Friday, 28 March 2014

And So, Farewell To TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, And To You, Gentle Visitor, Too

From 1993's Doom Patrol #63, by Grant Morrison, Richard Case et al
 
TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics is now an ex-blog. I shall miss it greatly. Having already made my goodbyes when I announced the blog's closure earlier this year, I won't repeat myself. Sentimentality threatens, but I'll keep it at arm's length, I promise.

I'll still be posting at Sequart, bless them, where the chapters of Shameless? will continue. In addition, I've also a section in The New Life And New Civilisations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, which the company will be bringing out later this year. My  Twitter and Tumblr accounts will be rumbling on, while there's talk of one or two other possible writing projects which may, or may not, eventually appear.  

This blog has meant the world to me, but it really is time to be going. Thank you, gentle visitor, for popping over and making my days a far better place. Whether you came here by chance or design, for a second or a touch longer, it all helped make life a great deal more interesting.

So it's goodbye from the blogger, and from the Splendid Wife, and from the Hound Supreme as well. We hope the future will treat you with exceptional kindness, and that we'll all live happily ever after.

How was it for me?

It was - of course - fantastic.

Take care.

From 1940's The Vision, from Marvel Mystery Comics #13, by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby,

.

"The Future Holds Nothing For Me!" - What's To Be Done With The Fantastic Four? (Part 4 of 4)

In which the blogger concludes TooBusyThinking's four-part look at the Fantastic Four, the previous posts of which can be found here, here, and here;

From 1965's Fantastic Four Annual #3, by Kirby, Lee & Colletta, in which a comic that's in part a critique about the family became one that unambiguously celebrated the same.

12.

An allegedly godly society that's anything but. An inspirationally perfect family that's calamitously conflict-ridden. The more the Fantastic Four attempted to serve the Republic and its sacred ideals, the worse the lives of its members appeared. On the surface, the comic's earliest issues were a celebration of mid-20th American values. Yet the cruelly disproportionate disjunction between the nation's promises and the sparse rewards it shared was obvious and iniquitous. Mentally and physically traumatised by their patriotic sacrifices, the FF couldn't walk the streets of New York without being mocked and insulted. (For every sick boy in hospital delighted to meet Mister Fantastic, there were crowds of grumbling, discontened blowhards threatening to turn on the team.) Because of that, the pages of the Fantastic Four radiated bafflement, anxiety and even - at moments - rage. No matter what the team might attempt, and even achieve, the mythical America of happy-ever-afters was forever beyond their reach.

To a similarly detrimental end, the tortured and exhausting relationships between the four would always sabotage their chances of happiness. No matter how they tried, failure was assured. Even peaceful cohabitation was beyond them. Hell being other people, the Baxter Building functioned as a cruelly cheerless and threatening hideaway, a pressure cooker that was part fortress and part faux-suburban torture chamber.

It was an intoxicatingly unsettling set-up in the early Sixties, and it still could be today, as the gap between the nation's promises and rewards becomes more and more obvious. Sadly, today's FF, with its extremes of wealth and power and status, works far more as a symbol of privilege and entitlement. Now the Richards control their own private school while preparing the coming generation of super-kids. Isolated and insulated in their luxury-lined, weapon-filled citadel, they never need visit the streets and share the herd's experiences. Able to escape to anywhere in the world and beyond, allied to the most influential and powerful groups on Earth, rich beyond measure and adored as celebrities superheroes and philanthropists; what once challenged the status quo now solidly represents it.

From 1962's FF#7, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
   
13.

It's worth noting that none of these early Fantastic Four stories featured the team as adventurers and explorers in any traditional sense. The claim that the FF's allure relies upon their charging off into the great unknown is often made, and yet, the evidence of this early and crucial period fails to support it. Though the FF most certainly did travel to the centre of the Earth, to far distant Planet X, and even back into the 18th century, they did so in response to immediately pressing perils. What mattered in those original tales was less the incredible dangers and unfamiliar situations, and more the fact that the Fantastic Four were constantly being forced to defend the Earth against unknown and unforeseeable dangers. Reflecting the paranoia and pessimism of the age, it placed the team as the Earth's last line of defence against a hostile Multiverse. Rather than the planet's foremost trailblazers, they served as a quartet of quarrelling Horatios lined up on a particularly indefensible bridge. Rather than heading off-planet, off-planet terrors were heading Earthwards towards them.

Not until 1963 did we see the FF reaching out to new environments of their own free will, as in the visit to the Blue Area of the Moon in The Red Ghost And His Indescribable Super-Apes. The title's loss of unease and threat had by that time begun to seriously undermine the team's virtues. As the FF's differences became more and more diluted, the initially dark tone of their opening epics was replaced by a comforting optimism. Now outward looking and fundamentally united, the book's cast  would rely almost entirely on Kirby's unparalleled capacity for innovation and wonder for their charm.

And when the comic's co-creator's became estranged, and Kirby's willingness to provide new characters and new situations was exhausted, the Fantastic Four was left with a magnificent past behind them.


From 1962's FF#8, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers.
   
14.

Lee and Kirby’s America appeared a frightened and often heartless land. Its people were mostly gullible, aggressive, self-satisfied, fearful, cruel and faithless. But the Fantastic Four themselves were anything but enlightened and loving exceptions to the rule. Though clearly marked out on the page as heroes, their behaviour as individuals was often irrational, hurtful and destructive. Where other congregations of superheroes had at worst disagreed in a friendly and respectful manner over tactics, the FF were constantly upsetting each other over all manner of things. That in itself was both shocking and thrilling, and yet the most brilliant aspect of it was that the team's arguments could seem petty, brutal and malicious. The flight into space and the formation of the Fantastic Four had undoubtedly exacerbated their problems. But their pre-existing foibles were in themselves substantial and profound. Even if they'd been liberated from one another's company and landed in the middle of paradise, it's doubtful that they could ever have been happy. Behaving calmly and rationally was only occcasionally the order of the day, and even healthy and necessary debate might collapse into table-smashing and acrimony.

