09 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 062 - Imprimaturity

Tim O'Neil is a writer I've read on and off for years, but without finding that crucial window into what he's really all about. Let's face it, it's not easy to reconcile an academic tone with a love for the work of Mark Gruenwald, particularly the execrable Squadron Supreme. Sometimes O'Neil will write something I enjoy and agree with (his music reviews are always good), and then he'll write something irritating, occasionally seeming contentious for its own sake.

I thought that was what he was doing here, in which he reduced the past decade's worth of comics as a glut of mediocrity. It struck me wrong based merely on my own general belief that of any art, around 80% of it is mediocre/crap, and only 20% or so is good to great. Even taking aside the time I spent trying to keep up with "The Golden Age of Reprints," there just never seemed to be enough time to read all the stuff everyone else thought was goodPlanetes? Maybe this decade. Probably not. And the truth is, like almost anyone else, I get caught up with the mediocrity, and only occasionally is it because it's a work assignment. I mean, I'm reading Fall of the Hulks and Blackest Night right now, and just as a preview of my eventual BN #1-8 review? It's awful.

I read O'Neil's essay as a way to blame largely innocent, generally competent, meeting expectations comics for his own feelings of being displaced as an enthusiast, one whose enthusiasm dated back before comics became respected, cross-platform entertainments. As interesting as the essay was (although it could have used some dates and the timeline was a little confused), by the end of it I felt like O'Neil was kind of doing to comics what hipsters do to bands whose talent has led them to a major label contract. It's not the music that changes but how we change, what life does to us that causes us to hear it differently.

Luckily, I didn't go off half-cocked like I usually do and write something fiery or withering, because O'Neil had a neat trick up his sleeve. In modular fashion, the essay can work on its own, but O'Neil surprised me (and no doubt, many others), with Part Two, in which he puts the blame for his ennui back where it belongs, on himself. I am absolutely praising him here for his self-reflection, even if it's unfortunately probably fair to use his "dancing bear" metaphor to find a comics reviewer's self-reflection at all noteworthy. In other words, it's a shame it doesn't happen more often, but I guess it's not surprising, because to some extent immersing oneself in comics or any medium is to buy into that illusion that time spent in one's room reading about superheroes in one's 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond is a more worthwhile pursuit than going for a walk, interacting with people, taking a class, making your own art or craft.

It's a very difficult thing to do, challenge one's own beliefs, because after all, it's not like we have a separate brain with which to do it. Any parent has had to, in a pinch, clean smutz off their kid's face with their own spit on a tissue, or their thumb, but is that really cleaning? It's hard, so it's understandable that O'Neil vacillates between questioning whether he's the turd in the punchbowl even as he defends his disdain for the so-called great comics he doesn't like. He says Marjane Satrapi paid her dues even while he introduces the idea that she didn't; he accepts that comics are bigger than his need to be in a club of outsiders even as he laments this acceptance. It's fairly extraordinary, and while it's maybe a little short of a breakthrough, in therapeutic terms it's significant progress for the first couple sessions. And somehow, he digs a little deeper and looks at himself a little more squarely in Part 3.

So obviously, the question then is, where does he go from here? Is there going to be a different approach to what he does? Do you take your comics at a degree of remove, so that they'll never get that close again, or do you throw yourself into it wholeheartedly, trying to find that lost innocence, that anything's possible/best is yet to come feeling? Are we encouraged by his following this introspective trifecta with terrific pieces on great Aughts books like Brunetti's Schizo #4 and the Milligan/Allred X-Force? Is the piece on whether Joker or Mr. Zzazs make sense in the real world (as if Batman does) a regression? Hard to say, but a good effort nonetheless. Would that more of us tried it.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Special #1
Writers - Mark Waid, Paul Dini, Greg Rucka
Artists - Brian Bolland, Mark Chiarello, Rick Burchett, Don Kramer
Publisher - DC Comics. $5.99 USD

