Tougher – Better
You are much stronger than you think…

Sep
08

Many moons ago I started off this little project with the hope of exploring characterizations of Batman throughout various eras.  I settled on a rather small snippet culled from a 90’s run of Detective Comics by one Peter Milligan.

That's one hell of a cover image

Milligan’s career has shown some remarkable legs (as a quick jaunt to wikipedia can tell you) and I was truly impressed with his handling of the Dark Knight Detective.  In hindsight it’s easy to see that a lot of his best writing was internal – compressed packets of hard boiled sentiment that cut to the core of how Bruce Wayne reconciled and experienced the world through the guise of Batman.

It’s something I wish more modern writers would get right.

On its face #630 is a straight up procedural with some nice twists and turns.  A signature of Milligan’s was his avoidance of “name” villains (outside of the Best of Class Riddler tale “Dark Knight / Dark City” which is currently in vogue due to the creation in its pages of the demon Barbatos.  Barbatos is getting some small play in the current Return of Bruce Wayne arc.  You may have heard about it.  Ahem).  At any rate, Milligan here taps a recently released and easy to empathize with hit-man to play foil (Stiletto aka Saul Calvino).

Calvino works on a certain level as a “might have been” Bruce Wayne.  He’s suave, preternaturally persuasive, and good at his job – which was to execute mob players for money.  He’s got the right targets – just the wrong methods.  That always makes for some good Bruce angst.

To play the heavy Milligan brings in Two-Tone, a character he introduces as a sizzling pile of dead guy(s). It’s a flashback set-up and Two-tone has been killed for botching one too many jobs.  Oh, did I forget to mention he’s a giant bi-racial siamese twin type?  Well, it’s out there now.  He and (look, I’m just going to refer to Two-tone in the singular.  It’ll help me) Batman do get in to it and wonder of wonders Two-tone takes it to our boy Batman to the tune of a disgustingly illustrated Jim Aparo broken jaw.  It’s just a big ugly welt and man, did I love it.

Ouch!

This comic had no less than six (SIX!) scenarios in which Batman got the short end of the stick when it gets physical or otherwise.

Sure, there were extenuating circumstances but still:

1) He’s too late to save Stiletto’s former sidekick from a brutal and creative death at the hands of Two-tone.

2) He gets blown up real good as a result.

3) He mis-interprets said sidekick’s dying clue for a good 6-8 hours which allows Two-tone to reap more carnage.

4) He gets swerved by the slimy, stuttering, one off CIA agent (Who invests this level of character in a one time appearance? A great little bit of craft from Milligan there.).

5) He gets his jaw busted by Two-tone after leaving himself open…to be fair he was busy saving an innocent little girl from a falling luggage rack (alright, not everything can be  Shakespeare).

6) Stiletto saves him from getting shot.

7) Stiletto then gets the drop on him prompting Batman to think the following, “He was so swift, so sure, it was almost painless…almost a privilege.” Oh, does Batman hate himself for thinking that one.  You can tell he really starts grinding his teeth at this point.  Seething at his own litany of failures.

8.) Two-tone gets him one more time while Batman and Stiletto are having a moment about what makes them different and rams the bus they’re on into the river.

Batman and Stiletto die.

No, wait, Batman pulls it out, creates an air pocket with his cape and swims them both to the surface!  Whew!

But after that trainwreck you’d be forgiven for thinking he might have bought it.

And that, my friends, is kind of the point.

I’ve read the other issues of Milligan’s work and it’s largely from this cloth.  Batman takes a whipping, a positive whipping. Even the villains who you would think have no chance against Bats (One turns out to be an insane librarian who has a vendetta against the Dewey Decimal System) are portrayed as dangerous threats.  Unhinged personalities who represent the twisted wreckage of life in Gotham City.

Batman is human here.  Often portrayed in quieter moments with mask off – he is constantly with Alfred (his safety net) being patched up and ministered to both physically and psychologically.  Gone is the uber-bat who has conceived of every trap and has secret files on how to disable Superman with a paperclip.

