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Trouble with Comics

I’m ambivalent about Miracleman being published by Marvel, but I have to say, at least it’s not DC, those fuckers.

Somebody Said Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” Was A Story

It isn’t a story, it’s the bare bones of an idea for a plot that a story could have been built on (but was not). What you describe (“shape-shifting aliens invaded years ago”) is what Gaines and Feldstein called “springboards,” and they kept them on 3x5 cards at EC Comics so they had a place to start. (Pro tip: a story doesn’t fit on a 3x5 card — not a multi-issue epic story, anyway.) That’s the problem with Bendis and many corporate superhero comic book “writers,” these days — they consider the job done when they have a nugget of an idea, rather than blowing it up and exploring it and revising it and making it into something well-written, professional and occasionally even memorable, like Moore, like Morrison used to do, like Gaiman and Ennis and Ellis are sometimes capable of, like Millar and Straczynski had the potential to do before they disappeared up their own asses, like Hickman and Snyder might be capable of in another five or ten years if they don’t get better-paying jobs writing even worse-reading material outside of comics. Story is what the original Image creators thought either didn’t matter or they could fake on their own. Erik Larsen faked it until he made it, the rest hired other writers, some of whom knew what they were doing, some of whom were Jeph Loeb. 


A story by definition has a beginning, middle and end, with structure and character arcs and theme and other stuff that someone who didn’t drop out of high school and then college (like me), would be better capable of mapping out. 

Story isn’t that fucking Robert McKee book, and it isn’t something you can do just because you READ that fucking book. Storytelling is a skill and an art; it’s something you can learn, but the passion to do it is something you’re born with or at least is evident very early on. It’s something, honestly, that I personally don’t have in me, but I fucking well recognize it when I see it, and Secret Invasion ain’t it. A missed opportunity? Yeah. A huge disappointment? You bet. A story? Hell, no.

— Alan David Doane

Marvel What Now?

Entertainment Weekly has the exclusive news on Marvel Now!, the wave of relaunched series in the wake of Marvel Comics’ latest hit comics event, Avengers vs. X-Men. The facts as presented in the article: At least three new or relaunched books, including Avengers by Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opena, Uncanny Avengers by Rick Remender and John Cassaday, and All-New X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen. Avengers will be twice-monthly. Avengers has the largest team, up to 18 characters for Hickman to work with, including what may be for some a surprising choice, Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Uncanny presents a Captain America-led team of Avengers that includes some mutants, as Cap realizes he didn’t do enough for them before. And All-New finds the original X-Men of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Marvel Girl Jean Grey plucked right out of their youthful, Xavier Academy days and plopped down in a future (our present) more horrible than their worst fears, and seeing adult versions of themselves they don’t want to become. The new titles will spell an end for Bendis on the Avengers franchise, an end for Hickman on his Fantastic Four and F.F. titles, and an upgraded status for Remender.

So what to make of all this? Well, the optimistic side of me that read nearly all of DC’s New 52 titles when they began has kind of gone back in his hole like a groundhog. Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso is quoted as saying he likes to take creators out of their comfort zone, but that seems a little disingenuous to me. He’s taking talent he’s familiar with, who have been writing team books for Marvel for years, and just playing some musical chairs. I sure didn’t see Alonso goosing Bendis out of his comfort zone during his much-too-long run on the various Avengers, taking a, “if it’s breaking but still sells, don’t fix it” approach. I still think he has his moments, but try to read New Avengers and tell me he isn’t just marking time. And as much as I like Stuart Immonen, I’d rather they put Bendis outside his comfort zone with a new artist he’s not that familiar with. I realize these two have sold a lot of books together, but at the same time, I think it’s harder to sell this as something “all-new” with the same Bendis/Immonen lineup. The premise for All-New X-Men is different, but I’m not sure I want to spend $24 on a first arc where Jean Grey & Co learn about the internet. It also begs the question of just how long ago they were supposed to be kids, for the world to have changed this much. 

