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Creator vs. Critic– Abhay interviews Mark Sable about SECRET AVENGERS Issues #1 to #5

Abhay Khosla

COMIC CREATORS! COMIC CRITICS! NATURAL ENEMIES SINCE THE VERY DAWN OF TIME!

An enmity forged in the fires of Malice! Born to hate, living to die, dying to love, but loving to fury– a fight that can only end one way: in the squared octagon.

A SQUARED OCTAGON MADE UP OF LENGTHY BLOCKS OF DULL TEXT THAT WE CALL…

CREATOR VS. CRITIC.

 

In the CREATOR corner, hailing from the mean streets of Hollywood, California– Mark Sable… author of GROUNDED, HAZED, TWO FACE YEAR ONE, CYBORG, TEEN TITANS: COLD CASE, WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN DID SOMETHING OR ANOTHER THAT I’M SURE WAS VERY INTERESTING, FEARLESS, and/or RIFT RAIDERS. Mark’s next book is GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES from Image Comics, with Paul Azaceta (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, BPRD 1956, POTTERS FIELD, WATCHMEN, GOOD WILL HUNTING, LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND). You can also see a limited-animation cartoon that Mark wrote for the movie SUCKERPUNCH online now.

In the CRITIC corner, weighing in at 160 pounds, with most of that weight in the cock, ladies, if you catch my drift (my drift being that I’m a very sad person, and I cry a lot)… you know, me. Abhay. Hey. Hello. WRITER of … well, I wrote a pretty gnarly comment the other day on youtube. I was pretty proud about that. You can soon see Abhay in an overcoat at a theatre playing SUCKERPUNCH, recklessly pleasuring himself.

In this our inaugural Winter Edition, in what we’re hoping will be a year-long battle but we’ll probably get fed up with each other and/or lazy and quit before a year is up… the arena is “MODERN MAINSTREAM COMICS” and the comic at issue will be…

SECRET AVENGERS

Issues #1 through 5.

Secret Histories

Author: Marvel Comics, with the assistance of its employees and/or independent contractors Ed Brubaker, Mike Deodata, Rainier Beredo, Dave Lanphear, Lauren Sankovitch, David Aja, Michael Lark, Stefano Guadiano, Jose Villarrubia, Mayela Guitterez, Will Conrad, Irene Lee, Tom Brevoort, and Joe Quesada.

BUT FIRST… A DISCLAIMER FROM MARK SABLE: As a creator working – for the most part – in the mainstream, it’s hard for me to comment critically on mainstream comics. It’s a small industry. And – I’m sure you have no experience whatsoever with this, but creators can be a bit sensitive. I don’t exclude myself from that category. Nor do I think I can do better than anyone associated with this book or any other we might comment on. I say that not because I want you to feel bad for me. This is just a way of apologizing to creators/editors/publishers in advance to save my own ass. And to a lesser extent apologize to your readers if I hold back. The point of this, from my end, is to see if I can do what Matt Fraction and Joe Casey did with “The Basement Tapes” – see if a creator can speak critically about comics in the mainstream while working in the mainstream. That, and to plug the shit out of my work.

*  *  *


ABHAY:  Let’s start with the premise. This appears to be a comic about a secret political violence arm of the Avengers, which seems to be a recurring thing right now in the marketing material for Marvel comics. My understanding at least is that JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY is being sold as Loki or Thor’s secret political assassination team; X-FORCE was sold as the X-Men’s secret political assassination team; KOSHERSTRYKE is supposed to be about Peter Porker, Spider-Ham’s secret political assassination team.

So, Mark Sable, speaking on behalf of all comic creators, everywhere, ever: what’s with you people and the fucking assassination teams?

I mean, is there anything worth examining about that impulse of having children’s characters form death squads? “What if Oliver North trained the GOOF TROOP to be a death squad during the Salvadoran Civil War?” Why does raping nuns and murdering peasants seem goofy to you, Mark? Or do you disagree with the whole “these are children’s characters” premise because … I’m not even 100% sure about that one anymore.

MARK: As I recall, those kinds of books were born in the 90s with X-Force, as a response to the Charles Xavier’s dream of co-existence peaceful co-existence or whatever. And, more likely, as a response to the market’s (perceived) demand for darker, edgier material. I see Secret Avengers, though, as being more of a product of creators, myself included, who love crime and espionage. Some of whom would rather just be writing straight crime or espionage, but the only way they can tell the kind of story they want in a commercially viable way is to tell it in a superhero context. I think it’s been more successful creatively with crime than espionage. Gotham Central was a better book than Checkmate, for example.

To throw the question back to you– can espionage work in comics? I ask whether straight espionage can work because I’m not sure superhero-espionage can. There’s something inherently gaudy about superheroes that seems to work against it. Secret Avengers starts with Black Widow and Valkyrie posing as escorts trying to gather information from a businessman in Dubai. Before you know it, Steve Rogers is swinging through the window in a Fury-esque outfit with a big star on it and a laser shield. So it’s like the characters themselves can’t even maintain the charade of espionage for more than a couple of pages.

It’s an odd choice for me too to have Steve Rogers lead a black ops team in the first place, him being the moral compass of the Marvel Universe. Of course…in my mind, the fact that Captain America has a code against killing is absurd in and of itself. He’s a soldier, and that’s what soldiers do.

And yes, I absolutely disagree with the whole “these are children’s character’s premise.” Well, let be a bit more specific. They are children’s characters so far as merchandising goes. I think it was Tom Brevoort who pointed out that most kids are introduced to superheroes not in comics, but in the more kid friendly areas of animation and toys. And that’s where the real money is made in this business. Other than toy stores, the only place these characters are safe for kids is in the childhood memories of older fans. Or, let’s at least be honest. Let’s say that the arbitrary restrictions put on what superheroes can and cannot are in place to keep the brand of a movie franchise or a toy line unsullied. Let’s admit that, for the most part, there aren’t valid character reasons why certain heroes don’t kill. In a way it’s dangerously dishonest not to show that permanent death is the logical outcome of violence.

As much as superhero black-ops teams might not work for me, they do tap into something. Much of the wars we’re in are fought covertly. We sort of half-ass wars, for the most part. By which I mean…we don’t use overwhelming force, and we only ask a small number of people to sacrifice. Take the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. We’re quietly – meaning without much media attention – using our overwhelming force in way that doesn’t incur losses on our side but helps keeps the other side fighting because it creates more insurgents.

Maybe a book like Secret Avengers reflects that. The big guns of the Marvel Universe are sent in to deal with a problem. They never die, so the reader isn’t asked to sacrifice their enjoyment of reading their continuous adventures. The villains don’t die either, so the conflict and the story is perpetuated.


ABHAY: See, my recollection is that X-FORCE was about a band of soldiers who philosophically disagreed with the X-MEN, but that the X-MEN didn’t ratify their conduct. There’d be those scenes of Storm saying shit like “We disapprove of your methods, Cable. I’m so angry I’m going to change my haircut!” But my impression of SECRET AVENGERS and these other books is that they’re about the “heroes” … acting “unheroically” when they think no one is looking…?

Does that taint them? Set aside kids. Forget about kids. On the one hand, some people say superheros are great because they show how we can create characters that our better than ourselves, characters that always do the right thing. These are fairy tale characters, and the fact they’re not like us is something that’s right about them. But of course, there’s a competing argument, that characters should just be characters, as flawed as anyone, and not moral exemplars. Which … I know anytime I hear a comic creator talk about the morals in their story… I’m going to take life instruction from a fucking comic book writer?

Where do you think you wind up on that? I guess having read so many Superman comics last year, right this second I’m more aligned with the former. I’m not really interested in “realistic” superheros at the moment. You know– some people like to say SUPERMAN is “boring,” but being a fairy tale character hasn’t really hurt DOCTOR WHO any…?

Anyways, does espionage “work” in comics? Well, I mean, I don’t think there’s any genre where I can’t think of some successful people. Even the Superhero spy-hybrid comic– I think an awful lot of those owe a debt to Jon Ostrander & Kim Yale’s SUICIDE SQUAD, which I remember liking though it’s been some years. Certainly, Naoki Urasawa can do espionage– I think of MONSTER as his espionage thriller, so certainly. But that’s… You know, bringing up Urasawa is a little unfair. It’s like saying, “Can you do a great comic about a lettuce monster getting veggie-boners for some rando girl with white hair?” Yeah, Alan Moore did that comic, but I don’t know if that means I’d recommend it to everybody– most people sure as hell ain’t Alan Moore. (Is that okay to say? If you need to get all Jason Aaron, and tell me to fuck myself, go ahead and do you…)

Urasawa is a perfect example of that– he can do so much with expressions that American dudes can’t. There are “big name” artists in the North American industry who can’t draw a human face worth looking at, let alone pull off what Urasawa does with facial expressions. I mean, maybe someday Marvel Comics will hire Greg Land to re-draw MONSTER, but … Oh, awesome, I think I just tasted my own vomit.