Say hello to the human version of Batman

In a recent article with CBR Milligan gave a pretty definite idea of what he thinks Batman represents and it meshes beautifully with this issue.

He can be a vehicle to write fun dark stories about urban craziness or you can really dig deep into troubled psychological territory. It seems that though he was created some years ago he can really stand as an everyman for our own new age of anxiety.

It’s that bit about the everyman that really hit it for me.  To me, Batman works best when he is a highly skilled man who practices his craft with diligence and adheres to a strict moral code.  When you take this man and make him the ultimate man he becomes just another vehicle of escapism and violence.  He becomes Superman wearing a shroud.  Batman stands apart because he faces and exceeds his limits, yes.  Knowing that he will exceed those limits because we are told he’s the baddest man to ever live takes away the magic.

It takes away the “you ‘n me.”

Batman’s modern iteration works best when you can stretch the bounds right to the breaking point.  I mean, for Milligan to say he’s an everyman is stretching it but when he takes his lumps, makes mistakes, falls down, gets his ass handed to him, and STILL gets up to make it work…if you squint a bit you can almost believe he’s just a man.

What would you do faced with an army of giggling killers and fiends who you barely comprehend chomping at the bit to destroy life and society?

Or let me put it to you another way — The way that makes it easier to subconsciously buy into this Batman.

What would you do faced with a growing uncertainty about the life you’ve made for yourself?  The choices that have brought you to this point?  A mortgage with a bad interest rate?  High credit card debt?  A failed marriage?  Or if you’re younger a bully?  Bad grades?  Nobody likes you?

It’s one thing to escape into capes, heat vision, and god like powers.  It’s another to escape into a thinker, a scrappy fighter, a guy who takes his lumps but through will determination and focus overcomes it all and you SEE him sweat for it.

Whatever you’ve got going on…go sweat it out.

Jul
06

Jor-El: “You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but we will never leave you-even in the face of our deaths. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father. And the father, the son.”

My father’s death has influenced every day of my life since it happened.  Not as much as his life of course but being the traumatic and defining event of my early twenties it marked a serious change of perspective.  A detour, if you will, which put me on a very unfamiliar road for a very long time.

As an unabashed fan of Superman I find that his story is endlessly entertaining, intimate, and defined by things that will always be important.

Listening to a recent Savage Critics podcast conducted by Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan the two diverged (as is their style) into a discussion of Superman’s character – specifically how the character “works” best.  As I would have expected, All Star Superman by Morrison was readily referenced as was the Silver Age version.  A point of contention emerged over the marriage to Lois and was summarized neatly by both contributors.

To Jeff’s view Superman works best when the triangle of Clark – Lois – Superman is preserved.  There is a nebulous uneasiness that makes Superman relatable  in that under this characterization what he wants most is what he cannot have.   Oh sure, he could have it.  Lois loves Superman but she does not love Clark.  She does not love the man Kal-El was raised to be by the kindly Kent family.  Dismissed as a hick and an easily played country rube Clark Kent doesn’t stand a chance against the man of action.  This characterization brings into play a number of interesting conflicts but Graeme astutely pointed out that it fails for one primary reason.

“Superman is CONSTANTLY lying to Lois.”

That, my friends, is something my Clark Kent cannot long abide.

The pair go on to espouse the theory that exists that Superman is something of an “All Father” figure.  Always wise, always honest, always helpful to others.  I can’t explain what happened next but it was likely the alchemy of a long drive across the unremarkable highways of Ohio and the sun in my eyes which reminded me of the image of Superman toiling away inside our dying star to restart it and keep us all safe.

What I felt when I remembered it surprised me.  I was proud.  Proud of him for being the best of us.  Proud of his living up to his potential, proud that he faced evil and did not flinch, proud that he chose to make a sacrifice few of us can comprehend for the promise of a better future for all but him.

Why don’t I think of Superman as a father, like so many others?

Two years ago in April…I became a father.

