Monday, October 5, 2009

Coming Soon: Supergod

Supergod, to be written by Warren Ellis and published by Avatar Press in November, promises a wealth of content for those of us who like to indulge in the discussion of superhero theology. From Ellis himself on the upcoming miniseries:
Supergod is the story of what an actual superhuman arms race might be like. It’s a simple thing to imagine. Humans have been fashioning their own gods with their own hands since the dawn of our time on Earth. We can’t help ourselves. Fertility figures brazen idols, vast chalk etchings, carvings, myths and legends, science fiction writers generating science fiction religions from whole cloth. It’s not such a great leapt to conceive of the builders of nuclear weapons and particle accelerators turning their attention to the oldest of human pursuits.... And, perhaps, there’s still that little scratchy voice in the middle of the night: I don’t want to be alone. I want there to be something bigger, something that moves in mysterious ways and wants only the best for us. And I will forgive it, the disgusting state of this world, and all the things in it that want to crush and kill me, and have faith that something incredible and invisible and unknowable will make things better. And so (in Supergod), just to make sure, I will build it and keep it by me. I will pretend it’s a weapon, a defensive capability, a computing object or a construction machine — but really it is a Messiah.
So it seems that Ellis plans to take the metaphysical element of our fascination with superheroism and turn it around to comment on our tendency to seek out gods in places where we probably shouldn't. It sounds like a brilliant idea. As much as I like to write about the true spirituality hidden within every hero story, there's no denying how easily real people misplace their hopes and trust in things that have no inherent eternal significance. With mythological underpinnings being brought to the surface in many of today's comics, perhaps it's a good idea for someone like Ellis to tell us to step back and reconsider.

As far as I can tell, there are two major slants on this notion that Supergod could take.

It could be written as a condemnation of idolatry. The chief sin of the Christian faith and also claimed to be so by the other Abrahamic religions, idolatry as an attitude goes beyond the simple worship of statues and carvings. It occurs whenever one takes anything in God's creation, whether tangible or not, and places on it a higher importance than God himself. Through this lens, the admiration of super-powered "messiahs" in Supergod can be said to be foolish because these beings are not God.

More likely than not, however, Supergod will probably turn out to be a reprimand of mankind's search for god in anything, period. Ellis's work in the past, such as Planetary and The Authority, has generally betrayed an atheistic worldview. Ellis's description above of the concept of god as a product of human want also appears to promote this ideology. If this is indeed the perspective from which Supergod was written, then the foolishness of messianism by the characters therein will be likened to the pursuits of any who hold to theistic convictions. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike will be skewered for the way in which they chase after imaginary gods of their own creation!

Such a tone, no matter how cleverly executed (and with Ellis at the helm, it no doubt will be very clever), will inevitably result in a weaker story in this reader's eyes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Blackest Night: The Issue Two Blues

First issues of big event comics deserve to be cut a little bit of slack. They carry the responsibility of explaining the status quo to an influx of readers who may not normally follow the featured characters. Additionally, since events are so massively hyped by their publishers, their first issues regularly tell stories that fans have already "read," if not yet formally in the actual comic. It is commonplace for the main plot conflict not to be revealed until the closing (and sometimes the absolutely last) pages. Think Secret Invasion #1 (ending with massive Skrull reveals and attacks) or Infinite Crisis #1 (pulling the shadows back from the Earth-2 survivors on the final page), recent blockbuster debuts that closely followed this formula.

For these reasons, it is Issue Two that often gives readers their first true look at the quality and character of an event comic. Since the exposition of the first issue is out of the way, you can generally rest assured that the characters and concepts given focus in the second issue are central to the series as a whole. In other words, this is when we generally learn what the event in question is really about. The aforementioned Infinite Crisis was written like this, as was Green Lantern: Rebirth. And given that the writer whose name appears on both of those epics, Geoff Johns, is also responsible Blackest Night, it stands to reason that one could expect a similar pattern to emerge in that series as well.

If that is to be the case, count me as one of the naysayers.

Using the series' #2 as a litmus test, Blackest Night appears to be about the heroes in the DC Universe who have lost loved ones and what happens when those dearly departed return to open up old wounds (as well as heart-sized new ones). Granted, it's not an empty premise, and it's far beyond the "DC Zombies" label it has been unfairly given. But it does pull the rug out from under the two years of buildup for the story that occurred mostly within the pages of Green Lantern comics and thereby strip itself of its own considerable momentum.

