Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Too Old?

During his talk last weekend, Steve Englehart antioned several times how difficult it is for him to get work as a comic writer. I have heard Marv Wolfman and Len Wein say the same thing. To modern editors, these guys are over the hill - too old to work.

Englehart's response is that his Batman comic exceeded expectations by 250%.

It's not a pleasant thing for me to hear that these guys are too old. They were the new guys who started at Marvel around 1970. They are just a couple of years older than I am. My own profession of computer programming has been laying off workers over 50 so this attitude is widespread, but I'm writing about comics here.

Let's go back a few decades to when Marvel was born. By current reasoning, it must have been young turks who created the classic characters.

Stan Lee was born in December, 1922 so he was nearly 40 when he created the Fantastic Four. His co-creator, Jack Kirby, was born in 1917 so he would have been close to 45. Spider-Man co-creator, Steve Ditko, was a youthful 35.

Jump forward a decade and you find these men at the top of their game. Lee was writing the Silver Surfer, his favorite creation. Kirby had just gone over to DC and created his 4th world series. Ditko never managed to match Spider-Man's impact but he still was writing as well as drawing his own books.

How sad if these men had been forced out of the industry when they were at their creative peak.

In the 1980s Ditko complained that "everyone wants Ditko but no one wants Ditko." He meant that everyone wanted a "Ditko-like" artist but they considered Ditko himself over the hill.

Englehart, Woldman, and Wein all sold a lot of comics in the 1970s and 1980s. Wein especially created several popular characters such as Wolverene, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Swamp Thing. There is no reason to think that they lost that talent.

Monday, November 28, 2005

How to Run a Comic Book Company

I was at a question and answer session with Steve Englehart over the weekend. He was one of the new generation of writers who entered the field in the early 1970s. He is best remembered for his run on Batman but he started at Marvel and wrote a lot of their titles at one time or another. A quick list includes, Captain America, the Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, the Hulk, Master of Kung Fu, Captain Marvel, Hero for Hire, the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four.

I remember him as a good writer who was at his best writing individuals and his worst writing teams. He also pushed the envelope in story telling. I think that he was the first to write an issue where the characters did nothing but talk (his last Avengers) and one where the title character never appeared in costume (one of his Batman issues).

He had a few clinkers, too. Rumor is that he overused Kang the Conqueror so much that Stan Lee himself ordered Englehart to kill the character. He took Captain America's partner the Falcon and changed him from nice-guy Sam Wilson into petty crook "Snap" Wilson.

In the Q&A session, Englehart stressed how much things have changed since he entered the field. He was given Captain America with no other instructions than to keep it creative and to sell at least 300,000 copies a month.

Now a writer has to come up with a proposal which works its way up and back down the editorial ladder before he can write anything and an issue that sells 20,000 copies is considered a success.

So, were things better back then? The fact that they could sell so many more comics implies that they were but it gets more complicated.

The distribution channels have changed completely. Up through the 1960s comics were sold at news stands, drug stores, and grocery stores. News stands don't exist any longer. Drug stores no longer carry comic books and few grocery stores do. Most comics are sold through specialty stores that grew up since the early 1970s. The target audience is now much older with a large percentage being adult.

There is also a lot more competition than there used to be. Video games are a big factor. No one in the mid-1970s thought of Pong as a replacement for a comic book but many current games feature really great animated versions of superheroes. Why read static comics when you can actually control characters?

So the comics have consolidated and editors have been put in charge of protecting the franchise. Has this improved comics? Probably not.

Englehart gave the example of Batman. For the last five years or so he has been over the edge crazy. When Englehart did his Dark Knight limited series, DC made some projection on how it would sell. The actual numbers were 2.5 times projections. What was different? Bruce Wayne was back and got a girl friend. Batman was no longer crazy, just driven. DC pulled the entire Batman line and gave it to a different editor to establish a new direction based on Englehart.

Ok, so an editor's direction can hurt a title, but surely he can save it from some of the cliffs that writers went off in the 1970s. One of the best (worst) examples of a writer going off on a dumb plotline was Gerry Conway's Spider-Man clone. It started when Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, came back from the grave. She turned out to be a clone grown by his biology professor who had also grown a Peter Parker clone. It was dumb.

