Gamble a Stamp 03: Superhero Comics Are Dead

October 24th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The story goes that Dark Knight Returns was born when Frank Miller realized that Bruce Wayne was younger than he was. This character that he’d looked up to, or at least enjoyed, since he was a kid in Vermont was suddenly younger than he was. Miller was getting old, and part of getting old is looking at the things you loved as a child stay young. The aspirational aspect of superheroes, the “Gamble a stamp!” element that makes the genre so fascinating, is a little tougher to swallow when you’re finding wrinkles in new places and Bruce Wayne is still 29 years old.

So, Miller added twenty years to the character and in doing so, plowed fresh ground. Batman became someone Miller could look up to again, with his universe and methods updated accordingly. Superstitious and cowardly criminals were replaced with a threat birthed from societal collapse and the apathy of good men. Batman turned pointedly political, and Miller took on Reagan and pop psychology over the course of DKR. He created Carrie Kelly and made her the new Robin, both updating and critiquing the Robin concept.

Getting older killed the superhero for Miller. He couldn’t relate as he once did, and he took steps to make superheroes cool one last time. Dark Knight Returns is a blaze of glory for the superhero, that last, brilliant blast of light before death. It says that these dusty old characters are still just as vibrant as they once were, but not in the same ways. People grow old and change, and their interests change with them. At the end of DKR, Batman isn’t a soldier in the war against crime like he once was, and like he is now. He was a general, as his severe turtleneck and demeanor suggests. He’s leading the war, not fighting it. He grew up.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen came from Moore wanting to write a superhero story with weight, something like Moby Dick in particular. He wanted to write a superhero for adults, and chose hard-edged pessimism to get the job done. Its rigid structure shows a world that has no use for acrobatics or melodrama. It has no place for many of the staples of cape comics, whether you prefer Jack Kirby-style action or classic stylings of Curt Swan.

Watchmen, then, is an autopsy. By the end of it, all of the secrets of the superhero are laid bare. You see the paunches and watch their muscles sag. You get a front row seat to Nite Owl’s impotence and the way superhero costumes function as fetish objects. Rorshach is revealed as being not that much better than the villains he fights. An old man gets his brains beaten out, the only true superhero is so alien as to be inhuman, and in the end, the villain wins and saves the world. The heroes? They compromised because to actually defeat the villain would have resulted in the destruction of world peace. Rorshach refuses to compromise and is killed for it.

All of your illusions and ideas of the superhero are deconstructed and proved false by Watchmen. They’re normal people, rather than superheroes, and act accordingly. There’s no magic, no aspirational aspects, and nary a wink from Superman. Just hard edges and gritty realism.

DKR is the blaze of glory. It’s a revitalization before death. Watchmen is the autopsy. At the end, there are no secrets. What’s Flex Mentallo? It’s a wake, that time when everyone gets together, gets drunk, and talks about the deceased.

Wally Sage is overdosing on painkillers in Flex, but that’s not all he’s taken. He’s had a bottle of vodka, a couple e pills, a quarter ounce of hash, and he’s tripping on acid, too. As he’s dying, he’s talking about all the amazing comics he read. He’s talking about the good, the bad, and the irrelevant. He’s painting a picture.

The picture he’s painting is of the full spectrum of comics, or at least the full spectrum of the comics he read as a child. He talks about how exciting they were, how sexy, and how scary. He talks about how superheroes couldn’t stop his parents from fighting or save us from the bomb. Flex is about how fiction is real, and the way that the two rub up against each other and interact at certain points.

Flex Mentallo is a hopeful book. At the end, the superheroes return to save us all. They are revealed as us, or at least a significant part of us. Flex saves the day. The magic of reading superheroes as a kid is adapted to the real world. The glow of the lamp that Wally read comics by as a child serves as a blatant metaphor for the brilliance of superheroes. At the end of the book, the light is restored to Wally’s sight.

Flex is a celebration of the superhero. All of it, from good to bad, from perfections to imperfections, is important. The sexualization of superheroes serves a purpose, either as masturbation material or as an outlet for the creator’s desires. The Silver Age zaniness provided a look into other worlds, whether unsettling or fantastic. The escapism provided a look into a better world. The Starlin acid trips, the fear of the superhero, the edginess, the pointlessness, all of it matters. All of it fits together. It’s all part of the same picture. All of it is wonderful, in one way or another. It’s a puzzle with a million parts that still manages to stay in sync.

And in one of the last scenes, the point of Flex is laid bare. “Look at you! A half-naked muscleman in trunks! What’s that supposed to signify? What are you? Do you know what you are?” asks a teenaged Wally Sage. Flex shrugs and says, “Sure. I’m a superhero. Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.”

