“No Fear” – Recent departures drive home DC’s editorial problems

ivampheader-700x300One of the pillars of my belief system is that I always assume whatever Rob Liefeld says is wrong. It’s gotten me this far. When Liefeld went on a Twitter rant in August, announcing his departure from the New 52 due to editorial interference, I assumed he was deflecting. Liefeld has been known to be hard to work with since his early days at Marvel and the formation of Image in the ’90s and I assumed this was another moment of the impetuous writer and artist trying to play at biting the hand that fed.

But, what if he was right? What if editorial oversight isn’t just letting DC bully writers with Liefeld’s name recognition but also anyone willing to sign on for a project?

Two notable creators left DC this afternoon: Andy Diggle, who was solicited for an upcoming run on Action Comics, and Joshua Hale Fialkov, of I, Vampire and solicited for a run on Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns in June. Admittedly, I was more shocked by Fialkov’s announcement, as he had received critical accolades for I, Vampire and had garnered excitement for both series in the Green Lantern family after having been announced for the job only a month ago.

shadowlandWhile not speaking to media outlets, Fialkov released an abbreviated version of his reasons for leaving the company on his blog. He writes:

“There were editorial decisions about the direction of the book that conflicted with the story I was hired to tell, and I felt that it was better to let DC tell their story the way they want. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’ll miss working with the entire Green Lantern team…This was not an easy decision to make emotionally or financially, but, I’m sure it was the right decision for both me, and for the Green Lantern books.”

So, what could those plans possibly be? I wrote about DC’s push for increased serialization as well as easily marketable crossover and event stories as they pertained to Death of the Family but Fialkov seems to be pointing to a much more endemic problem in the company, one that Liefeld and Diggle both alluded to. Writers don’t seem to have any control of the properties they’ve been contracted or hired for.

1063192-guy_1Bob Harras has held one of the most public tenures as Editor-In-Chief at DC and he’s certainly not a name that brings a smile to the faces of a lot of comics fans. Presiding over Marvel during the company’s near bankruptcy as well as the rightfully maligned Clone Saga and Heroes Reborn, Harras has run something of a lodge club at DC since he rose to the editorial position in 2010. While he was clearly comfortable with co-publisher and former co-worker at Wildstorm Jim Lee, Harras seemed to want to get the band back together and brought over plenty of old names from Marvel’s dark days to fill out the New 52, including Liefeld, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza.

Now, I’m not saying there was anything wrong about Harras early decisions involving the New 52, particularly who would be writing it. Harras assuredly wanted people he knew who would be able to roll out the new initiative rapidly, with the New 52 launching less than a year after he took the position. My problem is those people weren’t going to challenge Harras and it certainly could have had an influence on a sense of editorial control from on high.

1299339418Harras is most at home when he’s tapping into the same forces that mired Marvel in a creative and commercial flop. In a monthly interview on Comic Book Resources, Harras and Editorial Director Bobbie Chase discussed Liefeld’s allegations about editorial control over creators. Harras skirted the question once, saying:

“We’re not going into any specifics, because we can’t address any specifics because of those involved. The thing is, we want everyone who works for DC to be as happy as possible, to feel the creative process is as enjoyable as possible. If there are communication problems with talent, we will always work on it to improve our messaging, but on the whole, I think sometimes there are going to be disagreements. Sometimes there are going to be agreements — it’s all part of the editorial process. But as in anything, it’s something all of us can improve on in terms of communication.”

Harras seems to stress a team spirit in his first quote but he doesn’t really say anything. Of course there are going to be agreements and disagreements in the editorial progress but the way he says it seems to stress that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to those disagreements. The goal of editorial isn’t to keep the creative process “as enjoyable as possible” but to work together with creative, making a project that suits both the publishers as well as the goals of creative. The role of an editor isn’t to be a mediator or judge but rather to be a co-creator in a work. Harras doesn’t seem to see it that way and he points to editorial successes in the New 52, namely a consistent shipping schedule and the success of massive crossovers, to try to strengthen the relationship between creators and editorial, saying.

“…Everyone should be trying to improve all aspects of communication. Everyone should be looking at the process and ways to improve. But in general, I think we’ve got a very talented bunch of creators working with us, putting out the New 52. We have exciting books every month, and that’s what I want to concentrate on. You always have to look at how you can do things better, but I’d also like to focus on what we do well, which is creating stories like “Death Of The Family,” and even “Rotworld,” that’s exciting fans…”

I think both Rotworld and Death of the Family were underwhelming tie-ins, one designed to boost the sales of a pair of critically successful niche titles and the other to continue to boost the sales of one of the company’s best selling titles, with Scott Snyder being involved in both crossovers. It’s more consolidation with the company putting Jeff Lemire, of Swamp Thing, of additional titles that seem to flag behind, including Justice League Dark and the new Constantine. Both are solid writers and both are company men, willing to be involved with massive tie-in projects such as Snyder and Lee’s forthcoming title Superman Unchained, released at a time obviously intended to capitalize on the release of the “Man of Steel” film.