MARK: There isn’t a right and a wrong way to write superhero characters. There’s being true to your own personal philosophy, to the reader, and in the case of corporate characters to their owners.

Putting the latter two aside, when I hear you saying that superheroes are moral exemplars, it brings classical tragedy to mind. The Greeks and Shakespeare wrote about nobles because they were the supposed to represent the best of what mankind had to offer. Like superheroes, they were invested with history and godliness as well as humanity. And yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of those qualities, they were doomed to failure and death. The implication being that, if the best of us were bound for a tragic end, than us ordinary theatergoers had no hope. Accepting that inevitable, was, believe it or not, supposed to be cathartic.

For me personally, those stories are the most true. By having our heroes live in perpetuity we’re not being entirely honest with the audience about the nature of existence. Of course, that’s my worldview, and I don’t try to impose it on a mainstream audience, if for no other reason than I most often can’t.

Doctor Who seems very different from American superheroes. He’s immortal, but he’s very conscious of the mortality of all the other beings around him. As supporting characters have pointed out, people close to him die, and his awareness of that adds a tragic depth to his character. We don’t get to see that with Superman because we don’t get to see him outlive Lois Lane in continuity. The best stories, from Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow to All Star Superman, have always been Elseworlds tales. And the more resonant Captain America stories deal with what he’s lost from being a man out of time.


ABHAY:The first issue starts with a joke about Valkyrie suggesting that she pulled a sword out of her own pussy.


I think we both like black humor. I think neither of us are prudes. But I always feel really weird when I see that kind of joke in a mainstream comic, like… I mean, not full-on Holden Caufield “You hypocrites wrote the f-word near kids on a cliff” weird but… Man, I don’t know where the line is anymore. Like, I’m really genuinely enjoying that comic OSBORN right now, no-joke, thinks it’s an interesting piece of work (and I had wanted to never read about that character ever again, ever, ever, ever). But the first issue of that had a fellatio joke in it that I had a similar feeling of… “You’re allowed to have jokes about dick-sucking in Green Goblin comics now?” I don’t feel offended by the joke– just confused and old and highly prone to premature ejaculation, which is I guess how most jokes make me feel, to be perfectly honest.

MARK: Osborn is book I’m enjoying as well. Hell of a creative team, that DeConnick and Rios. I didn’t pick up on any fellatio jokes, which either means it was appropriate in the context of that book or I’ve been numbed by Batman peeing on people.

As a creator, the line for sexual content is wherever your particular editor tells you it is at that particular time. And to a certain extent whatever your own feelings are about it. I’m not going to get outraged about kids reading sex jokes because I don’t believe kids are reading comic books in significant numbers, and I don’t think the place to chase that demo is with superhero books. Teenagers probably know more about sex from personal experience than most creators. They gravitate towards the forbidden and the prurient, they are the ones that will probably most appreciate the old pull the sword from your vagina trick (if Fiona Apple had continued to date David Blaine I would like to think she could have pulled that off).

I don’t have an issue with sex unless it’s sexist or violent or both. Unless it’s really, really funny. Again, it comes back to honesty for me. I think comics, and really pop culture in general, does a disservice in the way it portrays sex. It either hides it or shows it as the perfect meshing of perfect bodies. I would love love LOVE to see a book that showed unhealthy looking people fumbling and getting hurt emotionally and sticking things in the wrong hole. That would prepare teens for sex much better than any kind of sex-ed would. I actually think if kids saw how bad sex could get it would lead to abstinence. The closest I can recall a recent mainstream comic approaching that kind of honesty was Ultimate Spider-Man. Bendis took it in the direction he believed was true to the character and consistent with whatever editorial/ corporate let him do, and I admire him for that. Me? I would have liked to push it further. You would have seen Peter and MJ have bad sex, and agree to go back to hand jobs and finger-banging.

Now, what I want to do and what I can do at the place I’m at in my career are of course two different things. I can’t push things very far in my work-for hire material.

ABHAY: But isn’t there still such a thing as good taste and bad taste that exists independent of the question of what kids might or might not read? Do you think bad taste is just a question of if kids might find it or not? You know– if there was an episode of CHARLIE ROSE where Charlie talked to Michael Lewis about how much they both love period sex, sure, probably kids wouldn’t watch that either. Kids don’t really watch CHARLIE ROSE. But… again: I think that would be in bad taste. Awesomely so in that case, educationally so, but… Or like, have you ever seen old Playboy cartoons? There are a few artists that I enjoy– Erich Sokol, say. But I can’t stand most of them. It’s not  that they’re not well drawn, even. There’s something actively gross about them. They make me feel gross, those jokes because they speak to … They speak to the Horrible World of Men.


I would use those Playboy strips as an example that… Those are jokes that kids won’t see, and aren’t intended for kids, but we can still look at them and say they’re in bad taste. But what’s in “Bad taste” depends on context so… Maybe this argument is circular…

But more importantly: why do you know who is and isn’t dating David Blaine? Where the fuck did that come from? I don’t think I”ve thought about David Blaine for several consecutives years– which, according to David Blaine, might qualify as MAGIC. I never realized you were connected to the World of Illusion before– I have so many questions. Who is Doug Henning dating, these days???

MARK: For those readers too young to remember, Doug Henning was a homosexual magician who passed away in 2000. Before he died Henning and Transcendental Meditation founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi “drafted plans for a $1.5 billion-dollar project called Maharishi Veda Land near Niagara Falls, Ontario that would combine astonishing, unique visual and sensory effects, state-of-the-art 3D imagery, and ultra high-tech entertainment technology with his best and most original magic illusion secrets. Maharishi Veda Land was conceived as a magical Himalayan setting where visitors would be wowed with theatrical presentations of ancient Vedic stories and the deepest secrets of the universe, while ingesting organic vegetarian burgers and snacks. Attractions were to include a building suspended above water and a journey into the heart of a rose.”

So, basically, Doug Henning is your dead, gay son.


ABHAY: I was interested by the fact this comic spent a page in its fourth issue, the exciting climax of the arc, on Captain America giving Nova his head-gear back.


Let’s set aside questions about padding because… I think we both know padding happens. I’m judgmental about it, but maybe not reasonably so:  successful writers tend to have multiple books they’re shepherding, meaning maybe not every page gets lavished with attention. And so maybe a certain amount of padding is inherent to the system.

But setting that aside: is there anything interesting that could have really happened on that page? Captain America is in a dozen different books right now. I think Nova is in other books, too. Can this book have its own character-driven subplots? The classic Claremont formula of high-action and character-driven soap opera subplots seems dead in the post-New-Avengers era. Can anything interesting happening to those characters when all of the noteworthy characters star in so many different books simultaneously? (Not including a crossover or coming off of a crossover, where Marvel can explicitly say “You must read this.”)  Wolverine might star in three dozen comics but can he really DO anything people will care about besides wave his claw-hands at people in those books, without it creating an inconsistency that would derail 35 other books?

And as a result, a book like SECRET AVENGERS– it’s all explosions from cover to cover, but when those explosions are over, the characters have nothing left to discuss any longer other than their fucking haberdashery. Is that a natural consequence of these characters being so totally over-extended?

MARK: Why should we avoid the question of padding? I can’t tell from the outside who’s doing it. I mean, I can guess. But it’s not something I would accuse someone of.

That said, let me give you an example from my own career. I pitched a two issue arc on a major title. I was then asked to do that same as a six issue mini-series. As a freelancer just coming into the business, what should I have done in that situation? Turn down four extra issues? Turn down the whole project? For those of us without exclusive contracts, that’s asking a lot. In my case, I rethought the pitch and I was able to justify writing the six issues. But looking back, I still might have padded it subconsciously. There were fights and misdirects and guest stars that didn’t need to be there. I’ve given a lot of thought to how I could’ve made that particular mini better. I think I could’ve trusted more in the story and the character and not relied on those crutches.

Has anyone every questioned that being paid by the page is not the best incentive for writers? For artists, I get it – there’s much more of a limit to what they can do. But if you paid writers by the story? I bet we’d have less padding and decompression. Of course, there’s also something inherent in the way stories are written now that leads to padding. You can call it writing for the trade, but I think it’s more writing for larger three act structure. If you’ve got to tell a story nowadays, you need 4-6 issues, and most artists are only willing to do 4-5 panels per page panels. But because you are writing in single issues, you’ve got to put in artificial cliffhangers and exposition. Maybe things would be better if we went straight to trade.

Getting back to Secret Avengers, let’s actually think what could have happened. Cap could refuse to give back the Nova helmet. Maybe he wears it himself, maybe he just doesn’t think Richard Ryder’s worthy of it. Valkyrie could have stored the helmet in her vagina until a new Nova candidate is found worthy. In fact, I like to think that’s where the missing Serpent Crown is. But yeah, it’s hard to contemplate an ending that fundamentally and permanently alters the status quo for any of those characters. That’s the nature of a soap opera with no end. At least in real life, actors die, so there has to be some change. I don’t think there’s any meaning in a story without change.

