Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Old Comics

While I no longer regularly collect comic books, I still duck into comic stores every now and then to see what might tickle my fancy. While I still by current or recent comic books, whether in single-issue or trade paperback format, for some reason I find myself increasingly drawn to some older comic books, like John Byrne's Fantastic Four or his all-too-brief nine issue stint on Captain America with Roger Stern, or even Walt Simonson's run on Thor (though I haven't bought any of this last one yet). I wouldn't mind getting a hold of that compilation of Alan Moore/Alan Davis Captain Britain stories either, or of a paperback of Byrne's Superman: Man of Steel miniseries, to name a few.

In terms of craft, it certainly wouldn't be fair to say that the older product trumps the new (though some of Byrne's FF issues, at least in terms of their artwork, might go some way towards making that point), as there are a lot of new comics out there that are well-written and illustrated, but I think what really sets these older issues apart is how, even as recently as the 1980s, pure they seemed to be in that they weren't written with film adaptations in mind, even though by that time many of them were already the subject of popular merchandise like pajamas and toys. Sure, the stories weren't always that imaginative and the dialogue and artwork were often embarrassingly dated (like some of the Stern/Byrne Cap stories, which prominently featured bell-bottom pants and some decidedly bushy 70's hairdos), but there was something really special about how, in many if not most of these old stories, the creators of these books do not come across as self-conscious. Even from their scripts and story beats, a number of today's comic book creators seem eternally conscious of the fact that Hollywood execs may or may not scan their pages for movie or TV ideas, or how brutal legions of internet fanboys may be if what they read is not to their liking. If there were agendas back then, or if the authors were intent on achieving the 1970s or 1980s equivalent of "breaking the internet in half," it didn't really show. A lot of current writers, like Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid, or on a good day, Brian Bendis, seem intent on telling good stories, but so many of today's storytellers, event guys who've written stuff I like, like Dan Slott or Mark Millar, are so fond of referencing pop-culture, or even the fact that comic-book characters are so firmly ensconced in pop-culture these days, that it's nauseating.

Like the saying goes, they don't make comics like they used to...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Ultimate Spider-Man's Being Half-Black, Half Latino is No Big Deal

Not having grown up in a multi-cultural society I have had the good fortune of never having experienced racism firsthand, though of course I've heard and read about it. I don't feel qualified, as a result, to join the chorus of people yelling "racist" at all of the fanboys objecting to the fact that Marvel Comics has replaced "Ultimate" Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man, or one of the at least three versions of the character they are currently publishing, with a young teenager who happens to be half African-American, half Puerto Rican. To be honest, I don't feel qualified to join the conversation at all, even though on a purely intellectual level I can grasp the concept of what is racist and what is not.

As someone who's read comic books for most of my life, though, I do feel qualified to defend Marvel Comics' creative decision, regardless of whether or not they appreciate the gesture.

The "Ultimate" Marvel line was conceived around eleven or twelve years ago when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada assumed control over Marvel Comics as a solution to the fact that over the last forty years, the universe created by Stan Lee and his various collaborator/artists had gotten so bogged down in continuity issues accumulated over time that the original magic of the characters and books had dissipated or at least become severely diluted. The idea was to recapture what originally made the various titles special when they came out in the 60s, but this time without all the baggage, and with a "modern" twist.

The result worked at first; Peter Parker, a twenty-something married man in the "regular" Marvel Universe was a teenager again, stripped of all of the added flab of decades of stories, many of them shoddy, that had come with his going from teen to adult over a nearly-forty-year period. Teams like the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four, all of which had been turned inside-out and upside-down by decades of different stories as well as bad editorial decisions, and periodic status quo shakeups were restored to their purest, nascent states.

The problem with serialized fiction in which the characters' adventures continue indefinitely is that while there is a beginning, there is rarely a middle or an end to these characters and their development, and while the Ultimate line was created to replicate the early years of Marvel but with a twist, it would, as the years went on, gradually start to find itself saddled with its own continuity and history issues.

Not only that, but because of the success of the "Ultimate" line, the powers-that-be at Marvel wanted to transplant its "real-world" vibe into the main line of comics, and as a result the line's writers, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar were placed on books like The Avengers and Spider-Man, and for better or worse, the mainstream Marvel Universe, after a fashion, did start to resemble its "Ultimate" counterpart in terms of the tone of storytelling, particularly during the Civil War event engineered by Marvel, with Mark Millar's seven-part miniseries at the forefront.

