Friday, September 2, 2011

Rebooting Justice League #1

Heh. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that, but I had hoped to get into some non-DC content, particularly looking at the reboot done to the Marvel Avengers for the TV show Avengers: The Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Obviously, I didn't have a lot to do while we waited out the sturm und drang of Irene over the weekend.

But after yesterday's review of Justice League #1 followed by reading some other reviews and comments, I wondered how the hell I'd go about pulling off this opening salvo of DC's New 52. I think what stuck in my craw was a comment I read on Comics Alliance that asked, if the the characters in Justice League #1 were no-names rather than Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman, would anyone really care? Would they be interested in what was going on?

That thought just wormed its way into my brain. I couldn't see any reason that comic would be anywhere close to a success if it was Matban, Leen Grantern, and Mupersan headlining (Good thing they didn't use Wonder Woman, eh? But then why was she and Flash and Aquaman on the cover? Hurm.). The more I pondered (and I had plenty of time to last night due to the recent discovery of a ghost in our 150+ year old house), the more the setup of the comic bugged me.

For a company that claims it wants to move forward and create new legacies (and fans), Justice League #1 sure did stand heavily on the shoulders of the past. While this might be great for an fan like me who knows what the hell a parademon is, it means that there is a huge reference not available to new readers who have only seen a few DC movies or played a few DC video games right off the bat. If one of the reasons for a reboot is to make things more accessible to new or casual readers, then this is a problem.

Had I my druthers, I'd have avoided an origin story entirely. If the decision was made to back away from an actual, hard reboot, then why not use the freedom of legacy that offers? You could certainly refer to the origins of the Justice League in the initial arc, probably to explain who the hell Cyborg is as he'd be the least known of the seven. I'd plot the story around the return of Darkseid, that evil space tyrant whose attempt on Earth five years ago brought together seven of Earth's greatest heroes. Cyborg would have been the POV character, as opposed to Batman. We could get the facts about Vic early on by making him the one who has been the most gung-ho about keeping a watch out for Darkseid, giving him a chance to talk about how the initial attack was what set things in motion to make him part machine (parademon attacks Vic's Dad at STAR Labs while Vic was in the middle of chewing him out over missing important football game. Dad realizes what a heel he's been just as his son gets mortally wounded trying to save him.) and how he felt like he could have done more in the ensuing struggle against Apokolips ("I felt like the weak link, Diana. I promised myself that next time, I'd be the whole chain."- Oh no! EmoBorg is creeping in here too!).

This would give Cyborg some early scenes of being cool to help warm him to new readers. It would also put him in a leadership role when Darkseid returns, as he's been learning all he can about the villain for the past five years, and would let him reference the group's original encounter by contrasting how this time was different. So five years ago, Darkseid attempted to take over the Earth on the cheap. He started by sending emissaries and saboteurs. Superman, as a Kryptonian, got an Emissary ("Great Darkseid demands that you follow the ancient Kryptonian Compact and refrain from involving yourself in this matter. Go find yourself another planet of toys to play on."), as did Aquaman ("Surrender now and you shall be allowed to live as a Client Ruler, O Lord of the Planet."), and Wonder Woman/Themyscira ("This does not concern your kind. The days of the Old Gods are done. Leave now and cling to your memories awhile longer."). Green Lantern got flat out attacked, as it'd be in an interstellar invader's best interests to get the Space Cop out of the way fast. Batman and Flash responded to attempts by Darkseid's minions to take out high science WayneTech labs and Cyborg was caught in the middle of a similar attack on STAR Labs.

The heroes rallied together, defeating the invaders, and everything is hunky-dory, natch? Well, except that was really more of a probing strike and the Big Invasion is beginning in Issue #1. As the arc progresses, the original seven rally some additional allies (the 8 auxiliaries), and we go at it. We'd still have plenty of time to get the character beats and conflicts out there, but would skip over the inevitable "Heroes Fight On First Encounter" trope that's just a huge waste of time nowadays. (Hint: The answer to "Who would win in a fight, _____ or ______?" is always "The one whose name is on the cover. If none, then each scores a point, but it remains a tie.")

If we're already treading on the legacies of these characters, then starting up a five year in the past origin story seems kind of a waste. It just has no impact - we know the heroes win five years because if they didn't, there'd be no now, right?