I will tell you that Superman is (to me) not about looking backwards to our fathers.  It’s about our fathers looking forward to us, as sons, to see if we fulfill our promise.  It’s about me hoping that I can impart, imbue, and convey what it truly means to be a good man and what it means to strive for better.

The son redeems the father even as he becomes the father.  Superman has.  I hope I have and I hope I will.

Apr
13

Ever the Prince in waiting...

Conan O’Brien is one of my favorite performers in any medium.  Please click on the pic for a fantastic two minute stretch of Conan discussing a prank he pulled as President of the Harvard Lampoon.  Suffice it to say, Burt Ward caught the blunt end of the comedy stick that day my friends.

How does that tie into anything comics related?  Well, we’ll see if I can bring it all around.  If not?  Good for a chuckle and by Grace, that’s good enough.

I’ve heard it argued eloquently and recently (Too Busy Thinking About My Comics) that if you don’t understand a comic concept or property we are all better off if you just leave it alone.  One of the beautiful things about Colin’s blog is that the ideas don’t reduce well and clearly I’m short changing the breadth and depth of the thought by covering it in one paragraph.  Please do visit his site and catch up for yourself.

My take is that comics does not lend itself well to conservation.  As I’m reading the first 24 appearances of Batman for a piece I’m working on I have to tell you that the ideas in their infancy exhibit a kirby-esque crackle when read fresh and collected.  the speed with which Batman changes and morphs his methods, his unparalleled gallery of rogues, it all explodes NOW, NOW, NOW.

Before we get all out of sorts I don’t think by any means the original argument was to stagnate characters – only to put them into the right hands.

However, how can you rely on one position and damn it at the same time?  What post am I referring to?  Editors, my friends.  Editors.

We must remember that it is an editor’s role to decide whether or not a story has legs, an idea can sustain eight issues or four, a character can support one series or become a tent pole property.   Recently, we’ve seen editorial control driving more and more of our comics into dirty words and phrases like synergy, cohesive universes, and event comics. This tendency drives the books into the world of hooks and tie-ins.  Colin forgot to mention the derivative tag-along possibilities for the Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marian spin-off one shots not to mention the Sheriff tie-in mini during his fever pitch for Robin Hood.

I think what it comes down to is the possibility that Editors need only be more selective about the possibilities inherent in a one page pitch.  “Where does this supremely talented person want to take me on this ride?”  “Where will we end and what is the state of the story and characters at that end?”

Don’t keep writers from characters.  The first step in a great story is always intent.  If someone wants to take a swing, it’s editorial responsibility, or in some cases irresponsibility, that lets them take the chance.  Writers SHOULD play the iconoclast.  Editors should be held responsible as the caretaker of a VERY unique bit of intellectual property.

Speaking of intellectual property…Oh, ah, Burt Ward’s Robin is not my Robin but it was a take that made a lot of people happy and a lot of money.  The good and the bad of it are up for debate – Schumacher’s Batman and Robin I’m giving you the stink-eye – but I’ll leave it to the side, keep the bits I like from other sources (Batman’s out of wedlock child is a 10 year old ninja with an artificial spine?  I’m in!) and build my own continuity.

Apr
09

Salinger, photographed (very much against his will) in 1988. (Photo: Paul Adao/INF Photo)

…and that is the best news possible for the comics making professionals of the world – let alone you and I (humble consumers that we are.)

Allow me to briefly sketch out “the plan.”

1) Begin attacking the iPad now.  Consumers and industry pros alike.  Although it’s an Apple device Mr. Jobs has learned a long and painful lesson from Mr. Gates.  His stuff is out there, right now, working and being bought.  Don’t wait for the iPad killers — get on-board — I BEG YOU.

2) Utilize the iPad as a “gateway drug” (and I hate the term but it so readily illustrates the point I must use it) to introduce people to their local shops.  Again, do this early before EVERYTHING is available on the iPad or its clones.  You must then sell them on the experience.  The coolness of digging in bins, the joy of meeting other comics pros, the great classics, etc and on.  If you, as a retailer aren’t taking advantage of “new blood” customers you have my sympathies but not my green.