The better writers in mainstream comics provide the illusion of change, which is I think what fans really want. And let’s give credit where credit is due. Marvel in general and Brubaker in particular have been pretty good of late delivering extended periods of change. Bucky/The Winter Soldier has worked for far longer than it had any right to. More than the actual Civil War, I liked that Marvel ran with the superhero registration thing for as long as they did. Same thing with status quo change that Dark Reign wrought.

Maybe in all those cases, you are just playing out long second acts. But I appreciate that Marvel had the courage to play that change – illusory or not – out for extended periods of time.

ABHAY: Maybe you need 4-6 issues to tell a simple story if you’re not willing to use 3rd-person narration, or thought baloons, or lenticular effects, or fenced splashes, or sound effects, or those Frank Miller TV panels, or color-coded panels like in that one Dash Shaw story “Satellite CMYK” (which is a good one if you’ve never read it), or … or Crypt-Keeper-style host characters or… But all those things exist. All those things were invented already. This isn’t the first generation of comic writers, we’re watching. People have just walked away from decades of tools that have existed in comics, that were amassed over years.

Let me give you an example from my career. One time, I wrote a review of Adam Hughes’s GEN 13: ORDINARY HEROES that was the toast of Gay Paree, which was the name of a Vietnamese ladyboy that used to hang out at Earth, Wind & Flour over on Wilshire…

I’m very undecided on the long second acts because I think they’re at the expense of letting creators have their own storylines for extended periods. They’re neat in theory because it really does create a history for the Marvel Universe… But I don’t know that they’ve ever successfully justified the costs imposed both on readers and just … the long-term costs involved in not allowing great runs to stand on their own.

MARK: I’m in agreement with you about creators walking away from the techniques you mentioned. I actually think some of them would make comics MORE accessible to non-readers. Comics are incredibly more confusing than they’ve ever been, and it’s not just because of continuity. Storytelling is at a real low, to the point I sometimes don’t know where my eye should go on a page, and I’ve been reading comics for decades. Hell, I was looking at old Avengers comics where, if it wasn’t clear which panel you were supposed to go to next, someone drew an arrow. I’d be embarrassed if an editor did that to my work, but I’d rather someone feel my comic was overly expository or on the nose than not understand it. That’s no fun for anyone.

To be fair, though…you can’t always ask an artist to draw a page of 16 Frank Miller TV sets in your average monthly comic. It’s more time consuming work for them. The same goes for some of the other techniques.

I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with crossovers events, which is what you’re basically describing. That’s always going to depend on the generosity of the other creators in and the flexibility of the editors in giving you the freedom and the space to tell your own story. As a reader I’m as sick of them as everyone else is, and the two examples cited were exceptions, because most are awful reading experiences and creative pains in the ass.


ABHAY: Why does Marvel keep trying to make fucking MOON KNIGHT happen? I mean, I guess we all have weird shit we’re just into. You have your weird thing about Cyborg. I have my weird thing about Lexi Belle. But Moon Knight’s really pretty fucking shitty…

MARK: I don’t have a weird thing about Cyborg. It’s hard to get the reins on an A-list character, and if you do, you’re not going to get the freedom to put your stamp on it in the same way as a D-lister. Sandman, Starman, Animal Man…no way editorial would’ve let Gaiman, Robinson and Morrison take those kinds or risks on Superman or Batman in cointinuity.

That said…Cyborg is one of the better crafted and under-utilized characters in DC’s stable. He came out of that same period when the last new, successful characters were being created by the Big Two, along with Wolverine, The Punisher etc. I don’t think I did the character justice.

I’d imagine creators gravitate towards characters like Moon Knight out of nostalgia. I guess the Bill Sienkiewicz and Doug Moench runs were in the current generation’s formative years. Moon Knight wasn’t on my radar like that. Moon Knight is also “gritty”, so he lends himself to the kind of crime or espionage stories that I suspect some writers would rather be telling. He looked pretty damn silly on Mars. Then again, there’s something silly about him anyway. A Jew who gets his powers from an Egyptian god? And I can’t be the only person to think he looks like a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Occasionally the 2nd or 3rd tier characters do work out, if not commercially than creatively. They don’t have to be at the level of Star-/Sand-/Animal Man. But the Iron Fist run that Brubaker and Fraction did was fantastic. The fact that it apparently couldn’t be sustained commercially is depressing to me. What’s more depressing – and more troublesome – is that if big time creators can’t revive 2nd tier characters, then they aren’t going to take the risk, or get the chance to take the risk of creating new ones. It’s a bigger topic, but it’s terribly disappointing to me that we don’t see new characters created within the big two anymore.

I don’t know where to place the blame. I know that the publishers aren’t willing to give new characters the long term support they need to really see if there’s something there. I understand their mandate is to maintain their trademarks. That’s why creators are getting a crack at 2nd tier characters in the first place – to give them a fresh coat of paint and see if maybe there’s a movie there. Congress keeps bending over and extending copyrights to the point we’re unlikely to see characters created before our birth wind up in the public domain. But I still think it’s in the Big Two’s long term interest to develop new IP, if nothing else. Especially now that they are both de facto R&D divisions of massive multi-media conglomerates. But paying down the national debt and dealing with global warming are in the long term interest, so comics is not exactly alone in kicking the can down the road.

ABHAY: There are Marvel characters who people have managed to put a “stamp” on– but it seems like lately, they take these shitty characters and then rather than have a “stamp,” they try to convince fans that these characters are “important.” You know: making Brother Voodoo into Sorceror Supreme– it’s still Brother Voodoo. “Moon Knight is a Double-Secret Avenger now” — he’s still Moon Knight. Sandman, Starman and Animal Man– those were takes. Those were… those were ground-up reinventions. The Marvel version, by comparison, just seems like wishful thinking, that something that’s failed repeatedly won’t fail if you stick the right combination of words into the marketing material. You know: NAMOR GUANTLET, X-MAN WITHOUT FEAR… It’s still Namor.

IRON FIST… That was a frustrating run. For me, it didn’t really have an ending. I was never super-super-excited about it like some people, but that was a book I was following and enjoying it well enough. You know: highs and lows, strikes and gutters. But when it stopped… I felt they had just gotten done finally building this entire world for that character, and then as soon as it was built, it was over. It was like watching someone build a city in Sim City and then not send in Gojira… I mean, that game came with a Gojira button…

MARK: There is a distinction between the way Marvel and DC revive back a character. You’ve got to chalk some of that up to brave editors like Archie Goodwin. But I think there’s also something inherently different about the two universes. To put it bluntly, Marvel continuity counts more. That will probably piss off DC fans, who no doubt care about continuity just as much, but DC retcons things in a major way that Marvel doesn’t. What happened in Marvel comics pretty much happened, you just need to ignore things like Professor X fighting in Korea with Dick Witman. With DC…there’s a crisis of one kind or another that periodically resets everything.

With Iron Fist, I don’t know the circumstances behind the demise of the book, so I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize them for walking away from it. In fact, I think you have to give credit to creators like Fraction and Brubaker who create new characters and leave them for someone else to play with. The next arc of Secret Avengers uses the Prince of Orphans, right? As a writer, I appreciate when other creators share their creations.

There’s been a decent amount of that at Marvel – Grant Morrison with Marvel Boy, Brian K Vaughan with Runaways and The Hood, Paul Jenkins with the Sentry. They’ve all stuck around in one form or another. They may not be breakaway hits, but I’m not sure how much of that is due to the characters themselves. I know that I’ve tended to CARE about those newer characters more than olders ones. Which seems counterintuitive, given that I’ve lived with the older, more established characters since childhood. But with, say, AVENGERS ACADEMY, which for my money is the best Avengers, maybe even the best superhero comic on the stands – that sense that since these are new characters who could be killed or otherwise experience significant change has me more invested as a reader.


ABHAY: I guess what this comic made me think most about was… What does “success in comics” mean to you? Ed Brubaker’s arguably one of the great successes of Marvel comics, one of their top writers. He’s an “Architect of the Marvel Universe.” And…even with that being the case, he’s stuck writing low-ambition AVENGERS spin-offs?

If that’s what success in comics looks like, why does anyone want it? I mean, there are people who’d claw out Ed Brubaker’s eyes to be the guy stuck writing this nonsense. For example: you. You would murder babies at a nursery to take over this book from Ed Brubaker. You would be wearing a crotchless clown costume while you suffocated pre-natal infants.

