to be way past the point of even entertaining themselves with the premise. "Kick ass" has simply become another trademark to exploit and constantly renew, with the difference being that the creators themselves own it, and don't have to put up with a publishers requesting an ongoing series by outside talent.

Leandro Fernandez' involvement with "Hit-Girl" largely departs from that model, but still seems relatively modest, given the typical excess involved with even remotely successful publishing initiatives in the Direct Market. As for the inevitable "Kick ass 3", it's best to remember Millar's own oft-repeated stance on the possibility of a follow ups to one of his projects. When discussing the possibility of a sequel to his and J. G. Jones' "Wanted", the writer said that he ultimately decided against it, as it would inevitable prove to the detriment of the original. It's a shame then that the writer feels the need to continually exploit its spiritual successor, no matter the number of in story subplots left dangling.

The strongest part of "Kick ass" and the brutal commentary that gave the original most of its energy for the moment seem to be in the process of a continued exploitation, with the derivatives supplanting the innovation for traditional superhero universe tropes. From a creative point of view, Millar and Romita junior's efforts could be excused as an attempt to influence the movie sequel's story with a plot and character designs that they as creators had a hand in designing, but even then "Kick ass 2" feels dubious.

It's not that it's the worst sequel to the original series, as there's enough authenticity in the mini-series that it feels coherent, it's just that the original didn't really need the follow up. On his own, Millar has shown such a strong cross media track record success that he's currently at various stages of several different series, with some of the strongest mainstream talent, including Dave Gibbons himself, and Frank ("We3") Quitely. No matter how lucrative the franchise has turned out to be, there is no reason why the writer didn't simply proceed to develop another property with John Romita junior, instead for settling on a course that can only lead to over-saturation and diminishing returns already seen with the likes of "30 days of night" and "Irredeemable".

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Kick ass" in perspective

When the original "Kick ass" series debuted in 2008, Mark ("the Ultimates") Millar was in a very different phase of his career. "Wanted", a movie based on one of his controversial comics was about to be released, and he was still enjoying height of his commercial success at Marvel. Thus, as he was developing Kick Ass, Millar was very aware of the series' potential to find a life outside comics.

In a very real way, the high concept was developed to resonate both for comics and the cinema that has come to embrace superhero movies. Millar's simple idea of a teenager becoming a real life superhero became a hit but the reader should be aware of the circumstances behind it. The success behind the cult movie had much more to do with the writer's popularity, marketing sense, and most importantly, contacts in the entertainment industry.

As a comic, "Kick ass" was a foregone conclusion, with the first issue selling most of the story, and the character of the Hit-girl (coming somewhat later in the series) rounding out most of the appeal. Designed brutally simple, these caricatures posed as characters whose neuroses made up for their personality. For a long time comics reader, this was nothing new, as Millar employs a similar set up to raise the stakes in all of his hyper violent comics. Still, "Kick ass" the mini-series was marked with few key differences, particularly when compared to "Wanted".

"Wanted" was a potential DC comics pitch gone over the top when the writer's popularity assured him that he could have a sizable audience if his ideas were laid bare. The fan favorite artist J. G. Jones pencilled series still communicated largely with his existing audience, positing an ugly view at the world of supervillains with a lot of the in jokes and allusions that can entail. The notoriously slow artist made the rarely shipping series disappear from the sustained discussion of superhero comics, but that didn't hurt the property in any real way.

The movie studios recognized the genre defying banality of the central premise and proceeded to develop a very different story. In fact, by recasting Millar's homage to Catwoman into a supernatural femme fatale played by Angelina Jolie they made perhaps the loosest comics adaptation this side of Monica Vitti starring "Modesty Blaze". Most of the creators would be insulted by the degree of the licence the movie producers took with his work, but Millar seems to have learned from it.

One must always take into account that he was the very same creator who made his artist model the principal characters after Eminem and Halle Berry, and launched a false rumor that the rapper was interested in starring in the adaptation. Thus, when preparing "Kick ass", Mark Millar was very aware of the direction he was taking his new property in. Firstly, by recruiting Marvel's mainstay John Romita junior, who fared much less successfully with his first creator owned project, the writer was counting on his status as Marvel's premiere superhero writer. By offering his former "Wolverine" collaborator a co-creator credit on a potentially lucrative cross media franchise, Millar was simply raising his chances of success.

