Friday, March 28, 2008

On Genre

Dick Hyacinth, he of the awesome Dick Hates Your Blog blog, posted some musings on the use of “shocking plot development” as currency, which slid pleasingly into a discussion of genre. In this discussion he makes the audacious claim that the superhero category isn’t a genre, it’s an occupational grouping that may be part of a number of genres. Well, let’s let Dick speak:

But, despite this movement across genres, I don't think that superheroes really constitutes its own genre. It's more like an occupational setting. A television show set in a newsroom could be in the mystery, comedy, or soap opera genre. I think that's basically the case with superheroes, which works pretty well in unexpected genres like comedy.

There’s a lot of other really good stuff in the post, both on the topic of the recently increasing tendency to skew superhero writing to other genre styles, and on satisfaction of audience expectations. But that money shot quote above really was a great observation, even if its conclusion is incorrect. In order to see why I think he’s wrong we have to figure out what a genre is.

Dividing stuff into genres or “kinds” really has only two rules. Rule one: the genres must be distinguishable (people must be, for the most part, able to see something a say “that belongs to the ______ genre” – they’ll always be exceptions, but that’s the most important rule). Rule two: there must be reasonable utility to this grouping (this differences must be useful for the audience). There is no rule three. There is especially no rule three about genres themselves being coherent with each other, and being defined by the same sets of rules with just differing parameters.

It’s probably easiest to use the strongest genres to make this point, and by strongest, I mean by the criteria above – the most clearly defined and useful, which also tend to be the most inclusive. The genre of horror movies, about the strongest genre I can think of, is a good example. If something could be considered a family drama or a horror movie, it’s going to be considered a horror movie… horror usually wins any head to head. (I’ll talk about the Alien counter example in a minute). Horror movies are defined by a clear set of narrative values, mostly a rule set of how things happen, and the presence of a plot driven by a threat of death to the protagonist(s) (to use
Todd Alcott terminology: what does the protagonist want? To stay alive). Another way to say this is that a movie is a horror movie because it “behaves” like a horror movie.

Compare this to Science fiction. sci fi is defined by a set of tropes (terrible word for this discussion except as it helps us isolate defining elements that we can then usefully categorize) that are a grab bag of elements (you can take some and leave others): space, spaceships, aliens, future technology, evolved or degenerated societies, etc., but you need signifiers – if you don’t have space or spaceships or aliens, you better have enough future technology and an odd enough society to make it clear that it’s sci fi. The defining characteristic here is the presence of things that don’t exist, but might one day exist in our world as understood scientifically (i.e. without the need to appeal to magic or the supernatural). Another way to say this is that a movie is a sci fi movie because it “has stuff” like a sci fi movie.

This illustrates the first big problem encountered when trying to define genres – they are not defined by using rules that are coherent with each other, which also means they are not mutually exclusive. The movie Alien has all the defining characteristics of a horror movie and of a science fiction movie. So what is it? I’d argue that it is a sci fi movie because of the litmus test to end all litmus tests – that’s where they put it in Blockbuster, i.e. that’s how the mass audience perceives it. In this case the sci fi “trappings” trump the horror plot.

This recalls the always fun argument over Star Wars. The movie “behaves” like a fantasy, therefore it must be a fantasy say the cognoscenti. This is total bullshit, however, since the people in the move shoot stuff in space and have laser swords and shit. Q.E.D., bitches. This is because that is how the public perceives it, which is in turn because this is the most useful distinction to the mass audience.

Let’s talk TV for a second, to get into a direct example of non coherent rules. The sit-com is a genre. It doesn’t matter if it takes place in a doctors office, a law firm, a hospital, an office building, a bunch of unaffordable apartments, the Lincoln White House, a spaceship, or some dude named Herman’s head. Almost no one would say “I like sitcoms, but I specifically don’t like medical sitcoms.” They might say “I don’t like Scrubs,” but it would likely be that that don’t like the modern frenetic “cutaway” type comedy, not because they don’t like “medical sitcoms,” and thus the “medical sitcom” is not a genre. But “medical drama” is a genre, because people make that distinction, and make decisions based on it. CSI and Law and Order are very different shows (one could be subclassified as a science detective show with law enforcement trappings, the other a hybrid cop and legal drama/detective show) but both are considered in the same genre (the law enforcement procedural drama), even though CSI is closer to House in form and execution than Law and Order.

That brings us to superheroes. The only reason there is no superhero category in Blockbuster is that there aren’t enough movies (yet) to justify the shelf space. People recognize the superhero genre, thus it exists. It just so happens this genre is defined occupationally, or, alternately, through its outward trappings - colorful suits, powers, and externalized conflict. It’s OK. Don’t worry. It’s just a label. We can still get together on Friday nights and talk about thematic concerns such as preoccupation with the ethics of power.

This brings up the question of audience. I have been skewing my results to that of the mass audience and, as we well know, the mass audience doesn’t read comics. So, like the sci-fi/fantasy community does, we can sub-genrefy all we like. Since only people weirdly interested in analyzing narrative seem to read comics, we can compartmentalize in the air like we just don't care. Superhero noir comics. Event-driven superhero comics. Superhero spy comics. Superhero space opera comics. Superhero-sploitation comics (wait, that would be all of them).

Genres are a mess – they are stitched together Frankenstein’s monster-like constructs because their strength is judged not by how smoothly we can describe them, but how readily people can go “oh, it’s that kind thing… I hate that… you love that stuff, so go enjoy it and leave me alone.” Superheroes definitely constitute a genre, but are one defined in such a way to allow for lots of juicy subgenrefication that we can discuss till we start to cry about how we’ve squandered our miserable lives.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets Review

My wife has become really picky about going to see movies. We’ll set out to see a movie and, very often, she’ll look through the listings and we’ll wind up bowling instead. Far from the super-elite cinema snob, though, she’s just looking for well crafted escapist entertainment (a romantic comedy that’s funny but still gets too you, and action movie with a brain or a heart or something other than just explosions) but, in her opinion, it seems like this is too much to ask at this point. She really liked the first National Treasure, though, so off we went to the movies, for the first time in many months, to see the Sequel, the Harry Potter-ish-ly titled National Treasure: Book of Secrets, .

One Quick aside concerning my own feelings about the Original National Treasure: I liked it. I thought it was relatively tight both in the way the plot hung together and the historical aspects were (mostly) organically woven in . In the year or so since I saw the first one, it didn’t age well in my memory (some movies are like that… you forget you liked them somehow), but I saw it again the Friday before we saw the new one and… yeah, it held up. The history geek aspects fueled the likable character interactions and grounded the action stuff.

Tight is not a word I’d use to describe the sequel, however. The producers seemed to have taken the lesson of CSI Miami to heart - if something’s absurd, overwhelm the audience with it. The first movie was pretty ridiculous on its own merits (albeit consistent in its absurdity), but this one pushes through the envelope and blows up the whole damn mailbox. Got an important government function you want to crash? Just book all the other hotels in the city the day before so they’ll have to move it (wha?). Need to find something hidden on the SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN? Just pour some Aquafinatm everywhere (oh yeah, the product placement was pretty bad too – the MSN logo was on the screen for like 30 seconds). Need to break into Buckingham Palace? Here’s some flowers. Did I mention I’M NIC CAGE?