92482472948294I don’t want to frown on Snyder, Lemire or any of the other talented writers and artists who have turned in great work under Harras, Chase and the New 52. Some of them, including Snyder, have defended editorial against Liefeld and others that have berated the changes in DC but there’s a feel of that control. I don’t think Harras is a puppet master and I don’t think he’s willing to dip into the work of his bestselling projects but I do think Harras has encouraged the long form storytelling that he was involved in at Marvel’s worst.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach from a commercial stand point and, as an editor, that’s one of Harras’ biggest concerns. I understand that and don’t blame him for that. My problem is that this approach doesn’t allow for creativity. Writers and artists with a unique perspective like Fialkov aren’t welcome at the table when their ideas don’t fit into a very narrow view for the company and it’s a narrow view that desperately needs widened if DC wants to succeed.

In last week’s interview at CBR, Harras mentions that he wants the New 52 to be open to more than just Batman and Superman titles, saying:

“I think what you’re going to see moving forward, like we’ve done already with the New 52, is that there’s always going to be a mix. We’re not going to give up on the idea of trying new things, new types of genres that led to things like “Animal Man” and “Swamp Thing.” We’re going to continue that: a nice, healthy mix of the bigger heroes, and some new heroes as well.”

It’s a nice thing to say but it implies a necessary risk and it doesn’t seem to be one that Harras is all that interested in taking. Creating comics that allow for consistent growth as well as fan interest and sales requires a partnership between writers, artists and editors, with each being willing to make the sacrifices to create the best products possible. That requires fearlessly allowing creators to tell their story without interference, oversight or the editorial demands.

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“You are now entering Astro City” – Prepping for the return of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s masterpiece

AC Confession HC dustjacket_wpsmDC has made some odd choices as far as new content. Whether they’re regularly canceling series before they hit 10 issues, starting up poorly thought out series solely to tie into upcoming events or constantly changing creative teams, the company feels like it’s stagnating.

But all that feels like it could change with last week’s announcement of the return of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross’ exceptional comic book homage, Astro City. I’ve long put Astro City in the very top of my favorite comics with Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing and David Mack’s Kabuki. It’s a series obsessed with the passing of time, the way the years change us, harden us, ease our burdens and physically wear on a city. With a rich, totally independent history of characters, battles, teams, rivalries and betrayals that span hundreds of years, Astro City is dense but that focus on detail makes the experience much richer. For many readers who’ve come to DC thanks to the attention-grabbing New 52, Astro City is a pretty unfamiliar property, one the company came into after the purchase of Wildstorm, but there’s plenty of fun, easy and fascinating stories to sink into as you walk from Shadow Hill all the way to Mount Kirby.

1-2. “Everyday Life” and “Adventures in Other Worlds”77940_s0The first multi-issue story of the series gives a proper introduction to the First Family, Astro City’s version of the Fantastic Four, but focuses primarily on Astra, the youngest member of the team who has never experienced being a child. Craving the civilian life she dreams of, Astra runs away, leaving the family to deal with her adoptive dinosaur father, Rex, a lecherous lupine adversary, intergalactic threats and a cartoony lecturer. It’s one of the most low-key Astro City stories, focused on the way the young and older members in the family react to threats to their structure but it’s a good peek at how Busiek tries less to deconstruct teams then to humanize them.

3-4. “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Day”jack-in-the-box-14Another early, excellent two-parter, “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Today” demand characters and creators to consider their legacies. When Daredevil-meets-Spider-Man medley Jack-In-The-Box finds out his wife is pregnant, he’s forced to consider what his continued battle against crime could mean and whether he will be able to put on the mask with his wife and child at home. Running parallel to his internal conflict is a hysterical external threat in which a half-robot clown from the future and a fleshy, homicidal fanged being, both claiming to be his child from the future and resembling Cable and Venom respectively, show up to show the effects of an unknown disaster that could befall Jack’s child. It’s an issue where the hero has to make hard choices or risk falling into the dark hole of forced, violent edginess that Busiek clearly abhors.

5. “The Scoop”astrocitypanoramaOne of the things most apparent in the early issues of Astro City is Busiek’s focus on the non-super-powered inhabitants of the city. They deal with the trauma, danger and complicated surreal activities that are everyday life in the metropolis. In the excellent “The Scoop,” one journalist tell the story that would have made his career as a cult, shark-men, the Honor Guard and interdimensional intrusions all rub up against AP style and the need for proper citations. It’s one of the funnier issues and is sure to be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who’s made a living on the crime beat.

