Monday, February 28, 2005

Five Most Influential Writers From 1990(ish) To The Present - A Group Project

gThis is our first "group project" and it's each of us picking who we think are the most influential writers in mainstream comics from the period of 1990(ish) to the present. We each were able to choose up to five writers. We're focussing on the mainstream because that's where trends and patterns are more easy to see. If you look outside of the mainstream, there are trends and patterns, but not nearly as many, or as easy to see. Also, for each person, they are listed alphabetically, as we want to avoid the whole "top five" aspect and just pick writers who we think have had a large influence.

Erin Clark

Chris Claremont
Yeah, yeah, I know. He's unreadable now, but he used to be good. Hell, his run on the Uncanny X-Men, with its emphasis on characters, their relationships, and an abundance of on-going plot arcs, went a long way in changing the sort of story that was written in American comics. Good or bad, a lot of the stuff on the superhero shelves wouldn't be there without Claremont.

Neil Gaiman
His Sandman was intelligent, low-key, and adult without being needlessly 'dark', 'gritty' or pornographic. He writes books that appeal to *everyone*, not just the die-hard comic fans.

Alan Moore
The master. The greatest comics writer, well, *ever*. There's really not much else to say.

Grant Morrison
His books have a sense of fun, and the great, mad ideas more often seen in European comics. A great antidote to the rampant cynicism of the 80s. He attempts to merge clever stuff with the giant blockbuster, sometimes not always successfully.

Steve Higgins

Daniel Clowes
If you ask most indie creators which artists they follow, who inspires them the most, Daniel Clowes will top the list for most of them. Since the end of the '80s, Clowes has been giving the world a window into his madness with a comic known as Eightball. Clowes has used this comic to experiment as its stories have ranged from surreal to mundane, from dark comedy to human drama, from short stories to serials to long-form comics. In Eightball Clowes has done it all, and it has all been both innovative and brilliant.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman created Sandman. Sandman helped comics to gain acceptance amongst mainstream readers, and it broke comics into the bookstores for the first time. Sandman got writers thinking about writing their comics in a new way, writing with a bigger picture in mind. At its very worst, that meant that creators began to write their stories for the trade paperback collection, but at its best it inspired other creators to take their time to develop characters, to tell epic stories that were larger than life, to mix genres such as horror, fantasy, superhero and more into something completely new. Every writer working in the era since Sandman's debut has had to live in the legacy of that marvelous comic, and it is a legacy that can only inspire other writers to greatness.

Otomo Katsuhiro
It is relatively simple to see why Otomo Katsuhiro is one of the most influential creators of the modern era, especially to the Western world. In the late '80s, he adapted his long-running manga series Akira into an animated feature, and when it hit US shores in 1988, it created a sensation. Sure, people had heard of manga before Akira, but Akira is what made manga cool. Without Akira, manga would not have gained the foothold it has on our comics industry today, and thus with that one project, Otomo Katsuhiro changed the face of comics publishing forever.

Frank Miller
Some would argue that by the modern era Miller's most influential works were behind him. His work on Batman and Daredevil redefined comics in the 1980s, but what has he done since then that is worthy of note? The answer boils down to two words: Sin City. Artistically Sin City is a masterpiece which redefined the ideas people had about what was possible with black and white comics, and Miller is most often given praise for his art on the book first and foremost. But to ignore the writing of Sin City is to do him a disservice, for in it he takes the fractured heroes of his earlier mainstream work and gives them a twist. His characters are a bit darker than what we’re used to seeing in comics, for they live in an even darker world. His characters are on display so that the purest of heroes and meanest of bastards seem to all live not in a black and white world but in between, in the gray areas of morality.

Alan Moore
A list of influential comic creators cannot be complete without Alan Moore. Like Miller, he is most known for his earlier works in which he deconstructed the genre of superheroes, including the seminal Watchmen; however, his works in recent times have been about reconstruction. Supreme, Top 10, 1963, Tom Strong—these works rebuilt superhero comics from the ground up, distilling those elements that really made these stories shine and shoving them to the forefront again. If you liked the wild ideas of Morrison's JLA or the widescreen action of Ellis's Authority, you owe Moore a debt of gratitude.

Won Kim

Brian Azzarello
For his work on 100 Bullets, taking cinematic neo-noir (as seen in films like John Dahl's The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, McQuarrie's Way of the Gun), mixing some conspiracy theory into the broth, and "pushing it" into Hip Hop turf.

To the best of my knowledge, few (outside indies, like David Lapham's work on Stray Bullets, or Europeans, like Jodoworsky and Bess in the recently translated Son of the Gun trade collections) mines the same turf. Assuming Hip Hop remains a viable cultural movement, I predict we will see more of this kind of hip hop noir popping up in urban-set mainstream titles, likely those featuring urban vigilantes, like Batgirl, Manhunter, Luke Cage, Daredevil, etc.

Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis
I very much like the work Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and BM Bendis have done in titles like Gotham Central, Catwoman (a great, great revival) and Daredevil, but I cannot help but think that their crime noir work is still overshadowed to a large degree by Denny O'Neil, Max Allen Collin's and Frank Miller's take on the Batman from the 70's- and 80's, which opened the doors for their grittier take on vigilante genre.

It's largely forgotten these days, but Brubaker wrote a truncated (originally planned for 25 issues, cut down to 16 due to low sales) sci fi book that featured Quadrophrenia inspired punk teenagers struggling to survive in very Blade Runner-esque dystopian urban future, on the verge of environmental collapase, titled Dead Enders. I see echos of this frank approach to youthful amorality in titles like the sadly cut short The Monolith, NYX and survivors like X-23 and even Runaways. (Credit is also due here however to a great 80's phenomenon of the B&W revolution: Los Bros Hernandez' Love and Rockets and the revival of punk-mod by the creators of Tank Girl) These titles attest to a welcome trend to a minutely more realistic look at teenagers in titles like The Teen Titans and the new "twenty-something" Outsiders.

Chris Claremont
Criminally under-rated today (likely because of the writers seeming descent into a mind of mental menopause) is the great Chris Claremont. In truth, I find his X-books almost impossible to read today, his purple prose and dialogue defining the furthest extreme limit one can take Stan Lee's hyperbole and alliteration today, and still be palatable, but we must not forget his contribution to Marvel in the 80's and 90's. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum deserve the credit for reviving the Xmen in the late seventies, but it was Chris Claremont (and to a lesser extant) John Bryne, that turned the most dismal of Stan and Jack's sixties creations into the powerhouse franchise it is today. Marvel owes it's economic survival through the latter 90's in large part to Claremont's redefinition of the spandex superhero team book, and exploration of it's absurd limits, in painfully contrived crossover after crossover. In a way, the superhero genre likely owes some of it's survival through some financially rocky times to the viability of his Xbooks. So when people ask what is Claremont still doing writing X-books, all I can say is, however painful that stuff is to read today, at one time, Claremont was the fresh air the team book needed, and he's earned his permanent place at Marvel. (Would Jack Kirby have fared as well.)

Warren Ellis
Ellis really came into his own, becoming a "brand name" in the US mainstream market in the 90's, particularly during the latter half of the decade with his work for the faltering Wildstorm Brand. His Stormwatch and The Authority tapped into transatlantic youth culture concerns over the globalization of world markets and deep seated distrust of government, and made the pioneering ideas of 70's (80's?) writers like Mark Gruenwald (Squadron Supreme) viable again - so much so that he's inspired the revival the Squadron (in Marvel's Supreme Power and critics like Joe Kelly, into imitators (JLA Elite), as well as opened the door for the experiments of Palmiotti and Gray in 21 Down and Peter Milligan and Mike Allred in X-Force/X-statix.

Potentially more influential will be Ellis particular take on the pulpo fiction roots of the comics: characters like the Walter Gibson's Shadow, Fu Manchu, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, "the Man of Bronze" are major figure prominently in the secret history of the world unearthed by his Elijah Snow and Co. in Planetary, as they war on the Four (a group patterned on Marvel's FF) representing the new comics of the Marvel Revolution, which buried the old icons for a time. The interest in
Planetary has already opened doors to more ambitious projects like Morrison's Seven Soldiers and has lent a patina of intellectual respectibility to Robinson, Geoff Johns and Mark Waid's ongoing (and often unappreciated) efforts to creatively revive formerly hopeless characters like Flash, Hawkman, The Legionand the old JSA crew.

Pete Mortensen

Neil Gaiman
It's hard to calculate the importance of Sandman, both for its broad, crossover audience in bookstores and as a touchstone for a complete reinvention of an existing concept. Few revamps have ever worked out as well, but many, many have tried, and that's the definition of influence. Additionally, Gaiman's work in other media, particularly prose, has given all of his works a heft rarely seen in the direct market.

