Monday, March 29, 2010

Fixing the Franchise: X-Men

So I had a nice Christmas surprise this morning when I found out that Bryan Singer has announced that he will NOT direct X-Men: First Class, the upcoming X-Men revamp film. Since I don't think he should be allowed anywhere near a superhero film, I'm glad to hear he is leaving my favorites alone. Lord knows, I have talked a lot about the past X-Men movies in the previous posts including my suggestion for an X-Men TV show and, more recently, in a character by character breakdown of previous failures, but rather than harp on failures, I thought I would just address what an X-Men movie needs to win me over.

Bright, not dark

A constant reminder that the world is unfair is knowing that somewhere in LA there is a boy born into privilege who wears a nice suit, goes into work, gets into a board meeting, and says, "This movie should be darker. Dark sells well and kids like dark." This moron will probably make more in a year than I do in twenty and he feels completely justified for his brilliance.

Don't patronize your fucking audience, asshole. Just because you are a moron doesn't mean everyone else is. Superheroes in general are not about darkness. Most of them are about the light... that's why they dress up in awesome clothes, take on cool names, and get into fights in broad daylight.

The X-Men especially are about being bright and being seen. Every time they leave the mansion in costume, it is to show mutant pride. The whole point of the X-Men is that they want acceptance! That means going out and being seen in broad daylight.

The previous X-Men movies were almost entirely set at night and/or indoors, the exception being X3... which is probably why I enjoyed it despite its flaws. Also, black leather is out... and if its not, it should be. You can still keep the jackets, but throw in some color for fuck's sake! How about a red background on the X's? It's a minor thing, but just a little splash of color would make them sooo much less dreary.

Small School

One reason the X-Men movies didn't work is because the school was packed full of mutants. In the comics, Xavier's school didn't become filled with students until... well, right after the first movie came out. Before this, it was a small, quiet, and exclusive private school.

The problem with the new approach is that it made all of the X-Men teachers... and they aren't. Sure, a few of them could be, but that isn't what's interesting about the X-Men. Really, it just gets in the way. By making this the first class, I will assume that there will be no more than ten students plus Xavier. This is how it should be; not an institution, but a family.

Center on Scott and Jean, not Wolverine

The X-Men, at its core, is about four people: Xavier, Magneto, Scott, and Jean. It is not about Wolverine any more than Star Wars is about Han Solo. As much as people love him, Wolverine's character is tangential to the overall X-Men story. When writers put him front and center (in movies or comics), it might help sales, but it makes for a shitty story.

The first X-Men story especially should be a love story between Scott and Jean. They are star-crossed lovers in a superhero context. Scott is a self-repressed young man afraid of himself more than anyone. He pushes others away for their safety and is stressed by his own relentless self-control. Jean is a capable young women who is developing probably the most powerful psychic mind on Earth. She is powerful, but uncertain of herself. That is the hook. They have to overcome themselves to find one another.

Xavier is their mentor and he nudges them in the right direction. He makes Scott the leader of the X-Men because he knows Scott is a perfectionist, but he needs to learn to work with others. Jean he protects and educates like a daughter, seeing as their powers are so similar. Angel is the third-part of the love triangle who is everything Scott isn't. He is confident, beautiful, rich, and influential.

If I had my way, Wolverine wouldn't be in this movie at all. At best, he might make a cameo appearance at the end. If Hugh Jackman hits on a 16-year old Jean Grey, it will just be all kinds of sleazy and it will just get in the way of the main story. Show a little patience and wait for the inevitable sequel.

Danger Room

I cannot tell you how many X-Men comics open with a Danger Room scene, but I can tell you why. There is no better way to introduce a character than with a demonstration of what makes them unique. In the Danger Room, spinning blades, nets, flame throwers, and all sorts of dangers test specific aspects of the X-Men's mutant abilities forcing them to push themselves to the limit. This is like extreme gym class. It is an obstacle course. More fun than a video game, but you actually learn valuable skills.

The Danger Room is just fucking awesome! Don't use the "holo-deck" style realistic illusions. Just keep to the mechanical obstacle course that made the X-Men the best trained superhero group in comics.

The villain is discrimination and bigotry

I'd like to dispel a major fallacy in Hollywood: you do not need to personify the enemy. You need something to hit, sure, but you do not need someone to explode, be decapitated, split in half, melted, tossed through a wood chipper, or any of the overkill endings common to action films.

There is a truism from Greek theater that says all stories are either Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, or Man vs Himself. The X-Men has all three. There are the individual fights that might be ideological or personal in nature (Man v. Man), the eternal struggle of acceptance (Man v. Nature), and the struggle of self-acceptance (Man v. Self). The best X-Men stories weave the three of these together.

My advice for the creators here would be to look at any of the big films focusing on bigotry of all kinds, particularly in America: Mississippi Burning, Boys Don't Cry, Milk... In a normal superhero film, half of the pleasure is in feeling the vicarious thrill of having powers, but in the world of the X-Men, this is counter-balanced by the horror of the power itself (i.e. Cyclops, Rogue, Nightcrawler) and/or by the fear and hatred of others. A good deal of time should be spent with mutants hiding their powers from others or losing control of them (man v. self).

The villain of this movie should be bigotry. That's what makes the X-Men interesting. Just about every comic opens with the words "protecting a world that hates and fears them." The X-Men are a minority that often protects the majority, many of whom want nothing more than to see them dead. The story should focus on anti-mutant groups like the Friends of Humanity, the Humanity NOW! Coalition, or the Purifers. That puts the overarcing theme in the "man v. nature" camp.