Marvel then became a victim of its own success. Having successfully "updated" the mainstream Marvel Universe to be more like its "ultimate" counterpart, Marvel effectively rendered the "ultimate" line obsolete, and as a result the "ultimate" books' sales began to drop.

Now, one thing Marvel could have done would have been to let the line "lie fallow" to use an agricultural term, and revisit it some other time with new stories and ideas, but seeing as how it's in the business of selling comic books, its editorial made the decision to shake things up, first by killing off a whole slew of characters in a line-wide event entitled "Ultimatum." Casualties of this little "holocaust" included several members of the Ultimate versions of the X-Men and the Avengers, and as a result the Ultimate version of the Fantastic Four broke up, with Reed Richards apparently becoming a bad guy. The comic books were then relaunched with new #1 issues and some tweaks to the creative teams.

There was a momentary spike in sales, but even with the relaunch the titles didn't sell nearly as well as they did in their heydays, and sales dropped right back to earth in fairly short order.

It made sense that they would, even though major characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto and a couple of Avengers had been killed off, most of the audience whose interest in comics had been piqued by the Ultimate line had either jumped over to the mainstream, "616" Marvel Universe. After all, in the time that had lapsed since the launch of the Ultimate universe, Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane had been retroactively annulled (and not in the legal sense) the Avengers had become "cool" again thanks to an infusion of new members that included Spider-Man and Wolverine, and the X-men...well, thanks to a bunch of gimmicks like "M day" and a presumably talented slew of writers, had managed to win much of its audience back. There was nothing in the Ultimate line of comic books that people couldn't see by reading the main line of Marvel Comics.

By killing and replacing Peter Parker with another Spider-Man, was finally able to effectively convey the message to their readers that they had tried to make with all of their shock-value deaths in "Ultimatum:" in the Ultimate universe, ANYTHING can happen.

What definitely annoys about the widespread reaction to the switch is the fact that before the decision was made, sales of the Ultimate Spider-Man title had been dropping like a stone. Fewer and fewer people cared about the line or that particular iteration of the character, who had arguably become superfluous now that "616" Peter Parker was "young" again by virtue of being a swinging single. Had Peter Parker not been killed, readers would have continued to bail out until there would be simply no justifying the existence of the comic book.

Besides, the Ultimate line, the way I see it, was always intended to be a venue for experimentation, for attempts to tell stories involving Marvel's beloved characters which could not, by editorial mandate, be told given the constraints of the "616" universe. Here, Cap could be a right-wing borderline fascist. Here, Thor could be a smelly hippy mistaken for a paranoid schizophrenic. Here, Hulk could actually kill people when on a rampage, whether or not they were bad guys. Here, Black Widow could be a murderous double agent, and Wolverine could actually want to kill Cyclops, and vice versa. The Ultimate has always existed just beyond the boundaries of what was possible in the regular Marvel Universe. Some of the ideas were good, and some bad, but to me it's to Marvel's credit that they allow these tweaks to happen.

And so I think that Miles Morales' introduction as the new Spider-Man is in line with the spirit of some of the first "ultimate" stories in that it puts a new spin on an old favorite. Some people may like it and others may not, and if it's the latter then Marvel will certainly go back to the drawing board, but casual fans who don't read the "Ultimate" line and who are complaining about Morales' race should either read the "Ultimate" comic books to understand the spirit in which this kind of story is told or should just shut the heck up and stop exposing themselves for the closet racists that many of them probably are. Not only that, but the people who are familiar with the "Ultimate Spider-Man" line and who abandoned it only to complain about the switch should really be ashamed of themselves; they're the ones who put Ultimate Peter Parker in his grave, not any "PC" agenda of editorial.

Finally, having read and enjoyed the first two issues of this title, I find it consistent with the experience I had when reading Mark Millar's and Bryan Hitch's "Ultimates" for the first time, in that what was old became new again, and I'm willing to give this direction a try.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Toy Stories

A proud tradition of franchise movies dating back to Star Wars, if not even earlier, is the sale of film-related merchandise, in particular toys.