Peter Milligan
The quietest revolutionary in comics. Milligan writes dialogue no one has ever spoken from characters no one has ever seen. His power stems largely from his ability to reinvent himself, and it's only been in his attempts to go home again (such as the ongoing Human Target series and his non X-Statix/Force Marvel work) that he has failed to feel fresh. He's often over-looked, but his back catalog stands with anyone on this list, though his low points are perhaps lower than the rest. His introduction of complex themes of identity to comics will be his lasting legacy.

Alan Moore
The early '90s was all about further exploration of grim, realistic exploration of the superhero. Moore, for better or worse, kicked all of that off with Miracleman and cemented it in Watchmen and Swamp Thing. Additionally, he explored avenues many other mainstream writers tried after he had some success with it, including self-publishing and wholly creator-owned works. Though he himself owes a debt to Dave Sim and Kevin Eastman on that point. Moore's most lasting impact, however, will likely be on the scripting of comics. His style,written in extraordinarily detailed fashion with included thumbnails, is the gold standard. Many young writers are under the impression that his is the only way to compose a script, by writing 200 pages of script for 22 pages of comics. Moore is a polarizing figure, but no one can ignore his impact.

Grant Morrison
Perhaps the most ambitious comics writer of all time. Can't possibly live up to his own expectations of his work, but the fact he almost always gets at least 75 percent of the way there makes his writing essential. For most of his career, he has been saddled with adequate or poor art, which has meant some of his finest work can be a struggle to get through. However, his particular mix of straight-up superheros produced at the same time as uncompromised original work is somewhat unique and has again been imitated quite often. He is in many ways the evil twin of Alan Moore, though they won't have anything to do with one another. Morrison is also a comic writer's comic writer, drawing the collective library of everything that has gone before in his work. He should not be underestimated.

James Robinson
He reinvented the nostalgia comic, which would be something to be embarassed about were his own work in the genre not so uniformly excellent. The Golden Age and Starman never had enormous audiences, but their impact is obvious in the New Frontier, JSA, Flash and many comics not written by Geoff Johns. But Robinson made it all sing. He is hugely missed.

Chad Nevett

Brian Michael Bendis
One word: decompression. I think that says it all.

Kurt Busiek
This guy made mainstream superhero stories about superheroes who were heroes readable again in the 90s. Not only that, but he also added a human perspective on them in the process. These things were around before, but in Marvels and Astro City, Busiek brought them back. Not only that, but along with writers like Mark Waid, Alan Moore and James Robinson, he helped put current comics into a historical perspective. He would go back and reference history. He would bring back old villains. He would bring back old heroes. As far as mainstream superhero comics themselves go, I think Kurt Busiek helped shape them more than he'll ever get credit for.

Warren Ellis
I don't think anyone in the mainstream emphasised putting the creator first more than Ellis. He was the bastardly ass who would rant on about fixing comics and would look outside of the regular fanboy shit to do so. He helped push for more creator rights and creator-owned (or creator-shared properties). He's the "free agent" of the mainstream. He does work wherever he wants and moves on when it's over. Hell, The Authority helped kick off that whole "widescreen" style that's finally going out of style. He has written extensively on the form of comics and various attempts to try new things within it.

Neil Gaiman
Where would Vertigo be without Neil Gaiman? No, seriously. Where? No book started the move to trades more than The Sandman. It helped create the bookstore market for graphic novels. He also injected a certain literary sense to writing comics, building on what Alan Moore had done previously. The influence can still be seen today--especially at Vertigo and Wildstorm.

Grant Morrison
You may not like everything Morrison does, but damn, he's always trying new things. Look at the books he did in the 90s and 2000s and there's no real pattern to it. It just seems like pure randomness. Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, JLA, Marvel Boy, The Invisibles, New X-Men, The Filth, Kill Your Boyfriend (which should be handed out at high schools if you want teenagers reading comics), The Mystery Play, Seaguy, WE3 and now Seven Soldiers. Like Ellis, Morrison is always thinking forward. This means he falls on his face from time to time, but he tries new things. He also does a nice variety of projects to try and appeal to as many fans as possible. With Ellis, he helped kick off the widescreen phase in JLA. He was one of the first, after Gaiman, to try his hand at a long-form graphic novel at Vertigo with The Invisibles. His work is full of big ideas and is often written in a style that doesn't talk down to the readers.

And that's what we think. Obviously, we welcome any feedback regarding our choices. Feel free to disagree as much as you want--as you can see, none of us totally agreed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Three Types Of Superheroes - A Snippet

This is one of those things that is so obvious that I'm not sure I should post it, but it's also one of those things that's so obvious that I'm not sure anyone else has said it. If someone else has, I'm sorry, I didn't rip them off or anything, I came to these conclusions on my own. And if you find this painfully obvious, well, good for you.

I realised a while back that there are really only three types of superheroes (and villains, I suppose): the god, the human, and the human that becomes a god. Every superhero fits into one of those categories and they are just as basic as they sound. And, each of the three biggest superheroes represent one of the categories.

The god is the superhero who has always been superpowered. The representative here is Superman. Superman is the archetypal god in superhero comics. He was born Superman and always will be Superman. The challenges faced to the god are unique in that a question of their abilities is almost never the focus--unless it is a story where those abilities are lost. They are usually confident in those abilities and seem to gravitate towards leadership roles--almost a natural feeling of superiority.

The human is exactly what it sounds like: a human with no extra abilities. Batman is the archetypal superhero in this regards. Like the god, the human is also confident, but more to the point of brash arrogance. They seem to think that because they are playing with the big boys, they are better. They have worked hard to get where they are, so their confidence in their abilities is usually more warranted than that of the god--and are usually more reliable too. They almost always end up playing the saviour role because the villain underestimates them or they are able to improvise more.

The human who becomes a god is the more interesting and complex type of superhero. Spider-Man is the best known example of this. Here we have a human who suddenly gets powers. They tend to be less confident and sure of themselves simply because they're put in a new situation, but the confidence grows over time. This type of hero is used the most because it lends itself best to an origin story and growth that the readers can identify with. How many stories have we all read that started with typical guy leading typical life that could be your life and then suddenly something happens and he's a superhero now? It's the most effective way at drawing the reader in, because you can relate to the character from the beginning and there isn't a sense of resentment at someone who is basically you, but actually made something of themselves like the human. They are usually less driven than the human and more likely to have "human" problems than the god. Basically, it's the best of both worlds.

The only problem I've run into with this theory is the question of mutants. My instinct to to place them in the human that becomes god category because they don't receive their powers until puberty, but then again, they are born with them . . .

Anyways, that's the basics of it. I would most definitely welcome any thoughts on this. And if you can think of someone who doesn't fit, I'd like to hear it.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Who Was Holiday?

When Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale began work on their classic tale Batman: The Long Halloween, they set out simply with the impetus to tell a story of what happened to the gangsters seen in Frank Miller’s seminal work Batman Year One. Loeb himself stated in the introduction to the trade paperback collection of the tale that, once Archie Goodwin approached him with the concept, his mind raced, “stuck with this black-and-white dream of a Gotham City that was controlled by Guys with guns, Dolls with Lipstick, and Shadows who had shadows” (6).

Along the way, the two creators spun a yarn that is perhaps one of the most indelible murder mysteries ever written in comics form. In fact, The Long Halloween sparks debate even today, years after its initial release, due in no small part to its ending. Throughout the graphic novel, the serial killer Holiday has been surreptitiously taking out most of the Gotham City underworld month by month as each holiday passes, and Batman has been running himself ragged all year in search of the murderous fiend. In the beginning of the thirteenth and final chapter, however, Holiday is finally captured and revealed to be Alberto Falcone, son of crime boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (323). Alberto was himself thought to be Holiday’s victim on New Year’s Eve but had faked his death (119-120). The mystery had been solved...

Or so it would seem, for in the final four pages of the book, Loeb and Sale drop quite a bombshell. In these pages we see Gilda Dent, alone in the home she had shared with her husband Harvey until the day Sal Maroni threw acid in his face during a trial, putting Harvey on the path that would end with his transformation into the villain Two-Face (291-292). Gilda says then, standing alone in her basement, that she herself was Holiday, performing the earliest Holiday murders in order to lighten her husband’s caseload and bring him home to her. She stopped killing on New Year’s Eve, she claims, when her husband came home late and Alberto turned up dead, knowing that he had taken up the cause she had started (368-369).

This final twist making the resolution of the novel unclear, readers are left with the burning question: Who was Holiday?

