Jun
24

Because I Was Kind of A Jerk to Mark Waid on Twitter

Posted by Chris Eckert on Wednesday, June 24th, 2015 at 11:41:53 PM

Earlier tonight I responded to the announced creative team for Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers book with the following tweet:

Was this snarky? Probably. Was it justifiable? Yes and no. To clarify, here are three things that are frustrating about the all-too-neccesary efforts Marvel and DC (and really, all of American media) are making to produce entertainments that depict something other than white dudes. Read the rest of this entry »

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May
12

RIP, Lawrence Business That Did a Commercial That Had Batman Torturing Osama bin Laden!

Posted by Chris Eckert on Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 at 09:42:27 PM

I don’t know about anyone else, but as a former resident of Lawrence, Kansas my social media was BLOWING UP today with news of the demise of Payless Furniture, a fixture of the edge of the town where the Target and the movie theater were. I don’t know anyone who ever actually purchased furniture from them, or even set foot in their store, but they were known for having big signs and flashing lights on their storefront, and taking out local ads during the sort of things I watched in college (professional wrestling, BET ComicView, the then-new Adult Swim programming block) that were dumb and obnoxious in a way that probably would have gone viral had YouTube existed.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Apr
24

The Punisher: A Conservative Fantasia Part One

Posted by Chris Eckert on Friday, April 24th, 2015 at 12:29:15 PM

I realize all of this is slightly premature since there is one more issue of The Punisher coming before Secret Wars kicks in, one that promises to address “what will happen to those Frank has left in his wake” so it’s possible that this issue will feature a repudiation of everything that has come so far. But having now re-read the current Punisher series by Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads (with assistance from Kevin Maurer, Carmen Carnero, Moritat, Felix Ruiz, Brent Schoonover, and others) I can’t help but notice an incredibly obvious and pretty gross conservative undercurrent that is extreme even for a series about the Punisher. The overall storyline is very much the simultaneous government-fearing/military-worshiping sort of thing you get out of the modern conservative movement, and the downright contempt held for the (primarily minority) criminal class, repeatedly labeling them “thugs” and “homies” and “the have-nots” is hard to ignore. In the interest of brevity, this first exploration of the series is going to focus on the latest in a series of “women pushed too far” who become acolytes of the Punisher. Bear in mind, the pages excerpted below comprise the majority of the pages she appears in, so I feel like I haven’t lost any nuance or depth the character has been given. Wait, she took some night school classes in art so she could identify the skull ring as a “memento mori” because she doesn’t want to be just “a pretty face on the force.” There you go, all the background required or given on the character!

In The Punisher #1, Frank gives a skull ring he took from the bullet-ruined hand of a drug runner (who he subsequently pushed into the water and calmly watched get eaten by alligators) to an unnamed female police officer:

skullring01 Read the rest of this entry »

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Apr
23

Oh, So THAT’S Why the Current Punisher Series Reads That Way

Posted by Chris Eckert on Thursday, April 23rd, 2015 at 11:25:08 AM

I picked up a couple of trades from the library of the current Punisher series by Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads a couple of months back. I thought the art was nice, but felt the storytelling made me uneasy. I’m not upset about the alternative take on the Punisher himself: long-running iconic IP has to be flexible, and if Edmondson/Gerads’ take on Punisher is that he’s a sardonic, handsome man who has a regular diner he posts up at and befriends the other regulars, so be it. But beyond the character himself, the stories make out Punisher to be a role model not only to random street vigilantes, but explicitly to active members of the military and the police. There’s even a cop who is taken off the force for trumped up charges and decides that maybe her best recourse for TRUE JUSTICE is to go Punisher and start indiscriminately mowing down all of the “urban” “savage” “thugs”, which is to say a bunch of youthful minorities. Similarly, the Punisher saves some military folks from a Mexican drug cartel, and they are so inspired by his example they take his war over to Afghanistan, in scenes that also involve indiscriminately mowing down a bunch of people who aren’t white.

As highlighted by some heated exchanges yesterday on Twitter, part of this second story is an allusion to real-life figures like “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, whose group really did wear Punisher skulls while fighting overseas. Early on in that discussion, someone off-handedly commented somewhere that both Edmondson and Gerads are “avowed conservatives” and while that is certainly an easy inference to make from the book itself, any sort of personal avowal was news to me, so I started Googling.

One of the hits for “Nathan Edmondson” “conservative” is an interview from 2009 that doesn’t have anything to do with his own beliefs, but happened to mention off-handedly how “[Edmondson] recently “retired” from [his] position (as Director of International Programs at the Leadership Institute) to write full time.”

That name rang a bell, and sure enough, The Leadership Institute “provides training in campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, youth politics, and communications. The Institute teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media.” According to Wikipedia, its alumni includes luminaries such as Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Jeff Gannon, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence. As to Edmondon’s involvement with the Institute, there isn’t much out there besides a number of references to his position, including one in a 2008 newsletter from the World Congress of Families, a group that not only actively opposes gay marriage in the United States, but straight up repped for Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” laws last year.

