“What is a party if it doesn’t really rock?” [Thief of Thieves]

April 9th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I liked this post by my bud Dylan Todd about Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, Felix Serrano, and Shawn Martinbrough’s Thief of Thieves. I’ve been making fun of that ridiculous “How does a thief stop being a thief?” line for ages now, millions of years in internet time, but Dylan pointed out something even more egregious. I don’t want to repeat what Dylan said, so be sure to read his post. The short version, though, is that this sort of construction makes for storyboard comics, “Please make this into a movie” comics, instead of good old adventure comics.

If you want to read the full sequence, CBR has a preview. It opens with this intensely boring page, trips to another conversation that’s just as stiff though not as static, and then onto an awkwardly depicted gunfight (what is with the jumping dude?). This page, though, is the sort of thing that makes bad comics worse.

“Talking heads comics” is a pejorative, and rightly so, I think. At this late stage in the comics making game, this sort of construction is enormously weak. There’s nothing to this page, no excitement, no drama, no nothing. The woman is stuck in a shocked pose, as if to say “WHOA, what?” (My twitter follower @ardaniel tweeted at me to say “I keep making that woman’s panel 1-3 pose and it just makes me go ‘DON’T LOOK AT MY NIPPLES.'” and I’ve been laughing ever since). The guy is holding his cup in the air while delivering life-changing information. And then… frame two.

I’ve got two reasons why this is so weak. For the first, let’s assume that you absolutely have to have a scene where two characters conversate in one room, never leaving their seats. A meeting, essentially. Now, have you ever had a conversation? Think back to the last one you had. Even if you’re theoretically sitting still, you’re moving around. You’re cocking your head, coughing, making hand gestures, or stretching. The only time you sit and stare directly into someone’s eyes for minutes at a time is… I don’t know, actually, maybe never, or if someone is in a coma but you think they might be faking. We emote when we talk, and we all emote in idiosyncratic ways. We pick up gestures (jerk-off motion, a pshaw hand-flip, a “stop right there” hand, a half grimace to show disappointment) from somewhere and employ them to our own ends. We make unconscious motions. We blink real hard. Our eyes wander. We move, basically, and we move often. Even when you’re having a conversation with someone when you’re half asleep, you still wave them away.

We all do these things. It’s what makes people-watching so interesting. Not including such a basic part of our lives in a scene that should have several different touchstones for us to latch onto takes whatever verisimilitude the comic has and beats it in an alley. I don’t believe in this scene at all. It’s stiff and awkward. Let’s assume that panel one is fine. She’s surprised and she doesn’t want the guy to look at her nipples, so her hands are up. Cool. Panel two — she’s just heard some serious news. What’s her next position when she’s trying to find out more information? A shrug would work here, or a cocked head. Something inquisitive, not surprised. She’s still surprised, but at this point, she’s moving on to the next step, which is “What the heck is this guy talking about?” In panel three, she’s starting to get angry and caustic. “What is with this guy?” That’s an entirely different motion than “You quit?!” Panel 4: she’s angry and he’s smug. Fine. Sure.

Reason two. I’ve been reading a lot of Leiji Matsumoto manga recently, specifically his Galaxy Express 999. A lot of his stuff doesn’t have any action at all, in fact, and is composed of long conversations. Bald exposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and boy does Matsumoto indulge himself sometimes. I was particularly struck by a scene from Galaxy Express 999, volume 1, when Maetel and Tetsuro land on a planet and have a quick conversation.

Instead of it being rendered like this scene from Thief of Thieves, the conversation takes place over a series of different scenes. They walk around, they check into a hotel, Maetel takes a shower… it was a fairly exciting way to show both time passing and to still give the reader all the exposition in the world. The conversation is impossible as depicted — they cover too much ground and do too many things for it to truly be one conversation — but it works to both introduce you to the land and the characters.

