Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two parts of the same Hulk: Planet Hulk and World War Hulk

Soooooo, Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. Yeah, I’m kind of coming late to a lot of parties here. What do you want, I’ve got a new kid, so I read what I can get at the library.

I was reading Planet Hulk when it was being released but a job change meant cutting down the subscription and it was one of the books I knew I’d likely get in trade. It’s a pretty simple idea that works unbelievably well. Send the Hulk into space but have him as the protagonist in Spartacus or Gladiator. Voila, comic book gold. There are new characters introduced who are all wonderfully atmospheric to the setting and who are also that wonderful breed of character only found in the Big Two superhero comics – the revamp/archival character rewritten for a modern story. This could be cynically keeping intellectual property on their creations or just a great way to add characters relevant to a story but with a bit of extra “wink, wink” to the comic reader with an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel’s history. Sure there’s some recaps in there too where they talk about their own history just for good measure, but really, there’s some good easter eggs in the new warriors.

Now, why is Planet Hulk so dang good? I have a fairly standard conversation with my wife regarding The Incredible Hulk whenever he comes up, for whatever reason. She simply says, “I just don’t understand The Hulk. I mean what’s the point? He’s not a hero. He doesn’t really do anything.” Whereby I’ll follow up with, “well, that’s kind of exactly the point. It’s sort of about the duality of man. That if left alone we can be peaceful but we have a tendency not to leave well enough alone and end up creating very destructive things from our own technologies and within our own nature. It’s not about him not being the hero but being something that shows how cruel, petty and evil people can be. Yeah, he’s the uncontrollable force but he wouldn’t be a problem if people just weren’t dicks.” Whereby, she says, “Okay, but I still don’t really see the point. Why would I want to watch/read that?”

It kind of hit me while reading Planet Hulk. It’s what surrounds him. It’s how he affects and plays off the characters surrounding him that make him interesting. Create a great setting with great characters then throw him in the middle of it and the character works. Otherwise, it’s just finding a reason to make Bruce Banner mad then smashing stuff. It becomes the slapstick solutions to the problem of Hulking-out that you can find in droves on YouTube.

Give him a reason for his anger that isn’t physical – yes, he’s isolated physically, but it’s the emotional betrayal that fortifies the Hulk here. It cuts on a whole different level that just gets more and more reinforced through his physical challenges until it is brought around full circle to another deeply emotional wound at the end of the arc.

The big difference seems to be that on Sakaar the Hulk has an audience that is being influenced by him. What is the message he gives his followers – destroy at all costs, never stop making them pay, etc. On Earth, those around him tend to either pity him or want to control/destroy him. On Sakaar, they either fear or love him. Fear and love are much different beasts than pity and desire to control/destroy. On Sakaar the desire to understand Hulk are also found on an emotional level rather than the scientific level found on Earth.

In other words, it’s wonderful stuff and by the end of it you simply can’t wait to have him go back to enact his revenge. It is all justifiable and righteous.

And then there’s World War Hulk which just felt like a lot of wasted potential. There was a great game with home runs, the bases are loaded and while there’s a few runs scored, it’s not the grand slam it could have been. Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot more of the Blue Jays than I ever have in my life. There’s some great punch ups, and it’s great to see Hulk being the same righteous leader that he was in Planet Hulk, only playing with the toys of the Marvel universe. The trouble is the same old bugaboo as all these event comics of the last few years. There is simply too much happening outside of the main book for it to have much impact. The original Secret Wars, this is not. That was a comic that explained everything in the comic series itself. Here, there are some good action scenes with Iron Man in his Hulk busting suit, General Thuderbolt Ross, and some bits with Stephen Strange, but overall there were too many quick hits that could have been much more interesting than, hey, I think Hulk is hitting Luke Cage or some of the X-men.

