Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Joy of Re-Reading Old Comics

My collection of toy cars grew by yet another car yesterday: a 1965 Shelby Cobra, part of the "For Sale" line of cars which basically consists of die cast cars designed to look like cars you would find in a used car lot, replete with uneven splotches of primer and chalk on the windows advertising what good shape the car is in. It's very nice. Like most of my cars, however (with the exception of the boxed ones, which I can pop out of and return to their boxes), it is staying in its clamshell case in which I bought it, where I can admire it and nothing more. Until I'm rich enough to build a glass or acrylic case to hold all these things and protect them from the elements, it is in their clamshells that they will stay. As much as I enjoy admiring them, I have to admit there isn't much more than that.

Which is why, even four months into this hobby (which has currently slowed down considerably), I can still say with certainty that comic books still trump diecast cars for one important reason: you can read them and re-read them, unless you're one of those sickos who buys multiple copies and has them "graded" for the sole purpose of hawking them on eBay. I'm proud to say that, as much money as I made off my comics online, at least I read them first.

My collection, much leaner now than it was two months ago, has a few truly great reads, some of them in single or two-issue stories, but for the most part in terms of four to six-issue storylines.

It's gratifying to revisit old series which I would take months to collect and complete and just read them all again in one sitting. The beauty of being a Marvel collector is that most of their latter-day stories were designed for such readings, and so for the most part they hold up so well that whatever delay may have been incurred in waiting for all four, five, six or seven issues of a miniseries or storyarc is suddenly forgotten.

There are some really good examples of such series that come to mind.

One of my favorites is Mark Millar's 12-issue run on Spider-Man, which still holds up well three or four reads later. Although this story has been accused of ripping off the format of Batman: Hush, its narrative architecture holds up a lot better than Jeph Loeb's flimsy excuses to have Jim Lee draw Batman's entire rogues gallery. Millar's opus is one big, 12-issue arc divided up among three smaller arcs, and they're all really fun reads. Artists Terry and Rachel Dodson and guest artist Frank Cho make it a real visual treat as well, though not necessarily on par with Lee's amazing illustrations.

Another series I really loved to revisit was J. Michael Straczynski's inaugural arc on Amazing Spider-Man, entitled "Coming Home." It's a pretty back-to-basics Spider-Man story with a couple of twists and from the outset JMS makes it pretty clear he has his own direction planned for the character. Artist John Romita Jr. absolutely shines, especially during the balls-to-the-wall action sequences.

Another series that Romita Jr. did really well recently was The Eternals. On an initial reading of the last couple of issues, which I didn't pick up right away because I was busy buying diecast cars, I found the series to be anticlimactic. Though upon re-reading them I still get that vibe, I have to admit now that there was some definitive progression in the story. After all the hype, though, I have to say that the real star of this miniseries was JR Jr., much more than its heralded writer Neil Gaiman.

Of course, not all series hold up to re-reading, no matter how deliberately Marvel plans its arcs, and in one case lateness really did hurt the overall quality of the story. The Spider-Man/Black Cat six-issue miniseries which officially took Kevin Smith about three and a half years to finish is one such example. Three tightly plotted and scripted, rather gripping issues came out in 2002, with an extremely formidable new villain and a hell of a cliffhanger that had the readers wondering if the Black Cat was going to get raped. Three years later, the remaining three issues of the series came out, and the plot just took a completely wrong turn. Even after reading it again over again I found that the whole thing just stank something terrible. It was as though Smith completely lost a handle on the story and just decided to churn out whatever came to mind. Not even Terry Dodson could save this book.

Lateness, however does not hurt a storyarc if it's already been carefully mapped out, and if the only thing that causes the delay is the art.

A surprisingly good example of this would be Joe Quesada's Daredevil: Father miniseries which, like Smith's Spider-Man miniseries, took over two years to finish. Quesada's lateness is much easier to forgive than Smith's considering that Joe doubled as the writer and the artist of the series, on top of that whole Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics business. At first I thought the ending had been re-tooled towards the end as well, but when I re-read the series, and I've done so two or three times, I actually realized how very tightly, yet intricately everything was woven together. I'm generally not a fan of artist-writers, but Quesada really hit it out of the park with this one. Of course, it helps that these six issues showcase some really terrific art, with the latter chapters featuring, in my opinion, some of the best art of Quesada's career.

My favorite example of a series whose quality is unaffected by lateness, however, is, yes, I'll say it: Civil War. Yes, there were mischaracterizations. Yes, it was flawed storytelling, which is a little disappointing considering Millar's talent, but from the first page of issue #1 to the last page of issue #7 this series was just totally riveting. It really and truly had a what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next vibe --(even when it was predictable!)-- and this ability to generate anticipation for the next installment is one of the best things that a serialized form of storytelling can have going for it, other shortcomings notwithstanding. It didn't hurt that it had some of the best art produced by any Marvel artist, or any artist in GENERAL, for that matter, in the last two decades or so. As good as Millar's writing is, Civil War would simply not have achieved what it did in terms of graphic storytelling without Steve McNiven's steady, if not necessarily quick pencil. He was definitely worth the wait.