I remember the Star Wars toys of the 80s, even though I didn't own a whole lot of them (I may have owned a small, Kenner-manufactured Tie Fighter at one point but I'm not even sure). But I have seen a fair share of Star Wars related merchandise, and back then it looked really good, and boy, did it make a lot of money.

The tradition has been carried on by some filmmakers and their toy-tie-in partners; within the last decade, toys and merchandise from the first Cars film and its spinoffs made something like eight BILLION dollars, an obscenely large amount of money by almost anyone's standards, which by itself justified the making of a sequel, Cars 2, probably better than any box-office figures ever could. So Disney has continued the Star Wars tradition. Of course, with its myriad of new Hasbro action figures and vehicles Clone Wars Lego sets, one could say that the makers of Star Wars themselves are continuing the Star Wars tradition.

Curiously, though, apart from Disney and Lucasfilm, there appears to have been a lot of dropping of the ball in terms of selling movie-related toys lately.

Now, I don't collect movie-themed toys (or action figures in general) but I remain a fan of toys, and I certainly admire well-made ones, which is why I'm a little disappointed that a lot of the movie-related toys I see around are not that well-made, and in some cases, not made at all.

The latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, for example, has had almost no licensed toy products to speak of save a line of Minimates, an oddity considering that every X-Men film that came before it had a comprehensive toy line up, with figures and vehicles. Heck, X-Men 2 even had a tie-up with a manufacturer of die-cast model cars to produce the Mazda RX-8 that appeared in it.

The Thor toys were just crappy, which is disappointing considering the meticulous detail poured in the the Marvel Legends toys, even the ones produced after Marvel entered into a deal with Hasbro for all of its toys (which Marvel used to produce themselves through their "Toy Biz" company). The toys are small and lacking in detail. Ironically, for the Green Lantern toys, Mattel followed the Marvel strategy of marketing a set of different action figures with the parts of a much bigger figure enclosed among the individual figures. Of course, considering GL was a box-office flop, this strategy did not amount to much, but at least they were aggressive with their toys, even marketing Hot Wheels cars with GL branding. But Thor, a successful movie, made a whole bunch of toys that kids may or may not buy, but which, I feel, are not likely to be terribly attractive to collectors, now or in the future.

Captain America: The First Avenger was another disappointment; despite all of the cool, visually striking retro-futuristic vehicles that appear in the film, the only vehicles that show up in toy stores are crappy G.I.Joe knockoff jeeps, motorbikes and APCs, NONE of which actually APPEAR in the movie! Where's Red Skull's awesome six-wheeled car? The giant bomber that was central to the movie's climax? Hell, where's Cap's Harley and the Hydra agents' bikes? Nowhere to be found. At least Hot Toys is coming up with an amazing looking 1/6 doll of Captain America, but that's only for hardcore collectors who have money to burn. Kids and casual collectors are less fortunate.

Marvel has a diecast partner in Maisto, and when it comes to missing opportunities for toy tie-ins, they appear to have a history of it.

Maisto makes diecast cars and motorcycles, with the former being as big as 1/18 scale and the latter being as big as 1/12 scale or maybe even 1/6 scale. They make, among many other things, the Audi R8 or the car driven by Tony Stark in Iron Man.

For all of that, though, they never bothered to make an "Iron Man"-themed or packaged car even though the car has, since the 2008 film, been widely identified with Iron Man. Instead they come up with some shitty, generic vehicles with the Iron Man logo printed on their body work. Considering how prominently featured the Audi R8 was in both Iron Man films, Maisto and Marvel, whether it was because of their lawyers or marketing people, missed on a huge opportunity to sell some toys.

With Captain America Marvel and Maisto failed yet again to make the most of a great opportunity to sell some toys. Sure, there is a well-conceived line of WWII planes with Captain America logos on them, so at least it trumps Hasbro's ridiculous "G.I. Joe" style vehicles, but Maisto/Marvel still goofed in a big way. In terms of sponsorship, legendary motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson is to Cap what Audi was to Iron Man, and because Maisto makes toy Harley Davidsons in varying scales, it represented a great marketing and sales opportunity for everyone concerned, an opportunity they appear to have missed completely.

But that's not the worst "toy story" of the year for me.