So what did Marvel do in the late 1990s? They brought back the clone along with a clone army grown by the biology professor's clone. They even told us that the clone was the "real" Spider-Man and the two switched rolls for a year. Of course, it was all part of a formula. You set it up so that the hero was dead or powerless and ran stories about how difficult it was for his replacement to take over. Then the hero would return. It already happened in Iron Man, Green Lantern, Thor, Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

So, keeping tight editorial control doesn't keep bad plotlines from happening.

I'll have more to say about Englehart's talk in future posts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My Brain Hurts

Last night Bravo was showing a repeat of Happy Days Reunion. Think about this for a moment. In 2005, I was watching a show produced in the 1980s about a show in the 1970s which was supposed to be taking place in the 1950s.

Now if they could just work That 70s Show in somehow the universe would implode.

Speaking of Happy Days, by coincidence earlier yesterday I came across the Wikipedia's definition of Jumping the Shark which is probably Happy Day's lasting contribution to modern culture.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to an episode where the Fonz was water skiing (in his leather jacket) and jumped over a shark. This is considered the moment when the show officially changed from being about the Cunningham family to it being about the Fonz's stunts. The term is now used to denote the point when a show abandons its original premise and suffers a loss of quality. In many cases this also leads to the show's cancellation. In other cases the show was headed for cancellation and producers tried to breath some life into it by introducing a major change. There are also cases where a show continues after one or more major character left by adding new characters and making others more prominent.

This brings me back to That 70s Show. The show centered around high school-aged Eric Foreman, his family, and his friends, particularly his relationship with the hot girl next door.

Supporting cast members have floated in and out over the years but the show always had a core of eight actors. Now two of them left and a new lead character was added. The show still has some laughs but the premise is really strained. The show has been stuck in 1979 for years. The actors are now 5-10 years older than their characters. Everyone graduated but most of them still spend their time hanging out and getting stoned in the Foremans' basement, even though Eric is long gone.

This is a prime example of a show that has jumped the shark but was not allowed to die a graceful death.
The official Jump the Shark website lets you vote on when (if ever) a show jumped the shark.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Last Lost

"What, is Shannon going to get hit by lightning?"

I asked my wife this about 57 minutes into last week's Lost. About a minute later Shannon was shot. Big surprise.

After three weeks of telling us that the next episode would be the most talked about of the year, it was kind of a dud. What would have been a big twist - killing a major character - was given away in the ad.

It's not like it was a surprise. Before the season started the producers announced that a major female character would die. Right there it narrowed it down to Shannon and Claire. Neither has a major story line going. I suspect that both were originally included as unlikely survivors on a deserted island. We had the spoiled rich brat who did nothing and the pregnant woman who could not do anything.

Now that we are in season two, it is no longer a deserted island so the original reason for including them has passed.

A case could have been made for keeping Shannon. Fans of her brother could still see him in flashbacks and it would complicate things even more if the survivors had to raise a baby on top of everything else.

Ultimately though, Shannon was an unlikeable and unliked character. Even a flashback showing her not inheriting her father's money didn't help much. I suspect that her step-mother was right. The ballet internship wouldn't have amounted to anything in the end.

Still it would have been a much more powerful episode if the ABC publicity people had kept quiet about it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Best Picture (Animated)

Ok, the year isn't even over yet but I'm going to go out on a limb and make some predictions for best animated picture. As far as I know, all the likely candidates have already been released so I can make a year-end prediction in November.

Then I can worry about starting Christmas shopping.

There are five obvious candidates for the nomination, the CGI films, Robots, Madagascar and Chicken Little and the stop-motion films, Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromet: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Only three can be nominated. Wallace & Gromet seems like a shoe-in. Shorts featuring the same characters have already won two Oscars. I think that Corpse Bride will also be nominated on the basis of its stunning visuals.

That leaves one slot for the three CGI pictures. I haven't seen Chicken Little yet but all of the reviews complain that much of it is unconnected gags. That seems consistent with the previews. I don't think that it will get a nomination.