The historical stuff was also an issue. In the first movie, the templar treasure and foundation of the country aspects came together nicely, and formed a somewhat coherent mystery (thanks, Freemasons!). The current movie's historical aspects don’t really gel, touching on the end of the civil war, the statue of liberty(ies), the resolute desks, etc., all held together only by time period. In addition, the idea that the confederates could have reopened the Civil War after Lincoln’s assassination with a big American aboriginal treasure seems kind of a farfetched (or at least random) confluence of things on which to hinge the movie. The motivations for the “villain” (the quote marks indicate a huge lack of nerve on the movie’s part in making the villain villainous) were really thready, the fake documentation that MacGuffin's the movie is never explained, and the suggestion that a government official is in on the plot is never returned to.

The recurring shtick gets reeeealy thick in this one. Did you like this from the first movie?:

*Nic Cage “We need to _____!

*Assembled others “but mister Nic Cage, that’s impossible, there’s no way, can’t be done

*Nic Cage “What about _____!

*Assembled others “You know, if we… that just might work”

Did you like it last time? Then you’ll LOVE this movie, cause’ that happens like eight times. There is also a few “you know, you’ve just committed many obscene crimes against important historical artifacts and the leader of the free world, and I’m in a position to kill you or put you into prison forever, but I respect your overt reverence for history mister Nic Cage (even though it didn’t stop you from peeing on the Gettysburg address), so we’ll call it even” moments.

It sounds like I am saying I didn’t like the movie, doesn’t it? We’ll you know what? Just like CSI Miami, I think these things validate the existence of the movie, not undermine it. Nic Cage’s gift of having no demarcation between the person and the actor helps anchor the movie in its unreal place, a true movie place, a Hollywood place. As with David Caruso, there is never a moment with Cage so real its not fake, but (paradoxically) never one so fake that it doesn’t seem real to him - i.e., we wind up resetting our reality on him… he’s that persuasive… so the center of the movie seems to move with him (even though it’s probably the other way around). Thus, he makes the movie function despite a screenplay that needed a lot more work. As all this would suggest, the movie is also pleasantly self aware. During an argument as distraction scene, his helpers tell Cage to stop overacting, which causes him to ham it up even more.

Other stuff of note: 1) the video game-ishness of the movie was something to behold at times (I need to write about Highlander the Source soon to talk about videogame aethetics invading movies at greater length). I mean, the plots of the films are obviously influenced by adventure games (find glasses, find declaration, use glasses on declaration), but the action sequences reminded me specifically of the last Zelda game - the thing with the crank that lifts the water door - and even Donkey Kong (Cage has to time a barrel jump… no, really). 2) They did something to accentuate Helen Mirren’s breasts that distracted me. 3) The fireworks of Disney over Mount Rusmore ending (wait - the Disney fireworks were on the big CGI Disney production logo at the beginning of the movie… hmmmm, symmetry) was just the right squirt of Cheese Whiz on the fried Spam of a movie (hey, but I like fried Spam and Cheese Wiz).

When ZZ Top’s Eliminator album came out, I remember reading a Rolling Stone review the money line of which was “rock and roll doesn’t deserve to be this stupid” and thinking that that concept was so orthogonal to my point of view as to be nonsensical. This is one stupid movie, but if I let that stop me from enjoying it, I have to ask myself what the hell am I doing watching these types of movies anyway. The movie was awesome, not despite its stupidity, but by brandishing its stupidity like a knife and telling the audience “im'o cut you!” It, well Nic Cage really, physically drags you into its world were egghead crap like “plot logic” and “Chekov’s rule” doesn’t matter. The only way I’d have liked this more is if they tipped it over entirely and cast Bernie Mac as the president.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Beautiful (Thought) Balloon

As promised, I’m returning to comment on the series of recent Steven Grant Permeant Damage articles on the thought balloon. He covers the ground quite well, so I really don’t intend to do much here than add a couple of surface details, and bring up a few related points.

This balloon and caption stuff Grant is discussing occurs in a specific historical background. When I started seriously reading comics in 1980, it was at the cusp of the storytelling “revolution” hinted at in the column. The golden age’s anarchy of poor technique, with occasional better writing including EC’s almost experimental contributions to the field, had long ago given way to the Lee and Kirby distillation of Romance comics personal angst and war/action comics kineticism which reached its zenith during Roy Thomas’ run as editor in chief at Marvel. What had happened by the time I climed aboard is that the dominant superhero paradigm, created in the cold fusion of the early silver age, had been perfected, and had spent the 70’s starting to strain under the weight of creator’s ambitions to do something else with the form. It all continued to work, of course, but there was a great need to do something new, and frustrations arose, partially because the “language” was set so firmly, that it was difficult to tell certain kind of stories as well. Steve Gerber managed it, but for the most part, comics “product” seemed like an imitation of the recently perfected heights with occasional uncomfortable stabs at realism.

The caption box/thought balloon revolution in the mainstream was a long one, stretching from Frank Miller’s 1st person narrative boxes circa 1981 through to 1999’s the Authority, which seemed to be the ultimate statement of “we tell comics stories differently now.” It’s funny how these two examples demonstrate the opposite models pulling comics from the Lee mode – literature (in the case of Miller, Spillane specifically) and movies (the “widescreen” Authority with place/time captions only), but superhero comics changed during this time, gradually but totally.

The reason to abandon techniques such as the thought balloon is twofold: to kick out the crutch and to sever the link to the aesthetic. By crutch, I’m referring to the fact that usage of these devices were straightforward and time tested, and easy to use to tell the obvious kinds of big two stories. People brought up in superhero comics only knew how to tell the stories the way they read them, and was very easy in some ways and severely limiting in others. Bottom line: the “language" of these comics was both dominating and limiting but easy to employ, and thus encouraged the medium to stagnate. It was necessary to destroy the form to transcend it, or even just to move anywhere with it.

This brings up the second issue of the aesthetic. Say what you will about The Roy Thomas Avengers, but it is a specific thing. You know what you got with that book, you knew what to expect. If the cover said “Enter Goliath,” you knew what was inside - the story would have a certain feel and certain values. This was reassuring but also meant it couldn’t stray to far in the kind of thing it would attempt. In order to break this, comics had to stretch far enough away to effectively isolate themselves from the original paradigm, leaving the original paradigm as an antiquated artifact of another time. Doing a traditional comic like almost any comic from 1972 today would seem like pastiche, and we’d all be looking for the underlying (probably ironic)statement the usage of this style is meant to imply. That, of course, means you can’t really do a comic like that straight anymore (for the exception, read on). This could be considered a loss and, of course, still is by John Byrne.

Now, I’m a huge Byrne fan. I have the majority of his work (five longboxes and three magazine boxes worth) and have read it all, and enjoyed most of it, so this is a fan talking. Byrne seems to have taken the losing side in the revolution. Back when I entered comics, he was a major positive force for advancing the form, but he seemed to always believe in a core system of accepted values that shouldn’t change. It is most often sited that his public persona began to sour about the time Next Men went under, which many blamed on sour grapes - he went "creator owned" too late to fully capitalize on the industry’s boom time - but he had started ranting about people doing things “wrong” long before that. The fact that the image guys, who he openly feuded with, were such time bombs obscured the crankiness (made it seem, in fact, like righteous indignation) but by the time he started claiming Morrison’s Doom Patrol was some kind of moral plague on comics, you knew something more was up.