While I have no idea what Ales Kot was referring to, and have no way of seeing into the heart of Edmondson or anyone else involved with this book, he certainly does seem to be a conservative! Which explains a great deal about this current run on the Punisher.

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Apr
1

The Buyers Guide to DC’s Convergence’s Battleworlds

Posted by Chris Eckert on Wednesday, April 1st, 2015 at 11:17:23 PM

So Convergence came out today, and it sets up a story that everyone is calling a rip-off of Marvel’s impending Secret Wars event. Obviously, both stories are callow rip-offs of Countdown: Arena, which itself was a crude homage to when I was a kid and had my Transformers fight my Star Wars toys and invade my brother’s Castle Grayskull. I laughed scornfully at Marvel’s big “Reading List” for Secret Wars, since it assumes you’ll want to read every single little side-continuity that will be thrown into its own mini-series this summer:

secretwarsreading

Come on, do people really need to read Future Imperfect or Weirdworld or Secret Wars II just to get the references coming up? Probably not. But it wasn’t until I read Convergence that I realized it was at least rather smart of Marvel to present readers the option.

DC identified 41 “Universes” that will be mashed together like the Darth Vaders, Soundwaves and Man-E-Faces of my youth. Some of them span thousands of comics, while one of them barely spans a comic book at all. A great many of them are completely out of print. One of them seems to confuse Atlanta with Seattle. Without doing all that much research, here is your Buyers Guide to the World of Convergence! Read the rest of this entry »

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Jan
13

Let Us Look Back at Wizard’s Twelve Sexiest Moments in Comics

Posted by Chris Eckert on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 at 02:49:23 PM

It’s 2015, and Wizard: The Guide to Comics hasn’t been published in almost four years. But it’s been at least a decade since Wizard actually mattered. There are many comics readers out there who don’t remember when Wizard was an important industry organ, and may not even know what Wizard’s deal was. In short: it came of age right as Image (and Valiant, and a legion of other New Universes) was ascendant, when gimmick and variant covers walked the Earth like titans, and people were excited about how superheroes were going to become multimedia sensations and genuine investments.

Over twenty years after Wizard began, superheroes and comics dominate the media landscape, Image has matured into a genuine powerhouse publisher of all manner of comics, Valiant is back for its third or fourth attempt, and pretty much everything else Wizard represented has faded into vaguely frightening punchlines. But it’s still worth remembering Wizard. For those who never read it, Wizard’s editorial voice calcified in the mid 1990s into “A fraternity run by middle schoolers who have never actually had a beer or seen a boob, but are really excited at the ideas of both.” So in 2001, Wizard peppered its Price Guide section with a dozen of “SUMMER SIZZLERS: COMICS’ SEXIEST MOMENTS.”

Looking back at these twelve moments gives us a nice snapshot of where the comics press (and to an extent, pop culture) lived thirteen years ago. I tried to enlist my roommate Jessica (who definitely never read Wizard) to comment on each of these picks too, but she got through about three before she started skimming and declining the offer with a “GAHHHHHHH. Gross. So many terrible thiiiiiiings. Ugh.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Feb
28

Avenging the Week: A Comeback?

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Friday, February 28th, 2014 at 04:18:26 PM

[Originally posted on Between the Stations, where you can find more Jamaal-y goodness about pop culture. I typically post these linkblog posts on that site (check out weeks 0, 1 and 2), but decided to reblog this one here because of the comics-related commentary.]

Another sleep deprived week with Jamie the Bean… This was supposed to go up on Saturday, but you know, life and all.

This week: links, a new playlist and a rambling rant. On a personal note, I’m still planning to run in the Run for the Wild 5k run held by the Wildlife Conservation Society. All donations are welcome and will help the WCS protect African elephants from the high demand for illegal ivory. If you can’t donate, please consider running in the race (if you’re in the New York area) or a race like it in your neck of the woods. Click here to support and here to participate. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

Songs of the Week 

Light and Truth from 1283210117 on 8tracks Radio.

Rambling Rant of the Week

ff_team

fantastic21f-1-web

The Fantastic Four is an amazing idea from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a blend of adventure, monster and superhero comic that has endless story possibilities. It’s also a valuable piece of intellectual property owned by Marvel Worldwide, one of the strategic brand priorities of Disney Consumer Products, one of the five business segments of the Walt Disney Company. The Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox ( a multinational formed from the ashes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) purchased the film rights to the Fantastic Four from Marvel before it was purchased by the Walt Disney Company. The Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation released two movies based on the Fantastic Four property. Although the movies grossed over $600 million worldwide, Fox wanted to replicate the success of the Walt Disney Company, which had generated over $5.6 billion in revenue from the movies set in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, so they decided to reboot the franchise with a new director and a new cast (on an unrelated note, they also decided to extend the X-Men franchise of films (over $2.3 billion) with Days of Future Past and Apocalypse). The new Fantastic Four movie will be directed by Josh Trank, the guy behind Chronicle, the almost good movie about teenagers with superpowers. As you almost certainly know, the cast was announced this week and will feature Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Jordan’s a young African American actor most well known for his confident, layered performances in the Wire, Friday Night Lights and Fruitvale Station. This announcement created a mild controversy on the internet, since the Human Torch has always been depicted as a blond haired, blue eyed white guy.