I know the pedants are getting ready to chime in with cries of “Manga is different!” (it’s still comics, shut your face) and “You’re comparing one page to ten!” (I am, but it’s not a 1:1 comparison, obviously). The thing is, Galaxy Express 999 is a great example. You can pick any one page, barring the splashes, and you’ll see a visually interesting conversation. Matsumoto shows that you can do more on one page than just show people talking, and that if you are going to show people talking, you can at least make it interesting to look at. People move and react and look around. It doesn’t get the blood pumping, but it lets you build up your world and characters. It’s characterization and world-building all in one. Tetsuro laying on the bed face down is meaningful in a way that three straight panels of “Seriously, you cannot look at these nipples right now” isn’t.

That’s what this really comes down to. Characterization. Every single thing we do as humans reveals something about us. A sneer hints at arrogance. A tentative smile suggests shyness. A sleazy smile and low eyes puts us in mind of naughty times in the bedroom. This sort of acting is characterization, even if it’s just two characters walking around a city or sitting in a room. Comics are an amazing information delivery system, and this Thief of Thieves page is lacking in info. It’s boring. It’s a speed bump.

I’m not saying that all comics need to have intricate conversations conducted by people who wiggle their arms like muppets while traveling across a bunch of diverse locations. Not by any means. I’m not saying that statted panels are evil, either. They have their place, just like anything else, and can be used to great effect. But here? No. Here, they betray a lack of imagination, or oncoming deadlines, or something. What I’m saying is that there’s none of the drama that this conversation deserves or that would keep the reader glued to their seats. There’s not even enough drama to justify checking in every once and a while. This is anti-drama, something to make you remember that you’re reading a comic, and hey, guess what, you paid three or four dollars for this thing.

The entire point of verisimilitude is to trick you into believing something that isn’t true, but appears true. This doesn’t appear true. Instead, this is boring, and that is one of the worst things comics can be. Bad comics have their high points — discussing bad X-Men will never get old, like that time they left Gambit in Antartica like “Yeah, find your own way home, murderer” — but boring comics just feel like a waste of time. They fade from memory. They don’t leave an impression. They’re vapor, instead of being something more solid. Boring.

Further reading.

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“he’s all right, but he’s not real”

November 2nd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Here’s the solicit for X-Men #20, on sale digitally and in finer comic shops nationwide:

Guest starring Iron Man 2.0! The fallout of Schism pushes the X-Men and War Machine at each other in Eastern Europe asSsentinels are being traded on the black market.

Here’s me earlier this year (it feels like forever ago) in an interview with Tom Spurgeon:

And look at Marvel’s upcoming Iron Man 2.0. The cover artist, title, and logo are all intended to make it look like it’s part of Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s successful run on Iron Man. The twist? It stars James Rhodes as War Machine. The same James Rhodes who was just in a series a year ago that bit the dust with issue #12. How is that anything but a vote of no-confidence for black characters in comics? Congrats, Rhodey! You’re a major co-star in a big Hollywood blockbuster and Marvel knows that the current comics audience won’t even look at you without someone else’s logo on the cover.

Related, but maybe not: Bleeding Cool is saying that Iron Man 2.0 is canceled as of #12.

I read a few issues of Iron Man 2.0. It was a Nick Spencer/Ariel Olivetti book at the beginning, but Kano and Carmine Di Giadomenico (who I like a whole lot) pinch hit a bit. I was unimpressed. I was actually sort of annoyed when Rhodey slipped further and further into the background. I hit one issue where Rhodey wasn’t in it at all, or on one page or something ridiculous like that. And then Fear Itself hit and the book turned into Cast-Off Iron Fist Characters Monthly (sometimes featuring War Machine). Chris Eckert did a pretty good job of breaking down why that sucks over here.

I’m not one of those comics hardliners, either. People who are like “It took Stan and Steve six pages to do Spider-Man’s origin and yet Miles Morales isn’t even in costume yet in issue three!” are morons. Fights don’t have to happen for an issue to be good. “Nothing happened” is a crap complaint. You take a story on its own merits, not by the standards of some time before any of us were born. You could probably build a very good story with the hero/titular character flitting around the outskirts of the book. I think Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin did that pretty well on their last arc of Hellblazer. You can build dread.