Having a "based on the successful graphic novel" credit on the forthcoming Kick ass movie was almost as important as the artist's role in designing the characters and the set pieces that would guide the Matthew Vaughn directed actioner. Taking the crude wish fulfillment premise of "Wanted", and re-contextualizing it into a much more down to Earth superhero premise, Millar opened his series with a hint of the Romita junior designed blood baths. Thus, the writer enabled himself to proceed with the relatively slow paced characterization, as befitting a proper story, with romantic subplots and a fair amount of world building, no matter how twisted and banal.

Reading through the series, and finally getting past the part of the finale that was teased in the first issue, the reader would be hard pressed to remember anything beyond Kick Ass taking down the mafia leader after teaming up with Hit-Girl. What followed was the obligatory epilogue, lacking in the sense of finality, as it was clear that these characters were being set up for further adventures, no matter how unlikely.

Finally getting to read the follow up, proves a both frustrating and interesting experience, as befits Mark Millar comics.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amours Fragiles: the Last Spring

"Amours Fragiles" is a poetic title of the series of French albums, started in 2001. The Casterman published historical fiction title featured the work of writer Philippe Richelle and artist Jean-Micheal Beuriot and has yet to be translated and published into English. It opens with "The Last Spring", the oversized volume taking place in 1932, documenting the beginnings of the Nazi's rise to power from the vantage point of a young man, German intellectual Martin.

Utilizing a time consuming oil painting technique similar to Gipi's work in "Garage band" and "Notes on a war story", Beuriot achieves a highly arresting effect, which eases the reader into Richelle's slow boiling plot. In the first place, the idea is to dramatize the historical events through the use of a middle class protagonist, who comes of age in a rapidly changing society. Young Martin goes to a high school in the last days of the Weimar Republic, and is a first hand witness to its shaky grasp on the democracy. The facade of a civil, functional society based on equality still manages to inspire the youth to maintain an informed idealistic outlook, which is to be severely tested as the rapid changes in sociopolitical climate begin to catch up with the people close to him.

Richelle opts to frame the story in such a way that Martin's fight is from the start portrayed as ultimately pointless. Not only is the reader aware that his homeland is sliding into the slaughterhouse that punched out the hole of the twentieth century, but the writer underscores the point by featuring a flash forward featuring World War 2 era Martin reluctantly engaging in an affair with a married woman, while serving his country as a soldier. The short opening works to cast a shadow over all of his idealism and innocence in the succeeding story, but also serves as a statement of intent on the part of the creators. "Amours Fragiles" will be their World War 2 epic, but told from a point of view of an ordinary young man, whose strong feelings against the overwhelming fascism ultimately lead to his complicity in his government's policies.

Thus, "The Last Spring" reads more like a period piece love story with strong political current than a dry historical account, even if its languid pace does call for patient, if highly rewarding reading. The complexity hails largely from the numerous facets of the daily life Richelle and Beuriot want to touch upon. Starting with Martin's school life, Richelle depicts just how a forward thinking teacher and a slow, unprivileged student simply fall between the cracks of Hitler's new order. The students are swept up in the current that still seems to imply merely a change of politics, and not a wholesale turn to genocide for a nation that will hardly ever live down its war time excesses.

Yet, most of the daily politics get discussed through the medium of Martin's father, a loudmouth radical professor who feels frustrated by the perceived weakness of the Weimar government, and expects a strong leader in Hitler. The man is initially depicted as highly overblown caricature, who dominates his wife and aims to indoctrinate his liberal son to the right. A lot of the book is taken with his bitter monologues, that render him as a stereotypical Nazi supporter, who dominates his wife and treats the family to radio broadcasts of Hitler's speeches. Yet, at the crucial moment, the father shows himself as an advocate for the Jew's rights to continue living in Germany as their traditional neighbors and small shop owners.

For all of their clear definition, Richelle's characters remain multi-facated, escaping the trap of showing the protagonist as the only three dimensional personality in the sea of archetypes. The key to understanding Martin in 1932 prove to be not in his relationship with the father, but much more prosaically, in his interaction with his age peers. For all of his reading habits and strongly felt democratic spirit, the youth suffers the most through the vantage point of his feelings for the Jewish girl living across the street. The lessons he learns from her fate in the turbulent times are intentionally ambiguous, with the creators stopping the album's story as it climaxes, without a proper epilogue to reassert their protagonist's perspective.