This was the third of the types of conflict that Lee and Kirby put to such good use. And the team's individual flaws did more than melodramatically drive the book's soap opera sub-plots. It was also one more intimation that the expectations of the period ran contrary to the realities of human nature. Rather than a comforting shelter from a hostile world, the FF's isolated, pressure-cooked lives in their simulacrum of a nuclear family actually intensified their suffering. Whatever their problems were, behaving as other expected didn't seem to be helping. And so, Sue Storm's extreme reluctance to express her emotions, desires and doubts left her isolated, torn and miserable. Forever striving to be the team's peace-maker, she was - with no little irony - the most likely to betray its most fundamental relationships. Had the Human Torch not revealed her attraction to Namor, it's hard to imagine her ever doing so. Driven, it seems, by a ferocious belief in the myths of the family, she ploughed on and on while secretly longing for a life far different. Reticence, fear, desire and obligation had made a hypocrite of her.

From 1962's FF#4, by Kirby, Lee & Brodsky
  
It was a profoundly damaging degree of repression and frustration, and it constantly threatened to undermine the FF as both a fighting team and a household. Whenever disorder threatened, Sue Storm would attempt to defuse it through a loving comment or a tender gesture. The result was a fascinatingly focused and loyal character who nevertheless seemed to feel obliged to betray herself. Today’s version of the Invisible Woman may be an admirably well-adjusted character, but she’s far less interesting than she originally was. Caught between duty and desire, the Invisible Girl was a compelling fusion of heroic strengths and silently ruinous weakness. Feminism's second wave would have had a great deal to say to her about personal freedom and patriarchal constraints, but as yet, the message hadn't reached her.

15.

The changing ways in which the Thing has been represented is something that's been discussed on this blog before. (Most relevantly, here.) By the same token, this series of posts has already touched upon the factors which originally helped to make Ben Grimm such an extraordinary character; his rage, his despair, his craving for Sue Storm, his conflicted relationship with Reed Richards, and so on. Though no-one worth the time would suggest that his original qualities need to be precisely reestablished, today's typical portrayal of Ben Grimm as a cuddly, beloved uncle offers little to compel the reader. He too surely requires some serious remodelling.

From 1962's FF#5, by Kirby, Lee & Sinnott

16.

Forever longing for the untrammelled authority of the unchallengable patriarch, Reed Richards was both frustrated and infuriated by the team's ceaseless infighting. As unable to talk matters through as Sue Storm, he lacked her capacity to engage with others in an everyday sense. A strangely compelling and yet somewhat pathetic representation of traditional masculinity, Richards struggled to accept that dissatisfaction and conflict is the inevitable and irresolvable consequence of shared lives. It was a fascinating portrait of a reserved, unaffectionate man who was driven both by guilt and a longing for absolute freedom. If only the others would really listen to him, if only they'd do what he wanted when he wasn't around to police their behaviour, if only they'd behave without his prompting. In Richards' expectations, women maintained the hour-to-hour order, while children knew their place and quietly kept to it. Accordingly, Richards tended only to express warmth when his partners had sacrificed themselves in the service of one of his schemes. That at least appears to have been a social arrangement that meant sense to him, and he was always quick to show concern for his wounded comrades. By contrast, managing his relationships in the day-to-day world was something he struggled to attend to. If Sue Storm longed for the freedom to explore her own wants and desires, then Richards wished for a world in which human relations were tightly and predictably constrained. Where she wanted the space to feel, he was anxious not to.

That he was not to be trusted with unrestrained authority was shown in his repeatedly calamitous attempts to solve complex problems with impulsive and sweeping gestures. So desperate is he to maintain the status quo without resorting to everyday interactions that he takes to absurdly ill-thought strategies. In the first of these – which we’ve discussed before – he ignores Grimm’s well-informed counsel and orders the four of them into space and a storm of cosmic rays. Later, he gambles every cent of the team’s finances on the stock market and lands them all in penury. The consequences of this reprehensible impetuousness would extend far beyond the welfare of his suddenly impoverished team-members. Lined up in the FF’s headquarters, a long line of desperate creditors, from landlords to independent businessmen, would appear, all of whom had been seriously hurt by Richards’ irresponsibility. Though chance, and the efforts of Sue Storm, ensure that the team eventually escape bankruptcy, Richards' compulsion to solve rather than manage problems would remain. Even where his obsession with reversing the Thing's mutation was concerned, he seemed to prefer secret experiments in his lab to the challenges of being a constant and supportive friend. It's hard not to suspect that a friend's shoulder to cry on would have the best available option, and yet, we never see the two once-best friends solely in each other's company. As always, Richards fails to grasp that feelings can't be resolved as equations can. Only on the battlefield were his dramatic, improvised gambits likely to succeed, where the most immediately pressing of disasters appeared to inspire his best.

From 1962's FF#6, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
 
17.

Though Richards' failings as a social animal are at times touching, he'd undoubtedly be an intensely frustrating individual to live with. But then, all of the Fantastic Four would be. At times a sympathetic and understandably alienated teenager, Johnny Storm was also capable of unrestrained spitefulness. When a distraught and furious Thing declares that he longs to be normal for a moment, and to have Sue Storm look at him as she does at Reed, the Torch responds savagely;

"Don't kid yourself, Thing. She wouldn't go for you if you looked like Rock Hudson".

