Friday, August 28, 2009

Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part IV - WoNK!

A few months back, I'm sitting on an airplane on route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I am in the middle seat in my row, which is absolutely the worst seat to have unless your flight happens to only be one hour, as this one is. In that case, it's tolerable. It is very early on a Friday morning, the sun just beginning to tinge the sky a cool powder gray. We are situated on the tarmac, fully seated, all belted in, awaiting imminent take-off. I pull out a few issues that were released just the past Wednesday and decide what will constitute the required plane-reading so I will not have to suffer any small-talk from chatty row-neighbors. My choices are a Green Lantern, a Battle For The Cowl, or a WoNK. That last one would be Superman: World of New Krypton, for those unfamiliar with the now-popular acronym for the mini-series. I decide to start with Superman.

After I finish the issue, about 15 minutes into the flight, I notice the woman sitting besides me is laughing lightly to herself whilst perusing the in-flight duty-free catalogue. She is on a page featuring pet accessories, such as scratching posts and various chew toys. One of the items is some sort of cat-gym apparatus replete with carpeted tubes and platforms for which ones cat may exercise and play. I assume to show the reader how the item would be used, too avoid confusion on who the item is for, and to show what a good time ones cat would have on this thing, they have placed a live cat on it, a cat-model, if you will. In this photo, the cat sits upright, stoic, with an expression of indifference. This cat does not appear to be enjoying the experience at all. As I catch glimpse of this cat I find myself let out a laugh, as well. The woman besides me takes notice and turns slightly. I remark at how much the cat seems to really not enjoy the situation he has found himself in. She agrees. We introduce ourselves, shake hands. She is a school teacher, taking a weekend in the Bay Area to attend a wedding or some such event related to a wedding. When the subject of occupation is reciprocated, I am left with a quandary. Telling people that, technically, I'm unemployed, and have been since my position as a stylist was eliminated by a luxury store in San Francisco, has tended to be a conversation killer. As commonplace as that situation is in these economic times, the aura of joblessness hangs like a foul specter and seems to scare people who still have jobs away, apparently for fear it will rub off on them. I've become convinced throughout my life that unemployment is the new leprosy, quarantine the only solution for dealing with our kind.

Nevertheless, I confess to my sin of unemployment and, to this woman's credit, she shuns me not, instead showing a great deal of empathy and willingness to discuss the subject at length. I tell her it is not all bad, that I have now found time to devote to writing more, something I have never been that disciplined with, but need to be. As is the natural order of this type of conversation, she asks what I write. I tell her, amongst other things, I write a blog in which I critique comic books. She does not bristle, no doubt somewhat prepared for this turn of conversation by the Superman comic that has been nestled in my lap during this time. I lift the issue up with a slight gesture to show the research involved in such an endeavor. She inquires as to my opinion on this particular comic. I tell her that, while I love the character of Superman, it pains me to say, I'm not sure I'm really enjoying this particular series, which probably means, of course, that I'm not. There is a pause as her gaze falls over the cover showing Superman dressed in Kryptonian military uniform and not the classic blue tights and red cape. She says, "Well, of course. He doesn't even look like Superman."

She is right, of course. He doesn't look like Superman. In one succinct observation, she really explained my issues with this mini-series, and with the direction the Superman books had taken at this point. It was a World Without Superman in both Action Comics and the eponymous title, and the problem with this is that, we, as readers and fans, don't want a world without the Man of Steel. In fact, the idea seems particularly ridiculous. What is the point of a Superman comic if, upon opening it up, one discovers there is no Superman to be found? The truth is that Superman wasn't really gone, he was "off-world", on this planet and in this series named World of New Krypton. But, he wasn't Superman at all, really. As this woman so simply and innocently pointed out, he didn't even look like Superman. In fact, he was Kal-El, newly appointed Commander in the New Krypton military guild, stripped of his classic costume, now adorned in the conformist uniform of his planets army. On this planet, in this replication of his original birth home, he is no one special. He is not Superman at all. Just Kal-El, son of Jor-El, the scientist who could not save their original home.

This was a source of real consternation with me at the time, from both artistic and marketing perspectives. I even wrote about it over the course of this particular weekend in San Francisco. Here, an excerpt from my posting Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part II:

"The simple math is this: the point of a solo book is to tell the adventures of the title character. Readers buy Superman to follow the continuing adventures of Superman. ... [World of New Krypton] is the comic that serves [this purpose now] and if it seems unnecessary to create an entirely new comic to do what the solo title is supposed to do, it's because it is."