Implicit in Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Flex Mentallo is a critique of the superhero. DKR teaches that the superhero is broken and it must be made cool again. Watchmen teaches that the superhero is broken, and here is how it is broken. Flex teaches that superheroes are broken, but that brokenness is just as natural as the parts which aren’t broken. Blaze of glory, autopsy, wake.

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Portfolio Review: Frank Miller

April 9th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Frank Miller, ably assisted by Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley.

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Sons of DKR: Frank Miller x TCJ

April 6th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

This is an interview in The Comics Journal Library: Frank Miller, a book I bought a few years back on a whim. It’s a fascinating read, both in terms of Frank Miller’s career and opinions and comics history since he got started. It’s currently out of print, I believe, but if you find a used copy somewhere, snap it up. I don’t know that I’ve ever read an entire issue of The Comics Journal, but there are some great interviews in this book.

I transcribed this interview on a lazy Sunday a few weeks back. It isn’t the full interview, but it is probably a little over half. I left out the bits that were not relevant to Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, partly because they weren’t relevant and partly because I didn’t want to retype the entire interview.

This interview is a beast and a half. It’s almost 5000 words, but well worth reading. I do not have any commentary for it or pithy remarks. It can stand on its own. I’m posting it here because it deserves to be read, and because I’m going to be using it as reference and context for a couple of posts on Wednesday and Friday this week. I want to talk about a couple of books that owe a lot to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, so maybe this will help me illustrate a few points.

I tried to go through and insert relevant links and images where needed, just to help with context and clarify a few points. Pardon the scan quality, as these aren’t my scans. Any errors are my own, though this should be pretty accurate.
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Rubber Bullets. Honest.

March 4th, 2008 Posted by david brothers

I’d forgotten that this existed until the other night. Bless YouTube.

DC, get cracking on a DKR movie and make sure that Michael Ironside plays Bats. Who’d be a good Carrie Kelly?

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Perfection in Slices

April 18th, 2007 Posted by david brothers

What’re your perfect comics? I’ve got a few. Kraven’s Last Hunt. Flex Mentallo. Daredevil Born Again.

The two most recent (and I referred to these previously as nigh-perfect, but they got an upgrade) are Jacen Burrows and Garth Ennis’s 303 and Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba’s Casanova. They’re both just tightly packed, written, and drawn slices of excellence. Everything about them clicks and they’re both easy reads.

Those are perfect books. On a smaller scale, there are perfect pages.

These are the pages that give you the stupid grin that comics should. They can be full of import and absolutely serious or completely irreverent. Spider-Man’s “I’ll kill you,” after being told that Norman Osborn is going to kill Normie. “The rain on my chest is a baptism” from Dark Knight Returns, along with the mutant fight in the mud.

Little slices of perfection.

Here’s a few of my recent favorites. Two from 303 #03, one from Punisher War Journal #6, and the page from Casanova #1 that sold me on the series. Words by Garth Ennis on the first two and Fraction on the last two. Art by Jacen Burrows (303), Ariel Olivetti (Punisher WJ), and Gabriel Ba (Casanova).

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Two soldiers talking about rifles (I particularly love the line about the difference between NATO weapons the AK-47), one soldier marching off into destiny, Frank Castle’s righteous indignation (“We gotta steal a car. I’m going to Mexico and I’m gonna shoot that guy in the face.”), and Casanova Quinn being both irreverent and awesome (“I don’t know– I have weird brain things. Maybe it would work different for you.”)

Good comics.

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The Top 100 What If Countdown: Part 20

November 12th, 2006 Posted by Gavok

Well, it’s been four months of lead-up. When the first part of the countdown came out, Lynxara asked about why I’d do a top 100 list for a series of books that only have 175 issues. Especially when I count two-parters as one entry. Truth be told, this isn’t like ranking the best issues of Nightwing or Mighty Thor. Most comic series have cohesion and you usually have an idea of what to expect in each issue. Writers, artists and story remain the same for months and sometimes years at a time.

What If, on the other hand, is different. What If is the ultimate comic book box of chocolates. Writers, artists, stories, ideas and tones change from issue to issue. Many stories are good. Many are bad. But almost every one of them is interesting in its own way. I could have easily have done a top 20 or top 50 list and be done long ago, but there’s too much fun we’d be missing out on. No jive-talking Incredible Hulk, or Matt Murdock crying over Wilson Fisk’s death bed, or Kraven the Hunter eating Peter Parker’s face.

Now let’s get in our Quinjet and take us down to #1.

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Dated ’90s Reference hoooooo!

August 9th, 2006 Posted by david brothers

Gotta be da shoes!