Does changing the race of a character like the Human Torch really matter? Of course, if only because making him non-white means that writers were obligated to tie him to a specific culture and background. Most of Marvel/DC’s characters/properties are white by default, but only in the most generic way imaginable – the vast majority are featureless WASPs from a culture that only exists in advertising campaigns. One of the problems with treating white people as some kind of default ethnic/racial group is that we forget that ‘white’ is a broad category that contains a diverse array of cultures and subcultures. We should expect writers to dig below generic racial designations to explore the rich diversity within a group for all white and black characters. Although there are a handful of white characters who are assigned a specific ethnic background, they typically tend to be little more than a collection of crude ethnic stereotypes or their background serves as a piece of trivia.

This is not accidental. It’s important to remember that these characters were originally designed as children’s entertainment in action-adventure stories and rooting the characters in a specific time, place or culture wasn’t a priority. They were archetypes, folk heroes for kids in post-war America. The details didn’t matter. Over the years, these characters have become valuable intellectual properties and brands designed to appeal to mass audiences, and preserving some ambiguity around a character’s background is useful, particularly when property owners want the character to appeal to a multi-generational international audience over an extended period of time. During the same period, writers and artists told hundreds of stories about these characters (many of which were considered ‘official’ parts of that character’s history), but at their core, they are still archetypes. Johnny Storm is the hot-headed younger brother who loves fast cars and faster women. A guy who doesn’t take things too seriously and is both brighter and braver than he knows. A guy who can look like anyone.

The bigger question is whether the casting decision should matter at all to audiences who want to see stories informed by a wide range of cultural experiences featuring people of different backgrounds on the silver screen. No. I’ll be excited when I see a superhero story about an original fully realized character from an underrepresented group developed by creators from diverse backgrounds. I’ll be even more excited if Mr. Jordan continues to get roles that are equal to his talent.

Images of the Week

directors

blackdirectors

 

behindscenes

via Nina Liss-Shultz at Mother Jones. Check out the Women’s Media Center’s bracing report on the status of women in the media here (pdf). This is something we should keep in mind every awards season. It’s hard to think of the handful of nominees as the best American film has to offer when the barriers to entry for women and people from diverse backgrounds are so high.

2014-02-21 19.06.55

-Javier Pulido, with color art by Muntsa Vicente and lettering/production by VC’s Clayton Cowles, She Hulk #1. Words by Charles Soule. This is one gorgeously composed comic. Everything about this page is amazing – from the layout that makes the reader feel like they are trapped in a maze to the use of the text in the word balloons as a way to simulate the feeling of being buried in legal jargon. I also can’t help but love Soule’s capsule history of Tony Stark’s business concerns.

2014-02-23 17.59.54

-Aaron Kuder, with color art by Wil Quintana and letters by DC lettering (really DC?), Action Comics #28. Words by Greg Pak. I love the way Kuder and Quintana depict emotion. Lana’s warm smile shows readers all they need to know about the relationship between the two characters.

Podcast of the Week

Jamelle Bouie (the Daily Beast) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Atlantic Monthly) join NPR/Post-Bourgie‘s Gene Demby to discuss the Michael Dunn murder trial. Brilliant stuff. In a perfect world, the three would have a monthly (or even quarterly) podcast.

Trailer of the Week

The Hip-Hop Fellow, a documentary following 9th Wonder as he teaches a “Standards of Hip-Hop” course at Harvard University, explores the relationship between hip-hop and academia and the rise of hip-hop studies. via 2 Dope Boyz.

 

That’s all for now. See you next week! And let me know if you’re interested in seeing more of these on Funnybook Babylon!

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Jan
30

Invisible Readers

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Thursday, January 30th, 2014 at 08:30:57 AM

[originally posted on Between the Stations]

I enjoy the insights into the creative process and the business of comics gained from good interviews with comics creators and professionals. I’m not comfortable with the trend of parsing random interviews with comics professionals like policy briefs from the American Enterprise Institute. Even if the subject of the interview is giving well-considered responses, there’s always a risk that something will be expressed in a less-than-perfect manner. It’s the price that we pay for candid interviews, and I think it’s worthwhile. I don’t expect or want perfectly phrased and focus group approved responses. That said, there’s something about this portion of Image Publisher Eric Stephenson’s interview with the Comic Beat’s Heidi MacDonald that unsettled me.