The mystery is further complicated by the fact that Loeb steadfastly refuses to clarify the ending. He has famously stated time and again (most notably in an interview that appeared in Comicology magazine while The Long Halloween’s sequel Batman: Dark Victory was still in production) that he prefers to leave the ending open to reader interpretation. The answer to the question, he says, is in the reader’s hands to decipher. However, he is always careful to add that the answer is in the book itself, that all the clues needed to fathom Holiday’s identity are within the text itself.

In issue 77 of Wizard, the magazine’s staff tried to formulate a theory that incorporated both confessions provided in the story. Their idea was that there were two Holidays: Gilda AND Alberto. Gilda performed the first three murders just as she stated in the book’s conclusion. She quit killing because “Gilda had gotten what she really wanted: a house to have a family in (and she and Harvey were going to try to have kids again), [and] as of New Year's Eve she mistakenly thought Harvey took up the reins of Holiday with news of Holiday's killing of Alberto.” In reality, however, Alberto at that time faked his death in order to become Holiday himself. “This plot was launched by Alberto and Carmine,” says the Wizard staff, “who both decided to use the Holiday identity to whack the men of rival Maroni: note the shift in victims from New Year's forward” ("Whut The--?!" 35).

Since this issue of Wizard was released, this theory has become the commonly accepted answer as to Holiday’s identity. But, if you’ll allow me to be a bit editorial for a moment, this theory simply does not hold water.

One reason why this theory of a switch in killers is unlikely to be true lies in the forensic evidence left at the scene of every crime by Holiday: namely, the .22s with which Holiday committed the murders. It is revealed late in the story that when Alberto was acting as Holiday, he was having his guns specially made by the Gunsmith (217). If Gilda did not buy this same type of gun from this same guy, then there would have been noticeable differences that the police would've been able to find from looking at the guns, at the bullets, and at the holes the bullets made in the victims. All .22s are not exactly alike.

In fact, in the April Fool’s issue, Batman is shown doing actual forensic tests on the guns (182). If the guns had been manufactured by different people, the markings left on the bullet by the barrel would be different, and Batman would surely have noticed during his tests. Such a point would then have become a major clue, espeically after one of Holiday's victims became the guy who made the guns, and it would have been stated on panel. Since this was not the case, we have to assume that all the guns were the same. If both Alberto and Gilda were acting as Holiday, as Wizard purports, then the guns used in all the murders must be exactly alike, which is highly unlikely given that Alberto’s were specially constructed just for him.

But perhaps the largest hole in this hypothesis is that it is just too much of a coincidence that Gilda’s killings ended and Alberto’s began at the same time. If Gilda did commit the initial Holiday murders, then Alberto had no way of knowing that someone else would not also be killed that night. His plan to fake his own death only works if he knew no one else would become a victim of Holiday on New Year’s, and he could not know that if Gilda had been Holiday up to that point. It simply does not add up logically. Thus, if we do not accept the switch, then we are left with only two theories, the ones that are in fact laid out in the book itself. Alberto confesses to the crimes, and Gilda similarly admits that she and Harvey both committed them. Since Loeb has repeatedly stated that the book holds all the answers, these theories are what we must turn to.

So which is the most plausible? In my mind, there is no question; it is clear that Alberto was the only Holiday killer.

To illustrate why I believe Alberto is the killer, let us first analyze Gilda’s confession. In it, she claims that Harvey took up the murders when she quit, starting with the murder of Alberto. We know that this statement is incorrect for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the simple fact that Alberto is in fact alive. No less than three of the Holiday murders after New Year’s are committed solely to protect the identity of Holiday: the death of the Gunsmith on Mother’s Day, the murder of the Gotham City Coroner on Independence Day, and the death of Carla Viti on the Roman’s birthday, August 2nd (218-219; 251; 295-296). Each of these murders are directly tied to Alberto Falcone being alive and well, something Harvey would not have as a motive for killing but Alberto would. Also, we the readers (along with Jim Gordon) witness the murder of Sal Maroni on Labor Day by Alberto, so it is clear that Harvey was not Holiday in this case either (319-320).

Gilda states that she was Holiday until New Year’s, and then Harvey took over. We know the latter half of the statement is untrue, so why accept the former? But if we must consider the possibility of Gilda actually committing these crimes, then let us look at the facts. When the evidence as it appears in the story is laid out clearly, there are many obvious reasons why Gilda could not have committed the murders that she claimed.

Returning to the subject of the guns that she supposedly used in the killings for a moment, we are still left with the question of how it is that the guns used in the initial killings are identical to the ones used later. However, perhaps the bigger question would be how Gilda, a suburban housewife, had access to these firearms at all. Perhaps she could have gone out and purchased them on her own, but this concept simply raises more questions. How would she have known where to go to buy these weapons? Where did she get the money to pay for them? How was she able to get a gun when she was in the hospital on Thanksgiving or in a wheelchair on Christmas? Would they have even sold her a gun in the first place?

All of those questions presuppose that the guns were purchased from an illegal dealer, but perhaps she did in fact buy them through legitimate methods in a gun shop. That scenario creates more questions in regards to the paper trail such purchases would leave. The paper trail could be covered by filing the serial numbers off the guns, as it is in fact stated in the text that Holiday had done (48). However, Gilda would have no means to do so on either Thanksgiving, when her house was a pile of rubble, or Christmas, when she had not yet fully moved into her new home.

Then there are the methods of the murders themselves. Johnny Viti, Holiday’s first victim, is killed in the bathtub in his own home, begging the question of how Gilda could possibly gotten past the security sure to be found in a mob boss’s home, let alone know where he is (46-47). By that same token, how could she know of the Irish Gang’s whereabouts on Thanksgiving, and how could she have known she would find Milos outside of the Roman’s penthouse at just the right moment on Christmas?

Similarly, the methodology of each of the Holiday killings shows a measure of skill with a firearm that Gilda Dent is unlikely to have. Johnny Viti is taken out with two shots to the head. The five members of the Irish Gang are murdered before any of them can fire back at their killer, despite the fact that two of them were in the process of drawing their weapons when Holiday entered their room (80-81). Milos is killed on Christmas with a gun sitting on the ground next to his hand (102-103). Gilda Dent has most likely not had as much training and experience with guns as any of these mobsters, yet if we believe her confession, she had the speed and accuracy to kill them all in an instant.

Gilda also states in her final confession that she got the idea for the Holiday killings from reading case files that Harvey had brought home (368). However, on an earlier occasion Gilda reacted with surprise and alarm when she discovered that Harvey brought evidence home with him, directly contradicting her later statement (278). In fact in this scene, Gilda is accusatory with Harvey about the possibility that he might be Holiday, not happy as she would be if she had committed the earlier crimes herself and wanted the Roman out of the way so they could be together (275-277).

Having looked at the means, let us turn then to opportunity and see if Gilda had the opportunity to commit these crimes. Certainly on Halloween her whereabouts at the time of Johnny Viti’s murder are undisclosed, so it is possible that she did in fact have the opportunity to kill him. But not so on Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Thanksgiving day, Gilda Dent is in the hospital with a head injury, clearly depicted in the story as being hooked up to IVs and monitors with her husband a mere couple of feet from her at her side (77). Even if she were strong enough to, she could not have left these surroundings to go commit five murders without the hospital staff or her husband noticing she was gone. On Christmas, Gilda is in a wheelchair, barely able to walk on her own (95). Again, it is highly unlikely that she had an opportunity to leave her husband, find Milos, and kill him in such a state.

I have left her possible motive in these crimes for my final point because it is the weakest aspect of the argument for Gilda being behind the murders, and thus the easiest to refute. Supposedly Gilda commits these murders because her husband was overworked and not spending enough time with her (367). These murders were her attempt to create less work for him, so they could be together more. How anyone could think that killing mobsters would get the district attorney home any earlier in the evening is beyond me.

Her motive is flimsy. Her means are unlikely. Her opportunities were nonexistent. These are but a few of the glaring examples that prove that Gilda was not involved in the Holiday killings in any way.

However if Alberto was Holiday the whole time, then everything fits. As the son of the Roman, Alberto could easily gain access to Johnny Vito, the Irish Gang, and Milos. He knew them; some were even members of his family. Gaining access to their homes and hideouts would not be difficult, and it would be easy for him to know when Milos was outside of the penthouse since Alberto himself lived there as well.

Alberto had access to weapons, as is illustrated by the Gunsmith. Like Gilda, Alberto might not know how to kill someone either, but he could easily ask any number of family members who ARE trained assassins to teach him how to shoot (much like Michael Corleone was taught in the gangster epic The Godfather, a clear inspiration for several scenes in The Long Halloween).

