Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Death in Comics Part II: A Requiem for CrossGen Comics

It's amazing what talented artists can do. Early last year I found myself riveted by the stunning pencils of Marvel Knights 4. The artist was an apparent newcomer named Steve McNiven. After seven issues, all of which I eagerly picked up, he left the title and I eagerly awaited the announcement of his next project, which was eventually revealed to be Ultimate Secret. Unfortuantely, an editorial snafu over at Marvel, which involved McNiven penciling fill-in issues of Brian Bendis' New Avengers, has caused Ultimate Secret to go on hiatus midway for the next three months until Marvel's fastest rising star finishes the art chores on its highest-selling title.

Left without my McNiven fix, I found myself scrounging back issue bins and the Internet for his past work, knowing that the Fantastic Four book had been his first-ever Marvel work. And it was there that I discovered the wonderful world of CrossGen.

When I first heard about CrossGen several years ago, all I knew about it was that a bunch of a-list comic book talents like Mark Waid, Chuck Dixon, George Perez and Brandon Peterson, to name a few, had put their heads together with the goal of creating a new line of comics which was to be as innovative and diverse as it was attractive. The common link of these different titles was, I think, some sort of symbol of power called the Sigil.

The lone book I've read from this line is Meridian, and if it's any indication, I think the CGE (that's CrossGen Entertainment) crew succeeded in their goal.

At first blush, Meridian seems a tad juvenile, being of the fantasty/Harry Potter persuasion, but it's undeniably imaginative. I love the concept of cities floating in the air, and use of ships with sails on the side as wings to navigate between them. There is something a little "Star Wars"-ish about the way the heroine, Sephie, is pitted against her evil Uncle, Ilahn, but the presentation is absolutely gorgeous, and the characterization isn't half-bad either.

As of now, I have the compiled edition of the first seven issues and the last two issues McNiven drew, #s 35 and 36. Not a whole lot, I know, but enough to convince me that this product deserved a whole lot more attention from the public than it got.

It saddens me to know, therefore, that CGE has since gone under, as of 2004, I understand. I don't know the reasons why, beyond the financial ones, but I can only guess that they weren't selling enough comics. Now that all of the company's talent has been divided up by the Big Two like spoils of war (like I said, I found out about McNiven in a Marvel comic book), it doesn't seem likely that we'll ever read any tales of the Sigil again, save on the back-issue or trade paperback market. I plan to complete all the issues of Meridian in between #7 and #35 (at least the ones by McNiven), whether in paperback or single issue form.

It pains me to see how fickle the comic book market is, and how resistant to truly new ideas it seems as well. It seems the only two true revolutions in comics took place in the thirties and forties and in the Stan Lee era. Everything since then has been bold new takes on familiar characters (the Dark Knight stuff) or deconstruction of the genre (e.g. Watchmen, Wanted). The few people that have really tried new things not only crashed and burned but are often remembered with ridicule (e.g. Jim Shooter's Valiant Comics). People think Hollywood is self-derivative? They should take a look at the comics market.

Don't get me wrong; I am a superhero fan like most comic book nuts out there. But I feel that like any art form, high art or otherwise, comics can only benefit from diversity, which in my opinion Crossgen really provided. It peeves me that, for all their innovation and incredible talent, they still went the way of Valiant, while companies like Top Cow still get to churn out garbage like Witchblade and The Darkness on a semi-regular basis. I certainly hope that when people mention failed endeavors in the comics field they do not mention Valiant and CrossGen in the same breath. The latter was a noble enterprise while the former was an exercise in unbridled hubris.