Man, that is a dated reference. How many of you remember “Gotta be da shoes?” Oh Spike Lee, what are you doing now? This is what Buffy and Matrix references are going to be like five years from now.

I honestly believe that if you were to put Gambit and Wolverine together as a duo, you’d have an unstoppable engine of destruction that would burn through everything in its way.

Add Jubilee and I would read this book. You could have Rogue and Yet Another of Wolverine’s Ex-girlfriends guest star every couple of issues for some good old fashioned soap opera drama.

I would call it “Gambit and Wolverine Make Fools of the Marvel Universe: Featuring Jubilee.” It will sell millions.

Speaking of selling, here’s what I’m picking up from the comic shop today, assuming that everything makes it in. My commentary is in paratheses.

52 WEEK #14 (I’m hooked, what can I say. They’re screwing with the heroes in a way that makes for good reading.)
ANNIHILATION #1 (the lead-in miniseries were quite good, so definitely getting this.)
BEYOND #2 (OF 6) (Sleeper hit, you mark my words. The first issue was excellent.)
FIRESTORM THE NUCLEAR MAN #28 (One of DC’s best titles, hands down.)
WOLVERINE ORIGINS #5 (Pretty interesting story so far, and I hear Jubes is going to be in an upcoming issue!)
ULTIMATE GALACTUS BOOK 3 EXTINCTION TP (Gotta complete the set, and I loved the art.)

This is a pretty light week for me. Only six monthlies. I’m thinking of getting the X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl TP, if only for the awesome art. It had a good story, too, so it may be worth the 14 bones.

Next week is going to be serious business for me. I’m getting Batman Animated, Absolute Dark Knight, and Absolute Hush. I love behind the scenes stuff, so Batman Animated is a shoe-in. Frank Miller and Jim Lee are consistently in my personal top five artists list, so their work in Absolute format at 37% off is a steal. I didn’t much like the story in Hush, but I cannot argue with Lee’s artwork, as if my complete and utter infatuation with early ’90s X-Men didn’t tell you that. I even desperately want this book, X-Men/Ghost Rider: Brood Trouble in the Big Easy. I will eventually own every Jim Lee X-trade. I think I’m only short two right now.

(I think I need an intervention, but these books are such a simple pleasure. There’s a great bit where Gambit, Psylocke, and Jubes are tied up on Mojoworld. Mojo is blah blah blogging about how he wants to record X-Men fighting other X-Men. “As if ya don’t get enough footage o’ that?!” Jubilee responds. “Jubilation,” says Psylocke. Jubilee mutters, “why does everyone say my name like it means “shut up?”. How can you not love that? More later.)

I absolutely (see what I did there?) love Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Strikes Again (a better love letter to the silver age than anything alex ross has come up with), so Absolute Dark Knight is tops.

Also in that top 5 list are Quitely, Romita Jr, Bagley, Romita Sr, Sienkiewicz, David Mack, Tom Grummett, Mike Wieringo, and a bunch of others. As an English major, I am incapable of counting properly.

What’re you getting? This week’s list is located here.

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The Top 100 What If Countdown… Prelude

July 15th, 2006 Posted by Gavok

Back when I first started reading comics, in the 90’s (thunder noises), I was a bit too young to have any real income and was mainly relegated to read comics that had Spider-Man and/or Venom on the cover. One of said covers was for a What If about the New Fantastic Four, made up of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk and Ghost Rider. I had never heard of this team, but the concept was too rad not to look at, so I got the issue.

That, from what I recall, was the only one I ever did get back then. I remember passing on one about Cannonball’s brother Josh because, hell, I didn’t even know who Cannonball was. Didn’t he show up once during the really shitty final season of the X-Men cartoon?

Like many comic readers, spider-clones and evil, magnetic Xaviers pushed me away from the hobby for years. I can’t really remember when I got back into it again, but I know it wasn’t long into it that I remembered the What If series. With nearly 200 issues out there, I only looked at those based on characters I knew about. X-Men and Spider-Man mostly. Then, over time, as I started to understand more about guys like Iron Man and Dr. Doom, I’d read their stories. Then Dr. Strange and Captain America. Then Fantastic Four and Namor. And so on and so forth.

Until Wikipedia came around, these comics were some of the best ways to get background on characters and storylines. I didn’t know a thing about how Strange became a sorcerer until reading these. I didn’t know the story behind how the Silver Surfer became Galactus’ flunky, only to be given independence. In fact, most of Captain America’s backstory I’ve learned from his What If issues. So thanks for the help, Uatu the Watcher.

After realizing how many of these I’ve read, I knew I had to finish the series off. And so, at the time of this article, I have about 30 issues left to go through. Once I’m done with those, it will be time for me to reflect on it with my list of the best 100 issues. Read the rest of this entry �

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