Or I guess what always startles me about the current generation of “star” comic creators: where’s the ambition? Not in a superhero vs. non-superhero way. The last generation of comic creators was equally stuck writing superhero comics, but we have WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, YEAR ONE, MARSHAL LAW, DOOM PATROL, ANIMAL MAN, to show for it. Chaykin’s THE SHADOW or his BLACKHAWKS. SANDMAN. People didn’t just run around putting out action “blockbusters”…

This generation might be less stuck with superhero comics than that one, but… what do we really have to show for them being stuck with the genre? Crossovers and spin-offs? What happened? What happened to you people?

MARK: I take issue with you calling this or any other book “low ambition”. Because it’s presumptuous for either of us to pretend what a creator’s ambition is. Whether he or she succeeds in fulfilling that ambition is another matter entirely. And then there’s the matter of whether ambition should count more than execution. Would you rather an ambitious failure or a less ambitious story told well?

Low-ambition or not, I would absolutely do all those things and more for a chance to write SECRET AVENGERS. And wait – there’s such things as clown costumes WITH crotches? I wish someone had told my parents that before my eight birthday.

Success for me? Having a steadier source of income from creative activities I have now would be nice. An exclusive contract, a sustainable ongoing creator-owned book, lucrative work in another medium…any of those would change my life in a dramatic fashion. They’d allow me to do things that non-freelancers take for granted. Like have healthcare. And then I have personal creative aspirations that are ever changing and sometimes there on a subconscious level I’m not even aware of.

But you want to know why there is an apparent lack of ambition amongst my peers? Again, I’m not sure you’re right about that. Don’t mistake the results, which are subjective, for the motivation, which neither of us can know. But let’s say I accept your premise that superhero comics are suffering because of a lack of creator ambition. Why is that? For one thing, there can’t be another Watchmen because, well, there already WAS a Watchmen. That paradigm shift – and I’m speaking of not just Watchmen but more broadly of the comics of last generation – happened after, what, 50 years of superhero comics? Should we expect another one so quickly? The fact that the medium is so focused on one genre means…for 70-80 years you’ve had most of the brightest minds in comics trying to write superhero comics. Is it possible they’ve exhausted the genre to the point of decadence?

Both of those are admittedly defeatist attitudes. But there has been good work from the current generation – it’s just primarily not in mainstream, in-continuity superhero comics. Again, I attribute that in part to milking the genre to death. But I also don’t think the incentive’s there for creators to do original work.

It comes down to ownership. If you’ve got a great idea, do you want to give it to your corporate masters for a quick buck and little or no long term stake, or try to develop it on your own? It’s a rare thing for Brian K. Vaughan to take a title like Runaways and hand it to Marvel rather than taking it to, say, Image. And on the publisher’s end of things, they actively discourage new ideas. They know the marketplace will more than likely reject it. And they still don’t want to risk giving away ownership because, on the off chance it does succeed, it means them parting with money or risking a lawsuit.

So, the bar has been set pretty high by the last generation, at the same time the reward for jumping over it has been lowered. Those are the forces at work against ambitious new superhero work.

ABHAY: Let me start by respectfully saying that I disagree with everything you represent, and someday I shall defeat you and hurl you into Mount Doom. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO– I feel like this whole thing should change into an intervention. I feel like it should be like one of those awesome SOPRANOS interventions, where it starts with me trying to get you off heroin and then it just ends with James Gandolfini beating you up.

Brightest minds in comics” — I will never stop making fun of you for this.

I listed about a dozen books so you wouldn’t focus on WATCHMEN, but… I’ve seen an awful lot of comic creators talk about WATCHMEN as being some kind of “end point” for the genre. And I just– I just don’t understand that. WATCHMEN proved you can do ensembles, and that you can do multi-generational sagas, and that you can do comics that mix superheros and the civilian populations that they impact, and that you can do alternate history superhero comics… And then people just overlook all that, and focus on the fact that maybe one of the characters was a little weird about sex…? Which, maybe I take personally– I’m a little weird about sex too, but I think I have positive qualities that I’m hoping people notice instead. I mean, I don’t have as many weird fetishes as Charlie Rose or whoever, but…

(Did you know that Michael Lewis ended up married to Tabitha Soren? I didn’t know that myself until last week… MIchael Lewis is my Criss “Mindfreak” Angel, to put it in terms you might understand…)

As for ownership… I don’t know. That “I’ll keep it for myself” attitude has worked great for Mark Millar. But the “I’ll give it all away and ten more things besides” attitude– that sort of seems like it’s Grant Morrison’s only gear, right? Granted, probably aiming for the former makes more sense than the latter, for most people. The money seems pleasant, if you can be that guy, and heck, most people just aren’t Morrison and don’t have what he has. But… I don’t know. I think the problem is most dudes aren’t really EITHER guy…

MARK: If you didn’t want me to focus on Watchmen, than you shouldn’t have fucking mentioned Watchmen. Nobody think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!

But let’s look at the larger group of comics you mentioned. What do they have in common? They were, mostly, stories with a beginning, middle and end. They had only the loosest connection to larger continuity. They proved you can tell those kinds of stories, and they had stylistic innovation and density.

As I’ve said before, I think the finite, closed nature of the stories is a major part of why they are works that have stood the test of time. The fact they didn’t have to be a slave to an entire universe of continuity and the whims of multiple creators and editors and management teams were absolutely integral to the ability of their creators to innovate. I’d guess that not being tied to the kinds of scheduling demands that exist today contributed to their success as well.

I’d argue there are stories since then that have been ambitious. Astro City may not be Watchmen, but it continued to explore the interaction between super-heroes and the civilian populace. All Star-Superman managed to breathe fresh life into the longest running superhero comic. Casanova and The Winter Men are dense as hell. And let’s not forget Ed Brubaker – whose Secret Avengers started you on this rant – wrote the ambitious and creatively successful Sleeper. Technically Sleeper takes place in Wildstorm continuity, but for the past decade that was a place with the flexiblity to showcase work like Planetary and The Authority that carried the torch lit by Watchmen to a certain extent.

But all those were created, like their predecessors, outside of the restrictions of in-continuity, ongoing series. If, as a creator, you can find a space to tell those stories – great. Wildstorm not longer exists. Marvel doesn’t do Elseworld stories, DC hardly does them anymore, and if you want to do a story someplace else it’s going to cost you money and readers.


ABHAY: Do you like the art? Mainstream comics art has gotten so … violently lavish. Everything in those kind of comics glows now. Everything in SECRET AVENGERS is constantly glowing– the entire first issue is one glowing thing after another. Entire scenes take place in dark rooms lit only by glowing monitors. Captain America’s muscles glow. Leroy the Last Dragon glows. Et cetera. But there’s a weird roid-y intensity to all that glowing that’s more than a little off-putting. It’s just weird to me how mainstream comics look now. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can remember the last time I read a mainstream comic and didn’t spend more time thinking about the color than the story.

MARK: I come from a writing background, from studying English and drama and law, so art is one of the last things I think about. And I probably lack the vocabulary to articulate what works and doesn’t for me visually. It’s something I’m working on. Taking life drawing classes, trying to compensate for what I don’t bring to the table.

This series…I go back and forth on it. My first instinct was – why are the panels layouts crooked? They remind me of Phantom Zone shards. When I re-read it for this inter-fight…I saw some pages where the layouts did enhance the composition. The colors? I noticed there was a lot of red. They were on Mars.

But…I guess I come from the school – and this could just as easily apply to writers as well as artists – that if a creator is doing his job you don’t notice that he’s doing it. That’s something that gets harder for me to appreciate the more I study the medium. There are exceptions to that. There are creators that can do what Tarantino or Charlie Kauffman does, that can say “hey look at me” but be so compelling that you don’t care if you’re aware of their presence. And maybe it even enhances the experience.

You and I come at things differently. You are probably one of the harshest critics I know. Not just from reading your work but from sitting next to you in a movie theater. I don’t envy being you, it doesn’t seem like you enjoy entertainment very much. I think you enjoy tearing it apart. At least I hope you do.

Me…one of the first things that started to happen to me as I made the transition from fan to pro was, I felt like I was becoming less critical of others work. Part of that is – well, it does me no favors to share my dislike of something with what are now my peers. But it’s also…sitting down and trying to write a mainstream comic with all the restrictions inherent in that? I suddenly started saying, you know what, I’m not sure I can do better than Howard Mackie or Chuck Austen or whoever I was convinced I could do better than before I was working professionally. I’m much, much more critical of my own work, thankfully. I have to be – I’m in a place where my failures are public and there is no taking it back.

Where was I going with this? Well, for all our differences, maybe we do share some of the same tastes in art. Creators like Paul Azaceta or Sean Murphy or Robbi Rodriguez or Julian Totino Tedesco or Andy MacDonald (to name just about everyone I’ve ever worked with). When I started with Paul…his work was an acquired taste for me. I grew up thinking the ultra-detailed work of Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri occupied a higher place on the evolutionary scale. I’ve gained a respect for fundamentals and for a less-is-more approach. I don’t think most fans, or artists, or people who decide which artists get work have an appreciation for that.