For specific things to hit (man v. man), build up the Sentinel program for your big third-act fight scene and Bolivar Trask as the human face of the project. Include other notable public figures like Sen. Robert Kelly, FoH leader Graydon Creed, and Security Advisor Henry Peter Gyrich pushing the project a lot. Be sure to show different motivations for racist behaviors. Although some (like Creed) should be unrepentant bigots, others like Kelly and Trask should be somewhat redeemed by the closing credits.

Introduce Magneto as an ally

We have seen enough of Magneto as villain. The previous film sold us on that. Let's see Magneto as hero. Too often in movies when the villain seduces a hero, the audience is rolling their eyes because the villain is not compelling. This was the reaction I had when Magneto seduced Pyro to the dark side in X2... not that it was much of a leap.

In this film, Magneto should come to the mansion for sanctuary. The story could revolve around Xavier's Cerebro technology being stolen and mutants hunted with it (leading up to the Sentinels). Magneto could have been captured by the government and experimented on (i.e. Weapon-X) forcing the X-Men to rescue him or maybe he just shows up at the front door when things get rough.

If the Avengers films haven't licensed them already, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch could come with him. While Xavier would preach patience and acceptance, Magneto would argue the opposite... that the world is their to inherit and they should not wait for the humans to destroy it. Like any idealist with power, he wants to remake the world in his image... and I imagine many of the X-Men would see that as a good thing... and so should the audience.

If the audience doesn't want Magneto to win, at least a little bit, you didn't do Magneto right.

Setup sequels

If I haven't made the case clear by now, all of these actions are meant to focus the plot in part one of what will doubtless be at least three parts in a new trilogy. By excluding certain elements and focusing on others, it creates a better foundation for future films. Developing Scott and Jean's relationship in the first movie will make it so much more interesting when Wolverine comes between them in the sequel. Similarly, making the audience love Magneto in the first movie will help them to hate him later on.

So maybe the second movie would introduce the Brotherhood of Mutants. You could adapt the Mutant Massacre with the Weapon-X story. Begin with the X-Men discovering the Morlocks after the Weapon-X program sent in their killers to wipe them out The killers are lead by Wolverine who is captured by the X-Men and rehabilitated by Xavier and Jean. The X-Men are then divided between searching for Weapon-X headquarters and providing care to the Morlocks. As Magneto tends to the Morlocks, they and a few sympathetic X-Men form the Brotherhood of Mutants.

And start planning for the third movie. If you are going to do the Phoenix Saga again, maybe you should think about making Apocalypse the villain in the third so that you have a worthy villain. If you do that, you might want to lay some groundwork with Mr. Sinister and/or the Hellfire Club. Maybe an entire movie based on Days of Future Past. The point is: think ahead and plan on doing something different in the future.

What the FUCK is a motion comic?

Because this looks like a cartoon to me:

Finally, comics without the trouble of reading!

Comic books do not possess time or sound. It is the limitations of the medium as much as the attributes that define it. This is a cartoon based on a comic.

On a tangentially related note, the new Iron Man: Armored Adventures cartoon is actually really good, despite the made-for-TV CGI and teenage Tony Stark. And they don't call it a "motion comic."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Top Ten Failed Characters from the X-Men Movies

Despite being a huge X-Men fan (or perhaps because of it), the X-Men movies have been a pretty big disappointment. Sure, they got some stuff right. Patrick Stewart made a great Xavier (although his dialog could use a bit more substance) and they did a great job turning Hugh Jackman into Wolverine, but other than these two who receive the majority of screen time, the rest of the cast is pretty weak. It might be the actors, the makeup, or the script, but here are the top ten failed characters from the X-Men movies.

10. Lady Deathstrike

One things that comes from studying film (and particularly screenwriting) is that you know how the sausage is made. You can see when something was included as a marketing decision rather than for the merits of the story. In X2, Lady Deathstrike was included for a third-act fight scene for Wolverine. The scene climaxes with a needlessly brutal death... as is customary for the third-act fight scene. Granted, Deathstrike was never the most developed character. She had a romance with Logan in the pre-Weapon X days. Her father was involved in the Weapon X experiment and Logan killed her in a rage when he escaped, so Lady Deathstrike turned herself into a weapon to take her revenge. It is very much a samurai story. However ,none of this was used in the movie; she was merely Stryker's brainwashed bodyguard.

9. Rogue

Her name is Rogue, not Wallflower. Is there anything in Anna Paquin's character that would suggest the name Rogue? No. She just runs away and adopts a weird name. Non-fans love Rogue because she has a compelling power, but they don't care about her personality. This is someone who started off as a villain and had to redeem herself with the X-Men. Of course, you wouldn't know this from the movies. The movie named Rogue "Marie" which the comics then echoed by calling her "Anna Marie" (presumably the Anna is a nod to the actress), but it just reminds me of how crappy her character was. I like that she has a name now, but I don't like where it came from.

8. Magneto

I have nothing against Ian McKellen. He is a great actor, he was fantastic as Gandalf, and he was great in Bryan Singer's previous film, Apt Pupil. That said, I don't think he made for a good Magneto. Partly it was the script, but McKellen isn't the charismatic figure that Magneto is in the comics. The comic book Magneto has the build of a dashing hero. He is every bit as inspiring and heroic as Professor X... maybe more so. That is what makes him such a compelling figure. The difference between Magneto and the X-Men is small but crucial. He shouldn't be hatching mad schemes to turn world leaders into mutants by killing a young mutant. He should be trying to build a mutant utopia though intelligent hard work and determination. He makes such a great villain because he believes he is a hero.