Madagascar and Robots are both fun movies with rather thin plotlines. Of these, I think that Robots has the stronger plot. Also, it is a much greater technical achievement. One of their goals seems to have been to out-do Pixar in complexity of animation. Madagascar, on the other hand, looks like it was done on the cheap. My daughter, the computer animator, says that they took some shortcuts in the animation.

So, our nominees are Robots, Corpse Bride, and Wallace & Gromet.

I don't think that Robots will win. There just isn't enough plot.

Wallace & Gromet has a really good chance given their previous wins but it is really a kids movie. There are asides for adults but the movie is aimed at kids.

Corpse Bride is harder-edged. While the lesson in Wallace and Gromet is that hunting is bad, the lesson in Corpse Bride deals with women being independent rather than depending on a husband. Also, the visuals in Corpse Bride are much better.

Corpse Bride gets my vote but I will not be surprised if Wallace and Gromet wins.

note: I'm getting a lot of spam comments so I now require registration. I may have to turn off comments completely.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Beyond Death

The current issue of Action Comics (staring Superman) features a guest appearance by the Spectre. It is a combination Halloween issue and tribute to Jim Aparo. It is also full of plot holes.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how death is represented in the comics. DC has two main dead heroes - the Spectre and the aptly named Deadman. Both died and were sent back by a greater power. The power that sent the Spectre back is, I believe, a voice.

Deadman stayed on earth due to Rama Kushna. Rama was originally inspired by eastern religions but was later rewritten.

In the 1960s, there was a character called Nemesis who was also a ghost. He came from ACG which is better remembered for Herbie.

Nemesis had a view of the afterlife in keeping with watered-down Christianity. Saint Peter's current stand-in manages the gate to heaven and has say over who can return. Nemesis's powers were a cross between Superman and Casper the Friendly Ghost - flight, strength, invisibility. He was weakened underwater. Like many heroes introduced in the mid-1960s, he didn't last long.

Spectre is more complicated. At first he was just a superhero, first in the 1940s and 1960s. Then he became the spirit of vengeance in the 1970s. By the 1980s he had become the ultimate force for good and the universe's last defense against the Anti-Monitor in Crisis. In the 1990s it was explained that he was an aspect of God. Then he retired and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, got the job. Recently Jordan was brought back to life so who knows where the Spectre in Superman came from.

Deadman is a much more ordinary ghost. He is invisible and intangible. At first he seemed to walk everywhere but later he began flying. Since he cannot touch the ground (or anything else) anyway, he must have always been flying.

What Deadman could do was posses people. A trained acrobat and a good fighter, he often possessed people in order to save them. While there have been several attempts to revive the character, none have been satisfying. His best appearances were in his original series in the 1960s.

Interestingly, both Deadman and the Spectre were drawn by Neil Addams during their runs in the 1960s.

Marvel's view of death has always been more complicated. They've never shown the line of people waiting to be judged at the gates of heaven. In fact, Stan avoided the subject. When he did address death, it was because the death goddess, Hela, was near. The Silver Surfer's enemy Mephisto (a Satan stand-in) wanted the Surfer's soul and ruled an underworld full of mis-shapen creatures. Were these the tortured dead? Demons? Creations of Mephisto himself? We never found out.

We did get a hint. At one point, Mephisto sent the Flying Dutchman to fight the Surfer. It was made clear that the Dutchman was a special case. At the end he moved on to an unspecified afterlife.

In the early 1970s, the Comic Code changed and Marvel launched a line of supernatural heroes and villains. Many, like Dracula, were dead but nothing was said about the afterlife.

Around the same time, death became a supporting character in Captain Marvel. Embodied as a silent woman, she was the companion of Thanos. Because of his special relationship with death, Thanos has returned from the dead a few times.

Adam Warlock died and went to heaven, sort of. His soul was taken into a powerful gem along with his girlfriend and others. This is atypical.

I believe that in the 1980s Marvel's writers decided that when you die, any of several death gods can claim your soul which, in turn, gives them greater power. They can only hold souls for a limited time then they go on to a final reward (or are reincarnated).

While several marvel characters have returned to life from the dead or come back as a supernatural creature, none of their heroes are ghosts.