In its lifetime, CrossGen received its fare share of accolades, not only from self-styled comic-book critics, but from mainstream media and from SCHOOLS, no less. Too bad the legions of 17-35 year old males to whom most comics pander didn't bite. I can only hope that the next time a company comes along with hopes of infusing the market with something new and different, the reading public (at least the segment that determiness whether or not a comic line lives or dies) is more receptive.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Death in Comics Part I

Remember when Dark Phoenix sacrificed herself to save the X-Men and the universe at large? Remember when Supergirl and Barry Allen, also known as the Flash, fell heroically during the turmoil of the Crisis on Infinite Earths? I sure do. I remember reading the Dark Phoenix Saga in grade five or something like that, and I remember the issues of Crisis (the only ones I read, incidentally) as being so momentous that my diehard Marvel cousin just had to buy them.

Back then, the death of comic book characters meant something. It was resonant. It was poignant. And it was done, above all else, in the name of powerful storytelling.

Nowadays, it's done for all the wrong reasons.

When Chris Claremont killed Jean Grey/Phoenix, he unleashed a fanboy shitstorm unlike any the comics world had ever seen. Supposedly the Marvel offices were inundated with hate mail. In a pre-internet age, that really says something. It took a full six years for Marvel to address the situation, and to their credit, although they did bring Jean back, they appeared to put some long and hard thought into how they would do it without making her death seem like a gimmick. Thing is, at the time Claremont killed Jean, he had no intention of brining her back.

Barry Allen, who had been Flash since the late fifties (DCphiles please correct me if I'm wrong), but the company had the cojones to kill him and keep him dead.

These are the only two deaths in the history of the medium that really mean something. Well, Gwen Stacy's death was a big deal, but even it has been retroactively tarnished of late.

These days, death in comics is done for sheer shock value, whether it's to launch an "event" storyline or to draw buzz to a book.

Last year, Marvel killed Hawkeye for the obvious shock value of it, figuring that their "Avengers Disassembled" storyline would be the more poignant for it. To my mind, it just became schlockier and now has collective Marvel fandom waiting for the editorial directive to raise him from the dead. The death of the Ant-Man, which also took place in that storyline, was cheap and uncalled for as well.

On the other side of the fence, DC killed Sue Dibny in their storyline of the year "Identity Crisis" which despite the rather sensationalist marketing campaign surrounding its launch, actually contained a pretty good storyline. Too bad they had to sully it by killing yet another secondary character this year in an attempt to launch a crossover event. To those of you who don't know who it is, let's just say Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire probably feel their JLA lineup is dwindling slowly but surely.

And then, of course, there's the old stunt of killing a character whose popularity is dwindling. This was an unfortunate, inadvertent result of the whole Phoenix Saga, which despite everything that's come after it remains one of comics' most powerful moments.

That said, the resurrection of dead characters can be done with some flourish. Kevin Smith did a good job with Green Arrow, concocting a whole afterlife scenario to help ease Oliver Queen back into the DC Universe. Joss Whedon did an even better job with Colossus in Astonishing X-Men. But these comics were already founded on solid storytelling; the resurrection basically just helped them along. And these characters' deaths early on did not feel like dime-a-dozen deals, either.

I know these characters are company property, but it really bugs me that their lives are trivialized for the sake of short-term sales spikes. I've said before that comics aren't high art, but that doesn't excuse its purveyors from attempting some sort of creativity. I for one still buy books for writers, artists and stories that I like, and not because I'm anxious to see which b-level character is hyped to buy the farm. I know in my gut that majority of the comic book fans still pay good money for quality stories and art, not for cheap tricks. I hope I'm right.

Next: the Death of Nascent Comic Companies

Friday, May 20, 2005

Fatherhood: the Sequel

Here's a little fact about me not everyone who knows me may know: I actually wanted my firstborn to be a girl. I'm not really sure why anymore, but at least, one kid later, I finally got the baby girl I wanted.

Parenthood in general is really a funny thing: it's a constant work in progress, from your twenties to your seventies (I say seventies because a great many parents begin to regress into children once they hit their eighties). If I had to put a peso coin in a five-liter jug for every screw up or faux pas I've committed since my son Raphael was born, whether in disciplining, handling or even just behaving in front of him, I'd probably have put my life's savings into the darned thing by now.