So my Justice League #1 would open with Cyborg and Lantern chasing down a parademon in Gotham. This draws the interest of Batman, who gets involved  and things snowball from there. ("My city!" "But we agreed the League would deal with any more sightings of Darkseid's soldiers," replies Cyborg. "It's just one," points out Lantern, "They've been popping up at random ever since we kicked ole Stoneface back to Apokolips five years ago. Left overs." "No," says Cyborg, "Not this time. This feels different." "He's right," Superman suddenly says, dropping into view, a dead parademon in each hand, "We need to get the League together on this."). By the end of Issue #1, we should have the entire team of seven assembled. Maybe Aquaman or Flash don't get many lines, but still, they'll be in the damn book that they're on the cover of.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Justice League #1

Okay, so after some technical difficulties, I was able to download Justice League #1. This is the first single issue ongoing comic I have purchased in some time. I've used the DC iPad app to buy arcs worth of issues (Power Girl, Red Robin, Flash: Rebirth), true, but never for a comic I'd have to wait an entire month to find out how it ends.

And after reading Justice League #1, I'm reminded why.

This is not a slam on the content of the comic (scroll down for that, I think), but on the time/value proposition a new comic offers, particularly a new digital comic. I'm honestly not sure it is worth buying new single issue digital comics. Don't get me wrong - the comicXology-powered DC app is great. I like being able to zoom in on a panel and then just swipe from frame to frame. Everything displays clearly.

It's just that, for my 4 bucks, there doesn't feel like a whole lot of meat there. Given the DC app's brief wonkiness when it came to the purchase (buttons not registering taps, then suddenly registering a bunch all at once - I almost bought the comic like 12 times), it took longer to download the comic than to read it. I guess I can accept that, comic issues are supposed to be a brief luxury, but when compared against other brief luxuries in the same price range (ie, a beer), I find something lacking. Maybe it's the fact that it is so easy, so quick (barring app-chokes) to download an issue? Previously, buying comics would be an entire experience - you wander down to your local shop, you browse not only the comic you're interested in, but others as well, you maybe chat with other fans. Even if you spend only 4 bucks, you still get at least 15-20 minutes of distraction, about the amount of time it takes to drink a beer.

I'm actually a big supporter of digital media. I'm a Kindle early adopter and even bought a bunch of them for use in my library. I'll avoid most of the pros and cons here and will instead focus on the amount of time spent with the product. The difference between paying the same price for an eBook and a Real Book and the same price for an eComic and a Real Comic is that the former will still get you a good set three or four hours of enjoyment. To pare down the amount of time experiencing the comic, though, really shines a light on how expensive a hobby it is. And once you have people thinking about money, you have them soon thinking about quality.

Thinking about Justice League #1 now... Man, that must have been a hard comic to write. Seriously, think about it. First of all, it's the opening salvo of a make-or-break proposition for your entire comic line. Even before the first word is written or line drawn, you know the comic will probably be your best selling comic of the past five years. Sure, some of that is speculators and collectors, but hey, if I actually bought it, then that must signal something. Second, because it is the first issue of a brave new world, there's going to be a lot of information to communicate with the reader. Third, because it's a flagship, you need there to be enough action to hook the reader. Fourth, because it's a reboot of familiar characters, unless you are doing something really wacky, people are already going to be familiar with the characters, so could be pre-bored with some of the information you need to deliver per point 2.

I think Justice League #1 succeeded in needing to do what it had to do, but I'm not sure it was a good comic. There was a pretty big disconnect between dialog and action. While "two characters run down the hallway and say expositiony things at each other" is a longtime staple of comics, it's pretty jarring when that hallway is replaced with "jumping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of a paradaemon." Hallways and corridors have magical properties in comics - they always are just as long as the conversation. Gravity and gunfire? Not so much, especially since we just had a similar chase presented almost wordlessly.

It was neat to see old (Kirby) favorites like parademons, Mother Boxes PINGing, and a literal Darkseid shoutout (If the reboot brings back the New Gods, I'm all for it). I really liked the parademon - especially the way fires seemed to be consuming it from the inside out (mirroring the firepits of Apokolips). The Batman/Green Lantern dialogue, as I mentioned above, was pretty forced. There was a lot of information that needed to be presented to the reader in that exchange. Honestly, I wonder if it would have been better to move that whole "Gotham WHERE I AM FROM is mine and Coast City WHERE YOU ARE BASED is yours" bit, plus the Batman-Swipes-Lantern's-Ring schtick to the ride over to Metropolis later in the comic.

The whole Cyborg thing, though, ungh. That could have been missed. It was a huge downer (Vic's Dad Is Too Busy For Him! Weep For Vic) right in the middle of the action. But since Cyborg is pretty much only appearing in Justice League, I guess they had to put his development/origin somewhere, especially to explain why he's in the League in this iteration.