I thought BLODK was canceled a long time ago? I think this was originally done as some sort of bonus in a box set or something, and now available to trick people thinking their six bucks is going towards new, exclusive material. Yep, this is all reprints, some just a couple years old and some going back to the '90s. And like the roughly 350 lb. Batman in Alex Maleev's cover, it has a bloated and unjustifiably self-satisfied feeling to it. Editor Bob Joy put this together with a really kind of pointless idea: let's present one story each featuring James Gordon, Two-Face and the Joker, and we'll preface each one with a brief origin piece for anyone who never saw Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Did anyone need to read a one page Batman Secret Files piece on Jim Gordon again? And while Waid is certainly concise in his origins for Batman, Two-Face and the Joker, and the art by Kubert, Chiarello and Brian Bolland is good given the tight space (and for the last two, it's rare to see sequential work from them anymore), these were just filler pieces from 52 and Countdown, respectively.

So with those, and a fine old 1990 cover from Neal Adams reprinted, we have three actual stories here. The Rucka/Burchett "Falling Back" is a 2000 story I remember fondly, with Batman and Gordon trying to restore their friendship after Batman's abandonment of Gotham during No Man's Land. It maybe rings a little over-earnest now, but fine.

"Double Jeopardy" has some annoying pencils by Wheatley and a sputtering script by Fisch about Gordon cajoling Two-Face to help solve the murder of gangster Boss Maroni, the man who had the acid thrown in Harvey Dent's face that caused his mental breakdown/transformation into Two-Face. Fisch is maybe not letting us into Harvey's head so as to make his motivations for helping more enigmatic and compelling, but to me it just came off uninteresting. Somewhat better is the Dini/Kramer "Slayride," which shows the resourcefulness of the Tim Drake Robin as he tries to keep a cool head when kidnaped by the Joker, on a maniacal spree of hit-and-runs. Kramer doesn't bring much to the table, but I kind of liked Joker's bluntly cruel plan of just running over a lot of civilians to try to make Tim crack.

In this download age, reprint compilations like this one may be going the way of the original motion picture soundtrack. Aside from Chiarello or Bolland completists, I can't see a lot of reason to pick this one up, and there are dozens of other stories that better capture the characters.

Zorro: Matanzas #1 (of 4)
Writer - Don McGregor
Artist - Mike Mayhew
Publisher - Dynamite Entertainment. $3.99 USD

Speaking of old material, Dynamite sees fit to follow their Eisner-nominated Zorro from a different creative team with this oddity, a miniseries that was already several years in the making when Topps yanked the rug out from under the creators a decade ago, not publishing any of it. Not that McGregor was cutting edge in 1999, but at least there's a helluva lot of enthusiasm for the character here. McGregor is, not surprisingly, verbose as all get out, and that leads Mayhew, who I recall had yet to make a bigger name for himself on Vampirella and eventually some Marvel stuff, to...see what I did there? I wrote like McGregor. Anyway, the wealth of expository captions from our young hero, Don Diego, sometimes causes Mayhew to have to be creative an compact in how he gets his visual information across in the reduced space left to him. He draws an attractive Diego, and it touched the childlike part of me to see the diagrams of his underground lair with the secret passages, (primitive) laboratory and so on.

Storywise, it's a lot of setup, which Diego's father wanting him to be more responsible, settled down, and attending to family business. Diego has come up with an excuse for his frequent absence to go administering masked justice, and it's a lot like Bruce Wayne's excuse--he's a playboy, although McGregor needlessly confuses things by making Diego feign being effeminate. There's a cruel, scarred, one-handed villain who inexplicably is a kind of friend to Diego's father, and this man is planning some sort of revenge, but it's not clear what that is. More importantly, it's not really clear what Diego is fighting for. Even in that '90s Antonio Banderas movie, you knew he was fighting corrupt Mexican officials, but here who knows? As such, it's hard to get very interested.

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