Kirby’s art makes no effort to mask Johnny Storm's cruelty, showing as it does an eminently loathable brat. Yet at other moments, the Human Torch was capable of tenderly empathising with the Thing. It might be that Storm was a capricious and repeatedly unpleasant lad, and yet, another interpretation suggests itself. Though he frequently enjoyed insulting the Thing, there's a distinctly savage edge to his response as quoted above. Perhaps it was Grimm's declaration of desire for the teenager's older sister that triggered the teenager's response. There's certainly a suggestion that the Torch was excessively protective of not just his sister, but of her relationship with Reed Richards too. It's something that might be expected of an insecure and immature orphan, although Johnny Storm later takes matters to a disturbing extreme in Captives Of The Deadly Duo. There, he's depicted searching through his sister's private quarters and coming across a carefully hidden photo of the Sub-Mariner. Quite what the Human Torch believes he's doing as he scours his sister's rooms is never explained. But the impression given is of a deeply troubled and demanding young man. Digging out Namor's portrait, he brushes away his sisters's pleas to have her property return, before announcing her heretically torn loyalties to Richards and Grimm. It's a scene that's impossible to put a positive spin on. Is the orphaned Torch anxious about the threat to his sister's relationship with Richards, or is there simply something broken or even malevolent inside him? (Is he so intimidated by the Sub-Mariner that he can't cope with anything but hatred for Atlantis' King?) Grant Morrison once argued that the Torch held a Freudian attraction to his sister, but it seems an unlikely prospect. Not only is Freudianism an entirely discredited pseudo-science, but there's no sign of the Torch objecting to Richards' relationship with Sue. It seems far more credible to believe that Storm is anxious to ensure that the closest thing he's ever known to a stable home continues.

But matched to that is the paradox of Johnny Storm's resentment of Richards' authority. We've mentioned it before and won't dwell on it here beyond saying that it creates another in this series of fascinating paradoxes. Anxious to keep his newfound family together and yet desperate for his freedom, the first version of Johnny Storm was the character's most compelling incarnation. As a none-too-bright and somewhat egotistical lead, he's consistently failed to capture the public's imagination. Even within the pages of the Fantastic Four itself, he has often seemed a visually interesting and yet somewhat underwhelming character. That may have something to do with the fact that he's often lacked an obvious reason to stay with the team. Where the others were caught between cooperation and withdrawal, the Human Torch was able to simply walk away. Whether to college, work or some less orthodox destination, Johnny Storm was free to leave. To keep him in place for the sake of the property has resulted in him seeming to lack purpose and confidence. There is, after all, something suspiciously idle and askew about a young man with the world at his feet who chooses to stay living safely at home. But a Johnny Storm who appears carefree and even feckless, and yet bears a dysfunctional sense of responsibility towards looking after Sue and Reed, would be a far more compelling prospect.

From 1962's FF#5, by Kirby, Lee & Sinnott

 18.

If the Fantastic Four is ever to be vital again in terms of its character dynamics, it needs to recapture the challenging contradictions of its opening year. In particular, it ought to reflect a great deal more of the age's hypocrisies and fears, aspirations and cruelties. It certainly needs to stop so regularly appearing to represent a privileged and affluent elite. Hope needs to be mixed with dread, ideals with reality, frustration with satisfaction, and so on.  Obviously, the political situation of the early 60s is hardly that of today, and the relationship between the age and the members of the Fantastic Four would need to be radically reworked. But the principles which underpinned the storytelling of those first Kirby and Lee tales are still potentially relevant today.

To mess with the long-established relationships between the members of the team would be, of course, a difficult and inevitably chancy business. But the Fantastic Four became a success because its creators were willing to take unprecedentedly ambitious chances, and it seems a shame that the title's become so conservative by comparison. Playing safe has certainly failed to reinvigorate the property. When Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe's take on the title, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar chose to devolve the four into twenty-somethings. Beyond the mild frisson of the new that this produced, the same problems remained. The characters still lacked the appeal to drive the comic's success, while the de-aging process merely accentuated the new take's inability to reflect the dilemmas of the age. Stripping away the possibilities offered by a cross-generational cast left Ultimate FF feeling obvious, constricted and insular. Though certain stories - such as Millar's super-zombie romp - were undeniably appealing, it was once again because of spectacle and novelty rather than character. What didn't tend to drive the comic's stories forward was the Fantastic Four themselves.

But there's no reason why the property can't be made relevant to our own often bleak and challenging age. It would mean abandoning the comfortably entitled incarnations of the FF that have developed over the decades, but then, they've hardly proved to be guarantors of commercial or critical success. Without a rebirth of its original qualities, the title's prospects will continue to rely upon the availability of remarkable creators and genre-pushing set-pieces. But another Kirby is highly unlikely to appear, and his capacity to invent a novel range of spectacular and innovative scenarios has never been equaled. Put simply, just about everything has been attempted to bring the Fantastic Four back to life except for the substance of the approach that made the team so important in the first place. That being so, why not look back to the startling and innovative stories of the comic's opening year for inspiration instead?

From 1962's FF#6, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
  

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

On Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's Sue Storm, Super-Woman & Invisible Girl: What's To Be Done With The Fantastic Four? (Part 3 of 4)

In which the blogger continues TooBusyThinking's four-part look at the Fantastic Four, which began here and continued here;

      
9.


Sue Storm's character would be the most radically transformed. Such was the magnitude of the change that her original personality would be almost entirely forgotten. Though certainly no 21st century feminist icon, she was at first an admirably focused and doughty team-member, impassively impressive even when conscripted as the FF's first-choice hostage. Perhaps something of this came from her creator’s relative lack of interest. Notably less likely to be rewarded with word or thought balloons, and possessed of the least visually compelling super-power in the book, there was a tendency to use her almost as a supporting player. When the men of the FF travelled back in time in the comic's fifth issue, for example, she was left behind in 1962 as a prisoner of Doctor Doom. It wouldn't be the only time that she was so conspicuously sidelined. Yet that very lack of attention may well have resulted in her remaining relatively free of Stan Lee's typically misogynistic flourishes. Though Kirby was more likely to use her face as a vehicle for doubt and distress, he would also depict her as calm, determined and purposeful. The result of this mixture of Lee's disregard and Kirby's respect and restraint was at moments strikingly impressive. Taciturnity fused with self-possession and fortitude, and the regrettably named Invisible Girl would radiate courageousness and ingenuity. When imprisoned by the the Army, her thoughts revealed a phlegmatic, determined nature;

"So, they don't think we can escape? They think our powers aren't strong enough... Well, they may be right... .... but I doubt it!"