7. Cyclops

In the movies, Scott was pretty much the butt of Wolverine's jokes. His secondary role served as a romantic counterpoint for Jean Grey. And that was it. But the X-Men is really about Cyclops. Wolverine may be Han Solo, but Cyclops is Luke Skywalker. His mutant power serves as a metaphor for all mutants: powerful and dangerous. The self-control he shows is representative of the X-Men's philosophy of self-responsibility and self-actualization. He isn't going to go up to Wolverine and say "Stay away from my woman." James Marsden's Cyclops reminded me of Tom Cruise in... everything he's done, but Scott in the comics is a more serious and substantial person than that... which is why Wolverine slowly grows to respect him.

6. Sabretooth

Not many people get Sabretooth. They see him as a weaker version of Wolverine. That's why they cast the wrestler Tyler Mane in the first movie. Like Lady Deathstrike, he didn't need to act. He just needed to be a good third-act fight scene for Hugh Jackman. (BTW, is there anything more cheesy Hollywood than fighting on top of the Statue of Liberty?) Liev Schriver was better in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but he still didn't quite embody the horror of this character.

Sabretooth is Hannibal Lecter with the strength and temper of Mike Tyson. He is a sadist and a psychopath. He lives to cause others pain and none more than Wolverine. He has no agenda other than causing human suffering.

5. Deadpool

Wow. Where to start. One, Ryan Reynolds wasn't very funny in Wolverine. Maybe he will be with the right script in his own movie, but I probably would have gone more with someone like Alan Tudyk. Two, could you have come up with a stupider ending? I think we have stumbled on a carnal sin of action films and comic book films in particular: THE THIRD ACT VILLAIN! They just threw a bunch of powers into one character and CGI'd the fuck out of it.

4. Beast

Another character that a lot of people don't seem to get. Beast isn't stuffy. He isn't an uptight intellectual, he is an arm chair intellectual. He is an NPR listening, Shakespeare reading liberal scientist, but I bet you he also loves George Carlin, Gorillaz, Robot Chicken, video games... He is like Kevin Smith only he accentuates his intellectualism instead of hiding it. Also, they need to invest in some good CGI if they want to capture the cool movements of Beast.

3. Mystique

I know that, as a guy, complaining about a naked model makes me gay, but I have the internet for looking at naked women. I don't need gratuitous cheesecake especially when it undermines the character. That said, Mystique should be sexy, but I would have chosen Lara Flynn Boyle. The role requires a seductress, not a model. Mystique is like a Bond villain with shapeshifting powers. She should know how to fight, but she shouldn't do ridiculous flips while fighting Wolverine barehanded. She isn't that good. Her strength is her intellect. She plans ahead, disorients her victims, and when necessary, uses a gun to take them from a distance. In the end, she should always have the upper hand.

2. Storm

Sorry, Halle, but you know that you are just lucky that you didn't make number one on this list. The accent was bad. The hair got better, but you just weren't right for the role. Did the casting call say "black female?" Ororo is supposed to be a tall, strong, curvaceous woman. She is supposed to be exotic, wise, and uninhibited. In other words, she is supposed to be a far more complex person that these movies were willing to portray. Halle Berry fails completely to bring to life the character of the comics, but I think at least 50% of the blame can go to the scripts. "What happens when a toad is struck by lightning?" You lose all respect from the audience, that's what.

1. William Stryker

X2 is considered by most to be the best movie, but I can't help but compare it to possibly the best X-Men comic: God Loves, Man Kills. This was the basis for the movie, but in the comic, he was an Evangelical preacher. Considering how supposedly liberal Hollywood is, this was a pretty cowardly, conservative move. Despite this, he was accused of being both an anti-military and anti-Islamic representation by separate nutjob groups. As a military man who wants to destroy mutants, the symbolism is lost. Religion might not be something you want to talk about in a commercial work, but it is a major source of bigotry and the studio completely whitewashed that to make a profit. Singer, if you want to play up the gay angle on the X-Men, I think we can agree that there are no rogue military operatives trying to wipe out the gays, but Evangelical preachers? That's what they do every day!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Life with solutions

I know this is fairly obvious, but it would be nice if life had solutions... if it were possible to find what you need to make you feel better when you need it.

Really, we are such simple creatures, however complex our problems might be. There is no depression I have that is so deep that it couldn't be cured by a bevy of attentive, nubile young women in their underwear.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Best and Worst X-Men Creators

Recently I've been over on Wikipedia reading or editing things about comic book history and continuity. The practice has helped give me a better understanding of the publication history of the comics, particularly which creators contributed what and when.

Since I've read pretty much every X-Men comic, I now present my somewhat subjective list of the best and worst X-Men creators


5. Joss Whedon (Astonishing X-Men #1-24, Giant-Sized #1)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon made his mainstream comic debut with Astonishing X-Men. This twenty-five issue series followed the events of Grant Morrison's New X-Men and was its natural successor. The story mainly focused on the relationships of Scott and Emma as well as Kitty and Piotr. The subject matter ranged from alien prophecies to a sentient and vindictive Danger Room and echoed classic Claremont and Byrne stories. The characterization was spot on and the dialog was fantastic, which should be no surprise to Whedon fans. My personal favorite was issue fourteen where Emma Frost tears down Scott Summers of all his emotional insecurities demonstrating a masterful knowledge and understanding of both characters.

