Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Case for John Jones: Noir Comic Book Hero

For those of you that don't know, I'm a big fan of film noir.  Now, "noir" is one of those buzzwords in comics that's used to describe pretty much any title in comics today, and it's very often misapplied.  And if you don't know by now, Comics Makes Me Happy! is all about setting the record straight when it comes to people using words incorrectly.  (That and flying squirrels.  That's what it's all about.)

Okay.  What's noir?  Often it's just used (both in comics and film) to describe a medium which is in black-and-white panels instead of color, and/or uses dark tones or, in the case of film, "low key" lighting.  However, noir is much more than a visual style.  It's debatable whether it's an actual genre or not, but most film buffs can agree on certain aspects of what makes a film a film noir.  Film noir usually conjures up images of a private eye played by Humphrey Bogart.  But a detective isn't necessary for film noir.  Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Memento all are without detectives, and the last one is in color.

Yes, style is a big part of film noir.  But so are certain themes that many films noir hold in common: disorientation being one of the main noir storytelling devices.  Some film scholars assert that the changing atmosphere of Post-War America gave birth to film noir: soldiers came back home to find the world a very different place than when they had left it, including but not limited to a more powerful role for women in society.  (I can only partially agree with that, because many of the seminal crime novels which important films were based on were written in the 1930's.)

The plot and atmosphere of any film noir must be convoluted: often the hero is a victim of circumstances, he's not sure whom he can trust, morality is often realative, and the "hero" often feels like an outcast struggling against a cold, cynical world out to destroy him.  He's often alone and trapped in circumstances beyond his control which he struggles to be free of.  Conspiracies abound.  Not only is the hero chasing a bad guy, but the good guys are chasing the hero, too.  Morality is a fuzzy shade of grey and the hero often has his own moral struggles.  Corruption is rampant, the world feels like an oppressive urban jungle, and the women the hero encounters--who archetypally fall into the role of caretaker and fairer sex--prey upon men's weakness and ensnare him further into danger.  Amidst all this paranoia and hopelessness, our hero is usually doomed to fail despite all his best efforts, and even if he does gain some sort of insight or find some sort of truth, there's always some loss the darken his (small) success.  Often, the plot centers on a mystery of some sort where the hero seeks to find the truth in a dangerous world, but that is certainly not the only plot.  In a nutshell: the world kinda sucks, you don't know where you stand with others, you do the best you can, and usually that's not enough to save the day.

So who's a good candidate for a superhero cast in a noirish setting?  Batman, right?  I mean, we've got all those crooked cops in Gotham City, Gotham's a rotten, hopeless place, Bruce is a master detective.  Perfect noir character, right?

All right, what about one of the primary themes of noir: disorientation?  Batman is so sure of himself and his mission: he knows his place in the world world, he knows who he can trust and who he can't.  And as for his morality?  I think it's pretty well-defined.  Batman is way too clear-cut to be a noir hero.  A great crime hero, yes, but noir?  No.

Okay.  Paranoia.  Outsider.  World suspicious of him.  Ringing any bells?

Yep.  J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter.  Think about it for a second.  He starts out with tragedy: he loses his family and his entire planet.  He's brought to Earth against his will.  On his first encounter with a human, he winds up scaring the guy to death.  Though he's convinced he'll use his power for good, he's still not sure how he fits into the world: it takes him a while to even "go public" as a superhero.  (In his early days, many of his superfeats were hidden from human eyes.)  His weakness (fire) is so easy to exploit and take him down.  Later on, in the 90's JLA run, he had to deal with evil shadows of himself: the White Martians which spawned paranoia among the JLA and the world.  And, to top it all off, he's a detective.  In two different future incarnations, he's portrayed as weak and broken (Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Strikes Again), so despite all his power, it seems as though he's destined for tragedy.

The only thing that doesn't work is the whole not knowing whether others are true allies or just playing the part.  Having telepathy kind of kills area of suspense.  Though even with telepathy he's been fooled by the intentions of humans.  (I'm not quite sure exactly how that's possible--most likely it's because J'onn doesn't like to "pry" into others' minds, which I always thought was a plot device to de-power him and get around any potential telepathy-induced plot holes.  More on that later.)

Anyway, there's been a few stories that have shown some promise on the Jone Jones: Noir Superhero front.  One is a story in the JLA (1997) Annual #1 and the other is a three-volume series in prestige format, Martian Manhunter: American Secrets (1992).  The former has shades of the femme fatale motif, and the latter is all Cold War paranoia and conspiracies.  Both are great reads and you should definitely read them.  Twice.