One of the big announcements regarding Transformers: Dark of the Moon, when it went into production last year was that it would feature as one of its characters a Ferrari 458. This, like the Cars films, is a movie franchise that exists mainly to sell toys, especially considering that it was based on an already-existing toy line. Michael Bay HIMSELF announced that a Ferrari 458 would be joining the Autobots, so the car was written into the script.

The movie has come out and is, in fact, slowly on its way out of theaters, and the Ferrari made its appearance, but to date, not a single Ferrari Transformers toy has shown up on shelves. It's rumored to show up later this year or early next year, but what's the point of releasing a toy so long after the release of the movie? Whether it's an issue with the lawyers of Mattel (who holds the Ferrari license), or General Motors (whose vehicles are the most prominent in the Transformers franchise), the makers of Transformers fumbled big time in terms of an opportunity to sell what will, if it EVER comes out, most likely be a very popular toy. Ferraris sell, in real life and in toy versions, which is why Mattel shelled out huge amounts of money to lock up the license to make Ferrari toys. If Paramount/Hasbro planned to make a Ferrari Transformer toy, they should have moved Heaven and Earth to do so in time for the film's release. That they didn't speaks very poorly of their marketing strategy.

In this economy it is perhaps understandable that people don't go the extra mile to make toys the way Kenner used to for Star Wars and the way a juggernaut like Mattel would for Cars, but as someone who appreciates toys, whether it's the actual craftsmanship or even just the cool packaging, I can't help but be disappointed by the lackadaisical attitude of some of the makers of today's movie-related toys; it's almost as if they just rush whatever they can shove onto shelves in time for the movie's release instead of taking the time and effort to make and market toys of Star Wars level quality. A shame, really.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Hey Catholic Church, Are We Really Gonna Do This Again?

Five years ago, the Catholic Church railed against the evil known as the film adaptation of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. They called for a boycott by all the faithful of the film, which ended up grossing three quarters of a billion dollars at the global box-office despite almost uniformly bad reviews. In short, in spite of their exhortations, and quite possibly because of them, people went to see the movie, possibly because they wanted to see why so many people were kicking up such a fuss.

Nowadays, the local Catholic Church of the Philippines is again foaming at the mouth over somebody's art exhibit, which they claim is blasphemous. After somewhat heated protests and an act of vandalism by unidentified persons on the exhibit, its curator has agreed to close it down for security reasons.

I won't go into the whole debate on Freedom of Expression, which to my knowledge is being much more eloquently articulated elsewhere, but I will point out how ironic it is that to get the exhibit closed down the people against it, many of them dyed-in-the-wool Catholics, turned to Imelda Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos, who needs no introduction to anyone familiar with Philippine history, and in particular the atrocities performed during the martial law years. It's ironic that it while the Catholic church helped remove the Marcoses from power because of their heinous and decidedly un-Christian treatment of the Filipino people, Catholic adherents (and, I think, even some priests) turned to Imelda for help regarding the perceived desecration of Christianity, like some kind of white knight. To those who think politics makes strange bedfellows, I give you this oddity.

It's even more ironic that while the early Christians, including most of Christ's twelve apostles, were martyred in some of the most spectacularly brutal ways imaginable (with one saint even being sawed in half while alive), members of today's Catholic Church is apparently in the business of creating martyrs by siccing ex-dictator's widows on people who make them angry.

The thing is, though, that by bullying the curators of the exhibit into shutting it down, as they once bullied the MTRCB to give The Da Vinci Code an "R" rating, the Church and the fundamentalists ranting beside them have done nothing but drum up publicity for a person who, based on what I've seen, is little more than a hack trying to get attention. The DVC has been described by some as a lousy movie based on a lousy book, but people who would otherwise have been completely indifferent to it ended up watching it because of all of the noise.

I have no love for people who use shock value to promote themselves or their work and this person is no exception, but I think the people that person offended went about handling their wounded feelings incorrectly; to put it another way, they fell for the bait, hook, line and sinker.

This artist, whom I will not name as I have no interest in promoting this person one way or another, is an individual of dubious talent who, thanks to strident protestations, is now a champion for all those who despise the church, and will live on in infamy or fame depending on one's inclinations. I'm pretty sure that outside of the people inclined to attend such exhibits, the average juan remained blissfully unaware of the existence of that person or exhibit until both were trumpeted in the media thanks to the Church.

