Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Splash Page: Cynicism versus Sincerity? Part 1

[After a short break, Tim and I just couldn't keep away from one another, so we're back with another Splash Page, this time discussing an idea that Tim put forth a week or so back. He explains it pretty well below, so I won't repeat that. Enjoy.]

Tim Callahan: So the other day -- actually, it was a week or two ago -- I commented on one of your CSBG "Random Thoughts" posts and called you out for liking cynical comics more than sincere comics. I don't know exactly what my point was, other than to spark debate, but since I completely forgot to revisit that comment thread until it was too late, I didn't really get the discussion I was looking for. I just dropped a somewhat nonsensical bomb and walked away.

But I suppose my point was, in looking at your list of favorite first issues, that you seem to like first issues that present a kind of cynical view of the world. A kind of story in which things are bad and they look like they're going to get a whole lot worse. As opposed to a story that presents a bad situation but seems to promise some great hope for the future. I termed it sincerity, but I probably should have called it hopefulness.

I'm thinking about your fondness for Warren Ellis comics and your disdain for Geoff Johns comics, and the big difference between the two, it seems to me, is that Ellis presents a cynical worldview through his stories and Johns presents a hopeful one. They both use violence and chaos, but for different thematic purposes. I don't think you can brush it off as, "Ellis is just a better writer," because, well, I won't let you off the hook that easily.

Do you think that anything I'm saying makes sense? Does it seem completely off base, or are you naturally drawn to the more cynical stuff?

Chad Nevett: Sorry, but it has to be said: Ellis is a better writer. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, as I said then, I don't really agree with your take on things, because I don't read Ellis's writing because of its cynicism, I read it because of its optimism, an optimism that feels more real and genuine than what you find in a Geoff Johns comics. Ellis's characters are somewhat bastards who do their best to make the world better, to save it from without and within, not always doing things the 'right' way, but always in with a mind to making sure that tomorrow is better than today. Geoff Johns's books have bastard villains and heroic heroes that don't struggle past personal issues of selfishness and wanting to stay at home but overcoming that to do better. That Johns writes almost all of his work for DC is a big reason for this, while Ellis does creator-owned and Marvel work where you can have more human, more conflicted characters. I'm not interested in a fearless jet pilot who is naturally heroic doing heroic things... that's boring. I'm interested in a chain-smoking bitch who'd rather spend all day getting drunk except that would mean that things would be worse, so she goes out, gets together a group and busts some heads in the name of changing the world for the better -- because no one else is. Ellis's heroes are more heroic because they have to try.

It goes back to this idea that I've always had: if you're naturally honest there's no virtue in telling the truth because it wouldn't occur to you not to tell the truth; but, if your first instinct is to lie, but you make a conscious decision to overcome that instinct and tell the truth, then there's virtue, there's work, there's conflict -- there's drama. Johns's comics lack a sense of drama in their characters, all of whom are either naturally good or naturally evil, and always conform to that standard. His books are black and white, Ellis's are greys...

Now, like I said, that can probably be traced back to the difference between DC and everywhere else, because DC is full of characters that have no internal conflict really. And, yes, before anyone shouts at me, there are exceptions. "Oh, but Johns wrote a Booster Gold book and Booster Gold is totally conflicted like you want!" That I didn't like what I saw of that book simply suggests that we've just scratched the surface of what my problems with Johns are and we shall carry on -- after all, you people like these exchanges to be longer than what we've got so far, right?

TC: But isn't that "chain-smoking bitch" just as much of a one-note character as the "fearless jet pilot"? Does the former really get into areas of grey? Isn't everything still as clear cut -- you know who the heroes are in an Ellis comic, they just act sleazier -- as in a Johns comic?

I'm thinking we need some specific examples here, besides the oblique references to characters and comics. (Not that the references are all that oblique.) But let's take something simple and straightforward from Ellis -- like his Ultimate Galactus trilogy -- and contrast it with Blackest Night. Why do you think the former is better than the latter? Because I know you do!

CN: Well, I read more than one issue of the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy without being unable to read any more... unlike Blackest Night where one issue had me scrambling for q-tips so I could randomly stab at parts of my brain in order to forget the comic I just read (a small exaggeration, of course). But, let's move beyond me just insulting that comic, okay?