And hopefully, J'onn's days as DC's star noir hero will come.

One film noir cliche that J'onn J'onzz can't fit: chain smoker

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forward the Bromance!

And's time for...

Great friendships in comic history!

I like seeing friendships (a.k.a. bromances) between comic book characters.  I can't think of a better one than Booster Gold and Blue Beetle.  (Michael Carter and Ted Kord, respectively.)  Okay, I can't think of a better juvenile friendship between two superheroes.

There seems to be a lack of best-friendships in comics today.  Maybe it's because so many characters have died off and no one knows anyone that well?  I mean, looking at the new JLA roster--do any of these characters (besides the former Titans), have any history with each other?  And I don't mean history as in, "Oh, we were on a team for a couple of years."  I mean personal history.  (Congorilla...really?)

Why the lack of friendships?  Do fans just not want to see characters being that close to each other?  Should our heroes be self-sufficient beings not needing the support of a fellow hero?  Does it weird people out to see two guys in tights coming in physical contact with each other?  Does it make heroes look weak?  I offer you this example:

Help End Bromance Now!

I just don't get it.  Heck, if I was a superhero, I'd need all the help I can get, and would just want to hang out and be cool with my fellow superheoes.  And if you're friends, that makes your team stronger.

BTW, that very cute picture up top came from artist Jemma Salume.  More of her work is viewable here.  (There's a funny Guy Gardner one there as well!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fashion Friday: Adam Strange

Okay, it's not Friday, and this entry is not about fashion.  In the effort of full disclosure, that's two lies right there.  I caught Olympics Fever and I've been too occupied watching people shoot a gun while skiing to blog.  (Really, biathlon amuses me to no end.)

Anyway, I digress.

In what I'm hoping will be a CMMH regular column, I'm going to examine (i.e. tear apart) the character designs of various superheroes and villains, both recent and past.  Today we're going to look at Adam Strange and the changes he's undergone within the past decade.

I believe that costumes should be as iconic as their characters: they should transmit instantly to the reader what the character's all about.  Without knowing a thing about a character, his costume should give you an idea of who he is.

Let's look at Silver Age Adam Strange.  He'd gone through one revision at this point since his debut in Showcase, but this is the design that stuck with him for decades:

Now, what have we got?  The lines are pretty clean and awfully sharp, overall a very elegant.  The white stripe down the leg cuts a really sharp figure and adds a military flair to Adam's uniform and contrasts nicely with the white cross straps.  There's also a hidden dynamic quality to this design: look at how the top of his boots and gloves terminate in a triangle shape.  It adds an edginess that's complimented by the strong contrasting colors of yellow and red.  With the epaulets and the stars on his collar, it seems Adam Strange is wearing a military uniform of sorts.  What's he a soldier of?  What's he fighting?  At first glance, we don't know.  Adam also wears a helmet (with an insignia), so he's obviously engaged in some sort of dangerous activity.  The fin on the helmet is futuristic, so we know there's a sci-fi element to what Adam does.  He's wearing a black belt with white rolled trim, and if you've seen any sci-fi space exploration movies from the late 50's or early 60's you'll recognize that design element.  What you can't see in this photo is Adam's gun holster hanging from his belt, and that he occasionally wears a space helmet over his regular helmet when he needs to venture into space.  Physically speaking, Adam is rather lithe: this doesn't look like a guy who could take you down with his fists, and yet he's still a superhero, so he must be pretty resourceful.

When we boil it down, what we've really got is a guy in a rocket pack with some sort of ray gun.

Okay, now the current design for Adam Strange:

Wow.  Who's this guy?

This look debuted in Planet Heist, which was actually a really fun, quintessential Adam Strange story.  His uniform, however, couldn't be further from what Adam Strange should be.  You'll see why in the end.

Let's look at this new uniform.  First off, there's all sorts of extraneous pieces here and there which add bulk and heaviness to Adam's look: the pure yellow of the boots is broken up with white soles and white cuffs.  The angled boot tops are gone.  He's sporting some sort of lumpy red wrist bands.  Further breaking up his figure are T-shaped yellow patches on his shoulders, and his gloves, like the boots, are broken into two colors: white and yellow.  The simple, dynamic white cross straps are replaced with a bulky chest piece, which holds his rocket pack to his body.  The belt with the rolled trim is gone and his holster is placed--awkwardly--up by his shoulder.  The stripes down his leg are sort of there, but in later appearances they've been eliminated completely and replaced by some boxy rectangle outline.  His helmet is considerably heftier, and it's his only helmet now, and functions as his oxygen source in space.  (Previously, a space helmet was optional for Adam.)  The overall design is boxy, disjointed, and bulky.  He's also gained a lot of muscle.