The second volume shows him several years after the events of "the Last Spring", thus it was imperative that the creators cover a lot of ground in the initial outing. In many ways, "Amours Fragiles" reminds of Giardino's "A Jew in Communist Prague" published in America by NBM, and Richelle and Beuriot benefit from the comparison. Where the Italian creator hurries and works in generalities, his French contemporaries proceed from a more thoughtful perspective. For a start, their protagonist is somewhat older and better educated, and most importantly, isn't a victim. Martin isn't a son of a political prisoner and the creators seek his complicity in growing up under an increasingly oppressive regime.

In fact, as a protagonist, despite his protests, he exhibits an irritating indecisiveness, with only Richelle's carefully layered characterization stopping him from being despicable. The chief narrative technique the writer utilizes in portraying Martin as a flawed, yet sympathetic character is by introducing his best friend, a better adjusted teenager defined by his actions. Where Martin stops to listen and contemplate, Gunther comes forward and simply lives according to his years and the political climate. Thus, Gunther starts out as a fun loving skirt chaser, with Richelle thankfully stopping short of making him an outright bully, like Martin's father.

Beuriot distinguishes well between the two male characters, with Gunther sporting darker hair and shorter stature, as well as a self-indulgent smirk on his face, all in all a much more understated design than that of Martin's father. The protagonist's awkwardness and shyness generates most of the book's drama, as Gunther moves past Martin's subtle advances towards the girl, and leaves him once again thoughtful and repressed. The book loving Martin views his outgoing friend's behavior as banal and repellent, while himself rejecting the advances of the girl's best friend.

That the plot allows for the role of the fourth part of the love triangle provides a fresh dose of realism and goes a long way to balancing the album's length. Once again, Beuriot provides a difference in the anatomy to his main female characters, while reversing the color scheme of their new male friends. Even though formally repelling his friend's attitude towards the fairer sex, the protagonist still sticks to the couple until his friend finally crosses the line, and exhibits the prevalent political trend in rejecting Katharine on the grounds of her Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, the torrent of the Nazis' rise to power dooms the budding romance, but at that point the story's subplots converge for a strong finish and a great showing for both creators.

And while there is no doubt that a discerning reader would continue to the "Amours Fragiles" second volume, there yet remain some chief points of contention in the introductory volume. First, despite Beuriot's carefully studied cartooning there remains a layer of artifice that escapes the expressive faces and the frequent changes in perspective. The artist has no problem conveying the long conversation with clear, albeit conventional panels, where his stylish, expressive figures talk in a way that feels natural. The settings likewise reinforce the historical setting of the story but the well chosen color hues don't hide the fact that at inopportune times the storytelling glitches.

And while it's generally fairly clear what's going on, the panel flow is sometimes stilted and Beuriot clutters some of the panels avoiding the simplicity inherent in his layouts. These are relatively minor flaws in a very strong work, that was recognized by the prestige Angouleme festival in 2002. "Amours Fragiles"(despite the generic title) remains a serious work, that succeeds both as historical fiction and a compelling visual narrative. Even if its disparate goals somewhat detract from "the Last Spring" achieving its fullest artistic potential, the result is still a rare understated work about the period, especially when it comes to comics, with its closest recent comparison, 2008's "Spirou: A boy's diary", which treated the subject from a much lighter point of view, despite Emile Bravo's much stronger command of the comics form. Richelle and Beuriot's series' five album cycle is definitely in the upper echelon of the Franco-Belgian mature offerings, and hopefully in time it will find a broader audience and wider acclaim.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Story impact of early Image's inter company crossovers (Part 3)

It takes a bit of context to explain the circumstances behind the most bizarre of Image's inter company crossovers.

As opposed to the WildC.A.T.s, who debuted with Jim Lee's artwork, "Stormwatch" his other Image superhero team could only count on the superstar artist when it came to covers and character designs. This was enough to spin "Gen 13" into a hugely successful franchise thanks to J Scott Campbell's talent, but "Stormwatch" in its original incarnation felt very derivative and of its time. When the initial enthusiasm for Image wore down, the "Youngblood"-like series entered a mediocre period from which it was to revive in the hands of Warren Ellis.