6. “Dark Age”astro-city-the-dark-ageIn the final series published before Busiek left the series in 2010, readers are finally treated to the secrets that have hung over the city since the very first issue. In the epic 16 issue arc, two brothers survive the twisted gang violence of the ’70s only to get involved in something much darker as the ’80s begin and The Pale Horsemen comes to Astro City. While the plight of a pair of brothers, both forced into difficult choices by the changing times, provide a clear audience surrogate, the main story is a history lesson in the way the Silver Age changed into the darker, ethical complexities of the Bronze Age. There are so many great touches, between the fall of the Silver Agent, the arrival of the visually similar Blue Knight, the transformation of Simon Magus into the Swamp Thing-esque Green Man, the marginalization of the First Family and many characters having to make a choice in how they’re going to survive as the times change. It’s a must read, although it’s incredibly dense, requiring readers know the motivations and secrets of many of the city’s colorful characters.

7. “Show ‘Em All”astro-city-life-in-the-big-city-jack-in-the-boxAn Eisner award winner, “Show ‘Em All” is essentially a perfect document of what Astro City’s goals. When the Trashman pulls off the perfect heist, he feels empty with no one knowing who jacked over $7 million without getting caught. It prompts a series of robberies more about getting the attention of the super-hero community than making a profit. It’s an issue that suggests the need for fame, the way even the villains need adoration in a city which worships its heroes.

8. “Dinner at Eight”10061_Astro-City-e1352501858457When DC made headlines with the Superman/Wonder Woman cover of Justice League #12, I was confused. Despite the passionate kiss on the cover, the two didn’t seem to have any chemistry. They’re both orphans and apparently Geoff Johns thought that was all it takes to throw the characters together and so far, there hasn’t been a crack in their non-existent chemistry. Astro City did a much more realistic job, hooking up Samaritan and Winged Justice for a dinner date which shows two of the world’s most powerful characters almost coming to blows. Icons become what they are because their actions are backed up by beliefs. Winged Justice’s defense of women and passion for the oppressed doesn’t match up with Samaritan’s self-imposed martyrdom and despite the physical attraction and similar morals, the two aren’t perfect for each other. Even  the kiss at issue’s end is little more than a promise of hope between two people, not one of everlasting affection. It’s the intelligence of Busiek’s script and Anderson’s realistic lines which let these characters stand up for themselves when questioned rather than fall under the sway of overarching plot.

Episode 40 – “The Deadly Years” and false teeth speak false truths

the_deadly_years_072I feel like the whole, “people turn old but, like, really really fast” is a classic TV sci-fi trope. It feels like it’s been done on countless shows. I mean, hell, The Next Generation did it. We know where it’s going and we know how the status quo is going to be (hint, it’s probably going to end up ok.

“The Deadly Years” doesn’t really do a whole lot with the premise but it’s not a terrible episode. It’s a silly one. A really silly one. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekov and a whole bunch of totally inessential crew people beam down to Gamma Hydra IV on a routine resupply mission when our great Russian comic relief encounters a dead body and loses his shit like an elegant Victorian lady preparing to faint dead away. Next thing you know, the triumvirate is aging rapidly.

There’s a lot of poor judgement going on in “The Deadly Years.” Moments after coming across a group of rapidly aged scientists, Kirk decides to bring the whole group aboard, not really caring if this disease is going to impact the whole ship. It doesn’t impact really anyone other than Kirk, Spock, McCoy and an ensign, so I guess that worked out ok, but Kirk’s played smarter. Way back in “Miri,” Kirk stranded the rest of the group on the planet until a solution to the problem could be figured out. That’s the way to deal with a problem.

The real problem with this episode is a paper-thin villain. Commodore Stocker is the typical Starfleet employee. He’s got a place to go and Kirk’s not getting there fast enough. He starts out as a rational enough guy, asking Spock to take Kirk out of command but he rapidly spirals out of control and lands in Incompetent Town. When he inevitably takes command, it’s an utter but totally expected shit-show and it lacks tons of dramatic impact.

The_Deadly_Years_117One of the best things about the episode is the make-up. It’s gradual where it could have been gaudy, with Kirk sporting some grey hairs before the plot even announces the effects of the radiation sickness. Nimoy plays Spock’s aging subtly as well, with the Vulcan feeling cold constantly. McCoy’s get up looks a little heavy but it’s not show-stoppingly bad.