ABHAY: “From studying English and drama and law” — Jesus, were you wearing a powdered wig when you answered these questions? When did you turn into Ben Franklin’s gigolo?

I like… I like entertainment. (Did I just type that sentence?) It’s not my fault most “entertainment” isn’t entertaining. I didn’t put a gun to whoever made THE TOURIST’s head and tell him to ruin me going to the movies with my Dad. My dad wants to see Angelina Jolie have adventures, which I think is a pretty innocent thing to want out of life,and next thing you know, they’re punishing us for that. I didn’t will that to happen. I didn’t vote to put that TOURIST shit on the Black List or whatever. They just did that to my family, for no reason.

Not sure how to respond– I don’t even know if we’re even on the same planet, here. I mean, just this idea that I’m “tearing apart” anything, for starters… You and Steve Niles and whoever believes this nonsense that things can be “torn apart”… Where the hell did that phrase come from? It’s just silly. Because I don’t think I’m tearing anything apart. I think I’m constructing something of my own, that belongs to me, and trying to share that with people, same as anyone who writes anything. I think it’s all writing; writing is writing, sharing is sharing, and pretending that one batch is somehow more special than another, or some other batch is bad and wrong and snarky and tears things apart– that’s just not how I understand the world. I think that’s just propaganda from people who want to sell shitty things to idiots. And anyway, nothing’s gotten “torn apart”: THE TOURIST is still there, on a DVD shelf, waiting to make innocent people miserable, no matter what mean things I say about it. As far as I’m concerned, they never put it together properly to begin with– they sold it torn apart.

I like oodles of things though. HOW TV RUINED YOUR LIFE– I’m completely head over heels for that show; I think it’s Charlie Brookers’s masterpiece. I liked KING CITY. I’m enjoying INHERENT VICE (slowly) so far. I like that new Keira Knightley perfume ad.  I definitely like the work of all those artists you mentioned. I definitely can’t do better than Howard Mackie or Chuck Austen at what they did, though I’m lucky that I don’t particularly want to do what they did. I definitely, definitely can’t do better than whoever made THE TOURIST. But I don’t think you have to (or should) believe that to have an opinion, or want to compare notes with other people…

MARK: I’m not saying that in order to have an opinion, or express one, that you need to be able to do better. I do think you need to have that as a creator. You need a bit of ego to put your work out there. If you don’t think on some level you don’t have something new to offer as a writer…why put it out there?

But with comics criticism, you have these two forces colliding. One, the the democratization of criticism with the internet. Two…it’s a small, very intimate industry. I can’t think of another art form where you can interact directly with the creator. And so I think there’s a disproportionate amount of people criticizing comics that want to be creators. I’m not saying all this as a creator looking down at critics. I’m say that as someone that was on the other side of that wall. I started out as a fan ripping into other people’s work on message boards and writing little “reviews”. And looking back, I know at least part of what was motivating me was jealousy. A sense of frustration that comics were terrible, and that I was oh so close to the door but I couldn’t quite get my foot in.

What changed after I became a professional was that I gained an understanding very quickly that what I was criticizing was a lot fucking harder to do than I thought. I’d like to think it gave me some humility. I maybe have more sympathy for creators. If I’m completely honest, yes, I do probably feel on some level that narrative fiction or drama is more of a contribution to culture than a critical essay. Like I said, I need to feel on some level that what I’m doing is more important than what you or anyone else is doing or else why the fuck am I dedicating my life to it?

I’m constantly aware of the fact that I’m creating and earning a living off the work of my forebears, most of whom were treated horribly. Even when I’m doing creator owned work, I’m not doing it in a vacuum. Others have created the genres and sacrificed for my opportunity to own my work. For both of us, our creations, our interactions with previously existing work can be symbiotic or parasitic. But it’s disingenuous of you to suggest your writing has no effect on the work or the creator. Again, we operate in a very small industry. The most successful comic is lucky to sell 100,000 copies. I’ve heard it said that there are essentially 5,000 people that are willing to try new work. A critic doesn’t have to dissuade or encourage that many people to pick up or drop a book to make a difference, especially in aggregate.

The critic plays an essential role. Good work deserves to be exposed to more readers. I understand that in the process, you think sometimes you need to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it when I’m the one whose naked, or when you’re just completely wrong about everything.

DING! DING! DING! AND THAT’S THE BELL…

WITH NO CLEAR KNOCK-OUT, THAT MEANS WE GO TO THE JUDGE’S DECISION. (AND OF COURSE, AS THE ONLY FULLY ACCREDITED COMIC CRITIC, THE JOB OF JUDGMENT WILL BE HANDLED BY ME, ABHAY– JUDGING IS SORT OF WHAT I DO)…

* * *

* * *

* * *

AND WE HAVE A UNANIMOUS DECISION FROM OUR JUDGES– THE VICTOR OF THIS ROUND IS…

COMIC CRITICS.

SPEECH! SPEECH!

Well, this was a real tough for me to win, so I’m just ecstatic that we pulled this off. I think Mark came close to beating me on stylin’, but I think I perservered when it came to profilin’. A lot of people underestimate the importance of profilin’, but I put a lot of time into studying my profilin’, and it’s nice to see that paid off with this win. Mark put up a good fight, and he was a noble opponent, but … If only one of us can be the winner, then I’m just ecstatic that it was me.  As a meager consolation, here’s the promo image for Mark’s next book–

FIGHT NUMBER ONE GOES TO THE COMIC CRITICS… BUT WHAT ABOUT FIGHT NUMBER TWO? WE’LL FIND OUT THIS SUMMER, IN THE ARENA OF “ART COMICS,” WITH SIX ROUNDS OVER MAT BRINKMAN’S MULTIFORCE

TWO MEN ENTER… TWO MEN LEAVE… NO GIRLS ANYWHERE IN SIGHT… I MEAN, ANYWHERE– IT IS A DARK MOMENT IN ALL OF OUR LIVES… SAUSAGE FEST AHOY!!!!!

33 Responses to “ Creator vs. Critic– Abhay interviews Mark Sable about SECRET AVENGERS Issues #1 to #5 ”

  1. This was a somewhat interesting discussion on the present state of Marvel Comics, but a lousy “review,” and I use that term loosely, of Secret Avengers #1-5.

    Abhay, quit trying so hard to be clever and entertaining and just write a clear and concise review for a once. Maybe you could even try to stay on topic for more than a sentence at a time? Who knows, you might even get a good review out of it.

    Sorry, but overall, I rate this review as “crap” on the Savage Critic scale.

  2. This was a review?

    I liked the discussion though. Very interesting.

  3. I know I’d rather read a ‘somewhat interesting discussion on the present state of Marvel Comics than a review of Secret Avengers’, and this was more than just ‘somewhat interesting’, so, you know, thanks!

  4. Well, it’s more of a general discussion that happens to include SECRET AVENGERS than a review, yes. But I’d rather read the general discussion too.

    (Oh, and Abhay’s right about HOW TV RUINED YOUR LIFE. One part comedy to ten parts polemic, but that’s no bad thing.)

  5. I enjoyed this more than I would a straight forward rundown of Secret Avengers. Great discussion.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure Abhay won.

  6. James M. You fail the Aaronson test. Go directly to

    http://instantrimshot.com/classic/?sound=priceiswrong

    Secret Avengers 5 came out in 2010, James, so if you’re looking for “clear and concise” reviews of this thing you’ll need to look in the rear view mirror.

    This discussion hits on soooooooo many of the current issues at hand in comics it’s really quite impressive. For those of you too lazy to search for comics “reviews” but motivated enough to bitch about the content on Savage Critics I give you the following list:

    http://www.comicsbulletin.com/reviews/

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/reviews

    http://weeklycomicbookreview.com/

    http://www.weeklycrisis.com/

    These sites all do a nice job. THIS site does this – and shipping lists, podcasts, and occasional glowing recommendations so if you don’t like it, in the words of Bruce Campbell, “BLOW.”

  7. “Sorry, but overall, I rate this review as “crap” on the Savage Critic scale.”

    I think I understand your point, James (the sentiment if not the phrasing of it). At least I think I’m pretty aware that there are people who’d like to read more classic-style reviews on this site, having seen I think at least one comment on that topic before, maybe.

    To be honest, I cut the more review-y bits out of this– I personally thought they were uninteresting, that we were stopping the interesting parts for nonsense talk about the 10 month old stories about the Serpent Crown on the planet Mars. The discussion ended up a little more general than specific as a result, but it’s hard for me to get that balance right sometimes with non-review pieces… And unfortunately, we disagree in that I prefer these sorts of pieces to be “clever and entertaining” whereas I think you may understandably have been in the market for something else this morning…

    But fair warning: in general, I’m just not very interested in classic “reviews,” though. That’s not what I think I try to do here, and certainly not what I think I’m ever going to be especially any good at– I don’t think I’m fair enough to ever be good at reviews. I’m just not a fair person, or as fair as the people who are really very good at them anyways.