The buzz for Blackest Night began with a teaser in the finale of the Sinestro Corps War crossover, instantly transforming that much-beloved story into mere prelude. Just as that tale introduced Sinestro's band of yellow ringed fear mongers, we were told that there would soon come other similar corps, a veritable Roy G. Biv of them. And that a clash between these colorful forces would ultimately lead to the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy known as "the Blackest Night" (like in the oath!), an dark and deadly time of despair. According to many a Johns sound byte, this would be Hal Jordan's Return of the Jedi, the completion of a Green Lantern trilogy begun in GL: Rebirth.

With that, preparations were underway to make Blackest Night the biggest Green Lantern story ever. The Guardians unveiled the first batch of 10 foreboding new laws in the Book of Oa that looked to take the GLs down a darker path. The promised corps of many colors were rolled out one by one, many in clever and interesting ways. Even Hal's origin was tweaked to coincide with the upcoming event, now featuring Atrocitus, who would play a key role in the formation of the Red Lanterns and the delivery of the Blackest Night prophecy itself.

The expectation was that all of these plot points would converge to form some sort of grand culmination of the Green Lantern mythos. A tall order, for sure. But the problem with Blackest Night isn't merely a failure to live up to its hype. Instead, the series so far has underwhelmed by largely divorcing itself from the climbing crescendo that should have given it its punch. I have no doubt that DC believed they were making their 2009 event bigger by yanking it out of the confines of the Green Lantern universe and expanding its scope to the DCU at large, but in reality this move has had the opposite effect. Without the legs of rising action to stand on exclusively, the events of Blackest Night must be judged on their own merits. And frankly, there's really not a whole lot there.

I know I'm supposed to feel the sting of fatherly rejection when Aquaman's reanimated corpse mocks his former Aqualad. And that I should lament the tragedy of Barry Allen and Hal Jordan having to fight an evil undead Martian Manhunter, once embraced by his friends as the "heart of the Justice League." Truth is, all of these scenes ring hollow because they're nothing new. Good guys die and come back as villains all the time, and the emotional weight of these encounters in Blackest Night is diminished because it is obvious that the Black Lanterns are simply perversions of the living men and women they resemble. Plus, haven't we witnessed heroes dealing with the specter of disapproval from beyond the grave just about every time Scarecrow has dosed Batman with fear gas?

In the end, I'm sure Blackest Night will tie up the plot threads from the Green Lantern titles in some fashion. However, if what has been released so far is any indication, this will occur off to the side in tie-ins rather than in the main book. Such climaxes should be at the forefront of a comic series like this, and if they aren't it's a real shame.

Too often event comics are thrust upon readers with little context other than publishers' desire to hear the clinging of a cash register. But just when Blackest Night was poised to become the type of Big Payoff that serial fiction devotees dream about, it gets cookie-cuttered into the type of dime-a-dozen (Or is that $3.99-a-dozen?) event comic you can find any year by the Big Two. No matter how close to the top of their game Johns and artist Ivan Reis happen to be in the technical merits of their craft, they'll be hardpressed to overcome the foolishness of opportunity lost.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Last Word on Wednesday Comics Sales

According to Diamond's July sales estimates as reported on Comic Book Resources, the first month of Wednesday Comics hovered around 50th place among comics that month, selling around 40,000 copies per issue. This puts it in the neighborhood of titles such as Streets of Gotham, Millar and Hitch's Fantastic Four, and the Superman-less Superman and Action Comics.

As far as my predictions go, it's safe to say that they were at least half right. 40,000 copies is far too few to include a significant infusion of any new readers. Of course, this might have more to do with marketing realities than the book's content. It's unlikely that many outside of the comics-reading world really knew about Wednesday Comics, as it wasn't available on grocery store magazine racks or online outlets like iTunes.

I'm also inclined to suggest that the other part of my prediction was at least partially accurate, thought it was admittedly not very bold. I mean, there are certainly greater limbs to go out on than to say "This unconventional comics experiment isn't going to top the charts!" But while these figures for Wednesday Comics aren't bad, they don't exactly qualify the series for smash hit status either. Still, they are better than I thought they would be, and I can understand why. Though I didn't originally intend to become part of Wednesday Comics' readership, the positive buzz online eventually won me over. This is a comic that does have a lot to offer the die hard fanboy, despite its simplicity of story and detachment from continuity.

