Monday, April 30, 2012

Column: ... We've Established That

The Unfortunate Introduction of Nipple Clamps, A Review of The Goon #39
 and Theories & Defenses Inspired by David Brothers

Batman and the Unfortunate Introduction of Nipple Clamps
  A few months ago, I started to develop an idea for a writing project that I would call: My Scott Snyder Problem. Writing 'writing project' (now) makes me throw up in my mouth and cramp up a little at my own pretension. My problem (so-called) was that every time I finished reading Batman, I felt sated, but the feeling didn't last. Something was off, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The Batman reviews I was reading were so celebratory to a fault and so full of acclaim that I started to think that Snyder could cure the common cold or master cold fusion with one well told tale of the caped crusader. The fault, I thought, was with me … and then I discovered Comics Journal and I read Tucker Stone.
  Here's what Stone wrote about Batman #6, ''it turned out to be the hipster douchebag version of that old Batman mini-series by Jim Starlin, The Cult.'' In regards to Batman's latest bête noire, Stone writes, ''Talon [is] a character who looks so much like Marvel's Nighthawk that it'll get your dog pregnant.'' For all his snarky bravado, what makes Stone rise above the ranks of the cafeteria-style contrarian is his honesty. He may be too clever by half, but I believe he means what he says. So, embiggined by Stone's screed, I made a plan to ape his iconoclast's voice and hoped that I would be (could be) as nimble and as cutting. I would skewer Snyder, expose the flaws of the Batman and then … and then, what? Who am I kidding? I don't sound like Tucker Stone, I sound like somebody who's mail-ordered the Unabomber home-starter kit. I'm not that guy.
  I don't have a problem with Scott Snyder. God bless, and I think it's silly to be angry at a fictional character, Batman gotta' be Batman, as the kids say. If Batman was a TV show or a song, I would skip it or change the channel. Mainstream superheroes aren't for me. I was happy (for the last eight months) to go along to get along, but Batman #6 and #7 became the tipping point for me to make up my mind to stop buying DC and Marvel. I wish I had a better reason than it's my prerogative. I don't. It's been a progression, at least, and if I were paranoid (who wants to know?) I would put it off to conspiring forces. Bottom line, I'm an indie guy, a prodigal son who's come home.
  I wrote my own review of Batman #6. I didn’t make any references to Jim Starlin or the Cult because I didn't think writing about Ian Astbury was germane to the discussion. I wrote that Snyder and Capullo were attempting to pull off a ''long con, altering what being Batman means to Batman himself.'' I admired how Snyder was trying something new with Talon (Marvel's Nighthawk was beyond my ken) instead of running out the rogue's gallery for safety's sake of or to satisfy fan's expectations. For me, Batman felt new, but this is from someone who's last run-in with the Dark Knight was The Dark Knight Returns. What bothered me about Batman #6 was that throughout the Talon v. Batman battle royal, Batman's shape (and species) keeps changing.  He goes from the jolly dark giant with fangs and claws to a scrawny Edward Gorey-like wraith and then back to hirsute brawler. I questioned whose perspective I was supposed to be seeing. Who was watching this 'Stretch Armstrong-like' Batman morph from one thing to the next? I'm all for suspending disbelief, but this was silly, pointless, and worse, meaningless. Issue #6 ends on a great cliffhanger with Batman near death and trapped under ice. For a moment I had that giddy thrill of wondering how Batman was going to escape this time. I wasn't suspending disbelief, I was lobotomized.    
  Batman #7 broke me. After being trapped, tortured and beaten to within the proverbial inch of his life, Batman finds himself in the back of a panel truck where he is brought back to life by a woman (Harper?) wielding a set of jumper cables attached to a battery. We should all be so lucky. Back among the living, Batman immediately flees the coziness of the van, runs out into the snow and apparently heads for the nearest manhole cover because the next time we see him, he's crawling out of the sewer-side entrance to the Batcave. After all this, the torture, the fighting, the nipple clamps, what does Batman do? He freaks out (for a second), and, of course, goes back to work. I could feel my brain shift into full-on Annie Wilkes: ''Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn't fair!'' Batman was trapped in the Court of Owls maze for at least eight days with only water to drink -- drugged water, but at this point it doesn't really matter -- he has this epic fight with Talon, escapes, rides the lightning (that's two Metallica references if you're scoring at home), finds his way back home and he's right back to solving crimes and running DNA tests. What was the point of all that Court of Owls crap?   
   What sets Batman apart from all the other superheroes is that he's human. Snyder does deserve some of the blame (he wrote the damn thing). The more I thought about it I began to realize that Batman is immortal, a wholly owned subsidiary, a property. Batman is an earner and Scott Snyder can no more bloody Batman (or teach him anything) than Batman or Superman can, for that matter. Batman endures because Batman endures. So, my Scott Snyder problem is really my Batman problem, my superhero problem. As much as I would have wanted Greg Capullo to have drawn at least one panel (just one!) with Bruce having a snack or taking a nap, maybe grabbing a quick bat-shower, it wouldn't have changed anything. Batman's Batman. Oh, and after all this belly-aching and soul searching, I still bought issue #8, yeah. It's that old addict's saw, just one more. Well, here I am, I can go one more or I get out. It's not life or death and it's not an addiction (right?). I'll stop buying Batman, simple as that. Done and done.