“I think people kind of take for granted how much comics have changed over the last 15, even 13 years ago. Comics fandom didn’t look as it does now when I was growing up, or even when I first started working in comics some 20 years back.”

I appreciate that Stephenson meant well. He’s trying to explain to the interviewer (and readers) how Image Comics (and American comics publishers in general) can use diverse content to cultivate a broader, more diverse audience for their books, which will increase both the demand for and supply of creators with a wide range of backgrounds. I wish that he was a bit more interested in a formal and sustainable diversity and inclusion strategy (which could be a dynamic contributor to Image’s long-term success). It’s important to distinguish strategic diversity management from the kind of crude quotas that were common thirty years ago (and are still common in the NFL). There’s a meaningful difference between setting aside a percentage or number of jobs for non-white, female or transgendered creators and having a proactive approach to working with creators with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas.

On Twitter, Cheryl Lynn Eaton helpfully suggested (I’d quote her twitter account, but her account is protected and I don’t want to repost w/o her permission) that the notion that diverse audiences are showing up at comic stores and conventions for the first time gives publishers the freedom to assume that workforce/creator diversity is a problem that will take care of itself. Stephenson argues that the “more diverse readership we have, the more diverse the people breaking into comics will be in the long run”, but it’s important to realize that diverse audiences are a necessary but insufficient step towards having a lineup of creators that reflect the world. The idea that a demographic shift can result in substantive change is a very attractive idea, but reality is stubborn. If the barriers of entry to an industry are too high, they create a disincentive for potential entrants (the reader from a ‘non-traditional background’ who wants to write and/or draw comics). Those would-be comics writers and artists pursue other fields. They never submit a pitch to Image Comics or have fewer opportunities to gain the storytelling chops and experience that would make their pitch more attractive to the publisher. There needs to be something that links the first idea (diverse readership) to the second (diverse people breaking into comics) and I’d argue that the ‘something’ should be a proactive development/recruitment strategy from the publisher’s side of the table.

That quote shouldn’t bother me. It was a casual interview with a journalist after a demanding product expo, not an official press release or report to investors. It’s entirely possible that Stephenson was simply thinking out loud. It’s possible that Image will come up with a strategy in the coming years, after all they do seem to be more interested in workforce diversity than their competitors. So why does that quote bother me?

When I first started reading comics in elementary school, everyone I knew – male, female, black, white, Latino – read comics. We didn’t all read the same comics, but everyone picked up something from the local newsstand.

The first comics store opened in my neighborhood on Flatlands Avenue in the early nineties, right around a high school and a junior high school that were racially and culturally diverse. It was during one of the speculator eras – multiple chrome covers, comics in special sealed bags and overpriced back issues. The store was always crowded, especially between 1:30 and 4:00. The high school crowd came early and the younger kids came late. The older kids were in and out. The junior high and elementary school kids hung around the store, arguing over trading cards and surreptitiously reading the comics on the shelves. There were fewer women, and many of them read different comics, but they were there. I still remember having to navigate through a sea of brown faces to pick up my copy of Rob Liefeld’s X-Force.

My dad took my brother and I to a bunch of comics conventions in midtown Manhattan when I was a kid. I awkwardly chatted with the pros of the day. All were generous with their time. I think I still have a composition book full of sketches in my mom’s apartment. My brother was awed by the art. I’ve always wondered if those experiences helped spark his passion for art and design. I loved the art, but it was the stories that got me. I spent (what felt like) hours digging through long boxes in an effort to find an issue (or many issues) that would complete a story I was reading, and frequently got sidetracked by some compelling new book. My dad would reminisce about the good old days with the creators that shared his memories for comics in the fifties and sixties and the creators that made the comics from that era. The three of us weren’t in the majority, but we weren’t alone.

I know that my experiences may not be typical. I know that anecdotes are no substitute for hard data. I know that from the perspective of the so-called Direct Market, the typical comics reader is a white male somewhere between the ages of 18 and 49. But I can’t completely disregard my lived experience, which tells me that I saw plenty of African Americans, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese and Korean people at stores and at conventions. Even though there were far more men than women, there were always a fair number of women there. I’m sure that there were a decent number of people from the LGBTQ community. The audience for comic books has become broader over the last five years, but when people blithely state that comics fandom was traditionally composed of white guys, it suggests that all the people who crowded the stores and conventions of my youth were invisible. I know it wasn’t intentional, but it’s still a little heartbreaking.

More on this later.

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Dec
4

Full Circle, or Learning to Appreciate the Single Issue

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 at 04:45:39 PM

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about change in superhero comics, the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Giffen’s Legion of Superheroes. I originally planned to post at Funnybook Babylon, but after some image insertion issues, I posted at Between Stations, my personal blog about pop culture. Go check it out. I had a lot of fun writing it and hope you enjoy reading it. Anyway, writing that post reminded me that it took me years to collect and read DC’s 12 issue Crisis on Infinite Earths series. I bought the fourth issue sometime in 1986 and didn’t complete my collection until around 1989. I missed chunks of Secret Wars, Kraven’s Last Hunt and the Judas Contract.