I think Hickman is a good writer when he keeps characters in mind more than conspiracies and complicated history, so a huge cast for Avengers sounds like it could be troublesome. But I like Opena and have pretty high hopes for this one. As for Remender, I think he’s pretty good as well, though I’m a little surprised he has what is called in the article the flagship book. How is Uncanny Avengers and not Avengers the flagship Avengers book? I think the answer starts with John and ends with Cassaday, as it seems the talented artist wants to sequential art again after the last four years or so mainly provide covers for Dynamite Entertainment and others. Cassaday is always worth a look, and I like that he’s working with what I believe is a new writer for him. As far as the concept, with its mix of both Avengers and X-Men villains, including a rebooted Red Skull clone by Arnim Zola with his ’40s Nazi mindset, it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Remender is good at goofy, over-the-top stuff, and after eight years of mostly talky Avengers ribbing each other at the dinner table, I’m ready for some crazy stuff.

What does it mean for the rest of Marvel? I’m sure we’ll hear more soon, at SDCC and elsewhere. I would guess New Avengers is gone, replaced by the twice-monthly Avengers, and Secret Avengers (which Remender was writing) is probably gone as well, with some of those b-listers ending up in Avengers. Avengers Academy? Who knows? Hopefully if it goes, Cristos Gage will have other work lined up, as he’s done a good job on that book. What’s more interesting is what the effect is on solo Avengers books like Mighty Thor and Iron Man, and if there are changes coming to the X-Men books. How much or how little is Marvel architect Matt Fraction involved in Marvel Now? And depending on the outcome of AvX, there may be little reason to have Wolverine and Cyclops still at odds and with separate books. Finally, while Marvel still has a stronger talent pool than DC, they’ve taken a bit of a hit with Ed Brubaker now only writing one mostly stand-alone book, Winter Soldier, and folks like Bendis and Mark Millar who still sell books but who arguably were at their zenith several years ago, the question remains whether Marvel is going to keep bringing over fresh talent. Where’s the next Hickman? Is Cullen Bunn the next big guy, or will people unfavorably compare his Captain America to Brubaker’s?

—Christopher Allen

Marvel in the ‘70s

Writer: Pierre Comtois
Editor: John Morrow
Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing

Marvel in the ‘70s is a sequel to the author’s Marvel in the ‘60s (natch), which one would have to say had the easier route to success. After all, it was in the ‘60s that the “Marvel Age” began, with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others cutting loose with one fresh new superhero after another, like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, not to mention the villains and a distinctive, ingratiating narrative style from Lee that was part carnival barker, part pal. A book that chronicles the creation of something that was new and inspiring is naturally going to be fun to read about.

From around 1968 or so, Marvel Comics then went through a period that may be classified as growing pains. The sale of the company to Cadence Communications led to the ouster of longtime Publisher Martin Goodman, with Lee taking over the position. This role, and increasing time spent as Marvel’s ambassador, a real celebrity during this time, as well as the additional duties of expanding Marvel’s merchandizing and expansion into other media, meant that Lee was less hands-on in guiding the comic books. Even without the additional job duties, he would have had to rely more and more on new Editor-in-Chief (and writer of the most titles), Roy Thomas, because he was expanding the publishing line with ideas for new books seemingly every week.

The expansion of the line led to an influx of new talent, some of whom were impressive out of the gate and some who had to grow into the job, and quickly. Among the careers that started or at least took off at Marvel during the late ‘60s through mid-‘70s were Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Mike Ploog, P. Craig Russell, Doug Moench, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart and Paul Gulacy. At the same time, long-simmering resentments caused by Lee’s power, fame, and editorial interference led to a John Buscema essentially taking his creativity down a gear, and Jack “King” Kirby, the co-creator with Lee (and in the case of Captain America, Joe Simon), most of Marvel’s most popular characters, also gearing down, biding his time, and taking his talents and filed-away characters and concepts to rival DC Comics when the opportunity came in 1970. Other Marvel veterans like Gene Colan, Don Heck and Gil Kane (not there for Marvel’s glory years) were shuffled from one book to another, with mixed results.