And yet, I can honestly say it's made me a better person in many ways. I view my being a father as an extension of my marriage in that they both require copious amounts of devotion and patience, no matter how much I love my spouse and my child. It can be frustrating and immensely fulfilling at the same time. I still remember changing Apel's diapers on a regular basis, and now he's going to the toilet by himself (although he hasn't gotten around to wiping himself just yet).

The funny part is; I've only just gotten through toilet-training one kid, when along comes another who is just as helpless and dependent upon me as her brother was not too long ago.

Which brings me to why I think having two kids within a reasonable gap of each other can be a valuable instructional tool to parents.

At three, Apel is very independent, almost to the point where he refuses our help a little too often for comfort. At times, we are content to let him do his own thing, confident he's not likely to bring the house crashing down around our heads, and at times, we even get frustrated with him when he seems to be acting too childishly.

But having a new baby brings it home to me: my son IS still a child. It's not that I've altogether lost sight of this simple truth, but I realize now that, even at this early age, I seem to be expecting too much of him. Part of me blames it on how increasingly competitive pre-school admission standards are, but I realize that I seem to be judging his growth more by adult standards than by reasonable children's standards.

Having a three-year-old makes having a two-week old such a glorious experience, for the reason I just mentioned, and because I get to relive all the simple joys of being a new parent; watching over the baby, cradling her in my arms and not having to prevent her from running into the street and becoming roadkill. It wasn't three years ago that I did this with my son, but it sure feels like a long time. I'm making it a point to savor this, because before I know it, I'll be chasing my toddler of a daughter too...

I can't help but wonder how I'll handle their reaching puberty...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Late Comics: What is Tolerable?

Almost one week ago, my wife gave birth to my first daughter, a beautiful, eight-pound baby girl. For some reason, I find myself at a loss as to how to write about it on this blog, but part of me feels that any post devoted to a topic as important as fatherhood deserves more reflection than I could possibly give it in a week, so for now I'll content myself with more banal, but nonetheless pleasurable topics, like...comics!

About three years ago, back when I lamented the lateness of "The Ultimates" a friend of mine pointed out that the book, specifically Bryan Hitch's eye-popping pencils, was well worth the wait and that he would rather endure a delay of a few months than put up with substandard artwork, either by the regular artist rushing to meet a deadline or worse, a fill-in artist with half the talent. His was a solid point; argument (if ever there was one) settled.

However, three years later, there are three incomplete Marvel miniseries, two of which began in 2002 and one of which began a year ago.

The Spider-Man/Black Cat miniseries was supposed to mark Kevin Smith's triumphant return to Marvel Comics (he had launched the Marvel Knights line in 1998, writing Daredevil ) after a successful run on Green Arrow over at DC. After three issues the book just...stopped. Back then, people didn't really notice because in November of that year, a month after the last SM/BC issued shipped, Marvel released Daredevil: The Target, another Kevin Smith book which marked his return to the character who had really helped him make his presence felt in the comics community. DTT fared even worse: it stopped after just one issue.

A year ago, Joe Quesada, now Marvel's Editor-in-Chief, returned to full-time penciling chores for the first time since becoming the company's head honcho, in a miniseries called Daredevil: Father. The first issue met with some mixed reviews, given the rather bizarre proportions in which JQ drew DD (like he had overdosed on steroids). More annoying, however, was that after the first issue, this series stopped too.

Here's the thing. For years internet geeks the world over have raised hell on message boards and in blogs about the irresponsibility of Marvel and the creators responsible for these debacles, so any tantrum I may throw regarding lateness may not seem like anything new. This is why my take on the situation is, maybe fandom should take it to the next level: maybe comic fans should take it to the next level somehow (insert solution here).