For all that she was portrayed as the least effective and impressive fighter of the four of them, she was undoubtedly a super-woman of substance. At times, as when her skills at covert investigation came into play, she was anything but a fifth wheel. Committed to supporting Reed Richards in (nearly) every possible circumstance, she was swift to defend him from criticism while striving to protecting him from disappointment. Both comrade and matriarch, she struggled to maintain a unified front while comforting the disaffected. It was, as we've discussed, an impossible task. With Richards disconnected from the everyday management of the team's relationships, the responsibility to maintain order as well as good-feeling devolved onto her. Echoes of the inequities of a woman's double-shift in an isolated nuclear family emanated from the page, and yet at first, the character herself retained her dignity. Constantly juggling a host of roles which no-one could be expected to fulfil, she struggled to be mother and lover, sergeant and super-woman, society woman and social icon. By the standards of the age's dominant culture, she was the women who had everything, and it was that which constantly threatened to undermine her exhaustive and exhausting efforts.

   
As with each of the team, there was a considerable distance between impression and reality. On the surface of things, Sue was Reed's rock, and yet she'd hidden a photograph of the Sub-Mariner away while carrying a substantial torch for the King Of Atlantis. That the moral and practical bedrock of the team was simultaneously longing for the arms of a charismatic super-villain was a masterstroke on Lee and Kirby's part. If living with Richards in the Baxter Building was a provocative business, then her fascination for a hostile undersea monarch who "wasn't even human" was downright shocking. It revealed a character who was sacrificing her life for one man and his causes while secretly longing for everything that he wasn't. Forever striving to sublimate herself to Reed's principles and ambitions, she was also longing for escape to a more carefree and expressive existence. (It would later be shown that she'd ached to be an actor.) The woman who, when captured by Doctor Doom, presented an entirely unruffled front while promising that her jailer would "live to regret defying the Fantastic Four", was also a profoundly unhappy individual. The frequent explosions of conflict between the FF's members could cut through her reserve and reduce her to desperation and the brink of tears. Once again, the strength of the set-up left her not as subservient homemaker or faithless betrayer, but as both of them and all at the same time. That Lee treated her dilemma at first with such sympathy is to his credit, although the triangular affair would forever tilt towards a conventional and disappointingly passionless conclusion. An affair with the machismo-sodden Sub-Mariner would have been highly unlikely to be a fair and equal one. Yet as a taboo-shattering experience, it may well have pointed the way towards a future based on satisfying her own needs rather than choosing between two extreme forms of traditional masculinity. 


10.

At moments, a far more carefree and unrestrained Sue Storm would manifest herself, though typically it would be far away from Pogo Planes and super-science labs and extraordinary teammates. Slurping down what was presumably someone else's milk-shake without making herself visible, and shocking a fellow diner, was just one of these impromptu and mischievous act.. Outraged by a bystander's mockery of The Thing, she even kicked a stranger to the ground while sneering;

“I’ll bet you’ve never been kicked by a gremlin before, wise-guy!”

Perhaps she and her brother weren't from such different social backgrounds after all, and perhaps the conventional and staid Sue Storm that tended to be featured had been a later self-invention.

 It's in these moments of playful spontaneity that Sue Storm appears the happiest. Sadly, there's never once a suggestion of ease and intimacy - let alone joy - in her relationship with Redd Richards. Without immediate threat of her suffering some terrible fate, Richards struggles to express the slightest fondness. By the same token, she's hardly more vocal or physical in return. Theirs is a chilly and formal affair that never promises anything but more of the same. Though constantly worried that Richards efforts might fail and his feelings be hurt, she's never shown laughing in his presence, or even once touching him. That she only ever speaks out against him once in public during these first few months suggests not contentedness, but a deeply repressed sense of alienation. (With Richards enchanted by the science informing Kurrgo's monstrous robot, she- at last - shouts "Reed! This is no time to study new gadgets!") Closer to his mother than his lover in so many worrying ways, the strain of being Richards' fulltime advocate, organiser and nurse must generate an appalling strain.  

As with the others, Sue Storms' presence in the Fantastic Four appears idyllic while truthfully being anything but. If the team is the one place where she can share her life with both Johnny and Reed, it's also the space in which her partner and her brother are constantly at loggerheads. If the Baxter Building allows her to express concern and support to Ben, he's also a furious and perhaps psychotically damaged man who dearly loves her. Worse yet, it was ultimately her words which drove him into space and the ruination of his life. Though Lee never has her mention her responsibility for Grimm's fate, it's impossible to believe that she is isn't guilty aware of it on one level or another.

In so many ways, it's guilt that appears to have kept the original take on the Invisible Girl in the ranks of the Fantastic Four, and the consequence is a life that makes Sue Storm anything but happy.

  
11.

With time, Lee and Kirby not only scaled-back Sue Storm's moments of stoical competency. Blighting the potential of their own creation, they overwhelmingly increased the degree of her personal weaknesses. The result was the removal of the greater part of the character's appeal and potential. The woman who'd once calmly told a threatening Thing to "save your breath for the climb, gruesome!" would be swiftly reconstructed as the team's hysterically unsure fifth wheel.  As early as the book's sixth issue, Sue Storm was the only character present in space to "almost" pass out due to a lack of oxygen. From then on, Lee's scripts would become more and more stepped in traditionally malecentric markers of a compliant and depressingly dependent personality. For all her occasional pluckiness, the Invisible Girl was becoming a model of vulnerable womanhood to protect rather than a equal member of the team. In A Visit With The Fantastic Four, she was shown shattered by the letters of children who'd complained about her apparently lackluster contributions to the FF. One month after that and the very sight of the Hulk on film frightened her into unwittingly becoming invisible. The woman who'd regularly faced down a furious Thing and challenged a host of super-villains was no longer able to cope with the moving image of a distant threat. Even worse was to follow, as the evidence emerged of her partner's contemptuous and patronising opinion of her worth;

Sue Storm: "Looks as though I’ll be going along for the ride (to find the Hulk)! I’m not sure how I can help!”

General Ross: “Harrummph! Miss Storm, a pretty young lady can always be of help - just by keeping the men's morale up!"