It’s a fascinating period in Marvel’s history, with some failed experiments and the collision between the generation of Marvel writers and artists who got into the industry when comics were a disreputable industry where those who couldn’t become successful novelists or commercial artists ended up, and the next generation of kids who grew up wanting to make comics, and had also immersed themselves in other science fiction, fantasy, philosophy and the mind-expanding substances of the era.

Comtois takes this complicated period and reduces it to one dubious thesis, that the period from 1968 to 1980 represented Marvel’s “Twilight Years,” after which they would never again reach the previous heights of creative and commercial success. He further hinders himself with a restrictive format: the story is told within chronological reviews of selected comic books. It’s a workable, even novel, format for the book’s purpose, but requires both Comtois and editor Morrow being able to shape the text into a dramatic narrative that backs up early assertions with the accretion of supporting evidence, and develops story threads into satisfying, credible conclusions. Unfortunately, neither are working up to the level required here.

Case in point: Jack Kirby. Early on in the book, Comtois informs us that for the final 20-odd issues of his venerable run on Fantastic Four, Kirby was basically phoning it in. The geyser of new characters and concepts had dried up, and he was going through the motions with Doctor Doom and the rest, with the same old familiar poses and a decreasing dynamism. I’m not interested in arguing a subjective opinion, and the work has to stand on its own, but would it not have been fair to point out the lack of new ideas and verve on the book were largely due to Kirby’s deteriorating relationship with Lee? It’s one thing to prefer the work of Lee over Kirby, or at least Lee’s ‘70s output vs. Kirby’s ‘70s output, but quite another to gloss over widely reported tensions that contributed to Kirby’s last Marvel ‘60s work not being among his best.

Although Comtois makes little reference to developments at DC Comics or other publishers throughout the book, and indeed does little to place ‘70s Marvel in the context of ‘70s America, he can’t help but throw more darts at Kirby by dismissing wholesale his Fourth World opus, books that, while they were relatively mediocre sellers at the time, have gained in critical stature since. One doesn’t have to like them to note that the passing of time has brought new appreciation for them, or to note that almost all of Kirby’s ‘70s work for both DC and Marvel is currently back in print. It’s just being fair. Comtois complete his specious assessment by noting sales of the books dropped off early on, right after Vince Colletta was dismissed as inker (the implication being that Colletta was doing fine and was an established commodity as Kirby’s inker in the past, and that he took fans with him once Kirby fired him and started working with new inkers like Mike Royer). Comtois also claims that the Fourth World books failed by lacking humanity. There were certainly human characters in the books, like Jimmy Olsen, Guardian, the Newsboy Legion, and Oberon, with Orion’s human friends acting as a Greek chorus for the human race throughout the New Gods series. One might also note that the Orion/Darkseid conflict was just a father/son conflict on a grand scale, but suffice to say, Comtois’ antipathy to Kirby’s work from this point and beyond is a bell rung loud and often in the book, despite Kirby being absent from Marvel for most of the decade discussed.