It’s gotten harder for me to read Byrne now. It’s not the Dave Sim effect either, with blonde-Latina-hooker messageboard comments tainting the actual work, it’s the way he started to look at rigid adherence to superhero comics values (as he saw them) as an end unto themselves. His recent comics read like they are trying to prove no one should have moved on from 1983. (please note, I developed some other problems with Byrne as well that revolve around an almost Star Trek the Next Generation-like need to examine the same plot ideas over and over with only slight variations. I should also note that Alan Moore, although has a different paradigm – a more literate one – is just as guilty about being stuck in the stylistic mud). Byrne nonwithstanding, it is but-ass hard to write a good traditional superhero story without running into the either the irony/pastiche or the looks-like-a-hack landmine. In fact, The Brave and the Bold is the only current title that is able (brilliantly, I might add) to do it today.

Back around to balloons and captions: the work of distancing superhero comics from the original aesthetic is done. The crutch has now been kicked out, and the leg has healed. Since though balloons have been removed from their original associations in the language, this is an excellent time to bring them back as more adaptable constructs. The real question is how to use them and the real work is to honestly judge the results. I’m not a big fan of Bendis’ use of them in Mighty Avengers, but that’s not because I disagree with the idea of using them… I just think Bendis’ tendency to try to emulate the way “people really talk” leaks over into the “way they really think” department in an uncomfortable way, and the “what I’m really thinking” sub-thought balloons following word balloons has too much of a jokey, ironic, high school-ish feel to belong in this book (it belongs in a book like Ultimate Spider-man).

Point is: the slate is clean, which means creators can attempt to use these devices again to try to create an effect, or figure out how to incorporate them holistically to create a new way to tell stories. These are unique devices without an analogue in other media, other than possibly voice-overs in movies (although they should theoretically be more useful in comics). Care just must be taken when re-employing them, however, to avoid loosing the ground that years of abstinence has gained.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bionic Woman Struck Dead - a Postmortem

Bionic Woman, the show that Entertainment Weekly called "one of the highlignts of the new fall season" (while really, really high, apparently) has finally been officially cancelled, though it's been presumed dead since the writer's strike started. Needless to say, I think EW was a bit off the mark, and there is some objective quality standard issue at play over this show (i.e. the show sucked, and that's not an opinion). This was the first show since Medical Investigations (see the first couple of months of this blog) that I found myself watching solely because of the spectacular wrong-headedness of the whole enterprise. The problems with the show were sub-total but the show's big problem to me was the fact that it seemed written by people who didn't understand what this kind of show is (i.e. they weren't really up on the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, and maybe felt like they were slumming it – underestimation of the demands of genre writing is probably the second biggest issue with TV writing in general after the fact that too few people can write comedy well). The writers/producers didn't appear to be aware when they did something that has been done a hundred times (and better) or the damage that some decisions did to the credibility of the set-up.

Specific problems included:

1. Hopeless miscasting of the lead - I think there is probably a lot of agreement on this. The actress was inert, and demanded no interest when she wasn't in action. She wasn't the right actress for the quiet drama, which this show had waay too much of.

2. She's just so special - A little Mary Sue-ishness plus a little screenwriterey "everything has to connect" bullshit, which the character couldn't support. The show abandoned the idea of the main character being randomly pulled into the situation as soon as the pilot was done (I think her "files" were found within 15 minutes of the following episode). There is virtually no criteria that a super-elite government agency attempting to build a perfect agent could have that would include this woman. She's personally encumbered, indecisive, avoids sucess, and has a problem with authority.

3. Speaking of indecision – every action scene seemed to start with an extended moment of assessment on the part of the lead as to whether to do anything or not. This is Bionic Woman, not Hamlet. The tortured thing is fine as a backdrop, but come on.

4. Just fire her already - Given point 2, the "agency" would never have chosen her in the first place but, given they did, why would they have tolerated her constantly defying orders, setting her own mission goals mid-mission, letting people go, kicking the crud out of her superiors when they get in the way, etc. This pushed things way over the believability cliff (an aside - she was, incidently, most often WRONG when she went maverick, and it is difficult to see how, if the show had survived, she could have learning curved her way out of that without changing the message of the show to "submit, they were right" or by her suddenly doing things right, which will seem like the writers skewing the outcome). I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but it was too much, and the other aspects of the show didn’t earn it.

5. The James Joyce thing - Don’t get me started on the self indulgence of the “I want to sip coffee and read James Joyce” stuff. It rang incredibly false, the writers didn’t even know what the Dead and Ulysses are about, and it put a lie to all her lunches with her “successful” friends (the tone of these lunches was a sepperate problem in and of itself). And the Dead, although it may be published as a free standing unit today, is not a book, it is a longish short story, not even a novella. That’s a credibility issue when they tried to sell her as a great mind who knows her stuff. As with point 2 above, the writers wanted us to believe she was awesome, but flawed, and it seems they chose to elevate her to the standard of "I was kept from being a lit professor by the cruel machinations of fate," which was wrong on many levels. This is a primary example of the self indulgence of the show - you can do as much unique and individual work within the confines of genre, and give people whatever quirks you want, but the framework needs to be strong enough to support it, and the stuff has to make sense.

6. Stupid technological details - it was stupid for her to be walking around talking on the cellphone. If they didn't bluetooth (or direct cell) her replaced ear or give her a more sophisticated internal com, the super uber govt' tech guys just suck (when they make these mistakes, they often tried to paper over them later with flimsy appeals to her rejection of authority).

7. The british accent - in that one episode, her speaking in her natural accent (the actress, as everyone knows, is british) seemed a little to unearned-inside-baseball for me. They assume the show's audience would get this joke, but the "show's audience" (I'm talking genrephiles here) was mostly pissed off by that time, and saw this as too cute by half. If it wasn't supposed to be a joke, then the only possible other explanation is lazyness (the actress was tired talking in an American accent).

8. Her character just didn’t work in the framework of the show - related to my writer’s quibble above, I think she’s the character that the show’s creators wanted to write about shoehorned into a context that didn’t fit her. Everything about her relationship to her environment was unbelievable or (at best) required a leap as to what’s going on (e.g. some of the sister and friend stuff might have worked if we believed that Lindsey was really not capable of succeeding and was hiding behind her sister as an excuse why she didn’t make it, which would make the Joyce errors clever – she’s a person who enjoys the idea that she had been kept form what she wanted by the outside world, while really it's just that she couldn't be bothered to understand – or possibly even read – the books she was supposed to have wanted to “study”).

You will see the repeating issues above of self-indulgence, bad character/actress decisions, and difficulties with the premise/framework. These, I think, most likely stemmed from the above mentioned idea that the show was worked on by a writing staff that was unfamiliar with the type of material (and the importance of fundementals of world-building) and didn't know how to make their voice heard in a fluid way in this genre specific structure. And miscasting the actress, of course.