What does this new design say about the new Adam Strange?

If you saw him for the first time, what would you think this guy does?  Is he an astronaut?  A super space soldier?  Some kind of intergalactic spy?  A robot?  His costume is high tech.  It's got all sorts of gizmos that help him navigate through space.  His helmet is high tech now, and gives him HUD targeting displays and helps him out of tight situations.  Wow, that make him cool, right?


This takes all the adventure out of Adam Strange.  What made Adam Strange cool was that, with no more than a rocket pack, a gun, and his wits, he got through all sorts of scrapes and became the champion of an entire planet.  Adding technology to his arsenal weakens the very premise of the character.  Adam is the Indiana Jones of the DCU (he's even an archaeologist): an adventurer as well as a hero, who used his wits when he had nothing else to fall back on.  When his luck ran out, he made his own, and danger meant nothing to him.  There was no fancy technology to get him out of a scrape--only his own skill and intelligence, which is why he came to be known as the "thinking man's hero."

Now, Adam wears his space helmet when he's not even in space!  What a wimp!  Back in the Silver Age, half the time he was out in space without his space helmet.  I mean, this guy is so resourceful he doesn't even need oxygen half the time.

Now he's just a guy in a space suit.  How exciting.

Let's go back to the original, shall we?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wait a Second...! (Human Target Shoots the Shark)

I was psyched to learn that Fox started making this show, Human Target, which is based on a comic book. Sign me up.

So I started watching it.  The show has its moments: stuff gets blown up, people fall off of buildings, Chi McBride is sarcastic, what's-his-face shoots stuff.  All the kind of stuff that makes me happy.

And then I read the DC comic based on the show.  (...based on a's an infinite regress, I know.)  Whatever, it's fun.  Stuff blows up, people get saved, bad guys get shot.  In the head.

Wait a minute.  Something just clicked.

People get shot?  Oh, yeah.  That does happen on the show now that I think about it.

But what did whats-his-face say in the Pilot episode?

"Nobody deserves to die."  Except for bad guys, that is.

It logically follows that bad guys aren't nobody.  Hooray for them!  Syllogisms for the win!

Somewhere, Marlon Brando is smiling.  You are somebody, Marlon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Purpose of Comics, or, Why Grant Morrison Doesn't Write Comics Part I

Okay, I just started reading Final Crisis.  I had been putting it off forever because one of my favorite heroes (The Martian Manhunter) gets killed off.  Well, the guy (or gal) that had it before me at the library FINALLY returned it (after months) and now I'm in the midst of reading it.

Now, I've never been a fan of Grant Morrison, or Morrison-esque "stories," but, despite the fact that there are parts of Final Crisis that makes me want to throw the book against the wall, on the whole it's not that bad.  (So far.)  But it only affirmed what I had previously thought: Grant Morrison does not write comics.

Being true to my philosophical roots, I'm going to start my argument at the very beginning, just like Renee Descartes, and build everything back up from there.  And because it's my blog, I'm going to define the premises of the argument how I want so that I can win the argument.  It's an old philosopher's trick.  Hey, I might as well be honest.

Here we go.

Let's define comics first.  Because why bother arguing about anything if we don't know exactly what we're talking about?

I'm going to define comics as visual stories.  That makes them fiction, and that makes them logically equivalent to novels, short stories, movies, sitcoms and TV dramas.

Okay, then.  What's fiction?  A dictionary definition basically says fiction is something made up by someone.  It's a deficient definition, because then we'd have to count daydreams, jokes, and lies as fiction.So, let's say that fiction is something made up intentionally, and for a specific purpose.

So why do we seek out stories?  Or, what's the point of reading comics?

I think the majority of comics readers read for entertainment, and probably the same can be said for novels and movies.  Other reasons for creating fiction might be: to inform, to propose ideas (science fiction does this), to share's one's life experiences, to create a puzzle for the reader to solve (mystery and detective stories), to find meaning, to make money, and so forth.  I'm going to go with entertainment as the main reason.