    But thank you for your comment, regardless.

  8. There’s really not that much to say about Secret Avengers in and of itself so this is just the kind discussion it needed to be.

    But in the same way that Abhay is weirded out by off-color jokes in superhero comics (which I kind of agree with), I’m a little put off by Abhay talking about how many pounds his cock weighs and his premature ejaculation problems.

  9. @James M – Overally I rate your COMMENT “crap” on the review scale. Not really. Seriously…what Abhay said. If you came here randomly looking for a straightforward review of Secret Avengers, I can understand your disappointed. If you’ve read any of Abhay’s reviews before, he just doesn’t work that way. There are plenty of other places to go to find those kinds of reviews, I think what Abhay offers is unique. Even when he’s dead wrong.

    Personally, I would have rather avoided discussion of a specific mainstream book altogether. As a creator it’s hard for me to speak openly and honestly about such books without jeopardizing my career and friendships.

    @DanielT If you’re weirded out by the weight of Abhay’s cock and his tendency to prematurely ejaculate, imagine how I felt being in the Octagon with him.

    Again, in all seriousness, thanks everyone for reading and for your comments.

    Mark Sable

  10. Well, it said Abhay “interviews” Sable about Secret Avengers, and while even that promise was only marginally fulfilled (at least as edited), that’s not the same as promising a specific review. All in all, I was very entertained for the money I spent on this piece of Internet entertainment. (And that aside, it was just interesting as hell, and I would like more, please.)

    I’m more disappointed in the “responses,” especially this very one, which are discussing whether the article met reader expectations rather than, you know, anything interesting that might’ve been said IN the freakin’ interview. As an aside, if I had been the writer of this piece, I might’ve found that first response to come across as … jerky/insulting. Perhaps I have a thin skin. I might’ve been moved to retaliatory snark. Instead Abhay gives a response of some length and considerable grace, I thought. Class act.

    As for Abhay discussing the burdens of a weighty penis and various sexual dysfunctions, I’m glad he does it. I feel so much less alone.

  11. On the point about second tier character reinvention, I don’t understand why no one at DC has reinvented Hourman yet. Seriously – a guy that uses drugs to be a super hero.

  12. Morrison reinvented Hourman in his JLA series, which lead to a brief spin-off by Tom Peyer, which I didn’t follow. At the time, I wasn’t a Peyer fan, though that’s a series I’ve wanted to revisit– all the best people in comics swore by Peyer, and he was the co-author of the Superman 2000 Pitch, with Waid, Millar (pre-falling out with Morrison) and Morrison.

    Which you should google if you haven’t seen it– it’s online somewhere. *Interesting* document, at least historically. The pitch was rejected but so much spawned out of there– 52 is very much the heir of the 2000 Pitch (and explains why no one’s been able to match 52– those guys were itching to write like that for *years*). It starts with this whole 15 year cycle theory, that Superman is reinvented every 15 years (that if you do the math, we’re not too far off from the next cycle)… Or the whole Spiderman-Mary Jane thing– I don’t know if it came from the pitch itself, but the parallels…

  13. I read part of the Peter relaunch. I liked it, but still think that a pill popper Hourman is a story gold mine.

    I need to check out the 2000 Pitch – i didn’t realize it was online. So will the next reinvention of Superman be aligned for when the movie comes out? That level of planning and cohesiveness seems out of reach.

  14. @Abhay (and Mark) – Please disregard my post. I reread it and it just sounds meanspirited to me now, which was not how I wanted it to come across. I know you certainly don’t write pieces like this for the money and no one should have to take abuse from a stranger for doing something that they enjoy. Sorry for coming off like a jerk (or worse, troll). If you make it to Wondercon this year I’ll buy you a drink to (hopefully) make it up to you.

  15. @James – from my end I don’t need any kind of apology. This is the internet, you are going to have to try a lot harder than that to sound like a troll.

    @George – I’d find a pill popping Hourman book a great read too. For obvious reasons, I don’t think that would happen. James Robinson dealt with it in The Golden Age, but that was out of continuity and in the Archie Goodwin era.

    At the risk of promoting my own work, I did an Image book with Dave Roth and PJ Holden called FEARLESS that was about a hero addicted to an anti-fear drug. I don’t think it’s my best work, but it goes farther than I ever remember Hourman.

    I can’t see Fearless having succeeded as an ongoing in the DCU. An Hourman series would have to be wildly successful as a comic, because I can tell you from pitching to studios there’s no way you could make a movie out of it. So you’d have no big reward for a publisher to do that, and you’d risk bad publicity for encouraging kids to take drugs.

    Creatively, doing an ongoing with a drug addict not only as a protagonist but with the drug as the source of his powers would be a big challenge. I think that would inherently be a finite tale. If the drug has any consequences, the character has got to either die or get clean. Either way the story ends.

  16. I will have to check out fearless.

    I guess I was thinking of pill popping hour man by vertigo and not a kid’s book. I first thought of it when ready the end of heavy liquid when the main character jumps from a high speed train whil high. There must still be a market for that.

    It’s sad that having a story with a beginning, middle and end is not considered commercial. I think it can work though – preacher, sandman, star man, Enns punisher, animal man, human target, swamp thing all had endings (even if the story did run past the natural ending).

  17. No worries, James– I have/will-have written more apologies for my big mouth on the internet than almost anyone.

    Re: reinvention, Mark mentioning Archie Goodwin and the Golden Age made me think of the Leonard Kirk Manhunter (who I think is one of the better 2nd tier characters that have been left relatively untouched… who’d want to be compared to that run? That run is a monster; it’s too good– unless you did it like Urasawa and Pluto, and even then…).

    Which in turn made me think about how much I’d love to see Goodwin’s scripts for those because the storytelling is so efficient and fun and…

    Which got me thinking– is anyone preserving those kinds of things? You have various museums of comics art, and the big Ohio State collection, but I’ve never seen any of that stuff. Are the scripts being preserved? I mean, I imagine there must be contractual reasons why Alan Moore’s DC scripts haven’t been collected into a book, or an e-book. That’s the only reason I can imagine those haven’t been collected– I mean, maybe comic script books don’t sell because there’ve been a couple, but Alan Moore scripts, I’d buy.

    But setting aside Moore– Miller’s Year One scripts, or I don’t know– Denny O’Neill Green Lantern/Green Arrow scripts. Len Wein’s first Swamp Thing script. Sandman #7. Doom Patrol Crawling from the Wreckage. Marv Wolfman Crisis of Infinite Earth treatments, scripts, inter-office memoranda– what all went into those scripts? Stan Lee’s FF scripts are probably part of some deposition transcript, but what about, like, Chris Claremont’s Dark Phoenix sage scripts– like, have they ever reprinted those scripts? Are they in a box somewhere, or has someone digitally archived those? There’s the comic book script archive website, which I know came in handy for me last year, but– that’s mostly modern scripts and… they really weren’t very helpful…

    Is anyone just making sure those aren’t getting thrown away and are getting properly preserved like … like animation cels used to be thrown away? I mean, maybe there aren’t too many people who care about that kind of thing, maybe, but… I guess I’m one of them because I sure would love to see those Archie Goodwin scripts. Manhunter’s so rad… (Or, like, bad scripts even … Chaykin’s script for Twilight, which… well, I mean, the first issue of that was good and the art was just really good…)

    In conclusion, kids probably should do drugs.

  18. One word: Netflix

  19. Right now I have an image in my head of Chaykin drawing sparkly vampires. I guess you are talking about another Twilight.

    There are script collections you can buy – Bendis had a Powers script book, there was a Queen and Country one.

    Marv Wolfman was selling scripts in artist’s alley at Emerald City Con. Peter David I believe does that. I don’t know…I’d feel weird about that. The upside to having creator owned work is that when you sit at a table, you have comps you can sell. With the big two, you get so few, so if you want them you have to buy them on Amazon to make a profit. I doubt either is doing it out of financial necessity, there must be a demand.

    There should be an archive for that stuff. I’d especially love to see the older Marvel-style scripts, to compare the plot to what the artist drew to the scripting that was done after. Might settle some attribution issues. But if they were throwing out original art, somehow I doubt most of it was saved pre-computers.

    Very few people thought what they were doing was important enough to save. Even now, while I save documents and have e-mail records of some correspondence, I wind up tossing a lot of handwritten notes. Not that I expect future archivists to be disappointed. I’d love to keep some of it but that shit just accumulates.

  20. I’m amazed/ashamed that I (and possibly no one else) ever thought of an archive for great/influential/interesting comics scripts before. I’d love to read the stuff you were talking about, and even something like that Engleheart written “Gimme my money honey!” issue of Luke Cage. Although I wonder if any of the stuff from that era of Marvel was perserved at all, or if there was any semblance of a script due to Marvel style, or what have you.