4. Scott Lobdell (Uncanny X-Men #289-350, X-Men (Vol. 2) #6-11, 46-69, 110-113, Generation-X #1-28)

A lot of fans would take exception to this, but I think history will prove that Scott Lobdell was one of the best X-Men writers. He had the unenviable role of following Chris Claremont's historic run and I think fans blamed him more for things that other writers or editors were doing. It was the early '90s so editorial abuse was at an all-time high and crossovers were being pushed like crazy... probably slightly worse than things are now. Lobdell likely had to deal with more editorial interference than any writer with constant crossover events like X-Tinction Agenda, Phalanx Covenant, Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught, and Zero Tolerance.

Despite this, Lobdell maintained a five-year run on X-Men, making him second only to Claremont in shear volume of X-Men material produced. On top of which, he put over two years work into starting the teen spin-off title Generation X. His work was followed by Joe Kelly and Steven Seagle, both of whom did a decent job, but it all went downhill from there.

My favorite: Uncanny X-Men #340 "A Son's Pain" featured the death of Iceman's father. Bobby's dad had always been an anti-mutant bigot who fought with Bobby at every chance, but when he finally turned around and stood up for him, those same bigots beat him to death and there was nothing Bobby or the X-Men could do.

3. Grant Morrison (New X-Men #114-154, Annual 2001)

After Kelly and Seagle, X-Men sales remained high, but the stories got worse and more and more difficult to read. The more they tried to fix it, the more broken it ended up looking. After the return of Chris Claremont failed, they need a big name, dynamic writer to reinvigorate the franchise. The Matrix was huge at the time and Marvel wanted the X-Men to "go in that direction" so they hired the guy who claimed The Matrix ripped him off: Grant Morrison.

Morrison abandoned the popular mutant metaphors of the past twenty-five years (race and sexuality) and instead made it about non-conformity. Mutants represented sub-cultures... people with different values and beliefs... people outside the mainstream. He turned Emma Frost into one of the most interesting Marvel characters in the past decade. He introduced Xavier's evil twin sister Cassandra Nova, the brilliant anarchist Quentin Quire, the bizarre and beautiful Stepford Cuckoos, Fantomex and the Weapon Plus program... and much more. Although people often didn't get what he was doing, he breathed new life into the title and writers since have benefited from his odd genius.

2. Stan Lee (Uncanny X-Men #1-19)

But, at the same time, let's not forget the man who started it all. Stan Lee included all of the primary elements of the X-Men in their very first issue. They were the next stage in evolution, the product of radioactive pollution, and they were gathered by Xavier to save and train other mutants to prevent a war between the races. It is beautiful and elegant... perfect for creating an ongoing comic series. In addition, Stan (with artist Jack Kirby) created some of the most enduringly popular characters and elements like Magneto, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Juggernaut, the Sentinels, and the Savage Land. Whatever the others accomplished, it was because Stan built a strong foundation.

1. Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men #96-279, X-Men: God Loves Man Kills, X-Men (Vol. 2) #1-3, New Mutants #1-54, 63, 81, Excalibur #1-34 [mostly], Wolverine (Vol. 1) #1-4, (Vol. 2) 1-8, 10, and more!)

But no one has contributed more to the X-Men than Chris Claremont. He boasts an absurd 16 year run on the best selling comic of all time! Len Wein may have introduced the "all-new, all-different" X-Men, but Chris Claremont breathed life into them. He made us fall in love with Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, and (of course) Wolverine. He wrote the stories that shaped the X-Men including the Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past, God Loves Man Kills, Alpha Flight, Proteus, the Hellfire Club, the Morlocks, the Mutant Massacre, and Inferno. He also launched successful X-Men spin-off titles New Mutants, Excalibur, and Wolverine not to mention the countless one-shots or mini-series he wrote. It is hard to imagine that anyone will break his well deserved record.


5. Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men #381-389, 444-473, X-Men #100-109, X-Treme X-Men #1-46, New Excalibur #1-8, 16-24, Exiles #90-100, New Exiles #1-18, X-Men Forever #1-current, and more!)

Sadly, Chris Claremont left the X-Men in 1991 due to editorial disputes. When he returned in 2000, X-Men fans were delighted... until the comics came out. With all due respect, it was a huge disappointment. Claremont had lost that magic and fans wanted to give him a chance, but each issue was worse than the last. The new villains that Claremont came up with were all impossibly generic and even the characters he had been writing for so long seemed out of character... and distractingly intense. Sensing fan disappointment, Marvel took him off the X-Men titles in less than a year and gave him his own title for fans to read or not as they saw fit. With apparently no sense of subtlety or nuance, it was titled X-Treme X-Men and featured the X-Men as they were never seen before... with designer sunglasses. The title flopped and Chris Claremont has been hovering at the edges of the X-Men world ever since, never let too close to center for fear that he will spoil it again. He can currently be found writing X-Men Forever, a title which imagines an alternate reality where Chris Claremont can keep writing the X-Men from where he left off. If such a thing could be, Chris, nothing would stop me from reading it, but the X-Men didn't get messed up while you were gone. It was always just you.

4. Alan Davis (Uncanny X-Men #366-380 [mostly], X-Men #85-99 [mostly])

After Kelly/Seagle but before the return of Claremont came the work of Alan Davis. Davis is an incredible penciller and wrote the best Excalibur stories, but his work on the X-Men was awful. It started with the Magneto War which was an event book once again made to "fix" things in the most awkward way possible. Then they went to another dimension where Xavier and Wolverine merged into one person, then they went to the past at the Skrull homeworld, and he finished his run with a hastily conceived Apocalypse story based on an obscure line in a much older comic.