One can hope that these modest but decent numbers will support the release of a Wednesday Comics II next year. Perhaps one that, under the direction of the newly created DC Entertainment, can find its way to newsstands and computer screens everywhere, entertaining loyalists and casual fans alike.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wednesday's Wonder Woman...Wow!

As you may have guessed, just a few days after writing this, I went ahead and bought my way up to speed with Wednesday Comics. And I'm really glad I did. I'd been following reviews and commentary of the series very closely, so I felt like I had a pretty good notion of what to expect. For the most part, my reactions the book matched up to what was being said online. Where my views differed from the majority, it was typically because I cast a less critical eye on some of the lower quality strips.

One Wednesday Comics strip, however, that I do think has been denied the proper respect and attention is Ben Caldwell's Wonder Woman. With its hyper-compressed layout (67 panels counted in Week 5's issue!) and unique, almost Disney-like rendition of the the character and cast, Wonder Woman is certainly a creative risk. As goes with the territory, there have been the customary "It's weird...I hate it!" reviews (IGN: " annoyingly unreadable as ever"). But the prevailing opinion has seemed to be an appreciation of the strip's originality, ultimately tempered with complaints about its choice of visual style.

These reviewers are certainly entitled to their perspectives on Wonder Woman's look (though I happen to like it). Where I take issue is with their insistence to examine the comic solely on its aesthetic elements. It's true that the bulk of Wednesday Comics' value lies in its visual aspect, but Wonder Woman is one of the anthology's few contributions to deserve a serious discussion of the content of its story. Whereas many of DC's other strips are interesting in the way that they're telling a fairly one-dimensional tale, Caldwell gives us something with a few more layers.

Each installment of Wonder Woman has a young Diana in training being transported to a different place in "Mortals' World" during a dream. While there, she must seek out one of the Seven Stars of the Amazons, ancient items of great power that Diana's people left behind when they withdrew from our realm. Judging from what we've seen so far, these Seven Stars, when put together, will make up the fabled armaments of Wonder Woman (she's already found the bracelets and tiara).

What's interesting about this premise is that the settings in which Diana finds herself are all heavily steeped in humanity's religions and mythology. So far, Diana has searched for the Stars in a Shinto temple, the lost city of Shangri-La, and during the pseudo-Catholic Dia de los Muertos. A visit to Caldwell's online annotations to the series reveals that he has taken care to meticulously research and accurately portray these traditions. In each destination, the lost Amazonian relic has taken on special significance in the local folklore. For example, in Japan a famous warrior is said to have gained his power through the use of the famous Wonder Woman bracelets.

By linking the ancient Amazon artifacts to each week's featured mythology, Caldwell suggests a common thread through all of mankind's legends. The older mythology of the Amazons is shown to have informed and influenced the tradition of the societies that rose up later. This is not to say that the story is necessarily an argument for the oneness and equality of all human belief systems. For me, it's simply a reminder that the stories embraced by a culture are rooted somewhat in an innate desire for the timeless truths that preceded it.

The villains of the series utilize myth as well, though in a twisted and perverse manner. Recognizing mythology's strength, they seek to employ it for sinister ends while simultaneously stripping it bare of its true meaning. Take Doctor Poison and her cronies in Weeks 2 and 3, who carelessly ransack the temple to find the Seven Stars, which they hope to use as weapons of war. By reclaiming the Stars for the Amazons, Diana puts the myth back in its proper place as a tool for peace and justice.

For a character writers have had such a hard time to pin down and define, Ben Caldwell's Wonder Woman gives us an amusing yet substantive take on the Amazonian princess. It certainly doesn't stand alone in Wednesday Comics as an example of good old-fashioned serialized fun, but its literary value may just trump the rest. If you've skipped over this strip due to an aversion to tiny panels and low-contrast colors, do Mr. Caldwell and yourself a favor and give it a second look.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wednesday Wavering

Despite the fact that I wrote this just a few weeks ago...

And despite the fact that I'm without a doubt a story driven guy...

Even though the Superman strip in USA Today has been really lousy...

(Seriously, did they really just recap his origin again???)

And that Brian Azzarello, the man behind "Broken City" and "For Tomorrow," is writing Batman...

It was really hard to walk by the numerous available copies of Wednesday Comics at my local comics shop and not buy a big stack of them.