Right now there's nothing out that I'd really care to buy (and the Dark Tower comic adaptation is a tad rich for my blood at this point), but I know there's stuff in the pipleline, like JMS and Quesada's four-issue team-up for the former's last storyarc on Spider-Man. As I understand it, much if not most of it's in the can, so I won't have to worry too much about lateness. Well, whether it's on time or late I look forward to buying it, reading it, and re-reading it.

So frankly, even after I'm swimming in money and all my cars are sitting in polished glass cases for admiring eyes to see, I will still love reading my old comics again. Hell, maybe even after I've made a mint off my cars on eBay I'll still be re-reading these things. They're just so much fun.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Pleasant Surprise

I love watching movies in provincial SMs. I get most of the amenities of the SM movie theater (a decent, though not necessarily stellar sound system, nice clean seats and a decent snack bar) at roughly half what I pay for a movie in Manila.

Today I watched Bridge of Terabithia with my son at SM Dasmarinas. I watched it for the two reasons only: I was trying to beat the heat by killing time in a mall and it was the only movie I could get my son into that looked halfway decent. I had seen some of the early trailers and was initially turned off by by what appeared to be yet another fantasy clone spurred by the success of the Harry Potter and Narnia film adaptations. Never was I happier to be proven wrong.

Bridge to Terabithia is apparently based, not on a fantasy novel, but a coming-of-age book which has more in common with the film My Girl than it does with Harry Potter. For those who have forgotten that movie, it was essentially about friendship, pre-pubescent love, and dealing with loss. I am actually glad to have been completely ignorant of this as the story unfolded because I found myself surprised at almost every turn.

Its story revolves around Jesse Aaron (Josh Hutcherson), an imaginative and very artistic ten-year-old boy who is bullied at school and neglected at home. He is very much the loner until he meets a kindred spirit: the new girl in school name Leslie Burke (Annasophia Robb of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who like him is ostracized because of being the new kid in school but more importantly because, like him, she is an artist, although her inclination is towards writing. She is also ignored by and large by her parents, both writers. They also turn out to be neighbors. A match made in heaven, obviously.

Terabithia is Leslie's creation; it is the name she gives to a large tract of forest land into which the two children wander by swinging across a frayed old rope. It is a fantastical realm with all kinds of creatures, and because Jess is as imaginative as Leslie they both see wondrous and scary things, all of which are rather well-rendered in CGI by Oscar winners WETA Digital.

In this world, Jess and Leslie reign supreme. They are the fastest, the strongest and the cleverest. They are, as Leslie proclaims, the rulers of the realm.

Then, however, tragedy strikes and the focus of the story shifts considerably in tone. Director Gabor Csupo and his stars, however, make the segue seamlessly, and the end result, for me, is truly moving.

Their story, which is one of friendship which evolves subtly and beautifully into a very genuine young love, is, however, told with both taste and finesse. Csupo eschews the usual conventions of romance, abandoning the more overt physical manifestations of love like holding hands and kisses in favor of some very expressive facial acting by Hutcherson in particular. This is very much a story about emotions, and they are conveyed very convincingly here.

The visual effects lack the verisimilitude of the WETA Digital's prior work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, but this makes perfect sense considering that this world is more impressionistic in nature; it's a fantasy realm born out of two children's very active imaginations. They are wondrous to behold when appreciated on those terms.

Terabithia is easily the best release of 2007 that I've seen so far, providing a welcome contrast to the all-out stupidity of Ghost Rider and the mindless carnage of 300. It's the first film I've seen this year with nuanced, sophisticated storytelling which is funny considering it was based on a children's book. I think it succeeds, however, because it does not at any point treat its audience like children.

Friday, April 06, 2007

On Idolatry

The question of whether or not veneration of religious icons is tantamount to idolatry is nothing new. It is, I'm pretty sure, one of the reasons why many protestants look down their noses as us Catholics. Here in the Philippines and in other Catholic countries our ability to worship God seems dependent on our ability to give him, his suffering as passion as well as his glorious resurrection, a face.

For my part, I don't have anything against the veneration of icons because I subscribe to the idea that they are merely tools through which we are able to better worship God.

What bothers me, however, is how the concept of using these icons as tools, as means to an end, has been perverted to the extent that some icons have become ends in themselves. In other words, when people start worshipping and placing faith in a statue and not on the God whom the statue represents, something has gone wrong in my opinion.