My main problem at the time was that the books felt splintered, fragmented into too many parts. The creation of a book that felt redundant, especially in light of how flimsy the main Superman book was reading at the time, seemed a cynical grab for both attention and money. New titles garner coverage, a modicum of reader excitement and curiosity, and can compel some readers to feel they need to buy all the titles in order to keep up with the whole story. I saw this as an editorial move designed for sales and notoriety more so than for the telling of a good story. In fact, by fragmenting the books, it stands a greater chance of diluting the quality; the art becomes inconsistent, sloppy, rushed to meet deadlines, with multiple pencillers and inkers filling in, lending an unfortunate jarring effect to the books. Also, by crossing over too many titles, those readers who don't feel compelled to or who can not afford to purchase all the issues, may feel slighted, and may be slighted, as they are more than likely missing crucial pieces of the arc. This may seem a cynical reaction on my part, but quick reading through any message board threads on the subject will show that this sentiment is commonly shared by many readers and has been for some time. The theory of "crossover fatigue", like "event fatigue", can be and has been debated, ad nauseam, which stands as some indirect proof that it does exist. If readers feel something, then their reaction is honest, whether based on any sound evidence or not.

In my previous post, I also wrote that whether or not the series was actually any good was "as irrelevant as the books very existence." Harsh, yes, but only two issues into the run, and coming on the heels of the disappointing crossover event that set up all of this (New Krypton), and standing side-by-side with a Superman title I viewed as poor, my goodwill as a reader and Superman fan had been tried to breaking. Now, as of this writing, the series Superman: World of New Krypton stands nearly half-way completed with the recent release of issue #6, and the Superman books have just completed an odd crossover-within-a-crossover mini-arc known as "Codename: Patriot", with the release this past Wednesday of Superman #691 and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen Special #2. This seemed a most logical place to assess the status of the story and it's successes and failures so far.

As convoluted as it may seem to stage a mini-crossover inside of a group of books already entrenched in what is essentially a crossover, the story arc "Codename: Patriot" proves mightily successful and has been the most satisfying portion of the whole story to this point. It works so well because it finally ties together all the lose threads of a story that seemed to be in danger of running off the rails, unbalanced by too many characters - many seemingly underused or mishandled - and too many opposing story elements - many seemingly dropped out of sight for months. The five issues, one each of Superman, Supergirl, Action Comics, and WoNK, as well as the Jimmy Olsen Special, blend together seamlessly, and show remarkably sharp pacing for being penned by three different writers. The action moves deftly and with precision, no moment or character getting any more or less time than what is needed to convey the mood, tone, and information of that particular story beat. It is efficient, clean, and thorough storytelling. There is a crispness to the transitions and a methodical build of scenes that pays off with the obligatory cliffhangers at each issues end, but also in leading to a heightening of tension and drama for all the titles involved. Whereas the theory of "crossover fatigue" would state that ancillary issues are attached to a core event to push sales of issues that are not essential to the overall arc, this story shows how a crossover can be successfully staged to achieve a rarity: making every single issue so relevant and essential that they become true parts of one single whole; not just single comic books, but chapters of a much larger novel.

An example of where this works well and shows where an ancillary book can work to flesh out story beats and characters that would otherwise be cut for time, is the surprisingly enthralling Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen Special #2. There is no longer any monthly Jimmy Olsen book and there hasn't been for many years, so this would be an example of the type of supplemental book that could be seen by cynics as a non-essential add-on. However, the issue works so well as an avenue for exposition not afforded by the main books - occupied as they are by the actions and reactions of the major plot points, much of which is expanded on here - that it becomes clear immediately how much depth this issue adds to the "Codename: Patriot" arc. The Olsen Special serves as more than just an expository exercise meting out the bullet points of story. It is a thrilling comic in and of its own. Credit must be given to James Robinson, a writer I have much maligned for some of his previous work on the solo Superman title. Here he has transformed an issue of one-on-one conversations into an engaging read, and juxtaposed moments of quiet and tense dialogue with two major action set-pieces remarkable for their intimacy and assured pacing. The final sequence, in which Jimmy runs through rain-soaked streets avoiding a meta-human assassin, spans 11 pages and contains nearly no words of dialogue, no narration, and no sound effects. The reader is allowed to hear the heavy rain pouring down onto the empty, dimly lit urban streets; the sloshing and splashing of Jimmy's panicked footsteps as he hurries through puddled parking lots and alleys. There is a real sense of fear and hopelessness to this scene, brought to life by artist Bernard Chang, who brings a cinematic perspective to his panels. This all lends authenticity to what proves to be a truly shocking end.