Granted, I stuck to my guns and didn't add anything extra to my pull list this week (it helped that they didn't have issue 1), but it wasn't without some serious fanboy angst. You can bet I was already planning a visit to eBay just to check out prices on the drive home. Something about seeing other people buy the actual product in the store tugged at my heartstrings. And it's impossible to ignore all the positive buzz online. I could envision myself spreading open my own copy in front of me, basking in all its superheroic colorfulness.

I wouldn't really be going back on my word by doing so. It's not like I made any predictions about the quality of Wednesday Comics. I even praised it for its originality. And I still think that it won't entice new readership. In fact, I'm even more convinced of this now that I've seen how uninspired the one strip DC is promoting in the mainstream press has been.

But there could be other fans out there like me who initially decided to save their cash but are now being drawn in by that tempting bundle of folded newsprint on the shelves. And if so, it could translate to bigger numbers for Wednesday Comics than I expected.

July sales figures to be announced shortly...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Comics' Mythologization Trend

If the late 80's were the Grim-and-Gritty Period and the 90's were the Era of the Artist Superstar, then today we are surely living in comics' Age of Mythologization. While superheroes and their parables of good vs. evil have long been a sort of mythology for contemporary society, there has existed in the past 5 or 6 years a concerted effort to introduce expansive metanarratives into the histories of many of our favorite comic characters.

Such mythologization is characterized by casting the hero as a crucial figure in a grand conflict or phenomenon that transcends the mere details of his past adventures. It often involves a spiritual or mystical element that ties into the hero's origin and powers, as well as sometimes a similar opposing force associated with the villains. This can allow for the introduction of multiple versions or variations of the hero, either as a historical lineage or a contemporary fraternity.

Though mythologizing a superhero franchise can involve introducing new elements and characters to the universe in question, often comics come with ready-made ingredients to do so. There is already a plethora of costumed identities that have been shared by multiple comics characters over the years. Adding to this is the fact that the longest standing characters have complex histories throughout which they have been reinterpreted and reimagined numerous times. In many cases, a mythology is simply a way of threading together preexisting characters and eras. The best mythologist writers can make it seem as if the entire decades-long span of a title combines to tell a single gigantic story.

The poster boy for this type of character treatment is undoubtedly Geoff Johns in his recent DC work, but he's far from the only writer to embrace the trend. And though DC with its scores of "legacy" heroes and love of parallel universes seems the most likely candidate for mythologization, Marvel has not shied away from the concept either. The following are some of the best examples of superhero mythology from the last few years:

The Flash

Already discussed in-depth here in an earlier post, Mark Waid spent the bulk of the 90's setting the groundwork for today's superhero mythologization during his run on The Flash. The world of Wally West was already filled with others who had taken up the Flash mantle or bore similar powers under a different moniker. Waid showed us that this was more than mere coincidence. The Speed Force, which gave each of these individuals their powers, stood revealed as the shaper of speedster destiny from the beginning of time, and it remains as the foundation of the Flash mythos today.


When J. Michael Straczynski signed on with the Marvel bullpen to write Amazing Spider-Man, he set out to do more than tell yet another parable of power and responsibility. From the outset of his tenure on the book, JMS cast Peter Parker as the most prominent of many throughout time who had gained the powers of the spider. The radioactive bite he suffered as a teen had merely been the means by which he became linked to this force. This new take made sense, as nearly all of Spider-Man's foes over the years (Vulture, Scorpion, Dr. Octopus, etc) were associated with some kind of animal symbol. All of these revelations came from the mouth of Ezekiel, himself imbued with spider abilities, and brought Peter into confrontation with Morlun, an evil being who sought to feast upon the might of the spider totem. Straczynski's additions to the Spider-Man universe were met with mixed reactions by longterm fans, and it remains to be seen whether these elements will continue to be referenced in the future.

Green Lantern

GL is probably the first character today's fans think of when considering mythologization. This comes from the fact that the newly introduced mythology has actually taken hold as a marketing device for DC in this year's Big Event, Blackest Night. Since the Silver Age, it has been established that a Green Lantern harness the power of the will. What writer Geoff Johns has brought us in stories like Rebirth and The Sinestro Corps War is that there are other colors of light that all correspond to a certain place on the "emotional spectrum." And each color comes with its own ring-wielding corps, with emotionally-appropriate oaths, powers, and motivations.