Reed Richards: "That's the way we feel about Sue, General."

Within the space of just over a year, Sue Storm's relationship to the pseudo-family of the Fantastic Four had almost entirely changed. As Lee slipped further and further into his habit of presenting women as largely subservient and inadequate bit players, the contradictions that had made her so compelling drained away. Even when single-handedly battling Doctor Doom to a standstill in FF#17, Sue Storm would credit all of her success to Richards' allegedly magnificent abilities;

"... don't forget that I was taught Judo by one of the world's greatest experts: Reed Richards! And in my book, anything you can do, Mister Fantastic can do better!"

No longer even a person so much as an expression of Richards' mental and physical accomplishments, the Invisible Girl was disappearing into the purest and least edifying of gender stereotypes. As she did so, the pseudo-family that had once been both trap and beguiling ideal become her all-consuming sanctuary and reason d'etre. Holy and devoted matrimony would arrive in the Fantastic Four pages, and with it went the book's capacity to debate many of age's tensions. Less a comment on the period's dominant values than an unambiguous expression in their favour, Sue Storm had become a perfect pod person.

 
to be concluded;
  
.

Monday, 24 March 2014

TooBusyThinking's 10 Least Favourite Comic Books From 2010 to 2014

For the penultimate post here at TooBusyThinking, I thought I'd nominate my 10 least favorite comics from the last four years. To my surprise, the list was remarkably easy to write. Whereas yesterday's piece about my favourite moments from the same period - - find it here - took a great deal of chin-stroking,  the material that - shall we say -  seriously disappointed me came immediately to mind. Of all the many comics that I've flinched at since 2010, what follows is in a class of its own.

The books that follow are in no particular order of preference, and I'm certainly not trying to suggest that each is as bad as the other. Some of what follows is self-evidently more despicable than its fellows. Just to have to think about the wretched things again is trying enough. To have to try to rank them was beyond my powers of perseverance. Finally, the presence of a creator's work on this charge sheet isn't meant to suggest anything of their achievements elsewhere. There are writers and artists in what follows who've produced comics that I cherish, and most probably always will.

Since I've written about all these comics before, I'll keep my words to an absolute minimum while adding links to reviews from TooBusyThinking's back pages.

1. Dan DiDio and J G Jones' Manbat Out Of Hell, from 2013's Batman Black And White -  here, here and here.
2. Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo & Jonathan Glapion's Batman #17 - here.
Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Batman Inc #8 - here.
4. Alexandro Jodorowsky and Jean-Claude Gal's Diosamante - here.
5.  Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's Rorschach #1 - here
6. Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos & Steve Wacker's Amazing Spider-Man #685 - here.
7. Frank Miller's Holy Terror - here, here & here
8. Mark Millar & John Romita Jr's Kick Ass II - here
9. Peter Tomasi & Fernando Pasarin's Green Lantern Corp #1 - here
10. Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman #7 - here
 
Just one more post to go .....

Sunday, 23 March 2014

A Baker's Dozen Of The Blogger's Favourite Comics From The Years Of TooBusyThinking's Existence

What follows are the 13 comics that have meant the most to me while TooBusyThinking has been up and running. Without wanting to dab at my eyes in public while letting a stage whimper escape, each of them has - in their own particular ways - meant a great deal to me. For that reason, I've made no attempt to rank them in any particular order. Truthfully, I don't think I could if I tried. Finally, and in an attempt to avoid repeating myself, I've added links to posts in which I've discussed them; it helps avoid a sentimental bout of unnecessary repetition.

My hat is off in respect and gratitude to everyone responsible for these wonderful comics. For what little it counts, thank you.