The publisher supported Ellis through his multiple attempts at molding the series into something he felt was a viable contemporary superhero vehicle. By 1998, and entering a third year of his involvement with "Stormwatch", Ellis was already preparing to debut a new creator-owned book to replace the long troubled Image original. At the same time, the company was making plans for a crossover with Dark Horse, the holders of the "Aliens" licence.

In an unprecedented move, Ellis and editor Scott Dubnier decided to dispense with most of the classic Stormwatch characters in the "WildC.A.T.s/Aliens" crossover. The same goal could arguably have been achieved by using Daemonites, whose resemblance to Brood, another fictional stand in for the movie monsters was the main plot point behind the aforementioned "WildC.A.T.s/X-Men" crossover issue. Preferring to do dispense with the Jim Lee created members of Stormwatch in a story featuring the more successful WildC.A.T.s as the protagonists reflects the audacity and forward thinking that helped Ellis reshape the superhero genre for the 21st century.

While their own book was being retooled to return in a slightly altered Scott Lobdell/Travis Charest version, Ellis was being frank with both himself and his readers when he decided to retool Stormwatch by using any means necessary. When it finally came to taking the characters he created and transplanting them to a better book, Ellis was trying to make sure he left nothing behind. There would be no relaunch of "Stormwatch" while he's writing its successor, the genre changing "Authority".

To ensure that his and Bryan Hitch's superhero epic got the deserved attention, with the help of sympathetic editor Ellis transported WildC.A.T.s to the aftermath of an "Aliens" movie, to save what can be saved of Stormwatch. Thematically, WildC.A.T.s weren't a bad fit to the science fictional story, considering their own alien origins, but the overall air of cynicism and finality completely defeated the typical purpose of the crossover. Despite Chris Sprouse's typically clean and excellent artwork, the action scenes seem obligatory with the aliens portrayed as an obligatory threat.

It is perhaps fitting to finish this retrospective with an example of a comic so focused on incorporating the crossover for wider continuity purposes that it fails to portray both sides with equal thought and consideration. Even this far back in his career Ellis was ambitious enough to subvert the notion of an inter company crossover as a tie in product with no story worth mentioning. The writer's arrogance was quickly backed up with the debut of both "Planetary" and "the Authority", which is certainly a far cry from the uninspired script he turned in for the fourth issue of the "WildC.A.T.s/X-Men" crossover.

Story impact of early Image's inter company crossovers (Part 2)

Of course, the Image crossovers whose impact spilled beyond the obligatory team up extended past their joint efforts with DC. Jim Lee's WildStorm studios collaborations with Marvel and Dark Horse produced some very peculiar moments for superhero fans.

Following Jim Lee's work for the "X-Men" publisher on the 1996 Heroes Reborn relaunch, an agreement was reached to produce a crossover. The WildC.A.T.s/X-Men crossover was produced as four issues designed with the idea of introducing the Image superheroes into various parts of the mutant continuity. It's chiefly remembered for Travis ("Metabarons") Charest's superb art in the first episode, but it's the Jim Lee pencilled second issue that poses a very interesting tidbit for this retrospective.

The Scott Lobdell plot pairing Grifter and Jean Grey is quickly forgettable and could easily have been reworked to feature Gambit, another Jim Lee co-creation in Cole Cash's role, but that's also beside the point. What sticks to mind is the role of Mister Sinister in this flashback story. The controversial X-Men villain concocts another of his complicated genetic schemes, providing the crossover set up, and Lee tries his best to enliven the proceedings with some new narrative techniques.

The opening starring Grifter in the cell brings to mind Lee studying Frank Miller's and publishing the results as the early episodes of "Deathblow". It's interesting to note that even at his commercial peak, Lee was taking steps into improving his much lauded art. And while "WildC.A.T.s/X-Men: Silver age" fails as a showcase for accomplished storytelling it more than fulfills the idea of serving as a sleek presentation of two high grossing franchises at their most commercial.