The art was fine, but since I'm on record as not being a Jim Lee fan (his drawings are too line-y, his costumes too precise for what I think should be big, broad action), that's faint praise. I admit I had to reread the opening a few times just to figure out what the hell Batman was shooting at the helicopters. Hell, it took a few reads just to figure out he was shooting at them in that panel rather than vice versa. Turns out the short answer was "smoke bombs" but the long answer was "not very effective smoke bombs" as they only managed to obscure one out of three choppers and no doubt contributed to their later crash. And why Bats would think smoke would be a great tool to use against vehicles with giant fans on their tops, I dunno.

I expect the rest of the arc in Justice League to be more of the same - doing the required stuff to get the required people together to fight the required battle and form the required League. For me, I wish they had started the series in the present with the League already formed. "Why Did The Justice League Form?" is not a very good question to ask in comics - it formed because its name is on the cover, because it is expected to exist. "How Did It Form?" is a better question, but when we know that it's a given that it did form, it's not a very pressing one. "Why Is The Justice League So Important?" is a whole lot better, one that I hope they get around to answering. When I order a pizza from Dominos, there are a lot of questions that can come up - what's on the pizza, what route does the delivery guy take to get here, when will it show up, etc - but the really important question is why the hell do I keep ordering Dominos when there are so many other pizza shops out there?

The Justice League, like Superman and Batman, is a standard. With a rebooted universe, DC needs to establish why the hell it's not just a standard but the gold standard for the setting. As the first comic of the NuDCU, this is the foundation the entire endeavor is based on. I guess that's why I'm a bit harder than I expected I'd be on the comic - little cracks now can mean huge problems later on.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

To Wednesday!

So the Big Day is finally here. I swung by my local shop yesterday (it was my birthday and I had some gift cards burning a hole in my pocket) and they were already lining the battlements with Justice League #1s.

I had hoped to download a digital copy via the DC Comics app this morning, but it wasn't available yet. So the Old School John Henry style traditional delivery method (go to store for midnight release) beat the fancy new steam engine (digital download) yet again.

Anyways, most comics sites will be a flutter about this single book today. I wonder if we can keep the hype up every Wednesday, or will Reboot Fatigue set in? I sure hope not! This blog has been in stealth mode these past three months and word seems to be getting out thanks to a nice shout-out by Jon over at DC Fifty-TOO, who had the good sense to get a bunch of awesome artists together to draw the covers of their own takes on what DC's New Era should be.

More "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" is incoming. Until then, take a look at the Titles on the right. My favorite solo titles of the Drewniverse? Sam Simeon, Vampire Hunter; Deadgirl; Manhunter; Adam Strange; and Aquaman! Ensemble Titles? Badge of Fate; The Outsiders; Secret Six; and the Lantern Conspiracy!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation - Part 2

Cast of Thousands doesn't even begin to cover it. So DC and I redid a mere 52 (!!) comics. Looking at those 52 titles alone, let's think about how many characters we're dealing with. A quick spitball makes, on average, about three main characters per title. That's accounting for ensemble titles (Justice League, Tean Titans, etc) and titles who repeat the main character (Detective Comics/Batman, Action Comics/Superman, etc). That gives us 156 main characters, each with their own powers and personalities, any one of which would totally change our understanding of the world should they emerge fully formed from one of their books ("The Reverse Gumby" - DON'T GOOGLE THAT).

But that's not all! Each title has at least two supporting characters. These are the Alfreds, the Lois Lanes, and so on that give our main characters someone to talk to. Were it not for Alfred, Batman would be spending long nights just typing away at the Bat-Computer, the reader bored to tears. (Note to self: Batman Without Alfred the next Garfield Without Garfield?) That gives us another 104 characters to toss into the mix. Again spitballing, we're up to 260.

But what is a comic hero without her villain? Tame, directionless. So that's another 52 villains. But what villain goes it alone? I mean, have you seen how many heroes there are out there? That'll be another two Named Henchmen (Think Harley Quinn, Lex's Mercy, and the various hirelings and assassins at the Big Bad's beckon call, mercs like Deadshot or thugs like Metallo) per villain. 156 more active characters are tossed into the mix. 416 unique characters all up to something, every month.