One big difference is technical style. Ellis knows how to craft comic pages better than Johns, pure and simple. Ellis may be formulaic in his 'five panel per page, three word balloons per panel' approach, but it's a very good rhythm, one that manages to convey the needed information but also not feel like something you're slogging through. Whereas, Johns overloads his pages with panels and dialogue, a lot of it unnecessary (I don't have any issue in front of me to directly reference), a lot of it just brimming over the top with melodrama. Even beyond that, Johns tries to cram in too many characters and, unlike Morrison in Final Crisis, he doesn't have the skills to juggle that many characters in that many scenes. A lot of the scenes (aka one-off panel appearances) in the first issue of Blackest Night seem like they were put there just so those characters could have a little face time. Going deeper, Ultimate Nightmare is also a horror/superhero comic and, this is less specific, it feels creepier than Blackest Night. Dead superheroes resurrected by magic rings? Not that creepy or scary. Demented, cannibal failed Russia supersoldiers who have been trapped in a secret base for decades? A lot more creepy.

Enough me justifying my views: why is Johns good? I've seen you mention that Adventure Comics is some of his best work ever. Why?

TC: Adventure Comics feels a bit more open than some of his other work. I love his Green Lantern, but except for a few issues early in the run after Green Lantern: Rebirth and before "The Sinestro Corps War" really got up and running, Johns's Green Lantern has been a comic of increased melodrama (in a good way) that becomes a game of, "oh my god, how is he going to top that??!!?" It's about amplification and excess, and it works because he knows how to get the right character beats in amongst all the cosmic bombast, but it's all about making each issue "louder" than the previous one. In Adventure, he's begun slowly -- and I'm just talking about the Superboy parts, not the "Legion of Super-Heroes" backups -- by giving Conner Kent this innocent life in Smallville, a second chance for him to grow into the role of a hero. Johns imbues the comic with earnestness -- this young superhero just wants to make things right, he knows he's got as much Lex Luthor in his DNA as he does Superman DNA, and he is methodically trying to create an environment for himself in which he will grow into the man he wants to be.

That story -- the good man trying to be a better one, knowing the odds are against him -- is much more interesting than the one-millionth iteration of the badass, chain-smoking anti-hero who doesn't play by the rules.

Adventure Comics #3 even plays with the notion of the optimistic hero vs. the cynical one, and presents -- BY FAR -- the best version of Red Robin we've ever seen (which isn't much of a compliment, I know, but it's a really good version here). Part of this series is about Conner connecting with his old friends, and Johns doesn't just throw the old gang back together again as if nothing happened. Conner died and came back, and Johns plays it up as the unsettling, emotionally-confusing situation it is, even while all the characters know that life and death and rebirth is part of the universe in which they live. So when Conner tracks down Tim Drake, now wearing that silly leather cowl in some kind of screwed-up "tribute" to Batman (as pointed out in the issue), there's a real contrast between the two characters -- a reversal of the beginning of their friendship, when Robin was the earnest optimist and Superboy was the badass with the leather and the "cool" hairdo. When Johns has the two meet in Adventure #3, he doesn't play up the pathos, he just gives them a silly villain to "fight" (Funky Flashman, who's easily dispatched by Krypto), and then lets them talk about their situations with sincerity as they investigate a few leads. Leads that Tim Drake thinks might lead to Batman's return, because even in the leather, even with the badass new look, he's still that same optimist he always was.

Yet Johns has proven in his other work that when things go bad for his heroes, they go really bad, and the gruesome violence that exists in Johns's world just helps to make the sweet little character scenes all the sweeter. There's a vulnerability in those kinds of scenes that you just don't see in an Ellis comic.

CN: Can you explain something to me that I've never been able to understand: what does Lex Luthor adding his DNA into Superboy's initial genetic mix actually change -- beyond the likelihood that Conner will go bald? Is Lex Luther so bad that his evilness is passed on genetically or something? I'm not saying that finding that out wouldn't mess you up a little, but isn't there a time where you realize that it changes nothing about what kind of person you are and you just move on? It's always struck me as a very 'comic book/soap opera' idea that this sort of idea would make a person struggle between 'the forces of good and evil' when... no, it wouldn't.

And I have read plenty of sweet scenes in Ellis's comics. The buying back the pawned toy in the "New Scum" story in Transmetropolitan... and, I know there are more, but that I just spent five minutes trying to think of one. Then again, I find the snarky banter between Jackson and Christine in Stormwatch sweet since it's real-sounding. Or, that short story during his short Hellblazer run where John Constantine reflects on his old girlfriends and how he misses them all, even the ones that hate him. Or, the moment between Midnighter and Apollo in the "Shiftships" Authority arc where Apollo is about to try something dangerous and Midnighter just grabs him and says, "But, you'll die." Or, there's the issue of Global Frequency where everything was saved by a lesbian's conception of love. Ellis wrote a comic book where things were saved by love, dammit! It doesn't get more sincere and sweet than that, my friend. If you can't find this in Ellis's work, I don't think you're reading his comics properly. Saved the city from an alien thought virus with love.

[Read the second part on Tim's blog...]