  21. Re: Netflix comment. Had nothing to do with this wonderfully entertaining article. I was responding to a comment (or so I thought) on another site. That’s what happens when you multi-task and drink at the same time. Anyhow, brilliant and entertaining stuff. Thank you gentlemen.

  22. “Right now I have an image in my head of Chaykin drawing sparkly vampires. I guess you are talking about another Twilight.”

    AWESOME…but yes I’m 99% sure Abhay was talking about the Chaykin / Garcia Lopez Twilight from…86?

    Basically took all the far future characters like Tommy Tomorrow and went Watchmen all over their collective behinds. I believe there was cannibalism involved…drawn by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez…so short answer is that I’m asking if Jaime’s seen it in the bins because I want…that.

  23. That was an interesting and thought provoking discussion, gentlemen. My thanks to the both of you, although particular thanks are owed to Mark Sable who, I feel had a particularly hard row to hoe here.

    I was most provoked to thought by the list of books Abhay selected to illustrate ambition amongst creators. Now, while Mr. Sable’s comments r.e. WATCHMEN can’t be argued with; sure WATCHMEN was a closed unit and probably a result of the conjunction of a million factors that will never happen again. But. But…

    MARSHAL LAW was an open ended series, one that may have had diminishing rewards but still retained rewards of a kind even when it ended(?). At present I guess the closest would be THE BOYS but I gave up on that after two issues. Maybe someone knows whether it is in fact ambitious rather than an indulgence of Ennis’ standard ticks and tropes.

    DOOM PATROL and ANIMAL MAN may have been discrete runs (by various innovative minds) but they were runs within in-continuity ongoing series. There’s still the potential for this to occur. In fact barely a day passes when we aren’t invited to hold a ticker tape parade to celebrate some creator having clung onto a book longer than any other human in recorded history. Longevity, sure and a big huzzah! But as for ambition beyond longevity I’m not so sure.

    The Mighty Chaykin’s THE SHADOW and BLACKHAWK were both self contained but re-booted both franchises for in-continuity ongoing series. (In fact one of Howard Victor’s dangling plot points was elegantly picked up by Helfer in the succeeding series ). Even though these were re-imaginings they were no comfortable coddlings of properties. THE SHADOW caused many Shadow fans to blanch and I believe Harlan Ellison famously “plotzed” at the result. As to BLACKHAWK I understand HVC’s treatment was such that fisticuffs amongst aged notables were only narrowly avoided. The resulting series themselves were both sufficiently different from the norm to have become legendary (Helfer, Sienkiewicz and Baker’s THE SHADOW) or interesting curiosities (BLACKHAWK).

    Um, to sum: Isn’t the succesful fulfillment of a creative ambition a kind of incentive? You can still go and work in TV as well!

    TWILIGHT by Howard Victor Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez is monumental. I’m asking for an Absolute here, DC! And you can bring out that BLACKHAWK TPB you promised me as well! The Shadow knows, pal, The Shadow knows!

    Thanks again.

  24. I’d buy a Howard Chaykin Twilight if his sparkly vampires are transsexual.

  25. @John K(UK) First, thanks for reading and for your own thought provoking comments.

    I haven’t read most of the examples you’ve cited, so it’s hard for me to get a sense of to what degree they were/are in continuity. With the exception of The Boys, they were all in the 90s, though.

    I may have lost track of my own argument, but I believe I was responding to Abhay’s contention that there’s a lack of ambition among the current generation of superhero writers.

    First, I don’t believe there is. I listed Fraction’s Casanova and Brubaker’s Sleeper, among others, to show that they are producing ambitious work.

    My contention was that their their most ambitious work has not been in ongoing, in-continuity superhero books, so Abhay has been looking in the wrong place. And – for the most part – the examples he cited from the 80s and 90s weren’t either.

    Again, I’m not as familiar with books like Martial Law as I used to be. But I still think that to the extent ambitious work was being done in-continuity, they were the exceptions, as is the case today.

    One more recent exception was Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. I think it’s fair to say that was an ambitious work (certainly on a structural level), and it was in continuity. Final Crisis was certainly ambitious. There is probably other, more recent in-continuity superhero work that’s ambitious that I’m forgetting.

    My argument is that such works have always been the exception. They might be more rare today, and I tried to outline the reasons why.

    Abhay says Brubaker was “stuck” writing Secret Avengers. I don’t think he is, not in the same way that the creators of the 80s were stuck writing super-heroes.

    The good news is that there are more venues now for creators to do work outside the mainstream thanks to Image, Icon etc. That means that creators no longer NEED to shoehorn their ambitious writing into the superhero genre. I’m not sure Moore, Miller, Chakyin etc. would have done so in today’s market. Look at Miller’s subsequent work – I think the fact that he’s done Sin City and 300 point to the fact that he no longer feels constrained by the need to fit his ambition into the Marvel and DC Universe.

    The bad news is that, despite, and maybe in part because of the opportunity to do ambitious work outside the mainstream, it’s harder to DO ambitious work IN the mainstream.

    Mainstream superhero comics continue to dominate in terms of market share, but comics in general no longer reaches nearly as many readers. So there’s far less margin of error.

    One might argue that’s means there’s more of an incentive for publishers to take risks. But at the same time the comics market has shrunk, the major superhero publishers have become part of multi-billion dollar multimedia corporations, and their role has shifted more and more to that of caretakers of trademarked properties rather than innovators.

    What I tried to bring to this argument was my point of view as a creator. If I’m looking at the above conditions, where am I likely to put my more ambitious work?

    On the one hand, it’s much tougher for me to get ambitious pitches approved at Marvel or DC. Maybe that’s a function of where I am as a creator right now, or my ability, or maybe I’m just not trying hard enough. But I feel like the opportunity to get ambitious work published by the big two isn’t what it was when, say, James Robinson was writing Starman.

    On the other hand, thanks to the creators of the preceding generations there is room for me to do more ambitious work outside the mainstream. I’ve had much more luck getting more ambitious projects approved at Image or Boom! or Kickstart. There may be drawbacks to working with those publishers, but there’s much less editorial oversight (which in some cases can be a drawback) In addition, there’s the incentive of ownership from those publishers.

    And, I don’t have to be “stuck” writing superhero work. Brubaker can do Criminal, Fraction can do Casanova, I can do Unthinkable (which I don’t think is on the same level as those books, just giving an example of work I did that I felt was ambitious to some degree). The point is, there’s no need to shoehorn those ideas into superhero books.

    Does that mean that I, or other creators, take our superhero work less seriously? I can only speak for myself, but the answer would be no. I put in just as much work in my work-for-hire books as I do my creator-owned material, whether or not the end product reflects it.

    I still pitch ambitious work to the big two. But I do so knowing it’s an uphill battle for the reasons I’ve outlined and more.

    If you’re not seeing the kind of ambitious work from mainstream superhero books as you used to, I’m saying:

    1) For the most part, excluding the exceptions you mentioned, ground-breaking work has rarely been done in-continuity.

    and

    2) It’s even harder to get that kind of work published today.

    It’s a different discussion, but I’d also add that to some degree, I’m not sure that my mind can be blown by Watchmen or Dark Knight or Sandman the way it was when I was younger. I’d bet that’s true for a good portion of the audience. The definition of ground breaking work is that it breaks new ground, and I think much of that ground has already been broken.

    I’d love to be proven wrong, by the way. I’d love for more creators and to do Watchmen-level work within the confines of today’s major superhero universes. I just don’t think it’s likely. And as long as there are other outlets for ambitious work…comics will be okay if there isn’t.

  26. Thanks for your responses Mr. Sable. If I might address a couple of points purely in the spirit of debate rather than dispute:

    May I politely decline to buy your assertion that in-continuity groundbreaking work is the exception as I’m going to have to opine that for the most part ground-breaking work has been done in-continuity. It seems to me (could be wrong; always that proviso. Always.) that prior to the ‘90s(?) there was just nowhere else for it to occur. (Okay there were ComiX but that’s a whole new conversation I think). In the ‘60s Kirby, Ditko and Lee’s work founding Marvel was ground breaking. DC’s Silver Age response was ground breaking. In the ‘70s (and beyond) there were the quieter revolutions of Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, Archie Goodwin etc. And in the ‘80s? Oh,yeah! I know it seems counterintuitive to the prevailing negative impression of the mainstream but there has always, thus far, been progress driven by (amongst other factors) creator ambition.

    (Sorry for the dryness, I think that para needed a good c##k joke but I was found wanting.)