There’s also a gratuitous butt shot of She-Hulk that stands out like a sore thumb to me. There’s a massive sound concussion that blurs everything, except her ass. Okay, maybe her ass has some kind of special sound cancelling properties but this is just completely gratuitous and just annoys the hell out of me. It pulls me out of the comic because it’s one of those unnecessary things that just doesn’t need to be there and cheapens the whole experience for me as a reader.

In the end, what really kind of gets me is that other hobgoblin of the superhero comic mind – the retcon. They didn’t even wait that long for this one. At the end of World War Hulk the protagonist discovers that “hey, this was all a misunderstanding because the justified and righteous reasons that brought you back to earth were actually caused by someone else completely, who went back to their home planet and died there.” So, while there’s an argument that, yeah, the Hulk is still justified because the other heroes acted like dicks, the retconning is a blatant attempt to make them seem somewhat less dickish. The story works better when they are simply wrong and get their asses handed to them like they deserved rather than, oh yeah, whoops I probably shouldn’t have beaten you to near death because something completely unrelated and not even hinted at was the real cause for setting me on this course.

It’s cheap, and it makes me glad I didn’t buy this when it was coming out. It also really just shows the whole problem that Marvel started with Civil War. You can’t have heroes on both sides. Superhero comics just don’t work that way. You can have protagonists, you can have anti-heroes, villains, misunderstood villains, but you can’t have heroes on opposing sides. I know I shouldn’t write in absolutes here, but if you handle things this sloppily, you’re just making your heroes into dicks because you don’t want them to be villains. At least have the gumption to make them out and out villains. Dickish heroes can also work but when it goes across your line and into characters that were never set up that way, it just doesn’t work.

I feel like this whole part of the Marvel history should be like that episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine when the crew goes back to the Tribble episode and they ask Worf about the Klingon’s looking differently. He looks annoyed and says, “we don’t talk about that time.” I kind of hope that’s what happens in the Marvel Universe. It seems to need a good solid flush of the toilet rather than a deal with the devil, that’s what got it into this mess and it ruined a great set up story.

These are good creators who create stuff I like. I guess I understand what it’s like when you’re stuck doing a project that your manager, director or committee ruins. You’re stuck trying to finish it with the most dignity you can and in a manner that you can still try to salvage, but in the end you’re stuck working on yet another lame duck. What a shame.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The New Frontier - do we really need to explore this all again?

Okay, so I'm reading a lot of books from years ago that people really liked.  So sue me, I've been busy.

I’m really torn on this one. On the one hand, I pretty much love anything that Darwyn Cooke does; on the other hand I think I’ve hit critical mass of exploring the DC Universe.  I've got to accept my crotchity-old-manness here and just shake my cane at the fools not doing things exactly how I want them.

Here’s the thing though, I wish that the world Darwyn Cooke created for The New Frontier was simply the DC Universe. I like what he’s done and the tension between the super-heroes and the rest of the population in the setting he’s made. A slightly tweaked DC universe that lets all the heroes be heroes without the faux gravitas handled clumsily in so many of today’s superhero comics.

They’re heroes because that’s what they should be doing. Sure there is tension and all the tropes found in the genre, but at its core this is yet another hopeful book that writes over the past to create a retro-future. Sure there’s some rose coloured glasses that are used to view the past, but it makes heroes for today by giving them a past I can identify with and enjoy. Yes, the quirks and social norms of the past can be used to great affect but when the goal is to make a bright and shiney superhero yarn then cleaning up things is fine by me.

It’s sort of a non-problem when what I want is more of what is hinted at and glanced at to tell the story. Each little vignette that tells the larger plot is a world I want to see more of, and it kind of annoys me that the only chance there is to get these stories are in stand-alone stories. I guess this is sort of a rail against the medium type of critique which I didn’t intend since I pretty much love the comic. I guess I just don’t want to be limited to only getting heroic stories that are yet another exploration of one creator’s version of the DC universe. It should just be done in the regular books (in any superhero book at any company).

