Entry for November 06, 2007: Crime, crafts, and comics

On Saturday, 3 November 2007, Janice and I stayed in due to the Nor’easter. Fortunately, the remnants of Hurricane Noel didn’t cause much damage around us, but a recent murder in Needham, Massachusetts, did have residents on edge.

We caught up on reading and recorded television episodes (more on that in a moment). On Sunday, we drove into Boston for a craft show. Although we didn’t buy much art, the numerous free samples of dipping sauces, baked goods, and soups in the tasting aisle were a hit as always. We may attend the Sugarloaf Craft Festival in Hartford, Connecticut, next weekend. In addition, I watched the New England Patriots narrowly defeat the Indianapolis Colts.

The writer’s guild strike will no doubt affect genre entertainment, but right now, my favorite shows include supernatural comedies Reaper and Pushing Daisies, animated fantasy Avatar: the Last Airbender, and even belatedly improved superhero drama Smallville. The second tier of television I watch includes Chuck, Heroes, Journeyman, Women’s Murder Club, Legion of Superheroes, The Batman, and Torchwood.

I haven’t been to the cinema in a while, but the coming weeks will bring theatrical releases of the original Star Trek pilot, “The Menagerie,” and Battlestar Galactica: Razor, as well as Neil Gaiman’s computer-animated Beowulf. I’ve also got to track down Day Watch, the sequel to the moody modern Russian horror movie Night Watch, which I have on DVD.

Before I get to my current favorite comic books, here are 10 trends I’ve noticed in the past few months, mainly with the “big two” publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics:

Looking Back: As I get older, I have a greater appreciation for the Golden Age (1930s to 1950s) and Silver Age (1960s to 1970s), so it isn’t surprising that some writers and artists want to get beyond the timebound Bronze Age (1970s to 1980s) and the grim outlook of the Iron or Modern Age (late 1980s to present).

Artist Alex Ross has almost single-handedly spearheaded this idealistic nostalgia, from Marvels and Justice to the upcoming Superpowers and Avengers/Invaders. I like the four-color heroics of such graphic novels, and I wish more mainstream titles could recapture that sense of entertainment. On the other hand, I also like the faster pace of modern storytelling and progress in artistic styles.

Crossover Fatigue: While I understand that publishers need to get people to buy as many issues as possible to stay profitable, keeping track of sprawling continuities is burning out many longtime fans’ interest and discouraging new readers from joining our hobby. Like the graphic violence and variant-cover speculation that harmed comic books’ reputation in previous decades, this could again stunt its reputation.

DC’s Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis/52/One Year Later/Countown to Final Crisis started out with some good development of secondary characters but has become a drawn-out exercise in muddling history, despite achieving the feat of coming out mostly on schedule. Marvel’s event-based Civil War/the Initiative and House of M/Endangered Species/Messiah Complex have been more focused in terms of story but have had problems shipping on time.

Mistrust of Government: Thinly veiled allegories of recent U.S. politics could be found in the aforementioned stories, which crossed through multiple monthly and even weekly titles. In the DC universe, Batman and Checkmate, among others, struggled with paranoia and espionage within the metahuman community.

In the Marvel universe, Iron Man‘s leadership in getting the Superhuman Registration Act passed and during the subsequent Civil War dealt more directly with the questions of civil liberties vs. security raised in the so-called war on terror. Even if I’m sympathetic to liberal writers’ views, some of these tales have been rather heavy-handed.

A-Team, B-Team: While many costumed vigilantes were involved in the big crossovers, the better-told stories actually involved other teams, including Green Lantern‘s Sinestro Corps War, Civil War: Frontline, and World War Hulk. Not all were successful, with Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack suffering from weak writing and timing.

Other examples include the fact that DC’s Justice Society of America has been more compelling than Justice League lately or that I find myself enjoying the divided Avengers (Mighty and New) more than the various X-Men teams.

Resurrected Sidekicks: While Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben may remain dead, both DC and Marvel altered longstanding continuity by bringing back Jason Todd/Robin II and Bucky Barnes, Captain America‘s World War II partner. Both came back with bad attitudes and some popularity. Since I like Tim Drake/Robin III and Cap’s postwar career, I don’t see the need for more angst, even if I think the writing around Bucky/”the Winter Soldier” is well-done.

On a related note, the secret identities of various masked men and women of mystery has also been a conceit honored more i
n the breach lately. Yes, Clark Kent’s disguise is thin at best, but I’m not sure Daredevil and Spider-Man needed to be “outed” only to be put back in the closet by events such as “One More Day.”

Villains Unite: One of the more interesting trends lately is that the bad guys have learned from their nemeses and are organizing while the superheroes argue among themselves. Sure, various paramilitary groups, cults, and ad hoc villain teams have existed for years, but the newest ones, led by Avengers foe the Hood and Lex Luthor’s Injustice League, have real menace as they outmaneuver the good guys.

Slain Heroes: Unfortunately, the corollary to the above is that Dan DiDio, editor in chief of DC, and Joe Quesada, EIC of Marvel, seem to enjoy killing off beloved characters. Again, I’ve been favorably impressed with the writing on Captain America even after the assassination of icon Steve Rogers. Early rumors on the Net suggest that Batman may be next to die (no doubt to be reborn after much hype).

Ever since Sherlock Holmes — and more recently, Superman — popular characters have been killed and brought back at a whim. I’d rather see the creativity and hype be directed at maintaining icons and developing their settings.

All-Ages Titles: As with nostalgia for the Golden and Silver Ages, comic book publishers have made attempts to recapture their original audience of children. The results have been mixed: Some titles have been fun (such as DC’s “Johnny DC” line and Marvel’s “Adventures” line), but family-friendly titles are now in sort of a ghetto. I certainly don’t want to go back to the censorship of the Wertham Commission and the Comics Code, but some balance might help with wider distribution.

Movie Madness: Within the industry and among some fans, there has been much hand-wringing over crossover fatigue, but to the general public, costumed vigilantes have never been more popular, thanks to several successful movie adaptations. My favorites among the recent batch include X-Men 2, The Incredibles, and Hellboy, not to mention various animated versions. Both of my nephews and numerous trick or treaters are apparently big fans of the caped and cowled set.

With Iron Man, the Dark Knight, Hellboy 2, and other adaptations in the works, as well as the multimedia appeal of the San Diego ComiCon, we can only hope that the best material rises to the top and enjoy the wave while it lasts.

Licensed properties: Dark Horse‘s Star Wars, Conan, the Lone Ranger, and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, and Dynamite‘s Red Sonja and Battlestar Galactica are some of the better examples of this. IDW has also revived the Star Trek space opera franchise, which is in hibernation in other media for now. I’ve been favorably impressed with most of these adaptations, which have the advantage of established fan bases. As long as these publishers strive to be creative while remaining faithful to the core concepts of each work, I’ll be happy.