For "WildC.A.T.s" this meant posing as an established superhero title, in very much the same mold as the X-Men, that first brought Lee to prominence. As for "the X-Men", they were still at a point where the audience was fascinated by the implications of their convoluted continuity, inspiring the crossover's four standalone stories. Interestingly, following Lee's brief formal experimentation at the beginning of "Silver age", the episode closes with Lobdell making a brief implication that cements the crossover's place in the X-Men chronology.

Namely, Sinister makes a reference to taking Jean Grey's DNA sample during her brief alliance with Grifter. This explains how he was able to clone Madelyne Pryor which eventually lead to "the Inferno" crossover, a major late 1980s X-Men story. Today it seems like a minor story point, but the mid 1990-ies fans were positively ravenous about Marvel's mutant heroes, enabling the company to spin story arcs and events from even the most minor of plot minutiae.

Next: the retrospective finishes with the quintessential Image inter company crossover that introduced major changes to a comics' continuity!

Story impact of early Image's inter company crossovers

For a company that prided itself on their role in the fight for the creators' rights, the 90-ies Image made a lot of steps that infuriated the audience and destabilized the industry. Yet, the energy involved with seeing superstar artists achieve huge success under their own names also lead to tweaking of the standard superhero formula. 

The inter title crossovers, designed as disposable marketing ploys started getting more traction in the industry as the idea of a shared superhero universe settled into its own tempo. Even if the disparate characters rarely formed a more complex relationship beyond the mutual respect they gained after the initial fight brought on (from the story point) by their differences, the same largely wasn't true for the crossovers between Marvel and DC. For obvious reasons, the story elements could not be carried over into the individual titles, nor did Superman meeting Spider-man impact the characterization of either of the company's flagship characters. 

Truthfully, the publishing model both the superhero giants use routinely necessitates that a lot of their own material is likewise disposable. Since Marvel rejuvenated the industry in the 1960s, the idea of subplots and controlled story evolution added some color to the genre's previous typical stand alone adventure stories. Seeing Power Man and Iron Fist team up in their own title seems much less abrupt once the editorial establishes a feeling of characters overlapping and communicating with one another.

Even if the fans was keenly aware of the marketing ploy, they didn't seem to mind it, as long as they were getting more diversified entertainment for their money. The inter company crossovers have become increasingly rare in the current market, with JLA/Avengers being the last one produced and sold as an event in its own right. Interestingly, the series' writer, Kurt Busiek, followed up on the events of the crossover in his subsequent JLA run. The move was not unprecedented, yet it bears to mind many of the colorful ways in which Image played with the same idea.

Perhaps the most famous example hails from "Batman/Spawn", the Frank Miller written crossover that posited that it featured the version of Batman featured in the writer's seminal "the Dark Knight Returns" mini-series. The project was long time in making and ultimately led to Spawn creator writer/artist Todd McFarlane stepping back from the art duties, and remaining in more of an editorial capacity. The story was formulaic and easily forgettable, going so far to achieve a notoriety for its over the top qualities. Still, a particular moment was deemed significant enough to carry over into the main "Spawn" title.

A Batarang thrown at Spawn in one of Batman's tantrums lead to a temporary injury to the undead Image superhero. In fact, the chronologically next "Spawn" story had his face in the stitches, with the anti-hero going so far to make a veiled reference to his attacker.

Interestingly, Batman himself had a far larger role in another of the Image titles, appearing as he did in a crossover with "Darkness", during the Scott Lobdell run on the Top Cow title. Following the Garth Ennis' co-written introductory arc on the title, Lobdell seemed determined to remake the Jackie into a more familiar superhero vigilante character, and ironically Batman was key in that. The change of heart in the mobster came directly because of his meeting DC's best selling character, setting off a subplot that would define the rest of the writer's run.

Thematically, the arc had Jackie (defined by Garth Ennis as cheerfully immature Italian stereotype) break away from his mafioso uncle Frankie, previously portrayed as a parent figure. In the process Lobdell remade the senior gangster with a heart of gold into a much more brutal figure, leading the succeeding writer to rectify the mistake in his follow-up run. The introduction of uncle Pauly seemed a thin veiled attempt not to directly step over the continuity, while returning the book to the superhero stories grounded in the mafia milieu.

With the end of Batman's influence over Jackie also ended the strange references to the DC hero whose moralizing lead to Jackie entering the witness protection program and giving up his mob allies to the police.