The title of "World's Greatest Comics Magazine" surely now belongs to The Phoenix. By chance, my wife Gill declared this very morning that we were going to take out a subscription to it, the local supermarket proving to be an unreliable provider. I can think of no other comic she'd say that about.  I've posted about it at TBTAMC here and here. (The cover above is by Rob Deas, of course, and features his Troy Trailblazer.)
I'm well aware it's daft to say, but I still feel a touch choked up when I think of the fate of Kid Loki in Kieron Gillen's Journey To Mystery. As anyone who's read the series will know, that's not a reflection on work that's in any way lacking in joy and invention. But in the end, JIM ended in the loneliest place, and, as the conclusion made perfectly clear, there was simply nowhere else for it to close. Remarkably, a familiarity with the story and its end only works to increase its pathos. I tried to express my respect for JIM here and here, while an interview with Mr Gillen appeared on TooBusyThinking here and here
On the hand, Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton's Knight And Squire was a highly entertaining mini-series that established in considerable depth the super-people of the old DCU's UK. On the other, it was a surreptitiously complex and highly-charged polemic, standing against the hyper-violence of comicbook frontier justice while advocating compassion, understanding and restraint. I wrote a series of post on the series, which began here, while a discussion of an aspect of Mr Broxton's art can be found here.
Comics and cutting edge music were often closely intertwined in the counter-culture I grew up with, but recent years have seen a bewildering lack of overlap between the two. With the exception of fine books such as Phonogram, there's been all too few comics which reflect not just a love of music, but a knowledge of how it informs the everyday life of its fans. Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree has been a more than welcome exception to the rule, wonderfully informed and exuberantly told. We could do with a great deal more of its kind.
I struggle to think of a character who makes me both laugh and worry about more than Low Life's Judge "Dirty" Frank. In the hands of Rob Williams and D'Israeli, he's become the most adorably dysfunctional protagonist in comics. If you'll forgive one of my earliest stabs at blogging, I wrote about falling in love with the strip on my old That Reminds Of This site here. I've also discussed the strip here and here. (Above is the irrepressibly inventive D'israeli's homage to the Japanese artist Hokusai, from the cover of 2000AD #1752.) 
No other subject while writing for Q gave me more trouble that Glyn Dillon's Nao Of Brown, because no other comic was quite so uniquely intricate, wide-ranging, and daring. Beyond that, I've never written about the book, although I was set to write a series of posts on it when I realised that I'd have to put TooBusyThinking to bed. I do, however, still hope to some day put the stack of notes I accumulated back then to use, for there's so much in Dillon's work to celebrate and learn from. From his clear-eyed and compassionate depiction of OCD to his skilled use of a variety of artistic traditions, Nao Of Brown is a rare achievement.
I wrote about Al Ewing and Mike Collins' Sex Vi & Vidslugs - from 2010's Judge Dredd Megazine #295 - here, at the head of a post which, far more importantly, contained an interview with Mr Ewing himself.  At a time in which illness had pretty much robbed me of my capacity for wonder, Sex Vi & Vidslugs at first confused and then profoundly beguiled me. Looking back, I can see that my recovery can be dated from that moment, when Ewing and Collins' work reminded me not just of what it was to be interested, but intrigued, enchanted and inspired too. As such, it'll always be a story that means the world to me. (Its ending still retains its unmatched capacity to chill too.)
Gail Simone's Secret Six was in many ways the most audacious and challenging super-book of the period. With a cadre of profoundly dysfunctional super-villains at its core, its themes of empathy, responsibility, and prejudice were delivered with a principled relish unmatched elsewhere. Most remarkably, Simone took all of the modern super-book's most distasteful tropes - from serial killers to blood-splattered torture - and transformed them into vehicles for touchingly humane tales. I've attempted to express my regard for the Secret Six in more than a few posts. Two examples of that can be found here and here. (The scan is by Nicola Scott and can be found in the Secret Six:Unhinged TPB.)
I may not be happy with the way in which I expressed it, and yet, my post about Tom Gauld's captivating and incrementally heart-breaking Goliath is one of the few times in which I said most of what I wanted to. (For a piece on TooBusyThinking, as opposed to one where I've worked gratefully to someone else's word limit, it's untypically brief too.) Gauld's tale is one that I find myself admiring all the more as time passes. To make something so moving out of a tale that can only end with a tragic, foreseeable and inescapable death is no small achievement.
Martin Eden's small-press Spandex, with its team of LGBT super-heroes, deserves to be far, far better known. The appearance of 2012's Spandex: Fast And Hard collection from Titan was a welcome contribution to the raising of Eden's profile, and yet the comic ought to far more than a cult and critical success. It was one of my books of 2012 for Q, and I enjoyed writing about the team's adventures at Sequart too. Sadly, my influence is as limited as it quite rightly deserves to be. But if I could, I'd get every comics reader to try at the very least the comic's third issue - "... If You Were The Last Person On Earth" - which I'd rank as one of the superbook's finest ever. Where other comics use super-heroes as metaphors for minority groups, Eden uses his LGBT characters to discuss not just their own lives, but universal human concerns too. Should you be curious, you can buy all of the Spandex issues, along with a badge, mini-comics, a trading card, mini-artbook and more ,for just £22! Check the offer out here, it really is a bargain.
Terry Wiley's a writer and artist of such exceptional gifts that it's hard to grasp why he's not thoroughly, internationally famous. By turns hilarious and touching, bawdy and sweetly intimate, his Verity Fair depicts the misadventures of middle-aged actress, and master of denial, Verity Bourneville. It's a series which deserves the mainstream attention and applause that the likes of Posy Simmonds quite rightfully receive. You can get the first life-enhancing volume of Wiley's work on the title at Sequential for just £6.99, and that's an absurdly generous offer. I promise you, it's wonderful work, and you can find it here.
Mark Waid acclaimed Rob Williams and Chris Weston's Superman: Saviour as one of the finest tales of the Man Of Steel in many a year, and I'm yet to find anyone who doesn't agree with him. A mix of sumptuously expressive art and a nimbly-told and empathetic script, it can be found in 2013's Adventures Of Superman #12.  It's a story that sidesteps everything of the disastrous Nu52 reinvention of Superman, and yet, it doesn't do so with any fannish sense of entitlement or mission. Of course, you'd not expect that from storytellers as gifted as Williams and Weston, who deliver what's a profoundly touching tale of the relationship between Ma Kent and her adopted son. In its pages, the two creators underscore how Superman's appeal is rooted in his refusal to step away from everyday life. Grounding his absurdly powerful abilities in the roles of son, friend, journalist and citizen, this version of Superman is an inspiring affirmation of what others might scorn as mundane decencies. To Williams and Weston's Clark Kent, the super-suit and the crime-fighting patrols are nothing more or less than an aspect of a necessary duty. Where others struggle to explain why the Clark Kent identity exists at all, or suggest that Superman is a demi-god who's wasted with his traditional cast, Saviour re-emphasises the character's role as an admirable, civic-minded everyman.
Above is a page from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's magisterial A Drifting Life, a huge graphic autobiography that I'm as yet but two-thirds of the way through. Despite that, it's quite obviously one of the finest comics that I've ever encountered. The story of young Hiroshi's post-war rise from Manga-loving reader to comics-consumed professional, it's in some ways the tale of every enthusiast's relationship to their beloved obsessions. 
.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Guest Blogger Lee Robson On "Batman Vs Predator", by Dave Gibbons & Andy and Adam Kubert

In which the writer of the graphic novel "Babble" - and all-round top chap - Lee Robson returns for a second, welcome guest blog, once more on the sometimes under-appreciated cross-company team-ups of the Nineties. If you've not come across it before, Lee's first post at TooBusyThinking - about the decade's Batman/Spider-Man tales - can be found here;

  
So, Colin has been gracious enough to let me return for another guest post, and this time, I want to talk about another inter-company crossover, Batman vs Predator...

Yeah, I can already see peoples eyes rolling and starting to click away from the blog, but I'm more than prepared to stake my claim here and say that, while it's still fondly remembered by some, it's one of those books that's been unfairly overlooked by the majority of comic readers down the years due to the very nature of it. I know people reading this will be thinking "it's a novelty comic, right? Batman fighting the alien from the films? How good could it be?" Well, pretty damn good, actually…

What a lot of people may not know about Batman vs Predator is that it was actually written by Dave Gibbons and the art was by Andy and Adam Kubert (Andy on pencils, Adam on inks and letters; Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh provides the colours). By today's standards, those three would be classed as superstar creators and the news of their teaming up on anything would be a Big Thing in the comics world, but, back in 1991, when this was originally released, Gibbons was only starting to make his mark as a mainstream writer and the brothers Kubert had yet to put their stamp on the X-Men universe. That, in itself, makes Batman vs Predator an interesting mini-series, as we're getting to see these creators on the cusp of becoming the stars they are now.