How the hell do you keep track of all those people? I can barely remember what I'm supposed to be doing next weekend. Well, you can cheat like I do and have a wife who is good at remembering things like that, or you can do what the big comic companies used to do and get a Continuity Keeper. From my understanding, though, past Keepers were very much the low folks on the totem poles in their relationships with their employers. If Big Name Creator wanted Awesome Man to show up on the fifth moon of Bulkrang, even though he was supposed to be in the Lower East Side rebuilding launderettes for charity (man the 70s were weird), then there wasn't a hell of a lot the Keeper could do about it.

What's more, given that 'Dude Who Sits Around Reading Comics For A Living' is within the Top Ten of Fantasy Nerd Jobs, if the lowly Keeper messed up (or got a mess up pinned on him), there would be a horde of applicants baying at the doors, resumes in one hand, torches in the other. A quick peek around the internets shows that many comic fans, the posting, commenting types like yours truly, really do care about this sort of thing. Sure, it's an easy sitcom nerd stereotype to have some loser spout off about how Awesome Man must build launderettes on the moon or whatever, followed by a nudge of taped glasses and a snorking chortle, but I think even the most casual of reader wants some internal consistency, a grounding logic in their comics. We're willing to accept that a man can fly and a woman can turn invisible, please don't make us have to accept that they are in two places at once (unless they're Madrox).

So what does this mean? It means we need stronger editorial control in comics. Not just the control needed to keep writers from blowing up Australia or artists from deciding that Wonder Woman would be all about the bouffant, but the fine motor control that keeps things on an even keel. It means that someone needs to keep track of what all 416 characters are up to on a monthly basis.

It all means we need to rein in our creators a bit.

I'm thinking of a story I remember reading about the creation of the Elongated Man. See, he was tossed into the Flash because they needed a dude with stretchy powers, not remembering that DC had acquired the rights to Plastic Man four years earlier. Now, I would argue that the setting is better for the inclusion of both Mens Plastic and Elongated, but that's beside the point. There are already 416 characters that need to be tracked, written, and developed into three dimensional people the reader can believe in. Care must be taken in the introduction of new characters lest that number swell up up and away.

There is also the matter of Power Creep. Now, coming from my gaming background, Power Creep means that a latter supplement or edition of a game will have more powerful options than the latter. The best example of this is Rifts, a roleplaying game where in the first book you can make street samurai and rogue scientist, but in later ones you can make tattooed Atlantean vampire hunters who could take the full brunt of an atomic blast and walk away (and that's before they get into their five headed dragon power armor that can level mountains by accident). Just like Sam and Dean beating the Devil from last entry, one has to ask, where the hell do you go from there? If you introduce a mercenary character, trained in the deadly martial arts, to fight Batman in issue #50, that character will of course lose. So in #60, you bring in a merc who is not only trained in the martial arts, but has laser swords. After the Dark Knight dispatches that one, you roll around to Issue #70 where you introduce a merc who is not only a martial artist, not only has laser swords, but is also part robot. And a princess. Of an entire nation of robot ninja laser fencers.

In comics, old characters, even minor ones, never really go away. Witness Batman, Inc. to see what I mean. Each iteration of Character Who Can Go Toe To Toe With Batman For Six Pages is still with us. And if you try to be economical and merely upgrade existing characters ("Paging Mr. Neron... Mr. Neron to the white courtesy phone..."), you still end up with Power Creeped up folks.

Now, creep of all kinds - character numbers and character power - is inevitable. That's fine and dandy and part of the genre. It just needs to be managed very, very closely. That's one of the reasons I think comic settings should be put on a clock and periodically rebooted. It may not be fun, but there needs to be a firm editorial hand playing the role of Mom while the rest of us kids have ours with the understanding that, at some point, things will go too far and then...

Well, as the man said, Mom's comin' round to put it back the way it aught to be.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation - Part 1

One of the things that has given me pause over the past thee months of rebootening is just how hard it is not to skip the meal and go straight for dessert. What I mean is, it's pretty tricky when sketching out a story or setting to not just skip over the worldbuilding and go straight for the shock reveals. Maybe I'm just horrible at keeping secrets, or maybe, like most comic fans, I'm just a sucker for a dramatic moment. We like the oh snaps, oh shhhiiiiiii, and shit just got reals moments we find it comics. The monthly pamphlet format like'm too as it's physically set up to deliver a shock or story beat every sixteen to twenty pages or so.