The only way the show could have ever worked for me would have been to pull a Miracleman on it – i.e. overhaul the whole reality of the show. My vote would have been to end the first season by increasing the things that didn’t make sense, killing off characters left and right, then ending with a cliffhanger that looks like certain death for the lead character’s death, only to start next season with the lead character leading a normal life (unexplained at first) with no powers, but having “dreams” or flashes of first season things happening. She would begin to see people she has some recollection of, and eventally would be contacted by some "crazy" guy who suggests these may be more than hallucinations. At this point, she investigates her way to finding that the project from season 1 was real but was discontinued, with the units (including her) sent back to some version of their lives, memories wiped, and their powers locked with a keyword necessary to revive them (she could even be living the life that season 1 told us she wanted, giving the whole thing a Last Temptation of Christ overtone).

This would culminate in a scene where she finds the lab of someone who has continued the work (someone from season 1, not necessarily in the same role… this is a Wizard of Oz type deal) where there is a woman in a tank with surrounding TV screens showing a scene identical to some memorable scenes in season 1, but with the woman in the tank in Lindsey’s place. It is thus revealed that much of season one was a VR training exercise in her head, but with real people in the roles. This explains the inconsistencies (and their increase at the end of the season) – the interaction between native psychologies and the program are unpredictable, and impossible to program flawlessly. Now she knows the score, somehow gets hold of the keyword (turning off her strength governors and regaining her “powers”), and the agency has to get rid of her. This puts her on the run, but she wants to find her sister, and her “dead” boyfriend, who (if they ever existed at all, or if they were actually her sister and boyfriend) may not be dead.

This premise would have fit the actress’s talents better, the first season would not have to be completely “written out” (the actors could show back up, even the dead ones, in roles that could be tweaked however necessary, and even the events could have been based on something, partially on her own memories of events that did happen to her) but the trick is figuring out what was real and what wasn’t. If you could have gotten David Lynch to direct a key episode or two of the transition, it might have worked.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Greg Rucka's Spider-aversion

A couple of months ago, before I decided to try to really kick this blogging thing back into gear, I went to the Las Vagas Library system’s annual comic book day. They held the thing at the West Sahara branch, which is a big, big library, with quite a bit of meeting space. I have never mentioned before what a great couple of library systems we have in Vegas – a Las Vegas system and a Henderson system, both pretty top notch, both with robust “graphic novel” sections, and the Vegas system at least (maybe it's both ways, I don't know) is open to everyone in the area (meaning as a Henderson resident, I can check out from either library). The event was crowded… I got lucky with someone leaving or I would have had to park across the 8 lane Sahara Parkway and walk to the thing. The mini-convention had one large panel room, used during the whole event by the more “important” panels, upstairs panel rooms, also in use most of the time, a vendor area where my local awesome retailer of choice (Ralph from Alternate Reality Comics) had a booth, and a signing area. The big guest was Greg Rucka, who I happen to like, mostly for Queen and Country (including the prose novels) and Whiteout, although a lot of his DC eventsmanship isn’t my bag.

I’d mostly forgotten about Rucka’s talk, which was nice and informal, with many questions that I didn’t care about (most of which were answered with some version of “I can’t tell you or Dan DiDio would have to kill you”) but also many writing process questions, which weren’t groundbreaking, but which elicited thoughtful responses. One quibble… whenever I see or hear (exclusive) prose writers talk, they seem to have a range of personalities an attitudes, varying from person next door, to egotistical, to whiny, to kooky, to shy, etc. When seeing "mainstream" comic writers I’ve never seen speak before, they always seem to remind me of one a few guys I knew in high school predominantly characterized by a sense of arrested development (or, more precisely, man-childism). Rucka seems like a smart guy, but when he gets enthusiastic, it’s in that embarrassing “imagine how many dice damage the fireball spell of a level 50 magic user could do” way that makes you half expect that he has wet himself.

The topic of that talk came up again as I was catching up on
Permanent Damage columns where I found a reference to it in the first of Steven Grant’s recent columns on the use of the thought balloon (the later is here - I’ve got some comments about those articles, which were excellent, but I’ll deal with them in a later post):

At the library convention I was at a couple weekends back, I heard Greg Rucka explaining to an audience member that people who go around complaining that if Superman really existed he wouldn't use his superpowers altruistically just don't get it because that's the character and what you think he would or wouldn't really do is irrelevant. The conceit of Superman is that he's an altruist, so going in you have to accept that. It's like people who complain that rock concerts are too loud; that's like complaining that Beethoven symphonies have string arrangements. It's their nature.

This was part of a pretty sound discussion by Grant on the adherence to a central conceit, and the suspension of disbelief. You know, you can’t watch House unless you accept that, in the world of the show, that Gregory House could retain his license and privileges despite his egregious behavior because you and the show have an “agreement” about this. Fine. But the context of Rucka’s remark was a discussion of which characters he liked and which he didn’t, during which I felt he was a bit short sighted. The discussion seemed mostly a rationalization of taste. This rubbed me the wrong way since the character he used as an example of one that he didn’t like was Spider-Man, and Spider-man is awesome. I love Spider-man! Shut up! Just shut your DC exclusive hole! Seriously, though, he did suggest that Spider man was a guilt ridden wretch, and that is no way, he says, to be a hero.

Restated, Rucka’s claim seems to be that guilt abrogates heroism. Spider-Man, he said, was driven by guilt to do the right thing, and thus doing the right thing is not a heroic act. The upshot is simply Rucka admitting doesn’t understand Spider-man, and couldn’t write him (I agree with that), but in getting there, he suggests that only heroism without any other personal factors besides sheer altruism can be considered heroism. Although I can see what he’s driving at, I think this is a load of crap. For one, Spider-man's motivating force is not guilt but responsibility (duh! it’s in the motto). The Uncle Ben sequence, especially after close to 50 years of Spider-musing, is best seen as a cautionary tale that you can’t ignore the suffering of others when you are in a position to help since you and those you love are, ultimately, the others yourself. Peter was a good kid who was at a point of moral choice and was taught a lesson, which he apparently learned about as completely as you can learn such a lesson. So, if I jump off of an overpass into water that I don’t know the depth of in order to try to save someone thrown from their car, would it be not heroic if it turns out I’d been to afraid to jump in the water and save someone from drowning when I was ten (this didn’t really happen to me - it was Phil Collins, I think… maybe I’m getting the
story wrong)? I would argue that Spider-man just has a slightly more relatable heroism - a more day to day go out there and get it done, when am I going to get that haircut heroism - than the Superman example.

Let me reveal, however, that I agree with Rucka's love of Superman. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the three superheroes that are the best built as characters (whether they are handled well is another matter) are Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America. Superman and Captain America both tap directly into a deeply rooted idealism of the American dream, with Superman’s two fisted immigrant protecting the little guy from exploitation and facing the big threats because he can, and Captain America soldiering anonymously for the core (and, as it happens, American) ideal of freedom from the tyranny over the minds of men whether or not the government agrees and especially if the government is the tyranny over the minds of men. Spider-man is just a smaller scale version of the same civic responsibility, made more personal.