The Goon #39 and the Default Setting

  I loved reading the Fred Hembeck cartoons in Marvel Age. If I learned anything from collecting comic books in my misspent youth it was that superheroes make for good parody. I once bought something called XMEN Pronounced Zhmen One Syllable. I would like to think that something deemed a 'comic book' would be open to a bit of lampoon, a spoof, perhaps, at least be open to a couple of yuks at its own expense. Funny books (amiright?) are few and far between. So when I read that The Goon #39 was going to be a parody issue, I knew it was time to revisit those days of yester-Hembeck.
  I don't know The Goon or what he does (fights zombies, monsters, maybe). Ditto Eric Powell. At first, I thought The Goon #39 was sour grapes on Powell's part and that he was taking the piss out of Marvel and DC because he could. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, this is different, this is passion; Powell's anger and frustration come from an honest place, he's speaking truth to power and he's doing it with conviction. Reading The Goon #39 is like a long warm soak in a favorite Monty Python sketch where all the sound effects are some iteration of the word 'douche.' Cynicism for comics comes easy and jokes about superheroes are a kind of default setting. Powell's ire isn't for the idea of superheroes, he's angry about the execution. This ain't no Swift or Vonnegut style satire. Powell gives Goon a hammer as a weapon[1]. Get it, a hammer? Powell goes for the lowest hanging fruit first, codpieces and thongs. There are more subtle and less goofy ways to go about exposing the emperor for having no clothes, but few also include signposts for ''Dramatic nonsensical panel design and arrangement'' or ''gratuitous, unnecessary ass shots also sell really well on eBay!'' It's not all ass shots and douche jokes, Powell goes after race, religion and sexuality too, an equal opportunity offender. The jokes would fall flat – and for some they will, comedy is subjective after all -- if Powell wasn't taking such direct aim at DC and Marvel. There isn't enough racial diversity in comics and it is dubious why outside interest in comic books only peaks when there's a press release about a gay character. As much as one might question why we are still talking about race, religion or sexuality, it's not going away, awareness never should. Parody and satire only work when the audience is in on the joke, or better yet, culpable. Powell's point is that while Marvel and DC are robbing the bank, the reader is waiting outside driving the get-away car.
  My sentence in graduate school only served to deepen my love for essays especially things like 'Bullpen Bulletins' and letter columns in the back of comic books. So, for all the business The Goon #39 takes care of up front, the party (for me) was in the back. Powell's column, 'Correspondences and Whatnot with Eric Powell' finishes what The Goon starts and in some ways it's less subtle and a lot less funny. Powell writes: ''Out of the top 1,000 comics sold in the US in 2011, 24 were not Marvel or DC superhero titles. (Sales figures found on'' That's a staggering statistic, but it begs for a comparison to other print industries -- of the top 1,000 selling books, how many were sold by corporate owned publishers?. I don't subscribe to Powell's doom and gloom forecast that if Disney and Warner Brothers decided that comic books weren't as profitable as licensed products (toys and bed sheets) than comic books would cease to exist, but maybe he's right. Even the least robust revenue stream still makes money, right? If movies and TV have taught me anything, it's that corporations aren't above milking a trickle. I like to think about comic books like the dinosaurs (no pun intended) in Jurassic Park.  All the dinosaurs were bred to be female in order to halt reproduction, but as Jeff Goldblum haltingly says, ''nature, uh, finds a way.'' The Goon #39 (and Powell) champion creator-owned comics over corporate-ownership and that's fine, but it does make me rhetorically (naïvely?) ask who doesn't support creator-rights? Oh, right, us.

