Friday, September 9, 2011

Action Comics #1

So after some technical (and meteorological) difficulties, I finally downloaded Action Comics #1.

And it's pretty good!

So I'm not going to talk about it. Well, sorta.

Instead, I'm going to talk about a recent episode of the FX show Louie and hopefully use that to bring things back to Superman and Action Comics #1. Spoilers follow, natch.

In the episode in question, Louis CK, a comedian, travels to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. Now we know by virtue of him being the main character of the show which bears his name that while his experiences in a warzone might change him a bit, they will not do so drastically - he'll not get shot, his chopper won't crash, he won't witness a bloody sacrifice on the part of a soldier. If any of that happened, the show would become a much different thing, and while I wouldn't put it past Louis CK to try something like that, it would only be cartoony-style where a Bad Thing Happens one week and the next nobody ever talks about it again. This would undercut the gravitas of the episode and I don't see Louis wanting that.

So how does the show get the audience to feel anxious as the invulnerable main character travels through dangers that cannot harm him?

They give him a duckling.

Turns out, right before Louis got on the plane, one of his daughters stashed away a baby duck in his luggage. They were watching the baby ducks as part of a class project and in order to prevent her dad from being lonely on his trip, the daughter put one in a box and packed it away in his bag. Louis discovered the duck (and a note) pretty much upon arriving on base. Because the duck is important to his daughter, he now has to protect and care for it. However, we the viewer know from previous exposure to Louie that the show has absolutely no problems going dark. No matter what Louis-as-character might feel for the duckling, Louis-as-writer/director will not hesitate to kill it in a horrifying, depressing, or horrifically depressing way.

And there's our tension. We know nothing will happen to the main character, but the duck is fair game. Because the duck is little and cute and helpless and has the love and tears of a pretty blonde girl backing it up, we immediately don't want anything to happen to the duck.

What's more, because Louis is on this super-macho base surrounded by soldiers (even his co-performer is an ex-Ranger), he feels the need to hide the duck. He doesn't want anyone to know about it for fear it will change their opinion of him (and it does - when he reveals the duck to the cheerleader he's trying to make a connection with, it totally changes her opinion of him). So in a way, Louis develops this secret identity. This only serves to heighten the tension as we watch his bag with the duck tucked away in it gets tossed around, carried on a helicopter, and even possibly placed in the middle of a firefight.

Eventually, the duck is revealed during a tense standoff between the soldiers and some locals with guns. The antics of a man desperately trying to chase down a waddling baby duck relieves the tension of the scene and also the tension of the duck. We know then that the duck lives and later, we see it make it home.

So what's this have to do with Action Comics #1? Well, first off, we know Superman is invulnerable. Not just by the fact that invulnerability is sorta his schtick, but that he's the main character in a flashback comic. I hit on this briefly in my comments on Justice League #1 - there's no tension when we know the characters will survive and thrive, either because their name is on the cover or because it's a flashback. This shifts the focus of the story from "Will The Character Make It From Point A to Point B?" to "How Does The Character Make It From Point A to Point B?"

Justice League did not answer this question very well. I mean, it tries, but it does so by rote, like if you memorized the answer to an essay question the night before and just copied down on the test the next day. Maybe it will get better at answering this question in later issues (#1 feeling like the first 5 minutes of a Michael Bay movie and all), but I'm not sure. With all those characters running around, the need for massive dialogue info downloads is pretty high. This info-spew makes it feel like that answering the question is not very high on the list. "How Did The Justice League Form?" "Darkseid attacked, duh."

Action Comics #1, on the other hand, makes it very clear that it's all about answering the question "How Did Superman Become Who He Is Today?" The whole comic reads like it will be focused on Superman's growth.I mean, he's not able to leap a tall building in a single bound, he's not faster or more powerful than a speeding bullet train. Even more, and this might be wishful thinking on my part but it brings us back around to the duckling, it seems to realize that just answering that question is not enough to make for a good story. We need the tension to make the action scenes work. I mean, sure, it was great to see the Jimmy Olsen references ("best friend," Jimmy's cellphone ringtone), but it was better to see him become a duckling again, that frail and fragile creature whose name is not on the cover who could get hurt during the course of the story.

Now, the chances of anything actually happening to Jimmy is pretty low, but I think that the danger to the character is there. Think about it. This is, what, a 5+ year flashback? Jimmy's entire character is based on his naivete, his earnest need for adventure. Will that foundation still be there in five years? If not, will there be any need for Jimmy? Something could happen to him (not to Lois) and Superman could move on as normal.