Rucka likes Batman, although I don’t personally think that that’s a step down from my three greats (although he seems to be an easier character to get right). Batman’s themes of fear and safety run just as deep, but not as wide to me, and Rucka gives him an easy pass on the motivation of his parents dying (it’s not guilt like Spider-man, y’see, it’s not wanting it to happen to others). The Batman theme that has been the most interesting over the past 20 years or so is the end/means of the need for ultimate-competence - an examination of what the person is like who says “the buck has to stop with me… no one else can do it.” Batman as the hero version of
Col. Jessup.

If I was going to devil’s advocate against Spider-man, I’d go for a different angle – gender politics. One could cobble together an easy argument that manly men heroes are out of style due to wimpification of men by the media. Superman has to be reduced in the movies (oh God, see Superman Returns, or better yet don’t) to a pining lovesick voyeur, because that diffuses all that threatening male confidence. Whose fault is this? Spider-man, the grandfather of all nerd heroes. I don’t buy this argument, but that’s what I’d use were I the prosecution in this case.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Misty Water-colored Memories: Seeing Temple of Doom again

We have some kids in the house who hadn't seen the Indiana Jones movies, so we rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark right before Christmas and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom this weekend. The one thing that stuck out about this experience is how I remembered virtually everything about the first movie, but almost nothing about the second. In my dim recollection, when Temple of Doom came out I thought it compared okay to Raiders and I probably thought the same thing a few years later when I saw it on video. But, boy, watching it again... Temple of Doom sucked! In my memory, I managed to reduce everything between the jumping out of the plane in a raft to finding the secret passage in the palace/compound to just a few minutes, while in reality it is nearly half the movie.

The middle of the movie has only one real action sequence (Indy fighting the Thugee guard in his bedroom while Ms. I'm-gonna-marry-Speilberg is in her room, expecting him to come back for lu-hu-huve), which ends of one of the longest action-free streaches of any action movie I can name. This entire part of the movie is supposed to be held together by the fish out of water antics (which are just too much after a while) and the rom-com aspects, but Capshaw acts like such a buffoon (I'm not blaming her alone... I'm sure she's written that way) that she's more a fifth-wheel second sidekick than a serious romantic interest (there seems to be no development of their relationship or even "you are turning me on" arguments until it's time for one of scenes that beat you about the head and ears with the idea that they are interested in each other). You have no idea what indy might see in her other than the fact that she's the only woman in 500 miles with all her teeth.

I remembered the clumsy exposition, that seemed to drag on through most of the movie, and the poorly executed coda but apparently thought the adventure made up for it. Ah, I was so easily amused as a you.

Bottom line: not enough action set pieces, bad pacing, terrible lead actress, too much mugging, too much "I'm not eating THAT," failed attempt at capturing Bogie-Hepburn paradigm, and really dated special effects (check out those insubstantial blue screen explosions), made accaptable only by the decent action (when it's there), one of Harrison Ford's last charming performances, and good quotable lines from the sidekick (if only Indy had heeded "No time for love, Dr. Jones" - what a wonderful movie this could have been).

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Amazon Kindle: Before and After "Reviews"

A few months ago, Stephen King wrote one of his last page Entertainment Weekly columns ("the Pop of King" I think the column is called) on the Amazon Kindle. It was a good piece, but demonstrated something that irritates me about his more recent opinion writing, and his EW column in particular: his tendency to enter a full blown cultural discussion that has been raging for the better part of a decade, and act like he’s the first one to bring it up.

The Kindle is part of a ongoing really broad discussion about digital delivery of print media but has many of its own wrinkles. It is difficult to even begin discussing something like that in the one page he had to work with, but King does an OK job bringing up a few of the issues. This paragraph:

Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There's a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium

This is a good example of the plus/minus nature of discussing a topic so huge in such a small column… it’s a really nice encapsulation of some of the points into one unified statement, but it suggests the topic boils down to this, and it most definitely doesn’t. It confuses me that King doesn’t hint that this is the tip of an iceberg that all sorts of people (other writers, notably Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and Douglas Rushkoff, cultural critics, publishing executives, and futurists of all stripes) have been trying to get a hold of for at least 6 years. At the very least, his “Uncle Stevie” delivery seems to trivialize the topic beyond what he’s directly addressing.

When discussing the Kindle at that time, I had specific areas of concern, some of which King aludes to:

The catch: For now, you can only order the (electronic books) at the Amazon-run Kindle Store. The advantage: It's cheaper than your local big-box store, with $9.99 as the price for many new releases.

I was (and still am) of the opinion that the proprietary format SUCKS at this stage of the game, in ways an article of this size doesn’t have time to get into, and $9.99 for a data stream has to be compared not only to buying the book, but also to free libraries and other authors who make online versions of their work available for free as a loss leader to the book “artifact.”

From the outside, I could see some other issues: the design didn’t maximize its screen size (dumb move). The damn thing apparently couldn’t handle graphic novels, even manga. The Black and white only screen was a small issue, but limited what you would want to purchase for it. These technologies are designed for a reason, and the e-book reader that I felt I needed was one designed to facilitate the emergence of a portable e-book culture/sub-lifestyle, not one designed to serve the biggest online seller’s business model.

Then I got to use one.

For Valentine’s day, I wound up getting my wife one (I know, I know, tres romantique' – it’s better than a cutting board), and my opinion changed somewhat.

The first thing I need to mention is my reason for the big buy, which I think puts a finger on a significant missing element from my pre-purchase comments. The deal went down because my wife was looking to find better oportunities as a reader, being been part of a dying breed – the sub-culture of used book store exchanges for credit bag-ladies (books always go back in a brown paper grocery bag). She (unlike me who, when I read a book, want the relic of my experience to stay with me forever) likes to read fast, sometimes more than a book a day, and then get rid of them. This used to occur by buying books, reading them, and exchanging them at a used book store for half credit. We can no longer find a used book store that will allow this, therefore she buys books, reads them, and then they sit around in a the afforementioned brown bag until they get donated to someone. For her, the idea of paying less for a non-paper version of the book makes real sense, and Amazon has Kindle versions of ALL the books she reads. In my original comments, I applied MY model of reading to the new technology, but not my wife’s. For my wife, this works, and Amazon’s system provides better access to these books than is possible with any other reader.

Most of the negative comments about the Kindle still hold, but they are less important in the face of the above noted specific utility to my wife and the process of actually handling the thing (making my own mental adjustments once I put it through its paces). One such complaint is its proprietary nature - the thing will only supposedly handle Amazon’s proprietary file type and mobi files that are unprotected, with Amazon offering to convert files to their format via e-mail. Several comments – 1. this should really cheese you off if you have already invested in buying lit files or, especially, protected mobi files – but converters exist, and you don’t have to go through Amazon to recover your other files – you can convert and directly upload them; 2. the system will handle the usual image file types with an image viewer that is for some reason a secret (there are a lot… A LOT… of
undocumented things you can do with the Kindle and the image viewer is the best of them – large images load really slow, though).