Other than the books that I read at the homes of my older cousin (he had long boxes) or at my best friend’s house (his mom received piles of comps from DC), I rarely read complete arcs of any serialized superhero comic. Although I was always familiar with the broad thrust of the stories, I frequently had to piece the narrative together from fragments of a story obtained over an extended period of time. Although American superhero comics were sold in more locations and read by a wider audience in the 1980’s, in some ways it feels like they are far more accessible now than they were a quarter century ago. The densely plotted and serialized superhero books may vastly outnumber the self-contained, episodic ones, but it’s worth considering that most of the barriers to accessing stories and learning about past ones fell with robust trade programs, digital comics, the expansion of libraries that lend comic trade collections and the rise of the online comics reader community. In the eighties, the stories may have been easier to follow but they were also harder to find.

Access shapes one’s reading experience. When I first started reading comics, the most convenient place to find them was a newsstand or a 7-11. Every once in a while my dad took me to Forbidden Planet, the New York institution that felt like the comic book promised land, or to the annual comics conventions that were in midtown Manhattan, but my reading selection was mostly limited to the books that the newsstand/7-11 owner happened to stock in the store that week.

I missed a lot. I missed the beginning of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Born Again, but caught the thrilling conclusion. I read about Galactus’ destruction of the Skrull homeworld in John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, but missed the subsequent Trial of Reed Richards until I found it in a dollar bin years later.

I knew that these stories were a part of a vast narrative that spanned decades, but I experienced them as tiny self-contained pieces of culture. I focused on the smaller stories told in individual issues and treated the larger arcs as an entertaining backdrop.

I’ve written about how gaps in storytelling can give readers the opportunity to imagine and engage with the story, but these spaces are also a reminder that plot details aren’t always so important. You don’t have to know everything about Karen Page (or heroin) to appreciate her redemptive arc in Born Again. Everything you need to know about her and her story is between the pages of any individual chapter of Born Again. More importantly, you don’t need to know plot details to appreciate the craft on display, from Mazzuchelli’s brilliant storytelling to Miller’s crisp dialogue.

There were very few comic book stores in my area of Brooklyn when I was in elementary school. The closest comics store to my house was Cris’ Collectibles, a comic book/baseball card/assorted stuff shop in Mill Basin, the neighborhood that bordered my own. It was a cramped, friendly store that featured almost all of the major titles published by Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. It was also about a mile away, which felt like an impossibly long distance for an eight year old. When a comic store opened on Flatlands Avenue (four blocks away!) in 1991 and ComicMania (later Bulletproof Comics) opened near the Junction the following year, it felt like a minor miracle. I was finally able to read the books the way they were supposed to be read. I finally had context, but it didn’t improve my reading experience at all. I thought that I had what I wanted, the “complete story”, but in retrospect, I think I valued them more as individual issues in a near vacuum than as a part of a vast narrative that spans decades. Once I became more of a follower of the Marvel/DC/Image/Valiant narratives than the individual issues and stories, it was easier to drop them when the story began to feel dull and repetitive. When I returned to superhero comics in the early aughts it wasn’t for the vast narrative of any publisher, it was for the creators. I still enjoyed the larger stories and intricate plots, but my attention was mostly focused on the craft behind individual issues. I used to buy every issue of a title that I was following or a writer’s ‘run’ of issues, regardless of whether it was a pointless crossover or if the artist was replaced with a less capable fill-in artist.

As a kid, I always thought that I was missing out on something and yearned for the kind of access that I now have to stories and information about superhero comics. It took me a long time to realize that everything I needed to appreciate superhero comics was between the covers of whatever issue I happened to have in my hands.

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Oct
11

Why Don’t We Know More About Superhero Eating Habits?

Posted by Chris Eckert on Friday, October 11th, 2013 at 08:56:13 PM

I’ve been reading a lot of Incredible Hulk comics by Len Wein (with Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema). I’ve been reading a lot of everything really; sitting by a sporadically ringing telephone has literally been my job description for the past nine months . At first I read books that glared at me from my mountainous “To Read” pile, but as the weeks wore on I started just letting whatever was sitting around my local library (or my own bookshelves) guide me.