The show-stopper here is really plot based. Stocker calls a competency hearing for Kirk and Spock trots out everyone on board to repeat things we as viewers witnessed just minutes ago. It’s dull and plodding but it’s clear this was supposed to be a moment of pathos. Spock takes no satisfaction in damning his friend and partner and it shows but it’s not that fun or interesting to watch and all it does is advance us to Stocker nonsensically taking the ship through the Neutral Zone and right into a convenient climax with the Romulans.

ariane179254_StarTrek_2x12_TheDeadlyYears_0921The team figures out that Chekov, who should have been infected with the disease, was able to waive it off with a handy blast of adrenaline and inject themselves with what looks like Kool-Aid mixed with cheap schnapps and are able to save the ship just in time. It’s a fun moment, with Kirk playing off a senior moment from earlier in the episode and calling back to a maneuver that once got them out of trouble, and it ends the episode on something of a high note after a notably ho-hum hour.

Random Notes

Kirk’s love interest this time is Dr. Janet Wallace, an ex of the good captain who makes a really strange joke about being into older men. It leads to one of Kirk’s better retorts in a while.

“I’m not a magician, Spock, just an old country doctor!’

Sulu’s here. He does stuff. He’s not entirely interchangeable with Chekov.

Next Up: “Obsession” which, I don’t know, sounds like an early 2000s ABC nighttime soap.

“Now we show them how it’s done” – Bendis embraces silence in the exceptional Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1

guardiansofthegalaxy01658It’s been interesting to watch the rise of Brian Michael Bendis. In Sean Howe’s excellent “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” the author traces Bendis’ career at the company from a fill in writer for Kevin Smith’s embarrassingly bad run on Daredevil to a man who morphed with the times, becoming the poster boy for The Ultimate line with his exceptional early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man to changing into the face of editor Bill Jemas’ decadent and depraved Marvel Knights line. Howe sets Bendis up as a chameleon who morphed as Marvel changed in a tumultuous time, rapidly becoming the authoritative voice of the company.

I think it would be hard to argue that Bendis is the main voice of Marvel and he’s done it by being everything for everybody. His authorial voice is talk heavy, soapy and often spineless with his heroes’ voices blending into a sea of characterless noise. When there’s a big, universe defining crossover event that needs written, there’s one guy the House of Ideas turns to because they’re going to get a bombastic, non-upsetting singular voice. Those books pay off big and give Bendis a lot of leeway, letting him take over the X-Franchise after the dubious success of his Avengers run and now establishing Marvel’s cosmic characters for the first time in years.

2282377-nova001What started as insultingly blatant teases for the new Nova series in Avengers vs. X-Men, has blossomed into Guardians of the Galaxy, a series which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be coming out if the movie wasn’t forthcoming. I know I’m a cynic but Marvel and DC have both played this game for so long, it’s hard to not see the pattern. This week’s preview issue “Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1” makes an incredible case for why this could be much more than a cheap tie in.

Jeph Loeb’s Nova and the new Bendis’ Guardians are really my first introduction to Marvel’s cosmic characters. I know my Shi’ar, Skrull, Kree, Brood and Phalanx but as far as the good guys out there who aren’t part of the Summers family, I was lost. With that being said, I’ve been impressed with how Bendis, and to a much lesser extent Loeb, have been able to organically introduce the stars.

GuardiansOfTheGalaxy1cov_021-652x341Bendis goes with the very typical origin story for Peter Quill, the man who would become Starlord. It’s the classic Marvel tale of a  a typical kid with an Oedipus complex gaining an identity through heroism but what makes Guardians shine is Steve McNivens. McNivens delivers instantly iconic art for what could have become a throwaway issue.

What’s most surprising about how well the art works is how much Bendis lets the art speak for itself . One of the most valid criticisms of the writer’s work is how chatty he is. Characters talk and talk and talk and panels endlessly featuring chatting heads are the norm, particularly during Avengers. Instead of falling back on his own style, Bendis wisely gets out of the way and lets McNiven tell the story. A beautifully splintered splash page in the issue shows the burgeoning relationship between Meredith and J’Son is one of the most organic, albeit stereotypical sequence that wonderfully sets up her character. I always hate describing comics as cinematic but it captures the trope we all know and the next few pages capture the rush of feelings that come from whirlwind love.

Peter_Quill_(Earth-616)_Marvel_NOW!_Point_One_Vol_1_1Bendis and McNiven did exactly what they set out to do with their prologue to Guardians of the Galaxy. This was a book that I ruled out from the beginning but in an exceptional issue, I’m hooked. Bendis’ ability to reign in his chatty tendencies and let emotionally sweeping art shine through has made the Guardians into what could be a great cosmic companion to Jonathan Hickman’s slightly over-saturated Avengers and I can’t wait to see what these characters get up to.