The price point of the books is still an issue, but if you’re not looking for a new release best seller, the price isn’t 10$... its less. The books my wife reads go for about 3$ and change, a little over half the paperback price. As suggested above, this is a good deal because, at best, she would sell her out pile to a used book store for credit, which is certainly worth less then half the new price, but in practice, we can’t really recover any of the cost now anyway. The price point discussion veers into deeper waters, though: what are the rates for authors? Do they get the same as a paper book sold? Less? More? The consumer base probably could get a better price point than this direct from the authors, but with Amazon positioning itself in the market this way (with this closed technology), it works against the potential of authors selling directly to the consumer, one of the major potential benefits of the internet to the book market. As an example: would you rather pay 6$ for a new book with the author getting all of it (minus slight overhead) or pay 10$ so the author can get 3$? Amazon’s model (and the design of the Kindle itself) assures us that we won’t get this choice.

I still don’t like the way the screen size isn’t maximized, and the lack of an illuminated screen option seems dumb in a product of this cost (about 400 bucks). The screen itself is pretty neat, though – it is a non light reactive surface so you can read it in just about any conditions in which you could read paper (it reads great in glare) and the battery life is incredible… if you turn the wi-fi off when you are not downloading, you can read for weeks without recharging. The keypad is not great to use, and I’d have rathered a flip out design, with the keyboard coming out when you need it, but the screen taking up closer to all the front surface instead of the 65-70% or so that it does. One moderately significant quibble… it is impossible to handle the unit while doing anything other than reading (e.g. plugging in the power, putting in an SD card) without hitting the next page buttons, witch are right at the edge. Also, I managed to freeze the unit a couple of times, requiring rebooting that I had to figure out how to do on my own.

Given the image viewer option and the way the web pages load, reading manga on the thing should easily be possible (although the screen is of a suboptimal size). Since they are not making manga available now, I think Amazon is probably still a bit worried as to the stability of the image viewing, and is trying to find a better security method for these kinds of files. The way black and white line images display, however, suggests that getting a clean image is not a problem, which is very hopeful (the screen saver is line art that displays nicely).

The cell connection method is a bit wonky. We got good downloads and web viewing, but I had to “reboot” the WiFi several times after it would seize up (turn the unit off for 20 seconds or so, then back on with the switch… easy, and takes less than a minute, but it happened quite a few times, all while I had 4 or 5 bars). There is a list of blogs and magazines to subscribe to, but since you can web surf for free (free cellular web access, at least at this point… I predict this will change once they decide the web surfing is not “experimental” anymore) you can get most of this content for free, so as a model it’s a bit odd. Their e-mail is useless as such as messages must contain an attachment to be viewed, and you are charged 10 cents to convert and send anything (from “how ya’ doin’” to the complete works of Proust). In the right setting, it could be used as a 10 cent per use text message service, but we have cell phones for that. The Google maps cell locator is cool – the fact that you can use an e-book reader to find the nearest gas station is funny to me somehow.

All in all, having the thing in my hands has improved my feelings towards it. Most of my complaints are either early adopter/beta test type stuff (most things will be fixed in a year or so… we’ll definitely see manga) or are problems with the business model derived from a philosophical difference of opinion between me and “the man.” A basic wish list on my part would include a bigger screen, illumination, native support of lit, doc and txt files, and immediate manga availability. Other desires would include better price points and stability (of both the unit and network). I was prepared for the negatives, but was pretty surprised by the positives of the Kindle once I had used it (the mp3 support was a pleasant surprise). I think with some tweaks, this platform could work, and I’m not shocked by the Kindle’s early success. If you are a high turnover book reader and have a reading habit which is not properly served by the library (or are just a technophile), the Kindle is a really decent choice, as well as being the only game in town for much of the market.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Force of Will Review: Scapled and Criminal

I read too many comics. This shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone (the comics audience tends towards the obsessive type, after all) but the sheer number of comics I read tends to suppress my ability to discuss them (by the time I can get to a computer to write about a comic, I’ve likely read 15 other comics, which kind of clouds the focus a bit). I don’t think writing short fierce reviews is my bag (plus, we’ve got professionals to deal with that) but my reading habits tend to dilute my focus. Also, some of the comics that I’ve been enjoying the most lately (Criminal and Scalped to name two prime examples) haven’t had that “I’ve got to write on this” effect… I love them, but I don’t know what to say about them. So, as an exercise, I thought I’d force myself to sit down and say something about them and maybe focus for long enough to see why I like them.

Scalped, published by Vertigo, currently on issue 15, is a series that snuck up on me quickly (I liked the first few issues OK, but by the end of the first arc, the hook was set). The book could best be described as western (specifically Native American reservation) noir, of the there’s-no-escaping-the-past variety. That’s selling it a bit short, though… there’s a lot going on. The main character (or the first main character – the focus shifts around a bit), Dashiell Bad Horse, returns to the reservation after almost half his life away, taking a job in local law enforcement. His almost superhuman emotional baggage leads to a rather robust level of physical violence and disruptiveness, which catches the notice of Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the reservations answer to Boss Hogg, who is about to open the big Casino that will change everything. Red Crow has some baggage too, with various interests after his money, a reservation which has gone to seed with meth and alchohol, and a past that includes being an Indian rights revolutionary, with said revolution, long abandoned by Red Crow for money (or at least a more pragmatic approach to “progress”), has two murdered FBI agents to its credit. But, as it often goes, Bad Horse and Red Crow are connected… one other person involved in the murder was Dahiell’s mother, and Red Crow’s lover, Gina, who never left the reservation, but is bitterness personified.

Added to the mix are Carol Ellroy, the “love” of Dashiell’s past and Red Crow’s daughter (now a woman who has sunk about as far as she can go into the squalor of the reservation, and who seems to be becoming Dashiell’s obsession), Catcher, a semi crazy man who was there years ago when the murders took place, and a current crop of FBI agents (I won’t say any more about them). All in all, this stew reminds me most of Lone Star (the John Sayles movie) which shared the western setting, moral tone, corruption, murder from the past, ethnic concerns (in the case of the film, Hispanic), and (if I remember right) hints of possible incest (I haven’t seen the movie in 10 years, so this might be me overlaying something). It also reminded me of Soderbergh’s Underneath, which I have a soft spot for (I lived 4 years in Baton Rouge… did I mention my wife grew up down the street from Soderbergh?), with its “man returns to entanglements he left long ago” noir vibe. But the extent to which the comic has sucked me in was unexpected.

One reason may be the Indian-casino angle. I live in Las Vegas, where the life of the town is supported by gambling. The issue of the reservation Casinos and their relationship to taxes, government, and big business has, to my mind never been fully reported on, and I find myself thinking about it like it’s food stuck in my teeth, wondering what I don’t know. This is certainly the first comic I am aware of that addresses this in any way, and maybe that’s part of the attraction. In addition, I exist in a place where (although Vegas is a paradoxically family friendly town) drug culture, especially meth culture, isn’t that far away. In a way, this is a peek into the other side of dream, at those ruined by the pleasure machine.

But I think it’s really the characters and relationships that make this one sing. Bad Horse is a cauldron of misdirected anger and misunderstood desires, and he makes a compelling protagonist, all the more since his actions (which in large part drive the story) lack coherence. Red Crow, driven from his true love by his moral compromises, and left with nothing but his will and pride to keep him warm at night (oh yeah… and money and power), makes a gripping, and very human, monster figure. Gina (what we see of her) is all idealism and loss, and Carol is all enticement and degradation. The interactions are complex, the diad relationships of character well fleshed out, and the second Rashomon-like arc gives us time with each characters hidden thoughts… some of which are surprising given the actions in first arc. The third arc, which follows the big event of the (single day of) the second arc, has been deft in its handling of the repercussions.