In the Philippines alone we have enough stories about religious icons to fill several historical volumes, stories about how this statute of the Virgin Mary helped the Spanish defeat the Dutch or how that statue of the Boy Jesus healed the sick or something like that. While I don't disbelieve these stories, I hardly consider them grounds to get down on my knees and worship a block of wood or plaster.

And yet...I know of how droves of people make pilgrimages to grottos and shrines...perfectly intelligent and discerning people, just to pray to statues.

I want to clarify that I do not think less of these people for their chosen form of worship, but I do think that many of us have lost the point of the religious icon.

I think the religious icon, particularly the statue, was originally meant as an expression of love for the faith by those responsible both for its sculpting and/or commissioning. In that, it is a profound act of faith. When people who see this statue remember the sacrifice of Jesus, or the love of the blessed mother, then the love the sculptor has expressed becomes multiplied.

When that love, however, ends with the statue, to the extent that the worshipper asks the statue for miracles or favors, then the original intention is lost. The intention was not, in my opinion, to create love for a statue but for who or what that statue represents. When I say what, I refer to actions, like the sacrifice or suffering depicted in such imagery.

I would liken it to someone who watches The Passion of the Christ over and over and ends up praying to the DVD rather than to the God whose love is supposed to be depicted therein. As patently ridiculous as this sounds, one must consider that the religious icon is meant to be a representation and nothing more. How this has been distorted to the point that people make regular pilgrimages to ask favors of a piece of plaster isn't necessarily a mystery; in an age of mass media, fast food and other forms of instantaneous gratification, it makes sense that people would much rather put all of their faith in something they can see than a person they only read about in a book or heard about from their priest.

I wonder when we will transcend it, anyway.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Collector's Sense of Closure

Well, it's been a bit of a bloggerific weekend for me, this being my third post in as many days.

I haven't really "retired" from collecting comic books, but I would like to call my current state of non-collecting an indefinite sabbatical, while I sort out other matters in my life, and while there isn't anything that particularly tickles my fancy.

Whether I've quit for now or for good, though, I couldn't stop without finishing up the storylines or miniseries I've already begun. Just today, after almost four months of having quit cold turkey, as it were, I finally completed the seven-issue miniseries The Eternals, by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr., which I once upon a time trumpeted in this very blog.

I maintain that these pages feature Romita Jr.'s best work since his seminal Daredevil miniseries with Frank Miller, but I confess that as a whole the story was rather anticlimactic and therefore not nearly as satisfying as I would have wanted. It really strikes me that in seven issues, Gaiman did not tell a complete story. Sure, there were a lot of pretty pictures strung together and some enjoyable dialogue and characterization, but all told the whole thing felt largely pointless, in that this is a story with a clear beginning, a clear middle, but no clear resolution to the big dilemma set up for the characters.

Essentially, we learn why the Eternals have forgotten who they are and have lived the last few years thinking themselves to be merely humans. We learn that their enemies, the Deviants or Changing People want to reawaken a Celestial (Jack Kirby's fantastical version of God) buried near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and we see the Eternals finally all come around and remember who they are and what they have to do, with the exception of Sersi, whose memory remains clouded although she has her power of transmutation back.

But there is so much more that is left to be told, which is why Gaiman aptly captions the last panel with "The Beginning..."

Clearly this series was meant to whet the readers' appetite for more Eternals, but personally I don't think I'll be coming back for seconds, considering the price tag of these issues (P240 in most stores P200 in a couple of others) and given that for most of the series we didn't even get to know the characters, except perhaps Makkari, in any significant way. I see no reason to follow their further adventures when I haven't particularly connected with them in this story.

Say what one will about Civil War, at least a lot took place in those pages, which, all told are fewer than those it took to finish Gaiman's latest tale.

Still, I'm glad I've given myself this closure, the same way I'm glad I waited for Kevin Smith Spider-Man miniseries to end, as big a disappointment as it turned out to be (for all its faults, Eternals played out a lot better).

I have only one more miniseries to finish, two issues of the creator-owned Criminal, and my sabbatical begins in earnest. I'm glad I didn't buy Captain America #25 (and yes, I did spot one in a comic book store, still selling at a normal price, but I put it back on the shelf) because that would just start the collecting cycle all over again. I still love the comics I have (and a much trimmer collection it is now by over a hundred issues), and I'm quite the completist as well (which would explain how quickly my diecast car collection has grown), but to start up new storylines when there isn't anything out there that strikes any particular chord with me would just be prodigal at this point.

So, Mark Millar, Steve McNiven, and all you other creators whose work gets me to the comics stores in a flash, take your time with your next projects or your sabbaticals; I'm glad for some time off from this hobby. It is my hope that, if or when I should revisit this hobby, I'll have quite a bit more money to spare, and that there will be projects worth that money.