That’s the rub. This proves that bright, positive comics are extremely well received so why don’t we see more? They aren’t light on conflict, tension or even relevant social issues. They can explore themes, story ideas and even go along the superhero tropes as well, if not better, than yet another grim, everything changes plotline.

These are stories where adventure reigns and the adventurers simply do what needs to be done - some dealing with personal issues, self-doubt, political pressure, or whatever.  In the end, they're all heroic which is what the focus should be, rather than the woe-is-me hand wringing followed by "hey! look, something shocking!" It only works when it's not the norm, which is, I guess, why The New Frontier works so well for me.  It's the diamond in the rough.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dr. Thirteen: I read the modern mainstream superhero critical darling

I’ve been trying to limit my reading to comics that have been generally well received by sources I trust. Obviously, I trust myself most so I’m okay in just picking up anything by certain authors, but like most anyone reading this, I have a group of blogs and other online sources that I find steer me right. Since the whole reworking of the multiverse in DC over the last few years, this book popped up and was loved by anyone who read it. Or so it seemed in the circles I ran in (i.e. sites I lurked on).

I find that, for whatever reason, I tend to read a lot of superhero stories that explore the nature of the superhero shared continuity. This is no different, and it is done how I like it. The writing and the art both perfectly capture the sheer joy that can be found in the DC universe. It hits the high notes of being able to go metatextual in having the Architects subbing in as the four main creators brought in to guide the comic line over the recent past/present; exploring the past of adventure, war, magic and space comics; and to explore how a normal guy who is logically skeptical can exist in a fantastically illogical setting.

The story hits on what DC has been very successful at lately, in dusting off their legacy properties and introducing them to the modern reader. The real highlight for the non-comic book reading public was probably JLU, but if you look at DC from about the late eighties when Swamp Thing was relaunched this is pretty much their M.O. Heck, they’ve managed a heck of a lot of reboots in the last decade, and sure, not all of them stick or are good, I still think there’s a definite winning ratio here.

I love how there’s no shying away at just how simply wacky and frenetic DC comics can be in this series. Azzarello just starts playing with the toys, so to speak, and goes hog wild with them. I think the last Azzarello DC comic I read was from his Batman run and while I liked the individual aspects of the story, in the end I just didn’t follow it. Then again, I’m half remembering that but it did have me a bit hesitant to pick up this book, even with all the positive reviews. And, well, I could just look at Cliff Chiang’s art all day long. The bright happy presentation just matches the zany plot perfectly.

This is one of the books I’d recommend to people who want to understand what being a superhero comic fan is all about. It introduces all the ideas of a shared universe without requiring a crazy amount of time and money investment to get the back story. I feel overwhelmed by a lot of ongoing superhero books where if I just join the story mid-arc I’m lost but there’s just a rabbit hole of back story to get in order to catch up. Not so here. Sure, knowing about the various Crisis bits might help, but I don’t think it would take away from understanding. It didn’t for me.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

Get out the dusty pocket book, open the wallet and let the moth fly away free and use that hard earned credit to buy the first published book that has me listed as a contributing author. I’m crazy excited by this development and it ranks second only to the birth of my son in terms of recently amazing developments in my life.

Available in this month’s Previews (August 2010) for an October release, you’ll find Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen. Inside you’ll find my hopefully fairly coherent writings on how the different points of view that frame the comic and give it structure and symmetry also creates meaning in the text. I explore how the idea of fearful symmetry is explored in the physical text but also in the different world views of the characters and their accompanied symbols.

It’s edited by Richard Bensam with essays by Mary Borsellino, Tim Callahan, Julian Darius, Walter Hudsick, Geoff Klock, John Loyd, Patrick Meaney, Chad Nevett, Gene Phillips, William Richie, and Peter Sanderson.

The book will be available from Amazon and Lulu as well as at New York Comic Con on October 8th. Buy a copy for yourself, someone who loves Watchmen, or anyone else that can read English.

Like my wife says, this should really get me blogging again. I'm hoping it'll get me writing more, too.