3. Joe Casey (Uncanny X-Men #394-409, Annual 2001, X-Men: Children of the Atom)

While Grant Morrison was reinventing the X-Men in New X-Men, Joe Casey was whoring them up in Uncanny. In the aforementioned effort to be more Matrix-like, the characters now wore long leather dusters and sunglasses at night. Their first villain was a poor Tetsuo rip-off and it just went downhill from there. Casey later admitted that he shouldn't have taken the X-Men job, but it was pretty obvious by then.

2. Fabian Nicieza (X-Men #12-45, X-Force #1-43, Cable (Vol. 1) #1-2)

Considering how much I revile this man's work, you can imagine what I must think of the number one on this list. Fabian Nicieza has a name that I just loathe. It isn't racist. I just think anyone whose name is Fabian probably has questionable parentage. But everything of his reads like a gritty, hyperbolic paramilitary wet dream of Tom Clancy's. If you can imagine a Michael Bay remake of Star Wars starring Clive Owen as Luke, it'd probably be pretty close.

1. Chuck Austen (Uncanny X-Men #410-441, New X-Men #155-156)

If you add up all but number 2 on this list, you will notice over one hundred issues of terrible Uncanny X-Men comics (that's almost ten years of failure!), but the worst was from Chuck Austen. Chuck appeared from nowhere to no acclaim and was soon writing Uncanny X-Men and the Avengers. Fans hated his work and widely panned him, with very few defenders who usually admitted to far more failures than successes. His run was just one awful interpretation after another. The worst was a story that revealed Nightcrawler's father as being an actual demon. Fortunately, so few people read this run that it is easy to pretend it never happened.


Since it is no fun to look at mediocre art and talk about mediocre artists, I'm simply going with the ten best artists here.

10. John Bolton (Classic X-Men [back-up stories] #1-29, 31-35)

When they started reprinting old X-Men comics as Classic X-Men, the stories were about ten pages shorter than what was then the modern standard. In order to sell the comics at full price without leaving the reader short changed, they wrote new stories set in the past written by Chris Claremont and Ann Noccenti. The stories were mostly drawn by John Bolton who conveyed a much softer and emotional interpretation of the characters. Although these stories are rarely collected, they are some of the best and well remembered for adding depth to events like Logan falling for Jean Grey or Nightcrawler "coming out" as a mutant.

9. Dave Cockrum (Giant-Sized X-Men #1, Uncanny X-Men #94-105, 107, 145-164)

Dave Cockrum is largely responsible for the visual styles that came to define many of the X-Men. In particular, he was a co-creator of Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler. His style added a depth and careful composition. The artist was particularly revered as a cover artist (due to his compositions) and costume designer for his simple, elegant designs. While all the X-Men have changed their costumes at one time or another, they usually end up going back to Cockrum's design at some point.

8. Neal Adams (Uncanny X-Men #56-63, 65)

Although Neal Adam's arrival on the X-Men wasn't enough to save it from cancellation, the sharp rise of sales made them bring it back and within a few short years, it would be their highest selling title. In my book, this makes Neal Adams' run on the X-Men one of the best failures in comic history. His style influenced his greatest successors on the title, particularly John Byrne, Jim Lee, and Art Adams.

7. Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men #312-350 [mostly])

Although mostly a forgotten name now, in the mid-nineties, Joe Madureira's work on the X-Men quickly made him into the most popular artist in comic books. Although his style was referred to as "anime-style" at the time, I've always seen it as a cartoonish style more reminiscent of American animation like classic Disney and Warner Brothers. The youthful, energetic style conveys emotion and action simultaneously and the more exaggerated aspects really keep them in a realm of child-like fantasy that makes his interpretation so appealing and approachable. Sadly, Joe Mad's career didn't last long after the X-Men. Success brought money and soon he could earn more as a graphic artist outside of the industry. He has recently returned to comics with... disappointing results.

6. Greg Land (Phoenix: Endsong #1-5, Uncanny X-Men #500-503, 508-511, 515-517)

Simply put, Greg Land is a phenomenal artist. His photo-realistic drawings are so rich they make you want to reach through the page... and if you didn't have sexual fantasies about comic characters before, you will now. Land draws gorgeous men and women (okay, mostly women) on pretty much every page.

5. Salvador Larroca (X-Treme X-Men #1-24, Ann. 1, X-Men #155-179, 182-187, Uncanny X-Men #387-392, 439-443, 487-492, Ultimate X-Men #88-93, Ann. 2)

If you read X-Treme X-Men, you are either a Claremont fanatic, a masochist, or you fell in love with the gorgeous work of Salvador Larroca. Whatever you want, Larroca can deliver. Realism? Sure. Kinetic intensity? No problem. Sexy? Over the top or subtle? Claremont's X-Men were x-tremely ridiculous like a Sublime cover band or Mountain Dew commercial, but Larroca made them so beautiful that you could buy them for the art alone. Yet when he worked with the far more serious and complex Ed Brubaker, Larocca delivers emotionally expressive faces and horror-style mood setting.

4. Andy/Adam Kubert (Andy: X-Men 1992-1996, Ultimate X-Men #5-6, 50-53, Adam: X-Men 1998-1999, Uncanny X-Men 1999-2000, Ultimate X-Men #1-33 [mostly])

I grouped these two together because honestly, I have trouble telling them apart. Since they are brothers and they were taught by their father (a master comic artist himself), it makes sense that they would have very similar styles. Like Larroca, they work well with a wide variety of writers and styles, but like Madureira, they have their own expressive, animated quality that makes their work come alive. To them, every character has their own face and personality. You won't need them in costume using their powers to tell who is who and that takes real craft.