3) “We’ve got to go back…to the future.” This is possibly the most ambitious step.  I came upon it when reading an article about Salinger’s last book to be published.  Turns out it was never distributed largely due to what seems to be a slow road to final form – but you can read all about that HERE.  Back to our narrative thread, being an author of some repute by this time (wink, wink) it was believed that he would insist on a type of paper used for only the finest grade of work.  The top of the top.  Of course, the man being who he was wanted nothing to do with that and rather insisted on a low and common grade of paper stock, readily available and at the time recyclable.

Imagine if you will a world where paper – actual in your hand paper – comics cost a buck.

Don’t like that new issue of Spiderman?  Pawn that and your Fantastic Four – with the stupid kiss between Reed and Sue ending – for Joey’s Hulk where he smashes the plane with a big torn up piece of concrete!  If you can’t get him to bite on that deal, take it BACK to the shop and put it in their recycling bin which earns you a nickel credit towards your next book or something along those lines.

Also, no one’s saying these things need to be kiddie targeted.  I opened up an old issue of some Howard Chaykin misogyny today, from 1997, and the printing – color – and quality held up fine!  What’s the big deal?  Arguably, traditional print coloring has gotten cheaper and better in the intervening years.

Comics need to get back to what made them a source of joy in our lives.  A CHEAP – DISPOSABLE – ENTERTAINING medium that doesn’t cause hand wringing and missed mortgage payments.  Take the bells and whistles on into the digital age.  PRINT comics will be viable only if those behind them let them be what they are and should be!  Cheaper to buy equals easier to stock.  Easier to stock equals more variety.  More variety equals more opportunity to please every guest.  Going back to “lower quality” cheaper stock equals more printers willing to take a risk!  ON AND ON AND ON.

I apologize for raising my voice just then but it’s an exciting prospect.  Comics need to learn a lesson from the American / Global recession and realize real value and differentiation still sells.  If the majority of print comics have one look and the majority of digital comics have another people begin to understand what they are getting and begin to understand the price structure involved.  Currently we are struggling with the following debate, “Why does this gloosy book cost 3.99 and this one 2.99?”  How about we try this one on instead? “Oh, this is not glossy – but it costs a DOLLAR!”

Get with it and get to it industry!  I only write because I love!

I’ll give you this one for free.

PS – & please do save me the trouble of refuting points about publishing cost.  If people can give me a DAILY paper with roughly 98 pages of comics dimensions for a buck I don’t care how many ads they need to stuff it with.

Apr
07

As I tapped away on the very fine comics blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics the other day – chipping in my two cents – I thought I had an idea.  To be more exact – the shape of an idea that might, in time, turn into something of interest to someone out there.

The plan is to start exploring the craft of characterization by different authors through different eras.

For several reasons that I hope will become apparent I’ll be starting with Batman.

First, The extraordinary length of Batman’s career provides a wide swath of material

Second, People typically have a definitive Batman of their own whether that is exemplified by art, writing, or other when I say, “Batman!” you form a picture in your mind of YOUR Batman.  That’s key.

Finally, and I think this might be the best aspect, Batman’s history has been mined and stripped for current or at least more recent “re-imaginings.”  I’m thinking particularly of  Man Who Laughs, Mad Monk, Monster Men etc.  I’m curious as to how these authors with SIXTY years of Batman rattling around in their heads have reinterpreted or modified these original stories that all appeared within the first dozen or so Batman appearances.

Bob Kane was flying without a net in a simpler time – Matt Wagner has a rope, safety harness, parachute, and air bag when it comes to characterization but is “limited” by a more mature and knowledgeable audience who has a definitive Batman of their own.  What are the results?  Who “wins?”

Grant Morrison has widely espoused the philosophy that everything that happened in Batman is canon.  The initial entries on the blog will be exploring early Batman stories and characterization to see how the past informs the present informs the future.  If it’s your cup of tea, I certainly welcome any additional thought theory and discussion.  Thanks!