Still, to hedge my bet, I'll point out the existence of Clark's landlady and the potential cast of characters who live in his building. Those people, unknown before Issue #1, are definitely ducklings. As is the named cop from the opening scene and the corrupt businessman who seems to be in cahoots with Luthor. Something could happen to all those people, even if (maybe especially if) they are built up and developed over the course of the next several issues. Something will happen to these ducklings that will lead to Clark developing not only his powers, but his identity as Superman.

There were no ducklings, not even false or potential ones, in Justice League #1. There was just some required action and required information being spewed.

So yeah, Action Comics #1 is pretty good. I wish they had lead with it on August 31st.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Living In A Digital World?

There are downsides to digital distribution, of course. And I'm not just talking about the whole 'you are only buying access to a comic' thing. The weather, for example. It's been pouring rain here the past few days which means I've opted to leave my iPad at home, thus putting off any attempt to read or download this week's batch of New #1s to read on the train. (Action Comics is probably the only one I'll go into blind. It'll take some buzz to get me to look at Batgirl, Swamp Thing, or Animal Man). I just can't bring myself to risk a pricey electronic toy on a commuter rail full of dripping, leaning passengers.

So instead I wiled away my (delayed and slow) train playing King of Dragon Pass on my iPhone and pondering digital comics.

Why the need to tie new, digital comics to old, paper comics? If we accept the conventional wisdom that comics are if not a dying medium, then certainly not a growing one, why try to emulate them? The structure of comics, that is the panels and art and word bubbles and so on, is fine to emulate - change that too much and you either have animation or a short story. But the distribution? Why do I have to wait until Wednesday to download my comic? Comic stores have to wait because of the vagaries of the shipping process - because things ship to different locations at different speeds, there needs to be a common release date. Otherwise, well, uh..

Otherwise, I'm not sure what happens. Distribution is pretty much handled by a single entity and shipping rates would be the same for similar geographical locations. So the two and a half comicbook stores in Harvard Square would, in theory, receive their stuff all on the same day. Would it be the end of the world if stores in, say, San Francisco got theirs a day earlier? Spoilers can't be an issue - comics are pretty consistently spoiled online pre-release and nothing has burst into flames yet.

Maybe it has something to do with how sales are counted? But that can't be a driving reason behind Wednesdays, can it? It has to be one of those Traditional things that sprung up after the switch to the Direct Market that pulled comics from drug stores and newstands and sort of ghettoized in specialty shops, the sort of weird arcane tradition that we need to shed if we want comics to re-enter the mainstream as more than movie inspiration or videogame tie-ins. Assuming we can't shed the tradition in the physical distribution of comics, why can't we get rid of it in the digital?

Surely, it would be in DC's favor to have people browsing their app multiple days of the week. Given how my iPhone's Facebook and G+ icons get swarmed by little red numbers over the course of a weekend, I'm pretty sure there's the ability to notify readers that a comic they are interested in has a new issue up, thus mimicking one part of current comics distribution, the pull list, that can actually work well depending on your shop.

One of the things that will help prolong comics is re-integrating them into readers' everyday lives. Divorcing digital comics from Wednesdays while taking advantage of the medium's ability to notify readers of new issues would help to do so. That way, you don't have a Special Day that you must remember to check for new comics. Instead, readers can notice new things they are interested while they are in the middle of other tasks - check to see if the train is running late and then find out that a new comic is available for download. A few taps and it's downloaded and life goes on, except now with comics!

Hell, it could even be a selling point about digital comics that they come out first. That'd help defray the sting of price matching, for sure. Set the 'Comics Week' as being a Thursday to Wednesday with the last day being the day that physical issues are released while allowing digital editions to become available in advance. If you wanted to keep the hype-potential of set 'release dates' then you could tie certain days in with certain titles, so Saturday becomes Baturday and Sunday is the Last Sunday of Krypton or something equally hoaky.

Basically, if I now don't have to go to the comicbook store on Wednesday to get my new comics, why do I have to wait until Wednesday?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Goodnight, Fing Fang Foom

Goonight, Fing Fang Foom
In the great green tomb
There was a danger zone
Around Fin Fang Foom
And a picture of-
The stars aligning with the moon
and there were three Avengers, dodging dangers
and a lot of henchmen
and Fantastic stretch’en
and the Mandarin’s rings
Shooting at things
And a bomb and a kick and an agent called Nick
And an Old Man Logan whose claws were going ‘snikt’

Goodnight tomb
Goodnight Fin Fang Foom
Goodnight stars aligning with the moon
Goodnight fights
That go kraka-thoom!
Goodnight rings,
You deadly things
Goodnight Avengers
and goodnight dangers
Goodnight Thor
and goodnight Four
Goodnight thunderclap
And goodnight Cap
Goodnight bomb
And goodnight kick
Goodnight Mandadrin
Goodnight Nick
And goodnight to Old Man Logan whose claws were going ‘snikt’
Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight True Believers everywhere