If Alberto were committing the Holiday killings all by himself from the beginning, then he would know faking his death on New Year’s Eve would work and that there wouldn't be a double killing. It is in fact the only scenario in which Alberto faking his death makes sense, because his being Holiday is the only way that he could be certain his survival would not be found out.

Finally, there is his motive in the killings. Alberto’s motives in all of the latter killings are clear. The murders on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day were all members of the Maroni crime family, the Falcones’ chief rival in the battle for control of Gotham City’s underworld (145-146; 171-172; 234-235; 319-320). As previously stated, the other three murders were committed to cover up the fact that Alberto was alive and secretly Holiday. These murders clearly all benefit either Alberto directly or his entire family.

Some readers then try to poke holes in this Alberto theory with talk of the supposed change in motive before and after Alberto's "death." Before New Year's Eve all of Holiday’s victims were members of the Falcone family, and these readers believe it is not logical for Alberto to take out members of his own family. After New Year's the victims were all Maronis, and this switch, some would point out, is evidence in support of a switch in killers.

However, Alberto did have a potential motive for each of the early murders, despite the fact that they were all members of his family, both in name and in blood. First, there is Johnny Viti, who it is stated in his introduction (in both Year One and The Long Halloween) had recently tried to have the Roman killed (10). This act of betrayal would be unforgivable to a crime family like the Falcones, so he is repaid for his attempt to have a knife slipped between the Roman’s ribs with two bullets to the head.

Next we have the Irish Gang on Thanksgiving, who could be marked for death by Alberto for two reasons. One, they had been hired to put out the hit on Harvey Dent, and it turned out that Dent was still alive (71, 75). They failed in a very vital assignment, the murder of a district attorney, and in the mafia failure is not taken lightly.

Two, after their failure to fulfill a hit, they had all been easily apprehended by the police and Batman. Despite the fact that the Irish Gang had been given the opportunity to rat the Roman out and hadn’t, there was always the chance they could change their minds, and so they had to be eliminated. They knew too much. Really it is not too hard to see the motive here; if a group of people have evidence that a mob family is involved in an attempted murder, and those people are then killed, a member of the mob family is the most likely culprit. Besides, the Roman has precedent for this type of action. In Batman Year One, the Roman trusted his flunky Jefferson Skeevers to not give up any information about their organization once he was in police custody, but Batman intimidated him into doing just that (Miller et al. 77). Perhaps the Roman is simply living by the adage “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Finally there is Milos, whose murder is a bit more difficult to justify, but not impossible. Milos, it was stated in the text on several occasions, was the Roman’s personal bodyguard and most trusted friend. However, he too had failed in his duties of late. On the day of Johnny Viti’s wedding, both Batman and Catwoman broke into his home and eluded capture, a fact that the Roman did not take lightly (28). Just moments before Milos’s death, the Joker too broke into the Roman’s penthouse and easily bested Milos (100-101). It seems then that Milos was not the most effective bodyguard around and perhaps had to pay for his failures with his life.

It is also possible that Milos had to die in order to provide the Falcone family with an alibi. Throughout the year, the Falcone family is seen very publicly to be pointing the finger at others as the ones behind the Holiday killings. On New Year’s Eve Carmine Falcone says to Sal Maroni that it has been the Falcone family hit up to this point, implying that perhaps Maroni might be behind the killings. Perhaps Milos’s death was perpetrated just to belie this point (117).

This entire scenario is only strengthened if you factor in the involvement of Carmine himself. Alberto might have committed the actual killings, but Carmine was the mastermind behind it all. Carmine mentioned to Maroni on New Year's that all the blood was on his side to make it look like he was NOT backing Holiday when he really was. Carmine told Carla to go up on deck that same night because he KNEW Alberto was going to fake his own death (because how could he survive a plunge into the icy cold waters of the harbor without some help?) and wanted a witness (118).

Carmine kept up a front of Alberto's non-involvement in the family business in front of everyone (including his sister Carla and his daughter Sofia) so that he would not be suspected. Yet Alberto was always present at family meetings and Carmine thought to himself on New Year’s that Alberto was the only one he could trust (41; 118). These examples are more proof of the collusion between Carmine and Alberto both in the family business in general and the Holiday killings specifically.

This secret was one that Carmine went to great lengths to keep. On April Fool's Day Carmine hired the Riddler just so people would think he was in search of Holiday, again to throw suspicion off himself. However, the Riddler in the end came up with the right answer: "Carmine Falcone" (198). Carmine pretended to laugh it off and threw Riddler out, telling Sofia to hurry back because he didn't want Sofia to see Alberto in that alley, acting as Holiday (199-200). Holiday spares the Riddler’s life for the simple reason that they want it known that the Roman is looking for Holiday, a conclusion Batman himself eventually reaches (282). It is a classic case of misdirection.

And in the few instances when Alberto’s involvement is almost revealed, Carmine tips him off and Holiday takes care of the problem. When Sofia got too close to the truth about Holiday getting his guns at Chong’s Tea House, the Gunsmith ended up dead. When Carla got too close to finding out Alberto was alive, she was the one who ended up a victim. In both cases, the murders make more sense if Carmine was involved behind the scenes of Alberto’s Holiday killings.

There is only one remaining argument that those who support the Gilda/Alberto theory can even muster, and that point revolves around Julian Day, the Arkham Asylum inmate better known as the Calendar Man. He is consulted three times by Batman and Jim Gordon over the course of Holiday’s reign of terror, and some readers feel that his insights provide clues to the identity of Holiday. Specifically, Julian Day switches the genders of the pronouns he uses whenever he refers to Holiday, which some believe supports the Gilda/Alberto theory.

However, Julian Day could not possibly know the identity of Holiday, for he spends the entire time locked in a cell in Arkham. There is no way he could have gleaned enough information from the newspapers to come to any kind of conclusion about the killer’s identity, and he is simply switching the genders of his pronouns because he is unsure of the killer’s identity. This is why he refers to Holiday as “himself. Or herself” (emphasis mine) at his first meeting with Batman and Gordon (88).

Instead, he is using Holiday’s crimes for his own purpose. At their first meeting, Gordon promises Calendar Man he will be released if he can help the police catch Holiday, and from then on Day is looking for an angle (88). When Batman returns to Day’s cell on Mother’s Day, Day blatantly states that he will give them what they want if he is released. Batman however sees through his game and demands the information first, which Day never provides (206). Similarly Day is using the Holiday case as a means to get attention. He states as much on Batman’s third and final visit to him on Labor Day: “Just so we understand each other. The Calendar Man is being forgotten. I can’t have that” (316).

Careful attention to detail will show the astute reader that Julian Day’s gender switching could not be evidence supporting the Gilda/Alberto theory, because he does so during the first visit, on Christmas, before the supposed switch in killers even took place. Batman clearly doesn’t waste much time on Day either; their first meeting ends when Day begins shouting random holidays and Batman drags Gordon out of the room (89). Thus, we can see Julian Day’s so-called clues for what they really are: desperate attempts at freedom from an attention-craving mental patient.

So in the end if we reject the idea that Gilda performed any of the murders, accepting Alberto Falcone as the one true Holiday, we are left with the question: why? Why does Gilda claim she was Holiday in the end? And again, the answer is simple: Gilda is delusional and has lost touch with reality.

This conclusion is easy to see if we analyze Gilda’s behavior throughout the book. Gilda has been disappointed for months that her husband Harvey has shown less and less of an interest in her desire to start a family, going all the way back to New Year’s Eve (122). In the tenth chapter, Gilda seems to be expressing in her conversation with Barbara Gordon a wish that she and Harvey could reunite (260-261).

Soon thereafter Sal Maroni throws acid in Harvey’s face at his trial, and Harvey flees from the hospital where he was being treated (294). When he finally does resurface, he sets free the residents of Arkham Asylum, kills his assistant district attorney Vernon who was on the take, and eventually puts two bullets in the head of Carmine Falcone himself (337; 355; 350-351). Is it any wonder that these incidents put Gilda on the path to insanity herself?

Despite all of these heinous acts Harvey commits, Gilda still loves him and is incapable of completely separating herself from that feeling. She still then desires closeness to him, and so she creates an elaborate fantasy in her head that brings them together, a fantasy in which she actively fought to keep her marriage going rather than passively watched it crumble as she really did. She claims that they together were the Holiday killer, “so we could have time together. A child” (369). This way she can see a good reason in the very bad things he’s done and transfer some of the blame for his crimes onto herself.

On some level, she knows she is in denial. It has been two months at that point since Harvey’s murder of Falcone on Halloween, and he has been in Arkham Asylum all the while. She clearly recognizes that her marriage is over and that there will be no reconciliation, or she would not be packing up boxes, preparing to leave the home they shared together (367). But she wants so badly to believe that it would work out that she constructs this fantasy. Thus, her confession takes place while she is alone in an empty house, standing in the dark in her basement. She was trying to convince herself that it wasn't over by building up this idea; the speech is her just trying to make it real for herself, to convince herself of the fantasy.