But that covers all comics, the good, the bad, and the average.  What about the really good ones?  The stories that you really liked?  The ones that made you think, or made you look at a character differently, or awakened some sort of insight in you?  Why do fans rave about certain stories and hate others?  There's an emotional compenent to all this raving: a reader just knows they like a certain story, on a very fundamental and primal level.  Something clicks, and we might not be able to put our finger on it, but we know we like it and move on to the next thing (except nutcases like me who spend hours trying to figure out why).  We also know we don't like something, and because comics is a unique medium which has 70+ years of backstory to build on, there are a lot of variables to consider.

To make this easier, let's look at why a reader doesn't like a story.  Here's a few reasons that spring to mind:

1.  The characters were written "out of character."
2.  The plot was poor: the storyline lead to a weak conclusion, nothing happens, or it was otherwise confusing, derivative, or lazily-written.
3.  The story wasn't about anything, it had no "heart" or premise, or fails to express any good ideas.
4.  The art was poor.
5.  Continuity mistakes were made.

I'm going to knock out 3 and 4, because art isn't the fault of the author, and 4 is just another way to say "plot hole."  So we're down to 1, 2, and 3: Character, Plot, and Story, the foundation of all fiction.  1 and 2 are the technical components of fiction: how the story is told.  3 is the why, and is much more elusive.  To draw an analogy to music, 1 and 2 are like good vocal training, they allow you to express yourself, and 3 is the what that you are singing about, be it love, zombies wanting to eat your brains, or finding out your sailor boyfriend came back from America with a wife after he promised himself to you.  (Flash Fact: that's from Madame Butterfly.  Not the zombie part, that is.)  It is this what, or story content, that makes a story about something and gives it meaning: it is what the author is telling you for whatever reason: humor, enlightenment, intellectualism or whatnot, and this is drawn from an author's personal experiences, imagination, and worldview.

From this standpoint of communicating and expressing something to an audience, we can say that an author is connecting to the reader on some level.  We've already seen that that tether to the reader is an emotional one, and I don't mean emotional as in "this story made me cry," I mean emotion as in, "I don't have to think about whether I this story sucks, I just feel it."

This visceral connection to a story is a primal one.  People have been telling stories to each other for thousands of years, and some of these stories, like Gilgamesh and The Odyessy, are still around.  Fiction tells a universal "Truth," and this is how the author connects with us and how we identify with the author.  How often have you laughed at a funny story and said, "It's funny because it's true!"?  There's a truth behind good stories, and we know when an author gets it right and when an author gets it wrong.  Just like when an author draws a person out of proportion, we know when we're being told a story that doesn't ring true.  We seek out stories which speak this truth about humanity to us: be it humor, tragedy, irony, imagination, mystery/the desire to know, bravery, vengeance, justice, and so on, in an effort to better understand ourselves, to be entertained, to laugh, to find meaning, to expand our minds, and to identify with others and become a part of a collective whole via a shared experience (i.e. Humanity, or, Comic Book Fans).  It's that last one that's the most powerful, I think.

To recap: Comics are stories, which means they're fiction, which are created by an author to satisfy a certain purpose, which communicate meaning via character and plot, and which express a universal Truth about mankind's shared experience.

In Part II, we'll examine why some stories fail and why some don't.

If you've stuck around this far, you get a prize.

Enjoy this video of dancing squirrels:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day...or something.

Okay, I don't really like Valentine's Day.  But two recent Valentine's Day-themed posts at One True GL and the Hoosier Journal of Inanity inspired me to post a picture of my favorite DC couple.

So, here you go, Adam Strange and his Rannian girlfriend Alanna, greeting each other after Adam is finally Zeta-beamed back to Rann:


Considering that Adam gets Zeta-beamed to Rann from Earth about every month or so, that's a lot of seconds.  Or maybe he's just exaggerating for dramatic effect.  I tend to take people literally.

(From Mystery in Space #63.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I Readed A Book! (Review of Huntress: Cry for Blood)

Huntress: Cry for Blood
Story by Greg Rucka
Pencils by Rick Burchett
Inks by Rick Burchett and Terry Beatty (issues #5 and #6)

Short Synopsis:  After being framed for murder, Huntress must prove her innocence.  After meeting The Question, we learn her story as the only surviving family member of a mafia hit.

The Bottom Line:  A character-driven drama with noirish elements and a well-plotted story line, written on one of Rucka's good days and with great art, to boot.  Read it!

Why It's Good:  The comics medium, by its very nature, doesn't lend itself well to stories about moral choices and character change.  After all, if a character keeps changing over his or her decades-long history, are we going to recognize them anymore?  This works, though, for certain characters, and for flashback stories for popular, well-established characters.