But this raises a concern - what if the love for shock reveals, surprise deaths, and weirdness ex machinas that works so well on a tactical level in comics is what's killing them on the strategic? Because that's what the Big Crossover Events are, just those last page reveals writ large across the setting. I don't think any setting can withstand a constant barrage of reveals, each one ramping up the imagined impact more and more. Blow up a planet? So last month. This month, it's a solar system. Then a galaxy. Then a multiverse. Pretty soon, we have a Michael Bay movie of a setting, just blurry motion and random explosions. Thing is, Bay movies end. In theory, comic settings should go on forever.

To switch nerdity gears for a moment, let's spoil the season before last of Supernatural. So the show is about two brothers who fight monsters and demons and ghosts and stuff in a neo-gothic American heartland that looks a lot like Vancouver. Fine with me. Sam and Dean traveled up and down the backroads, fighting evil and sometimes fighting (their forbidden love for) each other. And then they went and saved the world from being destroyed by the Devil. And the archangel Michael.

And it was the worst thing that could have happened to the show. My wife and I just sort of stopped watching. After all, once your characters save the world from the Devil, where the hell do you take them from there that still going to have the same level of danger or excitement?

Thus the problem with our current state of Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again events. Now, I'm not saying they can never happen, but that they cannot keep happening. If Nothing Is Ever The Same Again every six months, then we lose the stability of our setting, that baseline of 'normal' that stories revert to, and that costs us. It costs us in attention, in identification with characters, and even strains our willingly stretched suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Why bother trying out a DC comic this August when you know everything changes this Wednesday? Does it matter that Character X dies? The dead could be returning from their graves next year. Besides, who hasn't spent a little time dead on the four color funny pages?

Problem is, and here's me trying to bring this back to something I learned this summer, not going for the fast thrill is hard. Keeping a world organized and believable within its own fantastic elements is really hard. We've moved beyond the days when it was assumed that comic readers only had a two year memory, we can't just wait out our screw-ups. That big reveal on page 22 might be really awesome, but it could also be a tipping point that kills a comic dead within a year.

Again, I'm not saying that we shouldn't ever do anything big or ambitious or shocking in our comics, but that we should focus more than we have been on keeping everything running smoothly and logically. If this means less explosions, so be it, as that's space we can use to examine our characters. A few more breaths between saving the world would let our characters interact, develop, and become more like real people than someone who can shoot lasers out of their eyes has any right to be.

So as I start to read the NuDC that'll be blasting its way onto my iPad this Wednesday, I'm not going to be looking for big story elements, but stable story beats. I hope others do the same and vote with their wallets. I'm fully aware that not all of the 52 will survive the year. I'm just hoping that the ones that make it are not the ones that go for tactical explosions and nonsensical reveals that will burn us out on danger before five years is up. Instead, I want the ones with a stable base, a story engine that can generate interesting tales, and three dimensional characters to make it.

Because otherwise, once all the flash and bang is done, there might not be anything left.


Argh! The JSA has been reborn, hurled back and to the left into the warm embrace of a reconstituted Earth-2. This is both a Good Thing and a Bad Thing.

It's Good because it keeps the legacy characters that make up the Justice Society of America around. I like the JSA and what it became over the past generation or so - Golden Age characters who inspired the heroes of today and train the heroes of tomorrow.

It's Bad because they are rebuilding Earth-2 to fit the JSA in. This is fire DC is playing with. I don't need to get into how the whole 'multiple alternate Earths' thing is pretty confusing for new readers. My wife once took a look at the cover to an Infinite Crisis book, saw that there were two Supermen, and asked which one the clone was. To have her be even vaguely interested in superhero comics is astounding - that vague interest faded away the moment I mentioned alternate Earths.

Now, I have nothing against What If and alternate Earth stories myself. I think that Superman: Red Son is one of the best Superman comics of the past umpteen years. But Red Son was a closed system. Just like The Nail or Secret Identity, it worked best as an Elseworld story. It would not do to have Soviet Superman popping up in our mainstream continuity. Thing is, I know that it will not be long before Earth-2 JSA folks crossover into Earth-1. Why?

Power Girl.

I am both surprised and not at all surprised about Power Girl's popularity. Looking at the searches that bring people to this blog reveals a whole lot of interest in Power Girl, interest that the Powers That DC-B cannot ignore. If she exists with her JSA pals on Earth-2, fan interest will bring her over to Earth-1 pretty quickly. It will not be long before we end up with Power Girl as continuity-adrift refugee from between worlds again. Which means there will be a longing to get her home, soon followed by a crossover, and then likely by some sort of Crisis that will bring the rest of the JSA folks over to the main continuity.

It'll happen, it's inevitable.

I mean, it's comics after all.