Criminal has also been uniformly excellent. Unlike Scalped, Criminal has been talked about and openly supported, so I don’t know that I have much to add to the discussion of the content. Instead, I want to note an odd effect: I’m anxious about whether the comic will remain good. I don’t mean “I have my doubts” anxious, I mean “I avoid reading an issue” anxious. I haven’t had this reaction to something since the first season of the OC when (believe it or not) the show, after a wobbly start and a 6 episode warm up, became the best show ever of it’s type (the funny/crazy nighttime teen soap). I would actually dread watching the episodes because they were getting better and better, but I knew it was the nature of these shows to self destruct. They can’t help it. There’s no way to reinvent the show without ruining what you have, so it’s stasis (fade away) versus self consumption (Burn out). the OC did both, starting 2/3 of the way through its first season.

Criminal has given me a couple of warning signs, despite the fact that it has been great. The first is that it is firmly a noir book, dedicated to telling a different self enclosed story with different characters every half year or so, and there are only so many noir plots (and, for that matter, so man y noir characters). Already, both of the completed arcs have been centered on heists. The second arc had someone returning to the life he left behind for revenge. Both had a bad girl with a past that spells trouble. Although both were very worthwhile, how much retreading does the future hold? Second, if the book has been building a world (I’m not sure it’s that interested in doing it), the way it’s handled character “crossovers” has been less Stray Bullets and more Sin City (“oh look, they’re in the same bar at the same time as that one scene in the first arc…score!) – not a good sign. I really don’t want this to resort to a network of cute cameos. If you are going to world build, I want fragments of a thought out functioning social construct. If you can’t aspire to be the Wire, don’t bother.

But still, it’s been great… I just don’t want it to start sucking, or worse, get stuck in a rut. I guess you should count your blessings if your biggest problem with something is that it might get less good. But does anyone else ever have a comic that they have to build up courage to read, like the way you take a deep breath to make an unpleasant phone call? So far, though, all I’ve gotten when I’ve opened the book is a sense of relief. Life is good, I guess.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Whatever Alan Moore tells you, he really didn’t start it

The recent AV Club primer on Alan Moore trotted out an old chestnut, namely that Watchmen kicked of an era of grim and gritty comics. What’s irritating to me about this statement is not just that it’s wrong - said era was already well underway for years – but that I’ve never even seen it challenged. Memories of comics often get foggy about what came before what, but I’m in a particularly good position to remember what came before Watchmen. Like most comic readers I know, I quit comics at one point and eventually came back, but I happened to discover girls leave my childhood hobby 3 months before Dark Knight Returns started and about 9 months before Watchmen kicked off.. My memory should be reasonably clear on what came before the big bang of 1986 and I can tell you the phrase grim and gritty itself had been in use for well over a year, probably more like 3 or 4 years, when I quit.*

The deep roots of the 80’s grit explosion are in the 30’s pulp origins of the superhero traced up through the early 1970s, notably the darker parts of the relevance movement (see the O’Neal/Adams Batman, starting with issue 232, June 1971) and superhero comics creators publishing more violent and morally stark stories (albeit usually not strictly superhero stories) in independent B&W magazines such as the Warren magazines of the same period. The 70s heavy influence by the apocalyptic future branch of science fiction and other darker genres, fostered by the beginings of geek-fan hypersaturation, also helped Petri-dish the first spores of the movement. In many ways, the direct progenitor was seen in early 70’s Marvel with the re-emergence of non-superhero genre comics, especially horror titles (Toumb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, etc., but also Conan, Shang Chi, and the ilk) which felt different from the superhero output of the time but crossed over into it and infected it with its heightened sense of anti-heroism. The first signs of the infection in the main host showed up in 1974-5.

There seemed to be something in the water at Marvel at this time (maybe someone left an Executioner book in the bathroom) when, firmly in the superhero universe, potentially darker, more violent heroes began to emerge: most notably The Punisher (Amazing Spider-Man 129, February 1974), Wolverine (Incredible Hulk 180-1 October/November 1974), and Moon Knight (Werewolf by Night 32, August 1975). Of course, the code hadn’t become a dead dog quite yet, and these characters more extreme tendencies (and the implications of their actions) were blunted and blurred. Despite the obvious repercussions of having a character who slashes at people with knives attached to his arms, Wolverine probably wasn’t even conceived of as particularly dark and Frank Castle shot the bad guys with rubber bullets, for Christ’s sake (some soldier). Moon Knight, drifting as he did through backups in Marvel’s B&W Magazines was the most hardcore in the early going, especially after Adams-acolyte era Bill Sienkiewicz took over (Hulk! Magazine 13, February 1979). But this was just the first signs of redness – the festering wound was yet to come.

The catalyst for the rise of the popularity of the grim and gritty paradigm came with the advent of the era’s superstar comics creators (although, it is perhaps more correct to say they catalyzed each other). This was mostly fostered by Frank Miller and the Claremont Byrne team, but at Wolfman/Perez team, and to a lesser extent Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz are implicated. For a proper discussion, it is probably best to get specific at this point, so here it goes (I’ve organized by character for flow):

Wolverine was the most important single character in this phenomenon. A relatively bland creation out of the gate, and disliked by X-Men writer Claremont, he only started to gel when John Byrne took over the art chores on, and slipped into the co-plotting of, the book. Byrne’s sculpting of Wolverine’s “don’t eff with me, bub” personality, and Claremont’s reaction to it really fascinated readers at the time. The seminal early event in his progression was the character’s explicitly delineated killing of a guard in the Savage Land (I think it was X-Men 115, November 1978, although I might be off by an issue). The killing, which in the story context was portrayed as somewhat necessary was made a bit more unsettling by the look of anticipation on the hero’s face before the act: “I’m going to enjoy this” it seemed to say. Along with the constant talk of berserker rages, and the horror of his murderous potential by the other team members, especially Storm, this was what really got people interested in the runt. Then came the body slam – “Wolverine Alone” (X-Men 133, May 1980) the issue where Logan goes nuts killing Hellfire Club guards left and right, making the threat of uncontrollable violence, only hinted at before, real. But it was the Wolverine miniseries (starting September 1982) that saw the ultimate solidification of the grim and gritty image - not only for Wolverine himself, but for the whole age. “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” Try to say that without clenching your teeth, looking up through your eyebrows, and snarling. Before we move on, it is noteworthy that the Uncanny X-Men of this era also gave us many more grittifying moments including the Death of Phoenix (kill them to show you are hardcore - 137, Sept 1980), Days of Future Past (future dystopia, everyone’s cynical - 141-2, January/February 1981), and Storm’s badass Mohawk angst (turning the gentle caring character into a punk… take that Mary Marvel! - starting 173, October 1983).