I feel that the final pages of The Long Halloween are meant to show how much of a tragedy this book has been. Yes, the original promise Gordon, Dent, and Batman make on the night of Johnny Viti’s wedding to bring down the Roman has been fulfilled (36-37). But at what cost? Batman and Jim Gordon have lost a great ally and friend in Harvey Dent, and Gordon states that he “won’t know if it was worth it for a very long time” (362).

We are given one final look at each of the main characters in the conclusion, visiting them each in private moments. Jim Gordon says to his wife Barbara, "I believe in Gotham City," even though his heart is more than a little broken (363). He says it to himself to move on, and it is a statement tinged with irony for readers who know that his belief in his job and in the city will lead Barbara to leave him and will eventually claim the life of his second wife Sarah Essen. Batman too stands on a building-top somewhere in Gotham, stating that he believes that some day he will be able to keep his promise he made to his parents when they died that he would rid Gotham of evil, a promise that we readers know is impossible to fulfill (364-365).

So too does Gilda try to keep herself together with her confession, saying on the final page "I believe in Harvey Dent" even though it is a foolish pipe dream (370). The scene was put there by Loeb and Sale to show how far they had fallen, to illustrate just how sad Gilda's life is going to be (and how messed up Harvey's will be). Too many people read the book and take the things Gilda says literally when they are simply meant to reflect that same feeling of loss. The only real evidence we have that the things she says are true are the words themselves, and they are clearly the words of someone who has been crushed by the weight of the world.

When it comes down to it, we must follow Loeb’s advice and turn to the story itself. In the text we are given two theories. Alberto confessed to all the murders. Gilda confessed to some of the murders and said Harvey did the rest. You can believe only one of them, and having weighed the evidence, I believe Alberto.

But if you're still having trouble believing that it was all Alberto, then ask yourself this: who does Batman, the greatest detective in the DC Universe, think did it? Who does he think is Holiday? Alberto Falcone.

and who are you to argue with Batman?

Works Consulted

Blitz, Stefan and Brian Saner Lamkin. “Jeph Loeb: The Comicology Interview.” Comicology 1 (Spring 2000): n. pag.
Loeb, Jeph et al. Batman: The Long Halloween. New York: DC Comics, 1998.
Miller, Frank et al. Batman: Year One. New York: DC Comics, 1988.
“Whut The--?!” Wizard 77 (Jan. 1998): 35.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The GraphiContent Book Club Begins

As announced in our initial mission statement, we here at GraphiContent think it's important to promote the idea of people reading comics and discussing their content beyond the superficial . We want to analyze works here, explore their plots and characters in search of hidden nuances, get to the heart of what they're really all about thematically and symbolically.

That's why we decided we would use this forum not just to showcase our own analyses, but also to create a book club. We want to open the discussion up to let in anyone who wants to join us, so that the analysis we do here is not limited just to its few members but instead is something everyone can participate in. We want to try to get as many people as possible all reading the same book and getting together to talk about what it means.

Therefore, every month from here on out, Pete and I are going to choose a book. It will always be something neither of us has read before. It usually will be something that is relatively new, but we might also look at some older works down the road as well. And we will try to make it something you can pick up for cheap, so that your comic budget is stretched any thinner than it needs to be. We will also make our announcements about which book we've chosen in the middle of the month prior, so that you all have time to seek it out.

We will set some simple reading deadlines for the book, so that everyone will be on the same page when discussion begins. That way, no one will accidentally reveal plot points that we haven't read yet, spoiling the experience for all of us. Usually these deadlines will be to read the first half of the book by the middle of the month, and to have finished the book by the end of the month.

And then discussion will begin. Either Pete or I will start a topic for the discussion at each deadline, briefly laying down some of our thoughts of the book at that point. Conversation will then spill over into the comment section, which we invite everyone to post in.

It's that simple. Read a book, come here, tell us what you thought.
So with the rules established, let's begin, shall we?

The first GraphiContent Book Club selection is the Hellblazer collection Rare Cuts.
You should read the first three stories in the collection by Mar. 15, and then you should complete the book by Mar. 31.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The DC Universe In Cycles: A Brief Snippet

Last semester, I took a half-course on James Joyce's Ulysses that also included his three other books briefly. At the end, we talked about Finnegans Wake a little and one thing that the prof mentioned caught my eye. It was in reference to the structure of the novel and here's a quote from his hand-out (available online here):

Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova, or New Science (1725, 1744). Vico argues that history is cyclical and that each cycle consists of three different ages-—an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of humans—-followed by a short transitional age, a ricorso, that also initiates the next cycle.

I thought this fit in rather well with the DCU and its transitory nature. I've long thought that the overarching idea of "ages" was off just because it would always lump Marvel and DC together when their universes are two very different things.

The way I see it, the period of the late thirties until the late fifties/early sixties would be the "Golden Age of Gods" where the heroes started out as almost god-like in nature. They were big, powerful and total assholes. We tend to think of gods differently now, but I think they would fit in well with the Greek pantheon. Eventually, they descended into this strange goofiness that sort of killed that age.

That is, until the "Silver Age of Heroes" where they were more noble and moral. I'd argue that a hero is better than a god just because a hero strives for good, while a god may not. This lasted from the late fifties/early sixties until the late seventies/early eighties.

That's when they entered the "Bronze Age of Men" and the characters were made more human. They were darker, more like they were in the "Golden Age of Gods" but not as powerful or god-like. They were kind of scummy and had real world problems.

Now, you might be thinking that Crisis On An Infinite Number Of Earths is the ricorso, but I don't think it is. I think that was just a bump in the middle of the "Bronze Age of Men" rather than the end.

The end, I think probably came around 1993 when Superman died, Batman's back was broken, Hal Jordan went insane and basically it all went to shit. The ricorso lasted, I would say, until Grant Morrison's JLA run (yes, another Morrison reference--a sure sign of pretention--along with the James Joyce invocation, of course--moving on . . .), which most would argue was a rebirth of the "Silver Age", but I think harkened back to the "Golden Age Of Gods" more because of their iconic portrayals and the fact that Morrison set them up as a pantheon complete with Greek god references.

Of course, that would mean that the DCU is currently in another "Golden Age of Heroes". The so-called "humanising" of the heroes recently, I think might support that, because it seems so anti-"Silver Age" and more akin to either the "Golden Age of Gods" or the "Bronze Age of Men" (which I admit we COULD still be in), but because they are portrayed as both god-like AND vulnerable, I'd say it's another "Golden Age of Gods".

Just a random musing. I'd appreciate any thoughts or feedback.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Added Member

I'd just like to note that another member has been added to our team. Won Kim was originally asked, but for various reasons, he wasn't a part of the official launch. He has now been added.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Taking what precious little is left.

Though it was probably James Joyce's fault, generations of authors of all sorts have taken the conceit of a person living their life as a work of art or literature and abused it in decades since "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" saw print. Self-awareness empowers and limits at the same time. If anything, living as though life might be a great novel einforces a notion of surveillance from above and outside, Moses sneaking out of town late at night while the burning bush kept watch.

Stephen Dedalus' characterization in "Portrait" can be seen in such later works as "Franny and Zooey," "This Side of Paradise" and even such step-children as Rob Fleming from Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," who seems to be aware that his life is an outtake reel from "A Hard Day's Night." Extensions to the concept crop up in post-modernism, with the creation of self-aware narrative, where every aside is another opportunity to challenge and complicate the reader's expectation.

Comic books also picked up the self-awareness concept somewhere in the 1980s. It's debatable which writer explored the concept of the comic book character who realizes that he is not just a comic book character (Captain America comics are sold in the Marvel Universe, after all), but that his life is nothing but a comic book. Keith Giffen's "Ambush Bug" was certainly an early exploration of the concept; John Byrne is here waving a copy of "The Sensational She-Hulk" #14 in the air, though it's still not funny or terribly insightful; Alan Moore's early superhero work, both on "Captain Britain" and "MarvelMan," essentially described the modernist, self-aware hero without reaching the revelatory moment where the implicit becomes explicit. In other words, Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" is the best example you're going to find.

Metatextuality is the logical extension of a character who realizes he lives at the whim of a sentimental Scotsman with a typewriter and an always-ceasing string of tragic, beloved cats. The final showdown between Morrison and Baker in "Animal Man" #26 remains a high-point of superhero comics, primarily because its goal is not the deconstruction of the superhero, a remarkably low ambition, but is instead the deconstruction of the writer and of fiction itself. For once, sign and signifier are united and explained fully. The curtain is parted, and the great and terrible Oz apologizes for the deception. Wonder is lost, but self- and world-knowledge is increased. It's one titan of a comic with a pay-off that actually matches its ambitions.