Comtois’ biases don’t stop with Kirby. He has particular loathing for Gil Kane’s style, with his up-the-nose poses and hand-wringing characters. Only when there is a strong inker he likes, such as John Romita, Sr. on Amazing Spider-Man or Klaus Janson on Daredevil, can he tolerate Kane. There is also a bias in favor of Marvel’s fantasy and horror books and characters, which reveals itself in curious ways. Curious in that, while Comtois constantly beats the drum that Marvel was on the decline, its bread-and-butter books in the doldrums, these negative comments are most often within reviews of the horror and fantasy books for which Comtois clearly has a great fondness. While he can’t help but knock the often-rough debuts of Windsor-Smith, Ploog and others, he delights in discussing when the artists put it together, and spends much more time on favored issues of titles like Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, Savage Tales, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Tomb of Dracula. The amount of coverage of these titles, and the short shrift given to any superhero title of the time besides multiple, redundant reviews of high and low points for Amazing Spider-Man, suggests that while Marvel’s superhero line was stagnant, Marvel was remaining relevant by expanding into other popular genres (sword & sandal, Universal monsters), as well as displaying bright young artistic and writing talent. It’s clear where Comtois’ true sympathies lie—he considers the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula one of Marvel’s best runs, and the Thomas/Windsor-Smith Conan #24 a comics peak no one would reach again. No, really, he writes this. It doesn’t really sound like The Twilight Years, does it?

When it’s a book or creator he likes, Comtois provides capable description and a fannish enthusiasm (there are entirely too many exclamation points in the book) that could have been infectious with better editing and either a more consistent, positive theme of those wild, wacky, obscure Marvel ‘70s comics, or a series of personal essays about same (maybe more in line with Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics). As it is, Comtois’ persuasiveness rises and falls with how much one already knows about the subject. Kull and It, the Living Mummy look kind of interesting, while the antagonism towards Gil Kane’s Amazing Spider-Man or Steve Gerber’s Defenders is off-putting, and the lack of perspective (the aforementioned Conan #24 comment, or the middling, short-lived The Champions series being “for one brief, shining moment one of Marvel’s best series”) is ridiculous. And Comtois strangely makes his arguments about the quality of the superhero line from a distance, touching frequently on Amazing Spider-Man but very little on other flagship titles like The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America or The Incredible Hulk.

There is also an odd, passive-aggressive tone throughout, not just in the text but in the editing and design. Most of the writers and artists discussed receive small biographical sidebars, with photos, even if the person is discussed negatively. Comtois’ text certainly makes the distinction that relatively forgotten talents like penciler Keith Pollard or inker Tony Mortellaro did not create work as notable as that of Klaus Janson or John Buscema, yet why give them the same sidebars? It’s almost cruel to shine the same light on folks like this, only to note that they didn’t do a good job on this book, or that, in the case of venerable Silver Age DC Comics scribe Gardner Fox, they were over the hill by the time they got to Marvel. And the pictures! Instead of going for the kitsch value of era-specific photos, only some follow that route, with many appearing to be taken from casual snapshots from various conventions of the past couple decades. Surely there are photos available of Klaus Janson (whose good looks were played up in Marvel Bullpen Bulletins in the ‘80s, as I recall) where he doesn’t appear to be recovering from a stroke? And although there is no doubt from the text that Comtois is a great fan of the work of Barry Windsor-Smith, he insists on calling him just Barry Smith, even in the list of creators thanked. Whether Comtois knows this is a source of annoyance for the artist is unknown, but surely people change their names for a reason, and to insist on the previous name can’t help but smack of disrespect.

The use of the review as a format to discuss Marvel in general (or at least the developments and creators Comtois is interested in) becomes wearying after a while. Part of it is the format itself, which would have benefited from the occasional break to offer a page or two to look beyond Marvel’s comics and magazines. This reviewer learned much about Marvel during this time from the crude, late ‘60s Marvel Super-Heroes and Amazing Spider-Man cartoons, the Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk live action television series, the Pocket Books collections of early issues, Stan Lee-edited reprint anthologies like Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring on the Bad Guys, as well as ephemera like the Mighty Marvel Fun Books, or even 7/11 tumblers, ColorForms sets, Spider-Man webshooter toys or Mego action figures. Although the ongoing books should be the main focus, certainly the other items helped Marvel become the publishing and merchandising juggernaut they were in the ‘70s, and at the very least would have added spice and visual appeal to the book.