Miller’s run on Daredevil, and its fallout, are arguably the most important general element of the gritty revolution. Miller started on Daredevil with just art at issue 158 (May 1979), and had a phase of gradually taking over the writing (with 168’s January 1981 introduction of Elektra being his first solo credited issue). The intervening issues show a gradual seepage into Miller’s trademark brand of grimness - dirty cities, ninjas, and badasses badass enough to outbadass everyone else - with the retelling of the origin (164, May 1980) and the code rejected Punisher story (would have run as 167, December 1980) being of particular note. After 168, though, the world of Daredevil was all Miller, from the re-working of Bullseye into the ultimate grim and gritty villain throughout the run, to the death of Elektra (181, April 1982), to the final publication of the previously rejected Punisher story (163-4 June-July 1982).

Speaking of Mack Bolin the Punisher… the undeniable early 80’s popularly of this character is the hardest to document. The dude that goes around shooting bad guys was considered cool, to my memory, throughout the late 70’s, but it was Miller’s one two punch of Amazing Spider-Man Annual 15 (Summer 1981) and the aforementioned DD163-4 that really seemed to harness what people liked coherently. The trouble is that the Punisher never had a title during the period we’re talking about and, with the exception of the Miller issues, wasn’t that well written. But I can tell you from experience that all the comic readers I knew got really excited at the possibility that he was going to shoot someone in the face.

I should also briefly come back to Moon Knight, who launched his own Bill Sienkiewicz drawn series (November 1980), which went direct sales only with issue 15 (January 1982) because it was, essentially, too dark for the code. It was in these non code issues that Sienkiewicz’s art really began to take on the impressionistic tone he has become more associated with today. One big landmark of Marvel’s grim and gritty era was the spoken-of-in-hushed-tones Bizarre Adventures 31, the “violence” issue featuring work by Byrne, Miller, etc, all working in bloody kneecap mode, in April of 1982.

DC’s publishing style wasn’t quite as conducive to this phenomenon, but it was there to be sure. It took the New Teen Titans 2 months from their first appearance in DC comics Presents 26 (October 1980) to introduce Deathstroke the Terminator (New Teen Titans 2, December 1980), another “I’m the best there is” badass. They went on use him and his psychologically damaged (and underaged) spy Terra in the definitive “intense” Titan’s story The Judas Contract (starting with Tales of the New Teen Titans at issue 42, April 1984) the same month that the group started their own non code approved book with a bunch of more “adult” stuff like satanic rites. The New Titans also gave us (in Annual 2, Summer 1983) the DC version of the Punisher, the Vigilante. Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen started to grim up the Legion with the Great Darkness Saga around May of 1982, and (for his first appearance only – DC Comics Presents 52, December 1982) Giffen’s own Ambush bug really looked like a psychopathic clown murderer in the hardcore Joker mold (he soon became more of an all purpose comic foil). I won’t go into Swamp Thing (gritty since February 1984) because it’s not really a superhero title, doesn’t always have the dark tone, and started kind of late in the game.

The early 80s mini boom in independent publishers was heavily involved in this phenomenon. Matt Wagner’s Grendel, the king of the era’s ultraviolent anti-heroes (utterly without societal morals, Hunter Rose slices anyone in his way apart with his razor sharp double pronged pole arm), first appeared in Comico Primer 2 in January of 1982, alongside other “extreme” kinds of characters with names like Slaughterman. First comics had a few “hard” characters show up in 1983 including Mike Grell’s (of Legion of Super-Heroes fame) Jon Sable Freelance (Mercenary for hire), Reuben (American) Flagg by former semi-hot superhero artist Howard Chaykin (dystopian future law enforcement), once and future superhero creators John Ostrander and Timothy Truman’s Grimjack (dystopian future mercenary), and dystopian future badass soldier/leader Nexus (originally published by capitol in 1981 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, superhero cre… you get the idea). These harder edged characters which, while not superheroes per se, but might as well have been… they all created by superhero creators, wore costumes, had powers or abilities, secret origins, etc. There were many other companies flitting around before the revolution of 86’ that were either all badass all the time (Silverwolf and Aircel spring to mind) or published some extreme characters (Continuity and Renegade). Moore’s earlier seminal superhero deconstructive work Marvelman (Miracleman later when it got to the states) started in Britain’s Warrior Magazine in 1982, and 2000AD was busy producing dystopian future grimness since the 70’s.

The final proof that grim and gritty was firmly established and popular years before Watchmen and Dark Knight, is that humor comics were making fun of these tendencies as early as 1982. What If? 34, Aug 1982, contained gags making fun of the grimness and badassness of characters, Captain Carrot (1982 or 83) had some sequence parodying grim and gritty (I’ve got to pull the issues… I can’t remember which ones it was), and E-Man (First Comics iteration, issues 2-3, May and June of 1983) did an all out parody of X-Men, angst, tough as nails Wolvie, and all. . Last but not least, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984) were first and foremost a parody (or a loving attempt to capture the spirit of) of grim and gritty mutant/ninja comics (Raphael, the mysterious tortured Wolverine analogue, was, at first, the featured character).

I’m not denying that this aesthetic did have a real growth spurt in the late 80’s, but there are multiple reasons besides the popularity of Watchmen for this. Let’s name a few:
1. Artists who were weaned in 1982 started coming into the industry and gained power to dictate what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to do was draw cool stuff, i.e. do something awesome like Frank Miller’s Wolverine.
2. Editorial weakened. Marvel especially started to get more lax about whet they would let through, with a character the Punisher, not allowed to have his own title for years of popularity (because he wasn’t a good guy), suddenly having multiple titles. Artwork that would have been deemed unacceptable a few years ago was allowed to pass, Wolverine was suddenly in 6 titles a month, and a weakening code that let questionable material through.
3. The black and white boom, which started due to the Ninja Turtles not Watchmen, encouraged anyone who could pick up a radiograph to publish whatever they felt like with NO editorial interference. What everyone felt like putting out, apparently, was badly rendered AWSOMENESS (and I don’t mean that in a good way, just as a description of intent) that read like the Turtles or Miller, depending on the presence or absence of fur.
4. The British invasion, which owes a debt to Moore in general, but not to Watchmen any more than any other work of his, led to a number of mostly good writers entering the game who were just coming off of writing dystopian badass future stories for 2000AD. Fill in the blanks: their first superhero comics were g___ and g_____.

The main point I’m trying to make is that Grim and Gritty was a “thing” and had captured the consciousness of 8-12 year old boys long before Watchmen. In fact, gazing at the above list, it seems that 1982 (4 years before Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns) was the watershed year for the phenomenon. So next time Moore says “If I had known what writing Watchmen would unleash…” be a bit dubious, and maybe look at both it and Dark Knight Returns as, at least from one angle, the first meta-commentary on an already existing grim and gritty sub-genre, not the first examples of it.

* It’s hard to pinpoint when I quit exactly, but basic mental archeology seems to place an absolute quit date at around December of 1985, with Dark Knight Returns starting in March of 1986 and Watchmen in Sept. of 1986… In this post, I‘m referring to consistent dates on CBDB and GCD, which I think are cover dates not actual release dates. Also, I can’t document this, but I think I first heard the phrase grim and gritty during the run of the Wolverine miniseries in one of the fan mags like Amazing Heroes, which would date the term to the latter half of 1982.