All of which is a very long way to say that Bryan Lee O'Malley's "Scott Pilgrim" series of digest-sized original graphic novels is one hell of a breath of fresh air. You'll note it has been about 15 years since Grant Morrison stopped writing "Animal Man." Far too much characterization in comics is "realistic" (a blanket term which typically means "chatty and boring" or "violent"), "heroic" (bland) or, worst of all at this point, "clever" (laden with already-dated pop culture references, inventive swearing and or rather simple fourth-wall shattering gimmicks). Scott Pilgrim, though ostensibly a realistic unemployed 23-year-old in a realistic Toronto with realistic thrift stores, is, in fact, Little Mac from "Punch-Out" with a bass and a 17-year-old girlfriend named Knives Chau. That's really all you need in the way of a plot summary. He's richer than that, or the book wouldn't be worth reading, let alone celebrating: He has a gay roommate Wallace, with whom he shares a bed out of poverty; he plays in a rock band called Sex Bob-Omb; his younger sister is much more mature than he, despite her worship of Scott; and he receives specific, signed challenges to battle over the Internet and from the postal service.

I can think of few characters in any medium with less self-awareness or more obvious motivations and goals than Scott Pilgrim, and I'm a big fan of the movies of Wes Anderson. Scott enjoys it when life is awesome. He's really attracted to beautiful girls, especially when they wear roller blades and deliver him CDs from Amazon. Getting a girl, any girl, is far more important than finding a job, practicing with his band or maintaining present relationships, platonic or romantic. What Scott cares about is becoming the champion, winning the belt, and then jogging to the Statue of Liberty behind Doc's bike, in order to find the cheat code for this level of glory. Because as much as those who have read "Portrait of the Artist" like to believe they view their lives as a continuous narrative, it is at the most crucial moments when people are at their least aware. Only in retrospect does any coherence appear. Scott pretty much accepts everything thrown at him in the same way: In stride and with confusion.

When introduced to Scott, we learn the following: He's dating a 17-year-old, and it's really not that gross, because they haven't even kissed yet, and he doesn't want to, anyway, so really, it's kind of out of sorts to judge him. The scene is framed as a group of friends exchanging stories before going into a flashback to when Scott met Knives, on a crosstown bus. Knives, ignoring her mother, spills her books onto the floor, and Scott intervenes. It's here that O'Malley begins to demonstrate the (hilarious) formal experimentation he has undertaken. In a small, neatly typed font, Scott is identified as "Scott Pilgrim, Age: 23 years old; Rating: Awesome." The episode concludes quickly, Scott continuing to insist on the morality of his own actions. What's intriguing about the scene is not the way in which Scott can only seem to see the up-side to dating a high school student, which includes high school gossip, the feeling of being admired and no sexual pressure, but rather that O'Malley establishes that his characters live in a literally black and white video game world, divided between power-ups and dangers. Acquiring a girlfriend is certainly a level-up for Scott. Acquiring a better girlfriend, in this case the rollerblading delivery girl Ramona, who uses his head as a warp pipe (no, really!) to reach her customers faster, would be a high score indeed.

Very early into reading the book, I dubbed O'Malley's encapsulated ratings of each character as "Nintendo Realism." The world the characters inhabit is largely normal, except that everyone has a handy stat-sheet which determines their capabilities. Perhaps most insightful in this shortcut is its reflection of life, where the "statistics" of a human being can determine their livelihood, success in relationships and ability to participate in certain activities. The device is outlandish but also in some ways painfully honest. Rather than compose an angst-fueled slacker epic, O'Malley stepped outside of existing genres to create a celebration of people just getting by, reveling in minor achievement. Scott is, in the strictest sense, a video game hero. His friends are not competitors, they're supplemental characters who might offer advice which help him to overcome the dangers of new enemies and challenges.

This innovation character is also a break-through in comics narration, which has traditionally been, at best, predictable. First-person narration by a character, strewn across the page in neat caption form, or overly descriptive third-person work simply recapitulating the visible scene. Neither approach has much new to offer (though Ed Brubaker still made some remarkable attempts during his early run on Catwoman), least of all to Scott Pilgrim, whose sole values are to try to thrive and to try to avoid injury. So O'Malley once more goes to the well of the collective video game conscience for his narrator -- the score-keeper. No video game can function without rules. This point was emphasized most clearly upon the original release of the NES Genie, which for the first time enabled players to use an invincible, flying, invisible, fire-spewing and altogether boring Mario. If success and failure become identical, no high-score can possibly make either feel satisfying.

With such a golden revelation of concept, it's little wonder O'Malley uses this narrator sparingly: Initially only through the personal ratings, then occasional editorial comment. The best use of the latter comes at the novel's true climax, when Scott kisses Ramona for the first time. It's an expected moment, coming immediately following a walk through a snowstorm and as Ramona is shedding wet clothing to warm up. As the young hipster's lips lock, the voice of the scorekeeper immortalizes the moment, saying, "Nice one, Scott! Now turn the page." Taken from its video game roots, "nice one" has multiple meanings here: As a description of Ramona, and also of the very act of achievement and an exhortation to greater success. The narrator validates and tempts his actions. Not as God, merely the one keeping track of his qualms and quarries. This is one narrator who is utterly reliable and incorruptible, a value system more than a personality.

Which made the final act of "Scott Pilgrim Volume One: Precious Little Life" (itself a pun on video game health systems and the desperation when you're down to one heart) both surprising and oddly satisfying at once. Early in the book, Scott begins to receive challenges to battle through various channels from Matthew Patel. Though initially set up as a particularly odd form of junk mail, Patel emerges in the midst of a Sex Bob-Omb concert to fight Scott. He is one of Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends, of which there are seven, and he demands satisfaction. Rather than play the scene strictly for laughs, O'Malley has Scott launch into a 67-hit-combo, his all-time record. With the help of his band, he vanquishes a group of demons and leaves with the princess, Ramona. It's basically a recapitulation of either Mega Man III or the original Legend of Zelda, it's difficult to say which. Regardless, it's like virtually nothing else in Western or Eastern comics.

The introduction and discovery of Ramona's mode of transportation is an early insight which is best discussed last in the video gane world Scott Pilgrim inhabits -- ours. Though it contains truly outlandish elements, such as dream-travel and magic, they are no more exciting or disturbing than Sean Hannity's eyebrows. Ramona apologizes for using Scott's head to make faster deliveries, he doesn't even consider being upset in the first place. "Like in Super Mario 2?" he asks. His response is both typical and parodical of the young and hip. There are many in this world who would react to an actual invasion by aliens with indifference, unless their presence made them more or less attractive to the opposite sex or if their spaceships had really good theme music. For Scott, the details of his life (unemployment, the collapse of a long-term relationship, poverty, strange women who enter his dreams uninvited) are far less important than the chance to foster a great relationship or meet someone new.

This hints at something profound, and which can perhaps never be said enough: Self-discovery and a strong base of support are more important in life than the things that will make up a biography. Job title, salary, pants size, eye color, warp pipe brain, car color don't add up to anything. Seeing life for what it has to offer makes Scott a character worth celebrating. This is not a tale of angst, it's a story of joy and discovery -- none of which has to do with the often fantastic framing of each vignette. Rather than dwell on the inevitable period of your 20s when the best you can muster is the occasional venture out with friends and the ability to sleep for 16 hours straight, O'Malley crystallizes the new experiences that make that time survivable and rewarding. His Pilgrim is a Moorean -- G.E. Moore, the early 20th Century Philosopher who authored "Principia Ethica." That work, Moore defines the two states of mind which bring about the most good: The enjoyment from the viewing of beautiful objects (which is not as gross as it sounds when applied to women as it might sound) and the pleasures of human intercourse, chiefly referring to conversation in this context. For many of this generation, simply making friends laugh or kissing another human being who brings out the best in you is a triumph -- squandered potential be damned.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life is a 168-page black and white digest from Oni Press. It costs $11.95, which is less than four issues of, say, Gambit. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the continuation of the story, is 200 pages, also costs $11.95, and will reach finer comic stores everywhere later in February. Remember -- Life is totally sweet.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Future Is X-Rated: Marvel Boy, The Modern World And The History Of The Marvel Universe

Marvel Boy has been a bit of a forgotten treasure in Grant Morrison's career. It was his first major work for Marvel following his acclaimed work on JLA, but was quickly overshadowed by his run on New X-Men. That's not terribly surprising considering the book is filled with new characters, big ideas and is really only the first book in a trilogy of books that will most likely never be completed. Basically, despite the high profile creators, it just isn't what mainstream superhero audiences are looking for. Despite its lack of popularity, Marvel Boy is probably Morrison's most complex piece of work for Marvel and is, in a way, his defining statement on the Marvel universe as a whole and on modern superhero comics.