The problem with Iron Man 2.0 is that there was no narrative momentum. I never bought the premise of the story. Spencer didn’t stick the landing when he was setting it up. As a result, rather than building a mystery, an entire issue about some dude I don’t care about or some rip from Chinese mythology was an intrusion, rather than an infiltration. Does that make sense?

If the story is good, you can do whatever you want. Even pirate comics and lengthy essays.

But that’s all a sidebar for what I really want to get at, which is referring to Rhodey as “Iron Man 2.0” in solicit text. Yeah, they call him War Machine later, but he’s introduced as Iron Man 2.0. He’s branded as Iron Man 2.0.

And I don’t think anything speaks to the state of colored folks and comics as well as that. Marvel has been astonishingly good at keeping their black characters around. They’re miles ahead of their nearest competition. Barring a couple breaks of maybe 18-24 months combined, we’ve had an ongoing Black Panther comic since like 1998 or whenever Priest started. Bendis turned Luke Cage into a superstar (but still no solo series). Misty Knight has starred in three separate Heroes for Hire/Daughters of the Dragon series in the past what, six years? And she’s getting relaunched again this week? Marvel clearly wants this to work. They’ve thrown everything at the wall and nothing appears to be sticking.

Their new tactic is stripping a character of his own identity and hitching his cart to another character. Iron Man 2.0‘s entire outward appearance is meant to emulate Iron Man and confuse consumers into thinking it stars a white dude or something, I dunno. Rhodey has been around for decades. He has a fanbase. But it isn’t enough. So Marvel is pretending like Rhodey is a subset of Iron Man rather than letting him stand on his own two.

And that sucks. Readers (hopefully) aren’t that stupid, and it’s so limiting in scope. Rhodey spent the ’90s (and several other brief periods of time) attempting to escape Tony Stark’s shadow. I’m far from a superfan, or even an average fan, and I know that. To pull him back under that shadow in the name of goosing sales and then to make him a sideliner in his own comic… I dunno. Maybe there just shouldn’t be War Machine comics. Or maybe I misread and Iron Man 2.0 is about Tony Stark’s world and not War Machine at all.

I’ve been trying to think my way through how you could spin turning Rhodey subordinate as a positive. I don’t think you can. There will always be a connection between him and Stark. That’s unavoidable and totally an avenue worth exploring. But at one point, in the text and without, he was his own distinct person. Sacrificing that, in any way, on the altar of hoping to goose sales… I dunno. It seems like such a waste.

Black Panther has a touch of this, having stepped into Daredevil’s shoes in terms of title and gimmick. I dislike it for different reasons, though. Black Panther has always been at the forefront of that comic. I think the book is dreadfully average right now, with the occasional dip into stupid (but the art tends toward fire), but that’s beside the point. Becoming the Man Without Fear and running a Denny’s feels like a step all the way out of the Black Panther’s gimmick (king of a technologically advanced isolationist nation who is also smart enough to supply Reed Richards with gadgets), but at the same time, Francesco Francavilla was born to draw him. I mean, can you imagine a hard espionage tale featuring the Panther with art like this?

“The Most Dangerous Man Alive.”

It’s so strange to think of two decades-old characters who have to step into a white man’s shoes in order to boost sales. I called Iron Man 2.0 a vote of no-confidence for black characters, and I think that holds true. If they were genuinely viable in and of themselves, they’d star in series of their own, not ones that are strapped to someone else’s back. Neither story feels like a particularly organic transition (though Rhodey’s status quo over the past however many years has been wildly uneven to begin with). Honestly, I don’t buy that either of them are good fits, either. But I can see what Marvel’s attempting to do, and in a way, I get it. In another way, it grosses me out.

It seems like you can pull off great portrayals of black characters in team books. Thunderbolts is a treat, and New Mutants, last I checked, was majority non-white. But once you get down into Soloville, you start hitting road bumps. Depressing.

Let them dudes have their own names and identities. Or let them die.

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