The other reason the format is restrictive and tiring has to do with the poor editing. Not just the typos, of which there are several (even though a proofreader is credited), but the redundancies. While Stan Lee’s defying of the Comics Code Authority (the body created by comics publishers after the Kefauver hearings to regulate their content with a stamp of approval on all comics available on newsstands) to publish the then-controversial issues of Amazing Spider-Man dealing with supporting character Harry Osborn’s drug use (the story was clearly anti-drug) is worth discussing, and a case can be made that the erosion of the CCA’s power led to a softened stance on previously verboten subjects like vampires, the undead and Satanism led to Marvel’s confidence in expanding into books featuring these subjects, does it have to be mentioned every time one of these books is reviewed? It has to be noted here at least eight times, vying for importance in Comtois’ head with poor old declining Jack Kirby. Mentioned at least three times is the nugget that the “Crusty Bunkers” were the name given to the members of Neal Adams’ studio who were frequently called upon to ink or finish a Marvel issue up against the deadline crunch. It’s a nice nugget, once. The second time, one starts getting distracted and wondering what better (ie, not repetitive) item could have been used in its place. The third time, it’s annoying.

I’m not sure if Comtois was told of a page limit late in the writing or what, but for some strange reason, 1976-1979 (half the decade!) is covered in the final 20 of the book’s 220 pages. This amounts mainly to discussing the transition from Gil Kane to young hotshot Frank Miller on Daredevil, and a little on John Byrne on Jim Shooter’s The Avengers, as well as some discussion of Shooter himself and that great final issue of The Champions, with Byrne inking George Tuska. If one thinks of mid-to-late-‘70s Marvel as a place where superstar artist George Perez first flowered on high profile titles like Fantastic Four and The Avengers, well, you’re out of luck, as Comtois doesn’t even mention him, just like he spends little time on writer Steve Englehart’s ‘70s work on The Avengers, The Defenders or Captain America. Inker Tony Mortellaro, though, he gets a mention.

Comtois has no problem making bold assertions, like Klaus Janson’s inking of Deathlok being “perhaps the best work he’s ever done” (early in a, what, 40 year career?), or that, accusations of plagiarism aside, the prolific but now mostly unreprinted scribe Bill Mantlo was, “in reality, one of Marvel’s best writers, doing exceptional work on Deathlok, Champions and ROM,” but to say the author has trouble connecting threads would be to erroneously suggest he even makes an attempt. Does ROM springboard into a discussion of other toy tie-in books that would be ‘80s hits for Marvel like Micronauts, or G.I. Joe? No. He praises Lee for defying the CCA, leading to the expansion into horror titles, yet doesn’t criticize him for overworking his staff and abdicating his editing and publishing duties to those not fully qualified to do so, leading to “The Twilight Years”. And while Roy Thomas’ writing is routinely praised, his editing and stewardship of the line in the Twilight Years is only mildly criticized. Further, he sees these Twilight Years as an end to Marvel’s creative growth, yet doesn’t seem to recognize that the expansion into non-superhero genres led to not just other rich avenues for Marvel, but also the beginnings of many popular, influential writers and artists. To appreciate the book, one has to force one’s mind into the narrow tracks of the author’s, who feels Steve Gerber’s Defenders run was too subversive and irreverent, contributing to Marvel’s decline, while Jim Starlin’s Warlock, with thinly veiled attacks on Roy Thomas, Stan Lee and the Marvel infrastructure, is too be praised and not at all a contributor to Marvel’s decline. Another factor in the decline, according to the author, is that the monster characters such as Dracula, the Living Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster, are all part of the Marvel Universe, thereby undermining the realism Lee & Co had established. This is the same realistic Marvel Universe with several heroes spawned from radiation, Norse and Greek gods on Earth, several alien races, an undersea nation, multiple alternate dimensions, and a master of mystic arts, correct? What difference does Dracula make when you already have Mephisto? Why is using pulp villain Fu-Manchu just fine, when movie monsters arent? Ultimately, Marvel in the ‘70s remains a worthy subject for a book, but unfortunately this is not a worthy attempt at it.