In this essay, I will outline various readings of Marvel Boy, including how the book can be seen as the history of the Marvel universe contained within six issues, how the book can be seen as the first "ultimate" book Marvel produced (although not as a part of what is now the official "ultimate" continuity obviously), how the book is a statement upon modern superhero comics, and how it is also a statement upon the modern world, specifically the modern corporate world. One aspect of Marvel Boy that I will not be looking at is what Morrison described as "a fairly blatant supersigil invocation/download of the incoming current of Horus, the newly arriving Lord of the Aeon" (Ellis 126). While this may be an aspect of Marvel Boy's subtext, it is beyond my understanding and I wouldn't know where to begin talking about it.

Marvel Boy as the history of the Marvel Universe

Even a casual reading of Marvel Boy shows an extensive amount of Marvel concepts taken by Morrison and altered in some way. The entire book is steeped in Marvel history and ideas, and the three primary actors (Noh-Varr, Midas and Exterminatrix or Oubliette) are no exception, with each representing one of the "ages" of Marvel's history (Noh-Varr being the only exception as he represents two "ages," but in a way that shows the cyclical nature of comics).

Noh-Varr is the representation of both the "golden age" and what I will call the "modern age" for lack of a better term. In initial comments on the series, co-editor Joe Quesada points to both the "golden age" and "modern age" aspects of the character: "The name is a tip of the hat to Bill Everett, who created the first Marvel Boy [during the 1940s], but it's Grant's attempt at finally creating an angst-ridden, Marvel hero for the next millennium . . . Grant's Marvel Boy is a guy who walks in the grey area between good and evil, sort of constructed on the Sub-Mariner principle" (Brick 42). The comparison to the Sub-Mariner is an easy one to make as both he and Noh-Varr are outsiders who essentially declare war on mankind. While the Sub-Mariner attempted to flood New York, Noh-Varr simply destroys the UN's headquarters and carves the words "FUCK YOU" into Manhattan and justifies it by saying, "Because it was the likes of you and this whole murky, hypocrite race who powderized my guiltless crewmates for no reason better than profit and ignorance" (Morrison "Boy" 18). As for his representation of the "modern age", I will explore that more in-depth later on.

Midas represents quite obviously the "silver age". It is key to point out here that Midas is a superhero, not a supervillain. While Noh-Varr is the protagonist of the story and Midas the antagonist, Noh-Varr is the alien invader, of sorts, and Midas is the superhero protecting Earth and the status quo. The most obvious tip-off that Midas represents the "silver age" is his costume: Iron Man's second armour (the first being nearly identical, but in grey rather than gold). Midas is dressed almost exactly like one of Marvel's most iconic superheroes, but with the addition of a leather jacket. His business is to kill aliens and he does that for profit, which is a play on the fact that Iron Man's began as Tony Stark, weapons profiteer. Also, if you look at Midas' allies in the story, you will find that they are all concepts or groups from the "silver age": SHIELD, the Bannermen (combinations of Captain America and the Hulk), the Mindless One, and even his attempt and success to become the Fantastic Four. Midas is most definitely a modernized superhero from the "silver age".

And finally, Exterminatrix represents the "bronze age". She is a woman who runs around in black leather and kills things for her father, sort of a modern Punisher. She is also not quite accepted by her father in the same way that heroes from that time period weren't quite accepted by the heroes of the "silver age". She acts as the bridge between the "silver age" and the "modern age". Ultimately, she sides with Noh-Varr as one would expect.

Each character represents a particular time period in the Marvel universe's history and its progression: Noh-Varr to Midas to Exterminatrix to Noh-Varr again. While not a complete history by any means, the book gives the basic structure for it.

Marvel Boy as the first "ultimate" book

"Grant asked himself, 'If Stan [Lee] was the age he was when he created Spider-Man today, what would have he created?'" Quesada said of how Morrison went about creating Marvel Boy, and I contend that Noh-Varr is "ultimate Spider-Man." The basic similarities in the characters support this: both are orphans with only one figure of moral guidance left (Plex for Noh-Varr and Aunt May for Spider-Man); both are basically teenagers, both had their first great love killed by their nemesis (Merree killed by Midas and Gwen Stacy killed by the Green Goblin); both end up with redheads (Oubliette and Mary Jane Watson); both have similar powers (cockroach-spliced genes for Noh-Varr and bitten by a radioactive spider for Spider-Man); and even their costumes follow a similar design, but with opposite colours (green, yellow and white for Noh-Varr compared to red, blue and black for Spider-Man) and a lack of mask for Noh-Varr (notice that their hair are also opposite colours).

The two begin with similarities, but it is their differences that we see how Noh-Varr is the more "realistic" "ultimate" version. What is more likely behaviour of an angry, newly-orphaned teenager with superpowers: that he would dress up and stop bank robbers, or that he would blow up buildings and carve swear words into cities? Noh-Varr is a representation of the true teenage mindset of the time, which is what Marvel's "ultimate" titles soon became about: modern versions of old characters. Noh-Varr is exactly how Peter Parker would have acted in modern times: he'd blow shit up and try to change the world so that it fit with how he thought it should be.

Almost all of the other pre-existing concepts from the Marvel universe that Morrison uses are updated to be more "ultimate". Midas is a good example of this, as he basically is a modern version of Tony Stark (minus the suave playboy side of the character), focussing on his evil corporate side (sort of like how Stark would have acted if he hadn't come so close to death and had a change of heart (no pun intended)). The idea of supersoldiers who are essentially mindless and programmed with a set of UN directives is how a Captain America-styled project would be done. SHIELD also is more modern with its orbital platform and caters to business interests in an almost overt way (a cynical comment, of course). Plex is also an "ultimate" version of the Supreme Intelligence, while at the same time functioning as "ultimate" Aunt May.

The only main character that isn't an "ultimate" version of anything is Exterminatrix really. While she can be seen to be an "ultimate" Mary Jane, that is a minor characteristic best used just for comparisons between Noh-Varr and Peter Parker. Beyond that, she has no real "ultimate" role. That doesn't prevent the reader from looking at Marvel Boy from this perspective, it merely suggests that Morrison did not strictly adhere to the idea of modernizing concepts in that way (although, as said earlier, Exterminatrix is a modern "anti-hero" of sorts, just not one in particular).

Marvel Boy as a statement on modern superhero comics

This is a tricky area to deal with as the biggest definer of the modern superhero comic was Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's The Authority, which was only a year or so old at that point, so it's difficult to tell exactly how much it may or may not have influenced Morrison. Let alone the fact that Morrison's JLA was also a large influence upon the style and tone of the modern superhero comic. For those reasons, I will ignore those external influences and just look for aspects of the modern superhero comic in Marvel Boy as I see them.

Noh-Varr, as I said earlier, represents the "modern age" of superhero comics, which I think is just a cyclical rebirth of the "golden age". The extreme methods and "walking in the grey" are both characteristics of both "ages". By far the most modern thing about Noh-Varr is his desire to actively change the world. This has been an aspect lacking in all of the previous "ages," even the "golden age." The idea of a superhero--as while I called Noh-Varr a villain that was meant within the confines of traditional superhero/supervillain definitions, not within the more modern meanings of the term where the boundaries are less clear and seem to depend on whether or not the character is a protagonist--playing the role of supervillain in his methods and goals is a relatively new one. Noh-Varr has good cause to believe himself superior to humanity and decides to impose his views upon it. This aspect of the modern superhero would be seen later in The Authority when they took over the United States.

To accomplish this goal, though, Noh-Varr had to displace the old order, which meant he had to defeat Midas. He does this primarily by "corrupting" his daughter through his sexuality. The overtly sexual superhero is another characteristic of the "modern age" and this can be seen in issues four through six of Marvel Boy as almost every comment Midas makes in relation to the two is of sexual nature, and Noh-Varr uses this to taunt Midas: "She loved it," he says weakly as Midas is beating him in issue four and also "I took your daughter" in issue six. Through sexuality is how Oubliette chooses to relate to Noh-Varr. He appeals to her because of the oppressive nature of his father as the idea of sexuality had been repressed greatly in previous ages. While it was never entirely absent, it was also only permitted to a certain point.