Of course, it would've been easy for them all to just phone in their work on something like this. After all, inter-company crossovers can be fun, but it's clear that, sometimes, the creators involved are just there to cash cheques and fill pages. But Batman vs Predator has a very different feel to it, as if Gibbons and the Kuberts are determined to use this to show the world (and editors) the full extent of their skills, and that approach lifts this up to a different level, one that you really don't expect; you can almost feel the creators collective hunger for bigger and better things radiating off the page (it's telling, too, that the 1995 sequel by the then established creative team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy feels very dull and hackneyed by comparison).

The main problem with the superhero vs Predator comics is that the creators have to come up with some way to either disable the superhero's powers to give the Predator even the remotest chance of being a threat to them, or do something to the Predator to enhance it; in Superman vs Predator, for example, Superman is infected with an alien virus that gradually drains his powers, while in JLA vs Predator, we're introduced to the concept of Meta-Predators, who - and I can't believe I'm actually going to type this - have the powers of the JLA. But, as we all know, Batman doesn't have any superpowers (although, cleverly, JLA vs Predator skips over the fact Batman has a Predator with his "powers" by...never actually mentioning it), so, right off the bat, we're in the familiar wheelhouse of the Predator films, with a "regular" guy being singled out for the hunt.

But, as anyone who's read Batman vs Aliens knows, a simple concept can go radically wrong (the dark streets and alleys of Gotham are the perfect place for Aliens to hide, so, of course, that story transplants Batman to the jungle...). Fortunately, Batman vs Predator manages to avoid that by simply borrowing the basic premise from the much maligned Predator 2: a heatwave hits Gotham City, attracting the attention of the alien hunter, but, rather than Danny Glover proving he doesn't need Celebrity Anti-Semite Mel Gibson to be in an action film, it comes up against The Dark Knight.


While the Predator is pretty much the same monster from the films - right down to the strange hunters code it follows and the additional weaponry from Predator 2 - we're introduced to a very 90's take on Batman. He's not the still slightly camp character of the early part of the 1980's, but nor is he the All Conquering Bat-God of the 2000's; this is a Batman that has the focus and determination of his Year One self, but one who's older and wiser, and very much at home at street level, tackling organised crime. This is also a Batman who seems to exist in a world without other superheroes to call on (but, let's be honest: he just wouldn't call on them for help, because, well, he's Batman); with no Bat-Villains included, either, and the Bat-Supporting cast pared down to its bare bones (both problems the two Batman vs Predator sequels never really got around), the whole story becomes lean and tight, which gives the narrative a real pin sharp focus that serves it well.

The story opens with a boxing match (which is thematically appropriate, if a little on the nose), which not only introduces all of the cannon fodder main supporting players. Alex Yeager and Leo Brodin are criminals gone legitimate (or, in Brodin's case almost legit), but both are rivals and both are backing the fighters, which many see as another shot being fired in their fued; when the Predator kills Yeager's champion, Marcus King, Brodin is immediately put in the frame, until his fighter is killed by the alien, leading the police to think there's a new serial killer in town. Then, of course, Batman gets involved and the Predator turns its full attention to him, and gives us one of the cooler moments of the comic:
  

I think that's kind of fun, that Batman's got this so down now, he can lose a Predator without even trying.

But it also shows the limits of the Predator technology in a way that I don't think has been explored anywhere else (and I'll put my hands up and admit I've only read a handful of the Predator comics from Dark Horse, so I may be completely wrong about that). It can track heat signatures and the shapes people give off, but if someone changed their shape - like by taking off a stylised cowl - the Predator wouldn't actually know it was the same person. It's actually a pretty clever piece of work, and just one of many that Gibbons throws into the script.

Another thing that strikes you about the writing is how quickly everything's put into place. By the end of the first page, we're introduced to Yeager and Brodin, while on the next two, the Predator "introduces" itself and finds a place to operate from (a scrap yard, with the boxing match continuing on a TV set to punctuate the action and provide the alien with the cue to get the story rolling). Going back to the boxing match, we're introduced to Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, the Mayor and the various relationships they have with each other (Gordon and the Mayor don't get on, while the latter is quite friendly with Yeager, and neither of them really know Bruce Wayne outside of his playboy image). In just four pages the stage is completely set and we're ready to go.

Gibbons pushes the narrative along by packing each page with panels, which gives you a lot more story for your buck, but at the same time, does feel as if it's limiting the artists ability to cut loose. However, the script adopts a more cinematic approach, dropping internal narrative captions and relying on dialogue and sound effects to tell the story - and keep it in the general ballpark of the Predator films - which, in turn, allows the Kubert's stunning, crystal clear visuals to carry the weight. It's a canny move by Gibbons, and it's clear his time working with a wide variety of writers has given him a unique perspective on sequential narrative that he brings to bear here; this is a series written by an artist for an artist. But it's also written for the readers and, crucially, it never loses sight of that.

And, of course, it also gives us some pretty great moments - including the cliffhanger from the end of the first issue:

  
After Batman escapes, he goes off to lick his wounds and is actually relegated to the background for the most part, leaving us with a strange second issue that actually gives the rest of the cast a chance to shine, and their stories to be fleshed out more. Before they're all killed off.

No, really.