Next: What role did Jim Lee's WildC.AT.s have in a key moment in the X-Men history?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Six guns - Part Two: The Story

Separated from the wider issues surrounding the troubled mini-series, I discuss the merits of the whole project from the creative standpoint.
Diggle and Gianfelice begin "Six guns" with an extended action sequence, serving to introduce several of the main characters. Right from the start, it's clear that the project is intended to be very kinetic and attitude filled, as the main players are all violent men of one sort of another, with the exception of Tarantula, whose predicament starts the events in motion. And while the Texas ranger escorts her for the murder in self-defense, she is also sought after by a biker gang and a mercenary, while a greater mystery slowly revolves around the organization that set her up. 
 The modern day western uses the tired set-up of a tragedy of a loved one as the back story of the several of the main characters, with the traumatic event happening on the very pages. The parallel feels somewhat shallow, as Diggle posits his modern day recreation of Marvel's western characters as an ensemble piece, thus precluding himself for spending too much time on a single cast member. On the other hand, for all the expertly paced, bloody and sweaty shootouts that permeate the "Six guns" pages, the violence is always one step away from being realistic, thanks largely to Gianfelice's style. The young penciller presents these sequences in an exaggerated style that seems equal parts blocky and angular, ie. the reader is constantly aware that these are sequences in a comic book trying for a maximal entertainment effect.
Seeing the rivalry between Tex and Black Rider, Matt Slade's carefree mercenary methods or Tarantula and Two Gun Kid's desperate attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while having their revenge does little more than establish these cynical and world weary characters into anything other than tough guy archetypes, which to be fair is exactly what Diggle and Gianfelice need to tell their action epic. Following the introduction of the main players the plot quickly turns into a familiar western set-up of the mercenaries getting involved in a civil war in Mexico (represented here by its modern day fictional equivalent of the republic of San Diablo). Again, this should not be treated as a cliche and a problem in itself, but a necessary bit of set-up for a modern day western. The plot quickly expands to include the real reasons for the unrest between the north and southern end of the country, each equipped with their own private armies, but the reader will hardly be fooled when the "Roxxon" corporation gets named as the organization behind the conspiracy. Marvel's longtime fictional stand in for famous big oil companies is once again simply a familiar name used in a largely different context, and it's hard to make a case that it helps "Six guns" fit in the company's fictional superhero universe.
Simply put, the reader looking for a superhero experience or any of its derivatives usually associated with the Marvel brand will likely be dissatisfied by Diggle and Gianfelice's work. The series as presented is a modern day action story coming from a completely different set of influences and thereby has much more in common with some of the grittier Image titles. Gianfelice works in a style that is reminiscent of the work of Cully ("Blue Beetle", "Red") Hamner, featuring caricatural visuals that twist and bend in a way that is both superficial and perfectly suited for an action heavy book. Despite his loose style with stylized anatomy, the script calls for a large amount of references, mostly when it comes to armored vehicles and even an airplane, but the penciller rises to the occasion and incorporates the research in a way that helps define the book's visually and feels complementary to his figurework.
For all of the complications Diggle puts the plot through, the energy and the entertainment that comes with "Six guns" overpower any temporary confusion when it comes to the San Diablo conspiracy, not allowing the reader of a complete mini-series to pause at a cliffhanger. As a single storytelling unit, any of these issues seem slight and undistinguished except in their barest professional minimum, but as a story they stand side by side with any of the modern action movies. The final issue does feel a bit contrived and rushed - the series was probably envisioned at the company's standard six issue length, but shortened while in production. As a result, some of the plotting in the ending feels haphazard and spotty, with some of the victories the just acquainted protagonists achieve feeling unearned and too easy.
Yet, with the sales the project eventually wound up earning, it's clear that Marvel was generous when they refrained from cancelling it mid-story. "Six guns" is simply a holdover from a previous editorial regime before the company decided to reorient itself towards exploiting their more successful franchises for maximal effect. For all of the sales DC have gained with the restructuring of their line, the company was likewise forced to abruptly abandon similar projects, with the cancelled "Blackhawks" probably being the best equivalent. The readers and retailers seem completely convinced just what kind of experience they are depending on the superhero publishers to provide, and with the possible exceptions of the popular creators involved with Epic and Vertigo imprints, the prospective readers are much more likely to go to a different publisher when they want a stylish genre exercise.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Six Guns - Part One: The Unwanted

In this introductory piece, I discuss the realities of a modern Marvel mini-series in a market resistant to everything the solicits promised.