The rejection of the old ways by Oubliette is best seen in his casting off of her mask, which Midas describes as "her face" (Morrison "Zero" 19). The mask being a large part of the old ways of superhero comics, and by her rejecting it, she sides with the modern superhero. This effect could later be seen at Marvel in various titles as their heroes one after another had their identities revealed to some extent or another. The concept of a secret identity and separating one's self into two is no longer seen as realistic. The modern hero has no need for masks.

Another indication of Noh-Varr, and later Oubliette, representing the concept of the modern hero overcoming the old ways is in their fight against the Mindless One, which is literally being killed by the future (Morrison "Mindless" 5). The creature is used to a slower, older environment and can't compete with Noh-Varr and Oubliette who can handle the faster, more modern world.

Hexus, The Living Corporation, the "villain" of issue three is the representative of the modern supervillain in that in the "modern age," conflicts are not just a matter of simply physical confrontations, but of ideological confrontations. Noh-Varr cannot beat Hexus just by blowing things up, he must use ideas to defeat it, because it is an idea itself. Hexus is also an especially capitalist idea, which tends to be the role of modern supervillains, in that they usually represent things like greed and oppression of people with what Marx called a "false consciousness." The hero is usually put in the role of the oppressive liberator, who dominates the populace in an effort to free them, or as the Kree philosophy is described in issue six: "Zen fascism" (Morrison "Mindless" 21).

Marvel Boy was both a follower and precursor of the modern superhero comic. It conforms to established ideas about the "modern age" while at the same time sets up a few others.

Marvel Boy as a statement upon the modern world

From what I can count, there are approximately nineteen corporate brands or products mentioned or shown throughout the six issues of Marvel Boy with the majority of them in the first three issues. I am hard-pressed to find another comic, even a modern one that has that many "product placements"; while the number isn't amazingly high--only an average of around three per issue--it is higher than nearly any other comic, and one must ask why that is. It obviously ties into the character of Hexus, who I've labelled as the representative of the modern supervillain, as Hexus is the Living Corporation. Hexus' methods involve taking over the corporate culture by creating an appealing brand. This means doing everything from cola to music, and the underlying message is clear: corporations control the modern culture. Now this may not be a big surprise to many, it is an idea foreign to most comics--especially a mainstream superhero one.

This idea is raised again at the end of the series where Exterminatrix begins her attack upon the modern culture on behalf of Noh-Varr by destroying Disney World. She doesn't attack political or military institutions, she attacks a beloved corporate, capitalist entity.

This hatred of the greed and capitalism is introduced right from the very beginning of the series where the entire conflict is brought about through the destroying of "The Marvel," Noh-Varr's ship because Midas wants to steal the technology and make a profit off of it. Let's not forget that Midas is also a representative of the corporate world, which highlights even stronger Oubliette's turning against her father. While she comes from a corporate culture, she prefers to rebel against it much like the youth today do. But much like the youth of today, Exterminatrix is also a hypocrite as when she declares war upon "the way that was," she re-dons her mask, this taking up the methods of her father. While the youth of today claim to despise their parents' culture, they often act in much the same way; they will claim to despise the inhumanity of the corporate world and then catch their breath by taking a drink out of a bottle of water that they paid four bucks for. Exterminatrix directly stands in for the youth who are trapped between a capitalist world and one of socialism, with Midas and Noh-Varr standing in for each.

Also, if you notice how Noh-Varr looks upon humanity, you'll see that he sees our culture as a virus, of sorts, and uses it against us. A piece of dialogue in issue two sums up this feeling best, as Plex says to Noh-Varr, "You spent a day in the ship's limbo suite learning their English for this? Noh-Varr, you know every word in their language."

Noh-Varr replies, "Too bad I have to stick to the simple ones they understand." Before attacking humanity, Noh-Varr takes an effort to learn about it and understand it. At the end of issue two, we see him return from his attack on New York to sit down and watch dozens of TV screens in an effort to learn more about humanity. He doesn't go to libraries or schools or even reads the paper to learn about humanity, he watches TV.

Also, in issue two, the "promotional video" for the United Nations Bannermen is done in such a way to show just how corrupted we are by the media. Instead of an informative report on the group, we are given lame voice-over and quick shots of action and meaningless posing. Our political systems no longer contain actual substance, they've been reduced to catch-phrases and Hollywood videos.


Marvel Boy is ultimately a book about the modern world, including the modern superhero comic. It is a book that while ahead of its time already seems dated because it was very much of its time. If Morrison went about trying to create this book now, it would look radically different--something that I don't think could be said about any of his other work for Marvel. It was his ultimate statement on the Marvel universe and his mission statement, in a way, for what he planned to do there. It can also be seen as the first "ultimate" book as Morrison literally tried to recreate what Stan Lee did in the early sixties, but for the twenty-first century--and I would suggest succeeded far greater than those who created the actual "ultimate" line of titles. He manages to capture the feeling of what it was like to be living in the year 2000, especially what it was like to be a teenager at the time. Sadly, it is not likely that we will see the sequels planned for it, but luckily, other creators--including Morrison himself--have carried on in the tradition of Marvel Boy--which is part of the reason why the comic seems so dated. Titles like Wildcats Version 3.0, Daredevil (under Brian Michael Bendis) and The Intimates seem to be direct descendents, in a way, of Marvel Boy and I believe it will be a lasting influence upon any other titles of the "modern age" however long that lasts.

Works Consulted

Brick, Scott. "Taking Aim: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's 'Punisher' marks the major moves of Marvel Knights' second year." Wizard, October 1999, No. 98, pp. 40-44.
Ellis, Warren. "Come In Alone Twenty-Eight June 9, 2000". Come In Alone. San Francisco: AiT/Planet Lar, 2001. Pp. 121-127.
Lawrence, Christopher. "Marvel's newest boy." Wizard, May 2000, No. 104, pp. 20.
Lawrence, Christopher. "Marvel Boy: Will Grant Morrison end his comic career with a roar?" Wizard, July 2000, No. 106, pp. 60-61.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Hello Cruel World". Marvel Boy, August 2000, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Boy Vs. World". Marvel Boy, September 2000, Vol. 1, No. 2.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Digital Koncentration Kamp One". Marvel Boy, October 2000, Vol. 1, No. 3.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Exterminatrix!" Marvel Boy, November 2000, Vol. 1, No. 4.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Zero Zero: Year Of Love". Marvel Boy, December 2000, Vol. 1, No. 5.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Mindless: The End". Marvel Boy, March 2001, Vol. 1, No. 6.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

GraphiContent Welcome And Mission Statement

Comic criticism.

That's the beginning and point of GraphiContent. This blog's origins trace back to about a year ago when two guys were sitting around talking online about the lack of serious comic criticism. There are tons of places to find reviews and a few specialty sites that focus on specific books, but beyond that there's nothing. Being a couple of guys from the academic world, they were none too happy with the sad state of the online presence of comics, so they decided to do something about it.

A year or so later, this is what they've come up with. GraphiContent is a blog devoted to comic criticism, commentary, analysis, theory, and discussion. If you're looking for what we think of the new issue of X-Men, if you're looking for the latest news about what DC title has a new creative team, or if you want creators giving hype-filled interviews with little purpose beyond convincing people that their new book is the Best Thing Ever look elsewhere. If we discuss the new issue of X-Men, we will look at how the book works and what it really means underneath it all. If we discuss a news item, it will be to consider how it fits into the overall pattern of behaviour of the comic culture and what it means to the stories being told. If we interview creators, it will be to discuss the hows and whys of their works, to gain a deeper understanding of what they really mean.

Our goal is to take long, hard looks at comics and give insightful and intelligent thoughts upon them. We will not limit ourselves just to so-called "art comics" as others have in the past because we recognise that the mainstream is full of works just as great. We will look at any comics we feel warrant an examination, which will probably include some that you don't. We're not here to lecture or look down upon anything, merely to give a new point of view and maybe get people to think about things a little different. We hope to get people to say "Hey, I never thought about it like that," and maybe see some of their favourite works in a new light.

We will never claim that the views that we present are objectively correct, as we are dealing with art and art is subjective. But by that same token, we won't limit ourselves to what the creators may have intended with their work, as art is also interpretive and exists beyond just the creators' intentions. That means we'll also say a lot of things that will make you think maybe we're reading too much into something, but that's okay.

We also want you to interact with us. While we currently wish to limit contributions to the four of us, we encourage you to respond to us and engage us in the talkback section. The best criticism exists within a dialogue where many voices and ideas are heard. By this token, once the tone of the site's content is firmly established, we will open the door to outside submissions. Something we will also be doing is a book club of sorts in which we'll be choosing a book each month to read, analyse and examine. We encourage you to take part in that discussion.

So, welcome to GraphiContent. We hope you enjoy the ride.

Content comes tomorrow.