By the end of the second issue, all of the new characters introduced are dead at the hands of the Predator. It seems kind of odd, on the surface, doing that, but it's a brilliant narrative move that takes you off guard and really ratchets up the tension for the big finale. The characters and their relationships are drawn out enough with the first two issues to give you a sense of who they are and why they're in the story (and they all serve a purpose), which does make their deaths that little bit more of a surprise, but - more importantly - it also serves to push the narrative on; the creators give the Predator a clear goal rather than just have it perform a series of grisly deaths to fill pages, and it sees it through with singular focus that actually reminds you of a certain Caped Crusader…

Things regarding Gibbons scripting really become clearer with this second issue, too, as you realise that he's saving splash pages for big, dramatic story beats, rather than just throwing them in because they look cool or because a page count needs to be met (and that's something a lot of writers could learn). Take for example, the first of the two splash pages from the same issue:



There's a palpable sense of something building up to that moment, with the Predator going after the rest of the crime families, Gordon becoming desperate to find Batman and Alfred determined to keep Bruce away from it all in case he gets himself killed. And then, we have the above page, which punctures the tension that's been growing throughout the issue and leaves us thinking that maybe, just maybe, Batman is actually gone.

It also leads into one of the best sequences in the book, with the Predator going after Jim Gordon. It's established in the first few pages of the very first issue that this is not the milquetoast Commissioner Gordon of the old Batman TV show, but rather an older version of the battle hardened, world weary Gordon we were introduced to in Year One; he's tough and cynical, not afraid to speak his mind to those above him, but also knows to pick his battles carefully


But he's also Batman's friend, and the Predator making an attempt on his life genuinely feels personal, somehow, like it's crossing a line - and, given that the rest of the cast have been wiped out, it does leave you wondering if Gordon is in the frame to be next (with this being out of continuity, it was possible. Unlikely, but possible). That scene also serves to bring Batman back into the story proper and set the stage for the final showdown; even though he's not fully recuperated from his previous encounter, he comes back to take down the Predator once and for all, with a brand new Bat-Suit:


With the final issue, the decks are cleared for Gibbons and the Kubert's to floor the accelerator and really let rip, showing us why this mini-series is, indeed, called Batman versus Predator.

Of course, it's not a straight knock down fight - he might be Batman, but even he's never going to win a toe-to-toe punch up with a seven foot tall, super strong alien killer - but it is an issue of wall-to-wall action that has a real kinetic fluidity that never lets up until the final page. Gibbons paces the issue perfectly injecting it all with a real sense of drama and tension, while the Kubert's bring it all to brilliant, vivid life on the page. Their storytelling remains clear as glass through it all, reminding you - as if you needed reminding - why they're so acclaimed as artists.

It would've been easy for all of the creators to lapse into self-indulgence here, especially with some of the imagery (the picture at the top of this post, taken from a two page spread, is probably as close as they come), but it's abundantly clear they're all committed to telling the story and bringing it to it's natural conclusion - and the ending does feel like a natural conclusion, with only one clear winner (although, I think we can guess who it is).


The script continues its use of elements from the two Predator films to reach that ending, though: Batman leads the Predator out of the city (with a couple of moments that bring to mind scenes from Predator 2), heading into the outskirts and the grounds of Wayne Manor, where he lures the alien into some carefully laid traps (much like Dutch at the end of the original Predator), before they end up in the Batcave. Rather than hang lampshades on these bits, Gibbons smooths them into the story effortlessly by mixing them with various pieces of Bat-Lore (one of the traps includes Batman using a device to stir up some bats and take the Predator off guard), and makes them feel like an organic part of the narrative. It also makes the whole thing feel like a real mix of the two "worlds" rather than just a Batman story that happens to feature an alien hunter that could be any generic monster (again, something the two sequels never seemed to get around).

Of course, Batman being Batman, he has a pretty extensive bag of tricks at his disposal (sonar to detect the Predator when it goes invisible, tranquilisers to try and knock it out and steel cages to trap it), but you can't help but feel that it's all building up to a pretty silly joke:


Batman grabs a bat to take on the Predator in the final pages. I mean, yeah, you could argue that it's symbolic and saying something about the different types of sport and the characters attitude to it, and even continues the sporting theme that's been running through the series, but, really, it's just Batman with a bat. Although, you can't help but wonder if Gibbons would've preferred it to be a cricket bat..

The ending, however, is another scene reminiscent of Predator 2, with the wounded alien's compadres turning up... I won't say any more on that front, because it'll give too much away (if you can truly spoil a comic that was released over 20 years ago), but that whole sequence shows off the Kubert's beautiful storytelling; it's so simple and elegant, but also drips with tension, as you wonder - if you haven't seen Predator 2, of course - what's going to happen. But, to find out, you'll have to read the series...


Looking back on this now, Batman vs Predator still holds up beautifully. It really does showcase what a terrific writer Dave Gibbons actually is (anyone wanting to learn how write and pace action sequences in comics could do worse than check this out), while the Kubert's just take you to school with their panel-to-panel storytelling and page compositions.

But they all do this with an unashamed passion, not just for the characters involved, but also the comics medium as a whole. The creators put their egos to one side and just get on with telling the story they've got to tell, rather than trying to "improve" what they didn't like about the Predator franchise without really understanding the basics of it. Because of that approach, Gibbons and the Kubert's give us a razor sharp and completely unpretentious comic series that goes beyond the novelty of just seeing two pop culture icons in a comic story together and into the realms of "must read NOW".

However, Batman versus Predator does leave you with a burning question: what if the aliens return...?


Lee Robson is the north east based writer and co-creator of the critically acclaimed indie graphic novel Babble, published by Com.X in 2013. He's also a regular contributor to the Eagle Award nominated anthology FutureQuake, its sister publication, Something Wicked and the acclaimed Accent UK series of themed anthologies (Robots, Western, Predators and Zombies 2 are out now). There's a link to his daily Judge Dredd strip with Bolt1 here, and his Tumbler is here. You can also find his blog at http://www.imaginarystories.co.uk or follow him on Twitter, @lee_robson.

I really appreciate Lee bringing his enthusiasm and insight to this final week of TooBusyThinking. Lee, you're an egg! Should you want to know more about Lee's projects, you could do worse than follow this link to the TooBusyThinking interview with both his good self and artist Bryan 'Brigonos' Coyle. There the two discuss Babble and a great deal more.