3. John Cassaday (Astonishing X-Men #1-24, Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men #1)

What can I say about John Cassaday? He has the photorealistic ability of Greg Land, but his images have such greater emotional resonance. I don't know if it is his juxtaposition, flow, or expressions, but his characters are alive and vibrant. While Land's characters can seem like manikins with powers, John Cassaday's are complex emotional people. Of course, it didn't hurt that Cassaday was drawing to the script of Joss Whedon. Their cinematic collaboration makes it obvious that the X-Men movies aren't half as good as their source material.

2. John Byrne (Uncanny X-Men #108-143)

Of all the artists on this list, I don't think any have had a bigger impact than John Byrne. Along with Chris Claremont, he really helped develop the X-Men in their formative years. He was a fantastic storyteller who contributed some great ideas like Alpha Flight, Kitty Pryde, and Days of Future Past. His characters are vibrant, alive, and emotionally powerful. Every artist since has been judged by Byrne's yard stick.

1. Jim Lee (Uncanny X-Men #248, 256-258, 267-277, X-Men #1-11)

But for me, Jim Lee is the quintessential X-Men artist. Lee showed up at the other end of Claremont's run, making sure that the writer quit while looking his best. Lee completely redesigned the characters using elements from all different eras. But what can I really say about Jim Lee that I haven't said of the others? He was the John Byrne of his time just as John Cassaday is the Jim Lee of this one.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day dream 2

I give a great deal of thought to destroying my computer. It's not that it is a bad computer, it's just that I hate my job.

I imagine it in detail, fantasizing almost sexually of the great pleasure I would derive from destroying it.

It begins with a punch straight to the center of the monitor.

Direct and to the point.

The loud crack of the screen drowns out the sound of the base scraping across the desk.

Cracks erupt across the screen fracturing the smooth display and draining the crystal pixels of their strange fluid creating a rainbow pattern.

Blood drips from my knuckles, but I hold it against the screen with its sharp angles and electrical currency.

I savor the moment... holding on to it for as long as possible...

... knowing that it won't change a damn thing.

Avatar vs District 9

Last night I realized something interesting... that two of the biggest sci-fi films of last year were actually very similar. Although all of the attention has been on Avatar with its grossly ridiculous budget and splashy 3D effects, District 9 came first with an edgier approach to the same basic theme, so I thought I might spend a moment to compare the two.


District 9 features Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat in charge of facilitating the relocation program so that the local government can steal the technology from the aliens (referred to as "prawns"). The turning point in the story comes when Wikus is exposed to a biological contaminant that slowly transforms him into one of the aliens at which point he is treated as one of them thereby teaching him empathy.

Avatar features Jake Sully, a soldier assigned to infiltrate the native Navi so that the invading military can steal unobtanium from the aliens. The turning point in the story comes when Jake gets his own avatar Navi body and joins a tribe of aliens thereby adopting their culture, upon which point he is treated as the enemy by his military brethren.

While Jake Sully is a soldier trained not to consider the morality of his actions, Wikus is a pencil pusher which I found made him much more identifiable. He isn't motivated by a military command structure. He is just doing a job that someone else would do if he refused. He thinks that because he doesn't make policy or hold a gun, he isn't responsible, but he is complicit.


Perhaps the biggest difference between the two films, District 9 is set in Johannesburg in the modern day. The titular location is somewhat of a refugee camp that calls into mind the conditions of a third-world country with an occupied military presence. No doubt that by having the film take place in South Africa, it calls up feelings regarding apartheid and colonialism.

On the other hand, Avatar takes place in an exotic, lush jungle on an alien world where humans are actually the aliens. This is probably the greatest difference between the two with Avatar offering an atmosphere of escapist fantasy while District 9 offers a dark, oppressive, and hostile environment.

Avatar's fantasy environment is meant to be immersive and appealing. It is a mythic return to nature, joy, and childishness. On the other hand, District 9 is meant to evoke sympathy by showing harsh conditions that are more or less comparable to many places in the world today. While Avatar is an escapist adventure, District 9 is the exact opposite. It doesn't want to relieve you; it wants you to feel bad.


Both movies have a very similar theme about exploiting people who are different because they have something you want. Unfortunately, I think Avatar's approach is so shallow that I doubt even a child could walk away taking this message to heart. The message seems forced and tacked on as if to imply that this is somehow deeper and more meaningful than just a 3D spectacular when it really isn't... at least, no more than Star Wars can be seen as a statement on imperialism and colonialism.

District 9 is a far more adult film that creates a problematic situation and offers no simple resolution. The protagonist isn't so much a hero as a victim of circumstance. Although the audience is encouraged not to like him in the beginning, we grow to like him not because he makes a cathartic lifestyle change (like Jake Sully did), but because his situation is so godawful that you have to feel sorry for him. At the end of the movie, he is only barely more likable than at the beginning... yet as a spectator, I found him a much more enjoyable protagonist.


District 9 uses a handicam-style to create a documentary sense of realism. This is reinforced by cut scenes showing direct interviews with the characters. Although their actions are abhorant, their behavior is normalized as routine which this approach emphasizes.

Avatar is what I would call a gimmick film. That may sound harsh, but to be fair, I consider The Wizard of Oz and The Matrix to be gimmick films as well. This is a film that demonstrates the capabilities of new technology and showcases it to a mass audience. Because it is pioneering a new style, it is often heavy handed in its approach and lacking development in other critical areas.

That said, the effect is stunning. The use of 3D in Avatar bordered on over the top without really crossing the line. The jungle offered some great opportunities to make the effect truly immersive and I can't say that I had any issues technically or aesthetically, but while District 9's visual style reinforced the central theme, Avatar's theme was really secondary to the visual style and certain elements (like the floating islands) were clearly included to showcase the technology rather than to strengthen the story.