Something else happened during the "Codename: Patriot" arc that validated my earliest misgivings about the Superman-less direction the books had taken, but that also validated the powerful pay-off that could come out of such a risky move. Quite simply, Superman returned. In needing to return to Earth from New Krypton, Kal-El dons the classic tights and cape we all know and love, and becomes the hero we had missed all these months. Seeing Superman in action, once again flying to the rescue, streaking across the sky as a blur of red and blue, was powerful, undoubtedly made more so by the long absence of such a sight. The suit itself is such a powerful icon that the character need not even wear it for it to elicit a reaction from the reader. World of New Krypton #6 ends with Kal-El making the decision that he can not return to Earth dressed in his military uniform, that it would be too jarring for the populace of Metropolis to see him as an alien soldier, especially in light of the tensions between Earth and New Krypton. He proceeds to his chambers, and stood before the shapeless costume hanging in closet, utters the line, "This is a job for Superman." If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then this moment proved that we readers just got served. Manipulative? Sure, but when the pay-off is this joyful, one finds it hard to stay angry.

From a marketing perspective, this story arc worked because it took advantage of the vary nature of the crossover, that of being told over several titles. "Codename: Patriot" was told over the course of the five titles all released weekly during one month. This added to the arc by heightening its already intensified pace. There were no lulls to dull the force of momentum. Everything remained fresh in the mind and one could jump into each issue effortlessly. In a striking example of how the symbiosis between marketing and art can work to positive effect, by staging this arc when the WoNK mini-series had reached its half-way mark, it serves to rejuvenate all the books of the Super-verse; they all now stand at a single point of convergence, a plateau from which they may all spring forth with renewed vigor. It has the feeling of the closing of one grand movement setting up the next even more grand piece to follow.

Not everything has worked and the bad marks I gave to much of Robinson's early run on Superman still stand. My new softer light still does not shine favorably on much of his run, unfortunately, but his most recent issues and the Jimmy Olsen Special have stood out and I will praise with even hand here. Another unfortunate failure has been the inconsistent art on Action Comics. After Eddy Barrows barely pencilled but two issues worth of Greg Rucka's current run, Action has been plagued by the rickety unevenness of fill-in artists. This can be somewhat (maybe, possibly, a little) overlooked in single issue form, but when this is all collected together, it is going to feel massively discordant, and stand as a small but forceful reminder of the downside of assembly-line produced mainstream crossover comics.

My initial distaste for the creation of the mini-series World of New Krypton was based more on principle than on a judgement of creative merit, a point I did concede in my original critical piece. Judged with a critical artistic eye, the title has proven to be quite strong, compelling, and worthy of its creation. Placing these stories outside of the main Superman books, the source of my original complaint, now has proven to be a strong move, for it's allowed for the multi-layered method of storytelling so wonderfully epitomized by the "Codename: Patriot" crossover. Plaudits must also go to writers Sterling Gates, who has breathed amazing new life into the Supergirl character and franchise; and Greg Rucka, who has brought a beautiful sense of romance - both gothic and modern - to the characters of Nightwing and Flamebird. Artists Jamal Igle, Pete Woods, and Renato Guedes, have all showcased themselves admirably over the past year, putting pencil to paper with redoubtable consistency in a show of great artistic fortitude. I may not be a fan of certain of these artist's personal styles, art preference tending to be based more on visceral response, but I can recognize the strong storytelling efforts and dedicated work ethic necessary to produce a monthly comic, and these three artists have demonstrated these traits.

I think back now on that cat in the in-flight catalogue, sitting in his man-made playground of convoluted tunnels and posts, sitting there uncomfortably with nary any joy. Perhaps he was not unhappy, nor upset, but simply just nonplussed, apprehensive about what stood before him? After all, what stood before him did surely seem unnatural and most problematic, more show and bluster on behalf of the makers with a seeming absence of real consideration for the true needs of the end user. Perhaps, though, all he needed was to get over his trepidation and unfetter himself from the shackles of presumption? Perhaps, he needed to just step inside and play? I'd like to think he did just that, and found that inside awaited him a world of joy where none had seemed to be.
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