Posted by: Abhay Khosla on March 22, 2011
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…
Issues #1 through 5.
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)…
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AND WE HAVE A UNANIMOUS DECISION FROM OUR JUDGES– THE VICTOR OF THIS ROUND IS…
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!!!!!