Marvel has just released the fifth and final issue of "Six guns", the Andy Diggle and Davide Gianfelice's mini-series poised to reimagine the company's western heroes into a modern day marketable property. The sales have been disastrous throughout, leading to the conclusion that there's next to no chance in seeing these characters used again in this configuration for a variety of reasons, most of them having little to do with the quality of the series itself. Any kind of attempt to reinvigorate interest in Marvel's long forgotten western line was more or less doomed to a failure in the Direct Market, seeing as there's little interest for the company's work in non superhero genre and particularly when it comes to western, a classic adventure setting that's more or less an acquired taste for today's audiences.

The company has likewise shown a tendency of returning to it's several core 1970s horror franchises, but arguably there could be a case made that at least Man-Thing and Dracula have some sort of appeal due to the innovative work of the creators involved with their initial runs. DC has more or less encountered the same problem when trying to breathe some life back into its old western line, but at least in that instance they can get behind Jonah Hex, the character that's had lasting appeal beyond his original series thanks to a variety of follow ups and the strength of the original concept.

Of the characters featured in "Six guns", only Two gun kid has remained in the spotlight, thanks to the character having an unlikely guest starring role in Dan Slott's cult-favorite "She-Hulk". The rest of the cast are even more worryingly unfamiliar figures drawing inspiration from some of Marvel's least popular and largely forgotten western titles. Therefore, Diggle and Gianfelice were given a thankless task - to proceed with creating a series that the company can't afford to market extensively, hoping to sell the trade paperback on the strength of good reviews and word of mouth. Yet, using a "Losers"-like action movie approach meant that most critics would ignore it as a strange product of low ambition treating it as a given that it's pulp sensibility would endear itself to the readers who have long since grown used to equating Marvel with a very singular entertaining experience.

Having Butch Guice present the covers in a representational style is symbolic of a whole series of hurdles "Six guns" would have had to jump through in order to save itself from retailer and reader apathy. A simple fact that the company wasn't sure that displaying the interior artist Gianfelice's work front and center would be the best way to market his artwork shows that the company's audience still has problems with individualistic artists whose expressiveness lends itself to a non-traditional approach. Simply put, when the company's house style relegates artists such as Scottie Young on low selling titles such as "Wizard of Oz", then it's no wonder when the fans decide to ignore some of Gianfelice's first work for the publisher.

Continually presenting the work of Bryan ("Ultimates", "The Authority") Hitch as a gold standard for their entire line, Marvel have simply forgotten to train a new audience to appreciate the non-orthodox styles of drawing. And while a Chris Bachalo and the tried and true Adam Kubert still have no difficultly finding work at the publisher, a younger artist such as Gianfelice is in no such position. Having the "Daredevil reborn" creative team continue their work with a completely new project for the major publisher certainly seems a good idea in theory, but the realities of the Direct Market have arguably doomed the series from the start. Having the editorial approve the pitch that treats the official Marvel continuity like only so much window dressing and uses its one sequence starring a genuinely super powered character for a quick joke certainly seems smug and overconfident.

Despite the creators' clear bias towards exaggerated realism and modern action film esthetics, the editorial eventually proved to be the first and last ones to be so sympathetic. Marvel's audience traditionally seeks a very specific reading experience that can be modernized and improved upon, but not completely subverted. When Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker instill modern crime genre elements in their superhero titles, they are still supported by the relative malleability of the popular characters they're using. Yet when Diggle and Gianfelice reintroduce Black rider as a biker with a heart of gold there's no real audience response because there's no audience for the character in the first place, nor is the typical Marvel Zombie so forgiving to the biker stereotype as seen in movies or on TV that they would be quick to warm up to this version.

Interestingly, the very same audience would probably invest a lot more into following his story on film, because they have different presumptions when it comes to different form of entertainment. A Marvel comic is simply no place for an ensemble action drama and it seems like Diggle and Gianfelice are the only ones unaware of this.

Tomorrow: looking at the entirety of the five issues as a story in its own right.