District 9 - $30 million
Avatar - $237 million

Revenue to date
District 9 - $200 million
Avatar - $2.6 billion


I tend to judge movies by something I call "the walkaway effect." This is the amount of time the film stays with me after watching it. I remember when I saw American Beauty with a friend... we had left the theater and were driving away before we said a word. That is the walkaway effect. The film affected us both so much that we weren't inclined to speak until we could get our thoughts together.

I had a similar effect when I walked out of District 9. Honestly, I didn't know whether I liked it or not (in retrospect, I did) but it stuck with me for days. I kept thinking about the story, the effects, and how much I both hated and enjoyed Wikus at the same time. When I walked out of Avatar, we made a couple jokes and I didn't think about it for the rest of the night... when I did, it was only to consider how 3D effects might be used in other films.


I guess my point is that although both these movies opened to great acclaim and feature almost the EXACT same theme, Avatar made over ten times as much money (to date). Although both were nominated for Best Picture and neither won, Avatar was considered a major contender while District 9 wasn't.

Was it the effects? Was it the Disney-like approach to animism and environmentalism? Or was it just that people prefer escapism to realism?

I don't know, but I do know which one I liked more.

Words and voices


Words words words.

I get so sick of them.

Incomplete, misleading, substanceless...

Incredibly versatile.

Able to form any argument regardless of reason.

But I like voices.

Lyrical tones unique as fingerprints.

Rhythm, cadence, pitch, and emphasis say more about a person than the structure of their words.


It's my own voice that echos ceaselessly in my head.

Grown seasick upon my own rhythms.

Finishing my own thoughts before I have them.

I wonder... is all life in service to a voice?

Do we find meaning in this?

The voice of family... the voice of God or country... our own voice, if we find it so entertaining.

I do not.

For all the good words I surround myself with, my life lacks any voice other than my own.

It isn't enough.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The medium is the message

With all the hype surrounding Apple's new iPad, the comic industry is get a big, collective erection. One of the biggest limiting factors in this industry has long been the distribution method.


Originally, the industry was based on distributing low-quality printings to the same places that carry magazines. As demand grew for back issues, this created a specialty market resulting in comic book stores popping up all over in the eighties. This, in turn, created new marketing opportunities... particularly to sell ancillary merchandise that could not be sold on the magazine rack... like posters, statues, or T-shirts.

A company called Diamond Comic Distributors quickly dominated distribution and pushed out most of the competition (including the second largest distributor, Bud Plant Inc, located in my little home town... which currently doesn't even have a comic store). In 1997, the US Department of Justice investigated the company for antitrust violations. Although they were found to enjoy a monopoly in comic distribution, they were somehow not penalized because they don't enjoy a monopoly on distributing all books.

How they ever got that far into the investigation without realizing this is beyond me. Your tax dollars at work!

In the late eighties and early nineties with the industry enjoying some hard earned artificial inflation due to a suspect spectator's market, comic books were being collected in TPBs (trade paperbacks). The advantage of this format was that it collected older material that was often difficult to find or prohibitively expensive. It also moved the comic collection from cardboard boxes to bookshelves.


This brings us to today and it is a very interesting time. Despite the success of ancillary marketing (read: comic-based films), comic book stores continue to decline due to an ever dwindling audience. It seems that the people reading comics now are the same people who were reading them before... they are just paying more now.

There has been a lot of talk about ending single issue distribution and concentrating on graphic novels. (Vocab break - A TPB is a collection of individual issues, usually between six and twelve. A graphic novel is a more book-like format, but was originally intended for this format, unlike a TPB.) In fact, DC is trying this approach out with their upcoming Superman: Earth One and Batman: Earth One titles. The advantage of this format is that the anxious reader can follow the story from start to finish without waiting for individual issues to be released. Also, the artists are not limited to telling a 22-page arc within each issue. Chapter lengths may be non-standard.

And as I said in my introduction, the comic industry is stoked about the iPad and hopes that they can model comic book distribution in the same way iTunes distributes music. This would allow them to cut out printing costs and discounts to retailers, so its great for them... although I wonder if their contracts with the artists would entitle them to royalties. Since the comic industry doesn't have a union, this seems unlikely.


For years now I have been angry at this industry for its blatant exploitation of their reader-based, often to the detriment of their stories and characters. But my biggest current complaint is with the way that they try to sell the customer the same thing multiple times. Naturally, the most abused victims of this practice tends to be the most loyal reader.

I will use DC's All-Star Superman and Batman: Hush as examples, but Marvel is no less guilty. These are two storylines meant to be read as a twelve issue arc. Both were extremely popular and sold extremely well.

Oct 2002 - Batman #608 begins the Hush storyarc
May 2003 - Batman: Hush Vol. 1 (hardcover)
Nov 2003 - Batman #619 ends the Hush storyarc
Jan 2004 - Vol. 2 (hardcover)
Aug 2004 - Vol. 1 (paperback)
Nov 2004 - Vol. 2 (paperback)
Oct 2005 - Absolute Batman: Hush
Aug 2009 - Batman: Hush (paperback) - complete

Jan 2006 - All-Star Superman #1 is released.
April 2007 - All-Star Superman Vol. 1 (hardcover)
Sep 2008 - All-Star Superman Vol. 1 (paperback)
Oct 2008 - All-Star Superman #12 (the final issue) is released.
Feb 2009 - All-Star Superman Vol. 2 (hardcover)
Feb 2010 - All-Star Superman Vol. 2 (paperback)
Oct 2010 - Absolute All-Star Superman

As you can see, if you wanted a book collecting the entire series of Batman: Hush at a reasonable price, you would have to wait almost six years! In the meantime, no indication was given that such a collection would ever exist.