— Christopher Allen

TWC’s Trouble With Marvel Comics

I recently reviewed Marvel’s Thor Omnibus here on Trouble With Comics. That’s likely the last time you’ll find on this blog a review of a Marvel Comics product that stems from the original work created by Jack Kirby, unless Marvel Comics changes its corporate policies enough to do the right thing for the heirs of Kirby’s legacy. I’ve discussed this with my colleague Alan David Doane, and we agree that, even though we’re just one small part of the online comics discussion, we’re going to be true to our own values and not continue to endorse Marvel’s profoundly unethical treatment of the Kirby family.

The older I get, the more I prefer to just read and review comics and leave the punditry to others. And let’s face it, being a pundit/industry commentator is a fulltime gig, and who wants someone like me only piping up a few times a year to touch on the issues that dozens of others are already addressing quite capably. When it comes to the recent Kirby  heirs vs. Marvel lawsuit, which found in favor of Marvel but is now set for appeal, luminaries like Tom Spurgeon and Stephen R. Bissette have written eloquently on the issue, more towards the moral and ethical aspect rather than the legal side.

As far as my own opinion, I just wanted explain where it comes from, and then explain how it will affect future content on this blog. My day job is underwriting Workers Compensation insurance. While it’s a legal requirement for employers to carry such insurance, the layperson probably doesn’t know just how subjective it can be to set pricing. Some of it’s driven by competition, some by analysis of the information that varies based on each underwriter’s knowledge and experience. You may think superhero comics are grim ‘n’ gritty, but how about a job where it’s better if an employee falling from a scaffold dies rather than becomes paralyzed, because death claims don’t cost as much? Some lives are worth $5MM, some $500. My world is not one where there is good and bad but where everything has its price.

Is it fair to hold Marvel Comics to a higher standard than a corporation whose products are not of the intellectual property variety, just because Marvel’s properties are characters who represent the triumph of good over evil? I’ve wrestled with that. I don’t think Marvel is evil or horrible because of some bad policies, and obviously it’s no coincidence that Marvel’s good fortune in being bought by Disney, having successful films, etc., leads to them being targets of lawsuits like this, but opportunism doesn’t by itself invalidate a position. I tended to always follow the precept that whatever a court of law decided in the case of creative ownership lawsuits, that was good enough for me. Wolfman’s Blade? He had his day in court, he lost, end of story. But the impact that Jack Kirby’s co-creations have had on Marvel Comics over the past 70 years is just too overwhelming for me to continue that stance.

I’m no paragon of virtue, and will get off the soapbox now, but the fact is that Marvel/Disney have the resources to make things right with the Kirbys without it hurting them substantially. It’s the right thing to do, it’s good PR, and quite frankly, it seems rather shortsighted to continue thinking that you can keep these old characters going forever with work-for-hire deals with talent who keep their original ideas to themselves. Legality and morality are fluid. What seemed fine in the ’60s doesn’t work now, just like we no longer own people like chattel, marry our 13-year-old cousins, etc. Marvel likes to be an industry trend-setter and seem progressive. Day-and-date digital comics are fine and all, but wouldn’t this be a more significant way to put their money where their mouth is?

Until such time as they make things right on this issue, Trouble With Comics will no longer be commenting on or reviewing Marvel product that derives wholly or in part from the efforts of Jack Kirby. We urge our fellow writers-about-comics to consider making the same commitment.

Christopher Allen

cryptofwrestling:

Thor’s Cabbage Rolls. 

cryptofwrestling:

Thor’s Cabbage Rolls. 

Know Your History

Excellent piece by Gary Groth, refuting yet again false recollections by Jim Shooter regarding Jack Kirby’s ’80s fight to get Marvel to return his artwork.

—Christopher Allen