Iron Fist

In 2006, Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker took the Marvel mainstay (but second tier) hero Iron Fist and cast the nets of mythology outward in two dimensions. Vertically, martial arts master Danny Rand was now the latest in a long line of men to have harnessed the power of the Iron Fist and serve as champion of the mythical city of K'un L'un. Horizontally, Danny shares his status with six other cities' champions, persons of various kung fu and mystical abilities who have at times acted as both enemy and ally to the bearer of the Iron Fist. Given that Brubaker and Fraction currently seem to be enjoying the status of architects of the Marvel Universe, it's safe to assume that Iron Fist has been permanently mythologized.

Superman (and the entire DC Universe)

In one sense, it seems absurd to think that Superman could be mythologized any further than he already has been. As the standard-bearer and inspiration for basically every other superhero, you could consider Superman's mythology to be all of comics. And that is exactly the perspective Grant Morrison took when he commented on the nature of hero stories in Final Crisis. He explains the DC Multiverse, with its variations-on-a-theme battles of good vs. evil as having spun-off from a single foundational story. And we as readers catch a glimpse of the heart of that story, standing in its center is the unmistakable archetypal image of Superman. It's the type of abstract, high-concept that won't be found on the back of an action figure package, but Final Crisis is required reading for anyone interested in how deep the mythology of comics can go.

Ultimate Marvel

On one hand, the alternate world of the Ultimate Marvel label was a way to bring classic characters into a more grounded, real world setting, much like today's superhero movies. But it was also an attempt to streamline and consolidate Marvel continuity, and with this came mythologization. In the Ultimate U, the experiments that created Captain America during WWII were repeated and revised by many scientists and corporations. Such endeavors indirectly led to the creation of the Hulk, the genetically-altered spider that bit Peter Parker, and the introduction of the mutant X-gene into the population. And it all may prove to be just a testing ground for the "real" Marvel Universe, the "origin" of which is set to be told in Ed Brubaker's upcoming The Marvels Project.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bible Desecration? It's Not Unthinkable.

I've been enjoying Boom Studios' Unthinkable mini-series, written and created by Mark Sable. With its finger on the pulse of our post-9/11 preoccupation with terrorism as entertainment (coming soon on Fox, 24 Season Eight), the book seems ready-made to be optioned by Hollywood. Yet with its real-world setting and distance from superheroes and their mythology, it didn't seem to be a likely candidate to receive commentary on this blog.

But the subject of terror unavoidably brings about the topic of religion, and this is the direction Sable takes us in Unthinkable #3. Set mostly in Israel, the issue explores what an end-of-world terror scenario looks like within the context of the Arab-Jew conflict. However, as ripe as that may be for discussion, it's actually an unrelated panel that sent me rushing to my keyboard eager to nitpick.

As an American intelligence officer interrogates the main characters about the implementation of terrorist plots they may have designed, Sable subjects each to their own ironic form of torture. The lawyer finds his civil rights violated via waterboarding, the computer geek receives electric shock from an XBox 360 power supply, and so on. The character above is the series representative for evangelical Christianity, a Tim LaHaye analogue who predicts the end times in his Left Behind-type novel series. His torture? Having to watch a soldier carelessly tear apart a copy of the Bible.

Based on the fact that the series' featured evangelical is cast as an annoying hypocrite, I assume that Mark Sable isn't acquainted with Christianity as his personal ideology. And in accordance with this, his choice of "torture" for the token Bible-thumper misses the mark. Likely informed by the news stories of Qur'an desecration at Guantanamo Bay, Sable fails to grasp the differences between Christianity and Islam.

Whereas Muslims venerate original language copies of their foundational text, Protestant Christians hold no such sentiments toward any material object. They worship God "in the Spirit," independently from their physical surroundings. Though the truths revealed in scripture are indeed sacred, the pages they are printed on are fundamentally no more to be honored than any other part of creation. Granted, you probably won't find a Christian treating his own Bible in this manner, but witnessing a stranger doing so is unlikely to elicit the melodramatic response seen in this comic.

This is not to deny that Sable conducted his fair share of research on religious matters in writing this issue. That much is apparent from the way he Brian K. Vaughans us by explaining the affinity many evangelicals have for Zionist goals and how it all relates to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Bible-ripping incident is really a throw-away moment in Unthinkable's grand scheme, but the unreality of it all took me out of the story long enough to make a negative impact on the reading experience.