The Huntress herself is a character in constant internal conflict, always straddling the line between Justice and Vengeance.  When it comes to her family history, that line, in her mind, gets a little blurred.  Fortunately, Huntress never lets this conflict devolve into an angsty angry-at-her-life attitude.  Instead, she's out for blood.

Our story starts with the murder of two mafiosos who have each been killed with an arrow from Huntress's crossbow.  The media, the police, and even Batman and Family suspect she's guilty.  Just when it seems like she's got no one to turn to, she nearly runs over The Question one night, and after some sparring, he absconds with her to his Super Secret Zen Hideout, where he and Richard Dragon give her a new outlook on life.

Helena, about to tell Vic her story

The story's a weighty one, heavy on backstory, and with clear-cut stakes for both Huntress and The Question.  For Helena, she must not only clear her name, but choose who she ultimately is: an agent of revenge struggling away from a broken past, or someone "better" than that who upholds the law.  The Question hopes Helena will put his wisdom into action after investing his time in taking her under his wing, plus there's the possiblity of a romantic relationship.  I'm not going to give away the ending, but it's a good one.

Granted I haven't read too many Huntress comics (but I've read quite a bit of The Question), but I feel Rucka is on his game when it comes to characterization.  I secretly suspect Rucka is Italian, because he writes them so well.  (They are also drawn very believably by Burchett.)  Rucka handles The Question quite well, too, and I really like seeing Vic as the good-hearted Sensei To The Superheroes and in a lighter mood than his Denny O'Neill days.  I wish Vic would come along more often and set people straight.  (Oh, wait, he can't.  He's dead.)  Rucka balances the Zen insight with the sarcasm quite well, too.  (The latter being, of course, Vic Sage's one superpower.)

The Art:  I really enjoyed the art.  It's quite different from today's comic art: very "2D" with little shading, and the characters' expressions are very slightly caricatures while at the same time preserving realism.  His figures are realistic: no over-roided guys or DDD-busted girls here.  There's a great efficiency of line and cleanliness to the style and inking that you don't see today unless you crack open a Johnny DC title.  It's a nice, refreshing break from the complicated, fantasized, hyper-reality of comics art today.

Not only that, but Burchett draws Vic Sage really well.  Vic is a real character, and that should show on his face, and Burchett thankfully doesn't hold back on the smug little expressions that only Vic Sage is capable of.  Compare and Contrast time!

Vic channeling the Great James Cagney?

A more recent appearance of Vic.  (Oh wait.  "Charlie."):

Mr. Generic

Not to mention, there's all sorts of great little visual details, like Vic punching a soda machine.  If anyone gets to punch a vending machine in the DC Universe, it's Vic Sage.

Oh, yeah, and Batman shows up.  And Vic gives him some lip.  That's always amusing.

Batman: Mr. Grumpy Gills

The only downside to the story is that it's rather complicated to keep all the mafiosos and who-did-what and who's-related-to-whom straight.  But I wouldn't let that detract from a very enjoyable story.

It's a shame it's not in print anymore--hopefully it'll be reprinted soon.  But I urge you to look for it and read it, if you haven't already.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Adam Strange... the nicest guy in the DC Universe.

1959: When strange men could buy little boys ice cream with impunity.

Honestly, what other superhero would buy a complete stranger ice cream?  Batman?  Yeah, didn't think so.

(From Mystery in Space #53)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Fine Line Between Homage and "Just Plain Ripping Off"

Always one to be interested in art, this caught my eye over at ComicVine:

Comic Covers "Swiped" From Fine Art

...which presents a list of five comic covers inspired by famous works of art.  (Which I am happy to say, I guessed all of them correctly.  Who-hoo!! (Can't you tell I was the "me me me! pick me! I know I know!!!" kid who always sat at the front of the class?)

*insert cool segue here!*

"Ripping off" from fine art would only bother me if a.) the intended audience thought it was the comic artist's original idea, and b.) if an idea was overused.  The author of the article left out a glaring admission (perhaps becuase his list skewed Marvel): The Pietá.  While not fine art (it's sculpture, but it's still classic art.)  And it's been referenced inside comics more than on covers.  But it's been done a lot.  Pretty much any time someone dies in the DC Unviverse, except Barry Allen.

Here's the first appearance of comic art referencing The Pietá that I can think of:

And just for comparison's sake, Michelangelo's original:

Can you think of any other references?