Which brought me to these issues of Hulk. My dad had a ton of them, and they’ve since been handily collected in a big Essential phonebook. One particular issue held a totemic place in my youth: Hulk #182 directly follows Wolverine’s Collector’s Item First Appearance, and he appears on the first page, jumping onto a helicopter and leaving Hulk to wander through the forest. That’s pretty much all Hulk does in these stories, wander from place to place getting confused and angry.

hulk186-hulkdoesntknow Read the rest of this entry »

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May
20

Off Topic: No More Butlers

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Monday, May 20th, 2013 at 05:30:53 PM

I know that you shouldn’t judge a movie by its trailer, but God, I hate the trailer for The Butler. It wraps all of the problematic bits about Hollywood’s approach to race and history in a single horrifying package. The Butler is the new film from Lee Daniels (director of Shadowboxer, Precious and last year’s Paperboy), adapted from a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, a man who served as a butler for eight American Presidents. You should read Haygood’s article, it’s a pretty fun human interest piece. I would love to watch a movie about Allen’s life, especially one that featured Forest Whitaker, David Oyewolo and even Oprah Winfrey (she’s always been pretty good when she puts her mind to it). After watching the trailer, I suspect that I will be disappointed. The trailer for the Butler is aggressively bland. it suggests that the film will be a ‘prestige’, award grubbing film that will remind me of all of the problems with the way major studio films approach race, history and family.

Forest Whitaker, patiently waiting for his nominations.

The most significant problem is that the narrative suggested by the trailer is incredibly dull. I’d be interested in the story of a man who overcomes a childhood in the Jim Crow South to become a butler to Presidents that focused on his journey and struggles. But there are too many moments in this trailer when someone is talking to (or for) Whitaker or he’s smiling beatifically. We don’t hear enough of his voice or perspective. The parade of amusingly miscast Presidents is fine, but I care less about his marginal impact on their views on race than about how he maintained a healthy relationship with his wife despite the demanding hours of his profession or how his experience as a sharecropper informed his parenting. I hope that we’ll see more of the latter, but the trailer doesn’t look too promising.

The trailer’s banal depiction of the relationship between father and son would have been tolerable if the son’s evolution from Freedom Rider to Black Panther and the generational conflict that results from that transformation wasn’t so disappointing. I have no doubt that real people have had the experience depicted in the film, but I’d be far more interested in a narrative that embraced the complexity and fascinating paradoxes of the movement and that didn’t characterize the distinctions between the two arms of the civil rights movement as a generation gap. There were plenty of older folk (including veterans of the civil rights movement) that sympathized with (or embraced) the radicals. Similarly, there were plenty of Panthers (and members of other ‘radical’ groups) that had no experience in the movement, and were simply radicalized by being a black person in mid-century. The trailer suggests that the Butler will embrace the traditional Hollywood approach to Civil Rights that embraces the standard consensus we all learn in middle school and ignores the diversity within the movement and the community. Instead of showing us something new, it’s a highlight reel of all the things that mainstream America remembers re: the African American community. It’s a wasted opportunity.

The same could be said of the trailer’s depiction of Presidents from the second half of the twentieth century. These were the first Presidents of the television era, and it would be fun to see a look at the way that their behavior reinforces and/or confounds conventional wisdom. The trailer shows us glimpses of every President from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Nixon (John Cusack) (with a quick appearance by Reagan (Alan Rickman)) with an emphasis on Kennedy (James Marsden).

I wanted the trailer to show us a more nuanced Kennedy than we were accustomed to seeing in popular culture – a man struggling with his appetites, legacy and mixed feelings about civil rights and the Cold War. Maybe we’ll see that in the film, but the bits in the trailer don’t look very promising (that whole ‘you helped me understand black people’ bit was cringeworthy). The segments with the other Presidents felt like excerpts from SNL skits (the hilarious casting choices don’t help – seriously, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower?).

This trailer reminds me of all of the films about black life and culture that never see the big screen. I want more stories about notable figures, entrepreneurs and leaders of color. There aren’t enough films about the African American community that are set after the 1960′s that aren’t about drugs or violence.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the trailer fails to capture the nuance of the film. It’s just so bad that I can’t imagine setting aside the time (or spending the money) to give it a chance.

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May
16

The Limits of Metaphor

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Thursday, May 16th, 2013 at 10:00:25 AM

The recent success of movies based on superhero comics has inspired some smart conversation about how the political and social themes buried in the comics should evolve as the franchises are translated in different mediums. It’s a conversation that reminds me of the potential of these stories to explore meaningful issues in other media and the limits of superhero comics published by Marvel and DC.

Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress wrote an interesting post about the themes in superhero narratives, noting that:

“X-Men is an engine for exploring ideas about collective identity, about genetics as a source of identity, about the Holocaust, about the regulation of extraordinary abilities. The toys are extras, not the point. Ditto for Star Trek, where things like warp drives and beaming are a way of getting the characters rapidly into a lot of different situations that are about opening up everything from interracial relationships to the question of whether artificial intelligences have rights. If those ideas get lost in the rise of geek culture as a massively consumed corporate product, we’re losing a lot of what made those franchises so deeply engaging, and objects of such deep identification and debate in the first place.”