One of the biggest flaws of comic publishing is that errant creators such as Kevin Smith can hide behind the cloak of artistic license and similar bullshit in order to justify delays as egregious as those that have been staring fanboys in the face for almost half of the new millenium. There is no sense of accountability, whether to the characters, the publisher or the consumer. At least Marvel, for all its foibles, recently took the time to apologize online for the lateness of a number of its books. Of course, it could not speak for Kevin Smith. In fact, at a number of conventions, the fat bastard has been known to sass retailers who have taken him to task for his lateness, which he recently attributed to--get this--an inferiority complex!

The good news, old fatboy (excuse me, fanboy) Smith has suffered his share of bad karma for the agony he has inflicted on his fans. His latest film "Jersey Girl" was one of the bigger duds of Ben Afflecks' career, and even featured in either Newsweek or Time as one of Miramax's list of box-office failures. But that shouldn't take him off the hook.

There is a certain amount of professionalism that comes with being a comic book creator; at least there SHOULD be. Old school guys like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and even Claremont got it right. Even contemporary guys like Bendis, Millar and Straczynski can work at a blistering pace. Straczynski, it should be pointed out, also has his fingers in the Hollywood pie, just like Smith, so Kev shouldn't use that as an excuse. Cumulatively, the three new creators I've mentioned have churned out over two hundred issues during the delay of the two aforementioned limited series.

As much as I love comics, the truth is that they aren't high art, and so there shouldn't be any justification for ridiculous, YEARLONG delays between issues, especially when that delay is attributable to WRITERS, whose job is considerably easier than those of the artists. Although I really do want to buy the conclusion to both these series (which is the reason I'm complaining in the first place), I really believe that people like Kevin Smith, who seem to have nothing but utter contempt for anyone's concerns but their own, have no business writing comics. The guy may be talented, but he isn't THAT talented. My only hope is that should the final issues of SM/BC finally ship, I don't find myself saying "THIS IS WHAT I WAITED X YEARS FOR???"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

How Insulated Are We?

I confess to having led a fairly sheltered life. Growing up, I never wanted for anything, my family went on vacation regularly (albeit only within Luzon). Both my elementary and high school years, I spent in high-end private schools, only to head to UP when I decided I wanted a different environment. My parents let me choose what I wanted to do with my life because I was never under any pressure to earn a living.

Growing up, even in two turbulent decades like the 70s and 80s, both of which saw sky-rocketing oil prices and foreign debt crises, I honestly never really felt the burn of bad governance, other perhaps than the fact that my father often turned the car off at every stoplight (in an attempt to save gas). It was only in the late eighties that I began to commute, and I never had any problem with fare from that point all the way through the 90s.

Now that I'm married with a son (and very, very soon, a daughter) I have responsibilities to balance and obligations to meet. Taking the bar exam was a very expensive experience even though my wife and I both had well-paying jobs at the time I quit. I wince at gas prices. I haggle with my landlord on deadlines for the rent. In short, I now live in the real world.

Because of this world I live in, I genuinely worry. My parents (more often my father, but you better believe my mother helped out a lot; we got discounts back in high school because she taught in the college) managed to keep all our heads above water, but times were not quite as hard, and we had the benefit of a house we didn't have to rent.

Now that I'm a parent, with obligations up the wazoo, will I be up to snuff? I don't exactly imagine my family moving into a squatter area, but how am I supposed to stand up to the rough times I know lie ahead? Should I take to the streets and ask for GMA to step down, even though I honestly have no idea who should be running the government or how it should be run? Should I sell my services to the highest bidder and try to grab the highest paid job, even if it could mean defending the interests of the scum of the earth, just so I can ensure my children's future? You'd think these questions have easy answers, and maybe they would have if you had asked me seven years ago, when I graduated from college.

It all seems so frightening now, what with my civil servant's salary and all. I am trimming down my lifestyle, I am trying to manage the household, but with the economy being what it is and oil prices being continually unpredictable I just wonder what I'm going to end up doing with my life to keep a few steps ahead of hardship. I hope whatever it is I do is something I won't have any trouble living with, because as unpalatable as the idea of never having enough money is, the idea of having more than enough at the expense of decency kind of frightens me.