Fortunately, in a country with very short-term memory this person will soon be forgotten, but had the usual gang just managed to keep their cool, perhaps there would be even less for people to remember.

This is not a victory for the fundamentalists and priests and whoever thinks they've struck a blow for their faith; it's a victory for shock value and the artists willing to have themselves figuratively martyred to get their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

On Things Fragile and Eternal

I am hardly what one would call a Neil Gaiman connoisseur. I don't think I've read any of the collections of Sandman comic books (graphic novel sounds consummately pretentious), and if I have I'm fairly sure I haven't read them all the way through; I think I've only read the second Death miniseries in its entirety, and I haven't read any of his novels.

I have read Stardust, and was disappointed to find out that it wasn't a comic book but rather a heavily-illustrated novel, and his only two works (so far) for Marvel Comics, the Marvel: 1602 hardcover, and his seven-issue Eternals miniseries, the latter of which I doggedly collected in individual issue format for nine months on account not only of Gaiman's intriguing writing but also on John Romita Jr.'s sterling artwork. I enjoyed Stardust but actually liked Matthew Vaughn's film adaptation nine years later even more. I liked 1602 for its novelty and decidedly different take on the Marvel Universe. Finally, I liked The Eternals too but found it seriously flawed, largely on account of the fact that from the very beginning it was designed to whet readers' appetites for the adventures of the Eternals set in the Marvel Universe more than it was to tell its own, complete story. Left to his own devices, Gaiman could have given so much more than he did, even though what he came up with was already quite formidable.

Now that I'm reading Fragile Things, though, I'm coming to see whole new side of Gaiman's work, one I barely glimpsed in the prose of Stardust, which has not only increased my already considerable respect for him as a writer but has whetted my appetite for more of his work. I won't give a blow-by-blow review of the short stories contained in the book, but I will say that I enjoy the voices Gaiman gives to his characters, and the worlds he takes me to, some of which may actually exist in my own. He's not much one for the "twist ending" though there are a few of them in the stories, particularly the ghost stories, but the charm is more in how he takes me to the point where he turns the tables on me, such that even if the twist may be predictable in the end, I've enjoyed myself so much that it doesn't matter.

Fragile Things is one of those rare things I've not had the pleasure of reading in a while; one of those books that I read sloooowly (and I'm a slow reader to begin with) because I'm in no hurry for my reading experience to end.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Different World

I'll be direct: I'm one of the millions of people who thinks Rebecca Black's Friday is complete and utter shit. Like the folks behind Glee, though I cannot deny that, for the moment at least, Black is now part of the global pop-culture landscape, all thanks to a little thing called youtube.

This little piece isn't really about Black: it's about how making so much of pop culture available for online viewing free of charge has really had game-changing effects. Justin Bieber was discovered thanks to youtube. A whole new generation of kids has discovered Michael Bolton thanks to his participation in Lonely Island's "Jack Sparrow" single. Some films (the ones whose distributors have not yet managed to find and remove all copies of them from youtube), have found whole new audiences, as have songs and performances. Suddenly, to paraphrase Julia Roberts, anyone with a digital camera and internet access can be a cinematographer, and suddenly, getting noticed by people is no longer a matter who you know but a matter of what you know how to do, i.e. upload videos of yourself.

I find the possibilities endlessly interesting.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Patriotic Porsche

Taken at the House of Representatives.

Wait...considering that Porsche is a German brand, maybe it isn't patriotic of it to pose next to the Philippine flag? Oh well...

(Maybe next time I'll try taking a pic at Malacanang)...

One More Post to Go...

Random thought for this post: Spongebob Squarepants is the new Mickey Mouse.

Two More Posts to Go...

Random thought for this post: I'm willing to bet that a great many of the people against the RH Bill haven't even read it, and granting that the same can be said of its proponents, I'm willing to bet that the number of anti-RH people who haven't read the bill is significantly greater than the number of pro-RH people who haven't read it.

Three More Posts to Go...

Random thought for this post: the City of Manila deserves more trees and attempts to preserve its landmarks.

March to 300

I am taking a few moments' break from writing legal pleadings; this post and the next four serve no other purpose than to make sure my blog gets up to 300 posts. My brain doesn't have the capacity for anything else right now.