I’ll admit, when I first read this, I mistakenly assumed that she was referring to the comics, not the series of films. When it comes to the films, I think she’s mostly right. Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn were explicitly aiming for more than just the typical action franchise with the X-films, and came surprisingly close to sustaining a metaphor for the gay experience. Chris Nolan’s Batman movies were a meditation on the post 9/11 security state and Bryan Singer’s flawed but interesting Superman Returns explored notions of manhood and fatherhood.

In contrast, violence and melodramatic soap opera are so firmly embedded at the core of Marvel and DC superhero comics that it’s much harder to argue that the “toys” aren’t the point. The allusions to identity, community and minorities are effective when used as accents to help the reader fill in the gaps of the fictional world. In superhero books, a writer who borrows the language, imagery and/or motifs that the reader associates with real world is like an artist who uses photo reference to transform generic locations into places that feel real. Think of how Grant Morrison evoked the intergenerational tensions in the civil rights movement in the late 1960′s and the American rock scene in the 1970′s in his run on New X-Men to encourage the reader to imagine a fully realized mutant culture that had never really been fleshed out in the comic books.

The trouble is that whenever a writer of a Marvel or DC superhero comic transforms an allegory for a general idea into one for a specific movement or community, they remind the reader of the weaknesses in the narrative and run the risk of (inadvertently) offending the audience. The paralells to real world events and social movements are frequently amusing but have their limits. Darkseid is a great metaphor and symbol for oppression informed by the Second World War and the Holocaust, but if the writer gets too close to the reality of either event, everything turns horrifyingly perverse (and you’re reminded that there aren’t many stories told about the Hunger Dogs). It’s even tougher for the X-books, where any explorations of the “mutants as oppressed minority” idea are complicated by the absence of a coherent mutant culture.

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It’s fun to think of Professor X and Magneto as Marvel’s Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, until you think about all of the things both men stood for and accomplished. There’s something deeply silly about drawing an analogy between one of America’s great men and a founder of a paramilitary academy for young people or a terrorist and a complicated, brilliant political activist and leader. This was also the main reason why Rick Remender’s now infamous decision to have Havok (the mutant leader of an Avengers team and brother of Cyclops) declare that he wanted to be identified as Alex instead of a mutant was so problematic.

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The scene is intended to evoke the conflict between assimilation and retaining cultural identity within the African American and gay community. Any emotional punch that this moment could have had disappears once one realizes that the character’s statement wasn’t unrealistic or controversial, but completely logical. Unlike every identifiable minority in the real world, the only thing that Marvel’s mutants have in common are the existence of powers and oppression. There is no shared history or traditions, no sense of community. The panel didn’t remind me of people rejecting their sexual or ethnic identity, because there wasnt really anything for Alex to reject. The reminder of a real world conflict (whether in the form of the age-old debates around assimilation in the black community or the closet/end of gay culture debate in the LGBTQ community) only reminded the reader of the narrative seams in the Marvel Universe.

This is not necessary. The powers that be at Marvel can always decide to embrace the implications of a world with mutants and give its writers the freedom to invent and explore a mutant culture. This will never happen. Marvel has maintained a commitment to ensuring that its fictional universe bore some resemblance to the world outside our door since the early 1960′s, and a fully realized mutant culture might undermine that. I also wonder if the use of shorthand that helps creators tell effective superhero stories is the opposite of what’s needed to explore serious ideas about identity, religion or ethics. Maybe we shouldn’t expect these stories to do something that they just weren’t designed to do.

At least we have the films, right? Well, maybe. Although filmmakers have used the film franchises based on Marvel and DC comics as a vehicle to occasionally explore meaningful issues, there’s a real risk that the success of the films will make studios more cautious about allowing them to create a world rich enough to sustain a meaningful allegory. I imagine that this will be a more significant issue if Marvel’s efforts to treat the talent who direct and perform in its films like the talent who write and draw its books is successful. If DC, Fox and Sony replicate this model, many of the elements that make these films more than bland consumer products may be lost.

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May
5

Funnybook Babylon: The Crossword Puzzle!

Posted by Chris Eckert on Sunday, May 5th, 2013 at 01:17:25 PM

wally-crossword

Forget podcasts: all the cool kids are doing crossword puzzles now! And unlike Wally, you don’t even have to have a near-death experience and find one in a gutter to be a cool kid!

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Apr
21

A Long Drive: Betty & Veronica, Remixed

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Sunday, April 21st, 2013 at 02:24:12 PM

This is my favorite comics-related thing of the week. Brandon Graham recently posted two great mini comics on his website (which you should follow) based on a Betty and Veronica short by Gladir and DeCarlo. One is by Graham, and the second is from the talented Emily Carroll. As you might imagine, the stories are gorgeous and visually inventive, but they also transform a plot-driven story into one that’s focused on character.

The original is a wonderful classic short set in the Archie universe – its a pretty conventional ‘seeing reflections of home everywhere’ story.