So let's say that you are a comic fan. You purchased the Batman: Hush series when it came out for $2.25 per issue for a total cost of $27 spread out over a year. If you don't want to ruin your comics, but like to lend them to your friends, you probably want a TPB... plus the gorgeous art of Jim Lee warrants this kind of format. You can buy the hardcover release almost a year later, but since it only collects half the story, it isn't much of a convenience. Because of the hardcover, the price is marked up to $20. The paperback would sell for $15, but unless you are a smart consumer, you wouldn't know that; besides, you have to wait almost another year for that to come out. If you want its matching companion, wait almost another year.

But let's say you are holding out for the COMPLETE collection because you figure that you are buying a TPB so that you can just hold one volume in your hands instead of multiple. For you, they release Absolute Batman: Hush (now two years after the series end). This $100 massive, over-sized, hardcover collected edition is only for the most dedicated of readers and frankly not worth the cost, despite Jim Lee's art work. If you are precognitive, maybe you'll just wait another four years for them to finally release the collected edition you wanted in the first place: one book collecting the entire story in paperback at a fair price, if you consider $30 fair (which is equal to the original TPBs but more than the original issues or hardcover editions).

So if you are the ideal demographic (a real comic nerd), you bought the original issues when they came out because you wanted to read the story when it was released and you were afraid that it might be spoiled for you if you waited. You then purchased both hardcover editions to grace your bookshelf, but because they were rushed into production, the book is full of printing errors making it more difficult to read then your original issues. When the Absolute edition came out at $75, you snapped it up and sold your old hardcovers at the used bookstore. This means that you spent a total of... $132 (discounting $10 from the used bookstore) for a story worth $27. As you can see, they have more or less repeated this pattern for All-Star Superman and Marvel does the same thing.

Another recent scam is to fill a book with extra content and increase the price to compensate. For example, I recently purchased Uncanny X-Men: Manifest Destiny Vol. 1 for $25 featuring a four-issue turning point for the X-Men. Normally, a four issue TPB would run about $10, but the publisher "graciously" saw fit to add stories created by other writers and artists that were included in other titles. This means that I am buying things I don't want because I like my comics on my bookshelf instead of in my closet.


Many comic readers have stopped buying single issues all together and only purchase trade paperbacks. Because it can take such a ridiculously long time to get a decent collected edition (and because they don't want to spend so much money on something they haven't read), many have taken to torrenting (or pirating) comic books. This way they can read the story before they buy.

Publishers (like all entertainment industry execs) have done their best to show how disgusted they are by pirating and have equated those who download comics as nothing more than thieves. Certainly, they figure that anything they do to artificially raise sales is just good business, but what their audience does to save money is thievery. Naturally, the artists (normally bastions of social justice) have largely been quiet on this issue because anything that increases sales increases royalties.

Here is a bit of free advice, guys. If you are going to do everything possible to exploit someone, you shouldn't be surprised when they resort to cheating.


Lately, however, there have been a lot of creative efforts to repackage comics to appeal to a new audience. In my opinion, the best efforts have been made by releasing smaller, but thicker books. This cuts down on printing cost while offering the reader considerably more story. Great examples of this include indy comics Strangers in Paradise, Sin City, and Bone. Dark Horse has also made use of the Omnibus format to repackage material that they have a lot of and sell it to an audience that might not normally be interested.

DC's oversized Absolute editions are sexy as all get out, but the price tag is a bit ridiculous. The first volumes retailed at $50 each (which I think is fair), but later volumes increased to $75 and even $100. These large pages are great for comics with particularly beautiful art, but few can justify such a hefty price tag.

On the other hand, Marvel's Omnibus editions are giant-sized hardcovers for a hefty $100 price tag, but they don't just give you bigger pages, they give you more story... generally ranging from 24 issues to 30. By comparison, Absolute editions generally range from six to twelve issues. Granted, the Absolute editions have bigger pages, but it still isn't worth it.


Marvel and DC are unfortunately not as generous when collecting old material. DC is collecting their original superhero adventures from the golden and silver ages using their Chronicles line. Currently featuring the earliest adventures of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Wonder Woman at roughly $15 for 160 pages. This is roughly equal to new collected editions.

Marvel is releasing similar volumes featuring their most popular characters in their original adventures under the Marvel Masterworks line. These retail for $25 for roughly 270 issues... making it roughly the same deal.

Considering the low cost of overhead and the generally poor quality of entertainment you will gain from reading most of these stories, I really think these companies could have offered a better deal. By making older comics available at discounted prices, it would help to expose readers to the classic history of your characters thereby promoting a greater base of readers.


Marvel and DC's response to interest in older comics has largely been to release large, cheap, black and white editions collecting their classic material. Marvel's Essential line started this trend and DC responded with their Showcase line. Both volumes retail for roughly $18 to collect about 30 issues. While the price is good, the stories lose so much without color. Back in the day, these books sold almost entirely based on the aesthetic appeal of the pop art. The bold use of color matches the ridiculousness of the plot and makes the book fun.

All of this is to say that the comic companies have created their own problems. If they would stick to serving their customer instead of their stockholders, maybe they would be able to maintain customer loyalty. Instead, they are taking advantage of their most loyal customers who are becoming fewer and far between. It doesn't matter if you can find a new method of distribution. It is your philosophy that needs to change.