    As for current creators taking superhero work less seriously? Do please understand that I don’t want to be offensive here. But…hmmm…Here’s a practical experiment everyone at home can join in with: Read CASANOVA and then read Fraction’s THOR. Read Chaykin’s BLACKHAWK and then read his TIME(SQUARED). Read CRIMINAL then read Brubaker’s SECRET AVENGERS. Read BATMAN: YEAR ONE now read SIN CITY. Which generation of creators has the biggest chasm between the mainstream work and the “ambitious” work? Judging a book by its innards should be a good test; understand here that I don’t know these people, nor do I wish to and I don’t Twit or BaceFook so I can only judge the work by what makes it onto the page. I’m not really interested in intentions. They currently often display a greater gift for fiction than the work they are supporting.

    I guess you address that with editorial conservatism quashing the more ambitious impulses? I can’t argue against that really as I’m not in The Biz. But aren’t most of these people actually acting in an editorial capacity already. I hear they call themselves “Architects” or something equally unassuming. It’s okay designing the Taj Mahal but if you build it out of ricepaper that first rainy seasons gonna hurt.

    Again, many thanks.

  27. John,

    Let me revise my statement to say that groundbreaking work within the mainstream has increasingly become the exception, not the rule.

    Abhay used the contrast between the 80s explosion in innovation and now to argue that works aren’t ambitious anymore. But with respect, I think bringing it back further to the 60s helps illustrate some of the reasons WHY I think ambitious work has been done more and more out of the mainstream.

    In the 60s, the comics industry was more robust. It didn’t have nearly the respect as an artistic medium in the United States as it does today. And most importantly – there just weren’t the options for creators to do work outside of the superheroes.

    Not just because of the dominance of the market, but because after what happened to EC, you could no longer work in horror or other genres because of the comics code.

    There was also more opportunity for creative freedom and experimentation within the Marvel and DC books because there wasn’t the weight of 50-80 years worth of continuity. What continuity existed was much looser in the DC Universe at the time. And with the Marvel Universe, continuity was being created by the day.

    If you follow the trend lines from the 60s to today, you notice a few things:

    The comics market shrinks (with the exception of the speculator boom in the 90s).
    Creators become increasingly burdened by the limitations of years of continuity that they have to adhere to.
    The big two get bought by multimedia corporations who view the real money to be made my super-heroes from merchandising and media rights, not from the comics themselves. Because they now need to be “safe” for a much broader audience, the emphasis is more on protecting their trademarks than innovation.
    As all this is happening, the opportunities for creators to produce work outside of the in-continuity superhero mainstream have increased. And such work is appreciated as art.

    One of the unintended effects of expanding creators rights and opening up creator-owned publishing opportunities has been to shift the focus of innovation outside the big two.

    Eisner owned The Spirit, I believe. He had to make sure his work still appealed to the syndicated masses, but ultimately didn’t have to answer to anyone else. His success then enabled him to start doing graphic novels outside of the superhero genre, and for the most part he didn’t look back.

    The strides made in the 80s and 90s had similar effects. Frank Miller’s successes at DC and Marvel – MOSTLY out of continuity – then allowed him to go and do Sin City etc. Alan Moore’s led to From Hell and the ABC line. Then came Image and Dark Horse which were and still game changers for creators, if not the comics market.

    So what I’m saying is that there has been, since at least the 60s, less and less opportunity and incentive for creators to do their most ambitious work within the confines in-continuity superhero books. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another debate entirely.

    I’d argue you could find similar parallels in other mediums, such as film (innovation taking place more and more outside the studio system) and TV (innovation taking place more and more outside of the broadcast networks). And I think the signal to noise ration is mostly the same.

    I don’t want to comment to specifically on contemporary creators (well, I do WANT to, it’s just probably unwise for me to do so). I think we probably agree that the chasm has widened – I’m just pointing out WHY that’s the case.

    I don’t like the word ambition because it implies intent (or lack thereof) rather than product. But knowing some of the creators mentioned in this discussion, I don’t think it’s a lack of ambition that’s responsible for the “chasm”, it’s the obstacles I’ve outlined.

    As far as the architects label, that was not something any of the creators asked for, it was thrust upon them as a marketing tool. I know at least one of those architects who wasn’t happy about that, if only for the reason it suggests other creators who were not mentioned as architects were doing work that was less important.

    The terms “architect” is at once misleading and accurate. On the one hand, architect suggests that Marvel just told gave them them a blank piece of paper and said map out the Marvel Universe.

    But think of what a real architect does. They are commissioned by a client to design something. They control the money, and ultimately have final say. Whatever building results depends on not only the talent and ambition of the architect, but on the desires of the client (and the ability of the contractors etc. to execute).

    So I don’t believe that most creators are acting in an editorial capacity. It’s almost always a partnership when you are dealing with the mainstream.

    I don’t mean to suggest that it’s all “editorial” that’s the problem. There are a number of great editors that are working to push the envelope with their own obstacles. Same thing with people higher up the food chain.

    That doesn’t let creators off the hook. We should all be ambitious in our work, whether it’s in the superhero mainstream or not. For a variety of reasons it’s hard for me NOT to defend creators. But I’m less trying to defend my profession than give readers and insight to the obstacles that we face in putting ambitious, in-continuity super-hero books.

    That also doesn’t let retailers, readers or critics off the hook either.

    If we want there to be more ambition, it’s up to those taste makers as much as the creators to reward ambition where they find it.

    That’s not an easy task. It’s hard to turn big ships like Marvel and DC. But ultimately, like any business they will go where the market is.

    How you get there, again, is a separate discussion.

    Sorry to Abhay and to anyone else who’s been reading/participating in this thread if I’ve hijacked it. But thanks for a civil and well articulated debate. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to be able to engage with readers and discuss my passionate views about comics. As you put it, Twit and BaceFook (hah!) don’t really allow for that.

    Again thanks to Abhay, for giving me a forum for it…most interviews don’t allow me much time to do anything but promote my own work. Even someone as narcissistic as I am gets tired of that (although PLEASE check out Unthinkable, Grounded, Rift Raiders and I think best of all, my upcoming Paul Azaceta book Graveyard of Empires, solicited in previews next month and available in June…sorry, couldn’t resist).

  28. Annnnd now people can see why I had to edit things down…

    (Also, that I need to fix-up Mark’s grasp of comics-history, with some pretty heavy-duty spackle, sometime…)

  29. Just one more thing…no, not really! Thanks for your patient responses Mr. Sable and of course your valuable time. Sure we could back-and-forth until someone actually decides who owns MARVELMAN but..I can assure you that at least the gist of your words did penetrate my stubborn mind-set.

    I shall attempt to temper my belligerence with some small measure of compassion from here on in. And thanks as ever to Mr. Khosla for his usual high standard of thought provokery. So, yeah, thanks and the very best to both of you in all your future creative endeavours.

  30. Great conversation and great comments.

    Although I’m not going to venture a guess as to the reasons behind why ambitious work is less prevalent in mainstream superhero now, but I certainly agree with the observation. If anything, creative daring has been replaced with a greater attention toward craft. I’ve read and listened to a lot of interviews with creators who admire well-crafted, well-executed stories over ambitious failures. That’s certainly not a slam on those creators–personally, I prefer a memorable ambitious failure over a well-crafted story that’s ultimately soulless–but it does go to show where priorities might be.

    OK, I lied. I am going to make a conjecture as to why there seems to be less ambitious work now. I think some of it has to do with fact that creators are using cinematic influences more than comic book influences. Look at the work of Dash Shaw or Chris Ware and see how they play with comics as a form when it comes to their design and artistic choices. Mainstream and superhero creators aren’t really doing that, in my opinion, and the books read like storyboards for movies. Jonathan Hickman is the only superhero creator who comes to my mind who uses a graphic design approach in his work, even the stuff he doesn’t illustrate (I’m thinking of “SHIELD” here).

  31. That was awesome.

    I’m glad Abhay brought up the adult jokes/reference in superhero comics thing – I totally get it, as I’ve started to notice it more and more.

    The jokes themselves aren’t offensive, it’s more… it’s just weird to read Amazing Spider-Man and see Aunt May talk about porn*, or supporting character Norah Winters talk about liking the size of Robbie Robertson’s sons penis – both from the same issue, which also has a flash back to Aunt May’s wishes for Peter to be a scientist from the Ditko era – it’s not the sort of thing I pick up a super-hero comic for.
    (On the other hand, I got into comics in the 90’s, so Hobgoblin cutting another Hobgoblin’s head off didn’t phase me at all).

    I assumed they did those jokes for the teens, but Mark says kids aren’t reading, which actually makes me wonder even more why cheap sex jokes are sprinkled throughout superhero books these days – if it’s for an audience who has had sex, and is presumably reading superheroes because they did when they were a kid, why the need for not very funny sex jokes?

    (On the other hand, I’d prefer Marvel’s cheap sex jokes over DC’s attempts to give superheroes sex lives any day).

    *Aunt May talking about Porn actually drew a letter complaining, saying it’s odd to see in an All Ages book. The editor compares it to the code-free drug issue from the sixties in an attempt to deflect the criticism.

  32. Honestly we all won.

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