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We follow Betty and Veronica as they seek adventure outside of the familiar climes of Riverdale and flirt with Don and Benny, two guys they meet at the mall. Once Betty and Veronica realize that Benny and Don are gender-flipped versions of themselves, they get weirded out and decide to leave.

Boo Hoo Deja Vu is a reminder of of the appeal and the limits of Archie Comics stories. There’s something beautiful about the simple purity of the Archie characters – Betty’s a virtuous working class blonde and Veronica’s a popular wealthy brunette. The two compete for the affections of a redhead with freckles. There have been minor changes and embellishments over the years, but the basic idea remains unchanged. At their best, Archie comics deliver the pleasure of soap opera without the distractions of continuity. It’s tremendously entertaining, especially if you read them in the way that they are intended to be read – as confections. You could pay a little more attention and notice that the dialogue is a bit flat and inauthentic, or that there’s not much interaction between the girls, or that the story comes to an abrupt end just as it starts to get interesting, but why would you?

Brandon Graham and Emily Carroll transform a story about deja vu into one about escape from the familiar, from the roles that we create for ourselves (and which are created for us) in high school.

Graham pushes the narrative to the background and narrows the focus to Betty and Veronica. The boys are reduced to mere reflections in a story about friendship between two teenage women.

Background noise

There’s something wonderful about the fact that the boys are completely besides the point in Graham’s version of the tale. It’s all about two girls who’ve decided to put the masks aside and enjoy each other’s company on an impromptu road trip.

Buddies

Graham gently pushes back against the reactionary strains in the original – the lesson that every place reminds you of home is replaced with the notion that the world is filled with strange adventure. He evokes the moment when one first steps outside of the cramped hierarchy of high school and realizes that the world is delightfully strange and unfamiliar.

Carroll goes in the opposite direction and embraces the darker implications of the narrative.

Carroll horror

There’s something vaguely predatory about how Betty and Veronica’s male dopplegangers approach them in this version of the tale, about how they’re in silhouette for the majority of the story and their facial features are never fully identified. Even Don and Benny’s word balloons are sinister. I love how Carroll completely changes the tone without changing a single line of dialogue in the story.

Scary Words

I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the subtext finally became the text and the boys merged into an amorphous blob.

I’m not incredibly familiar with Carroll’s work, but this was pretty fantastic. I’m going to have to follow her work more closely in the future.

I’d love an anthology where creators reimagine random Archie tales. I’d really love to see Archie give the creators working on their books the space to occasionally shift the tone of the stories or do more unorthodox, character-driven work.

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Apr
4

Reading on the Job: I Have a Lot of Problems with Chuck Klosterman

Posted by Chris Eckert on Thursday, April 4th, 2013 at 12:55:19 AM

If you follow my “personal” blog (and let’s be honest, you don’t) you may have noticed that my current work situation involves a grotesque amount of time to Read. This has been a pleasure, as the past few years have shown a marked decrease in actual, sit-down-and-read-something-cover-to-cover Reading. I still read a ton of comics, feature articles, interviews, lengthy blog posts, and other things that count as “reading”, or at least more than skimming USA Today and Buzzfeed does. But ever since I got a smartphone and a tablet, I find a lot of my time formerly dedicated to Reading is now spent listening to podcasts, messaging, chatting, chasing the latest story/controversy on Twitter/Tumblr/Reader.

Even when I sit down to Read something, I find myself drifting away every few pages to look something up: What’s a quincunx? Why does the name Frederick Exley sound familiar? This lady’s birthname cannot seriously be Fuschia Dunlop, can it? Is there a picture of her on the Internet? Is she pretty? And then an hour later I am five pages into the book and two hundred pages into the Internet. With my job’s hermetically sealed cubicle, revelation is deferred, little Reading momentum is lost, and I am forced to write long, demented shopping lists to research in the evening.

I’ve spent most of my days catching up on things I have been meaning to Read over the past few years, and much of my bookshelf is full of “important” (read: sad) subjects: fiction and non-fiction on the decline of the American Empire and the systematic dismantling of our nation by cartoonishly greedy corporations, interviews with an author that are shattering in the hindsight context of his suicide, novels where the world ends in slow prosaic literary ways, memoirs about how that band you liked a lot in high school were mostly miserable, sociopathic junkies. This can get to be distressing when you are sitting at a desk for eight hours a day and ninety percent of that time is given to reading in solitude. Don’t even get me started about the time I was reading an essay about how sitting will kill us all and we received a memo about how we need to limit the amount of time we spend standing because it might distract our co-workers. I quickly realized I should start bringing some Light Entertainment to read as well. Which led me to a book about death from an author I had almost forgotten to dislike.

Coincidentally, this is the same outfit I bought in several color combinations to wear to the aforementioned job.

Coincidentally, this is the same outfit I bought in several color combinations to wear to the aforementioned job.

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