Theories and Defenses

  David Brothers wrote an essay for Comics Alliance that discusses the ethics of creator-rights in light of Before Watchmen and The Avengers movie. I do not have the encyclopedic knowledge of comic book history nor have I done the research that an argument like this requires of one. Thankfully, for me, Mr. Brothers has done all the heavy lifting. The one thing I wish Brothers did address in his piece was the importance of posterity. For comic book fans, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore and Siegel and Schuster are legends who are (and will) be remembered longer than the suits (or gangsters) that drew up the contracts that they signed. Status is not reason enough to forget or to dismiss how these creators were treated. It's no different than having to bring up inequalities of gender, sexuality, or race in comic books, one has to keep telling the story like it or not.
  Brothers point is not to remind readers of the sins of the past, not entirely, at least. His essay contains an action step and it's in the very first sentence: ''I made a conscious decision to stop supporting Marvel and DC with my money a while back.'' It's the old vote with your wallet argument that so often gets made and so often gets dismissed. What I like about Brothers essay is his honesty and the genuine melancholy that he knows he is going to feel because of all the comics that he will miss that he otherwise would have enjoyed. Like Stone and Powell, Brothers has conviction. I believe him when he says, ''I'm not even publicly proclaiming that I'm quitting while secretly reading scans of their comics in the dark. I quit cold turkey. I'm done putting money in their pockets. It bums me out, but that's life.'' Statements don't get much bolder or straightforward as that; Brothers is out. It's a 'scorched Earth' policy to be sure and I wonder (hope?) that in a future essay Brothers will explain if his decision includes imprints like Vertigo (DC) and MAX (Marvel) and licensed titles like Conan or G.I. Joe as well.
  So what? I'm in (down?) with Brothers, so I'm out too. [Insert sound of one hand clapping] I read three DC titles (Swamp Thing, Batman and Wonder Woman) and I have bought a total of eight single issues of two different Marvel titles since last September. So not buying comics from DC or Marvel requires little effort on my part. I am not trying to ally myself with Brothers. How could I? His decision is noble and it hurts. For me, not buying Marvel and DC is, at best, a minor inconvenience. What I took from Brothers's essay was a reminder about creator's rights and the corporations that profit on the ideas of those creators without proper compensation and representation. A blind man could see that and many do. The other reminder I got from Brothers was that you can 'change the channel.' Why keep reading a story when you are not enjoying it? Comic book buying can become so ritualized that dropping a title is (for some) treasonous. Comic books are filled with consequences, but which titles one chooses to buy is a consequence-free choice.
  For me, getting back into comic books after twenty years means an embarrassment of riches. There are so many artists and writers that I've missed that I want to catch up on. There's no 'sword of Damocles' hanging over my head when it comes to choosing to read the Oni Press deluxe hardcover edition of Local over the next issue of Wolverine and The X-Men or Batman. I wish every decision were so easy. I'm going to subscribe to The Goon too, so, Powell's got me for at least the next issue (just one more?). I'm also searching out and buying self-published mini-comics like Tiger Lawyer, Black Church and The Mire. Fledging blogger that I am, I want to emulate the confidence of Brothers and Stone and I would be remiss if I didn't include Justin Giampaoli, Kelly Thompson, Colin Smith, Martin Gray, Daniel Elkin and Jason Sacks writers I read for their unvarnished (but always polished) honest opinions. Lastly, I'm not doing this for RTs (feel free, of course) or to kowtow or to gain favor with creators or other bloggers. I'm doing this for me. I'm doing this because I've reached my limit with DC and Marvel superheroes. I'm either apathetic or confused by the few titles I read[2]. I have 20-plus years of comics to catch up on. Last, but not least, it's a good time for independents and self-published work. What else can I say? I've gone independent. Honest. Oh, and if someone would be so kind as to tell me how the whole Court of Owls thing plays out, that would be great, thanks. I do worry about that Batman.

[1] Another reviewer pointed out that the hammer is a knock on Fear Itself which was lost on me, but it works both ways.

[2] I'm footnoting this because I can't find a better place to shoehorn it in. When it comes to my decision to not buy Marvel and DC titles I'm reminded of the words of one Seymour Skinner, ''Prove me wrong kids. Prove me wrong!'' If Marvel and DC do a better job taking care of the creators who built their respective companies and start putting out titles I want to read maybe I would reevaluate my decision, but I was out of comics for 20 years who knows where I’ll be in six months. Anything could happen.







    1. Justin,

      Thanks for your encouragement, man! Somehow the world kept spinning even after some blogger said he was not going to buy comic books with the DC or Marvel logos on the respective covers. Imagine.