Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hoopla! - Episode 12: Death, where is thy sting?

Hello and welcome to Hoopla!, the comic-book review column that redefines snazzy. This week we're going to have some comic-book reviews, which seems oddly fitting, given that this is a comic-book review column. We'll also have the Link of the Week, a time-honored tradition dating back to last week, and of course we'll feature a few pictures that have no apparent connection to anything I'm talking about.

Like this:

And now, a behind-the scenes look at the making of Hoopla!

As this is a weekly column, I work on it throughout the week, doing a bit here, a bit there, and so on. Lots of bits, you see. That's what I'm saying.

So, on Monday of this week I decided to do a piece about deaths in comic-books and to focus on what then seemed like the biggest death event of recent days, the (almost) death of Aunt May.


Well, on Wednesday, everything I'd just written about Aunt May seemed sort of... beside the point, if you will, because of the death of Captain America and the extensive coverage throughout the news (and entertainment) media.

Another man, faced with the obsolete nature of that initial column, might have deleted it and run a more relevant one.

I am not another man, though. I am this one.

So, we're going to open with Monday's column about the (almost) death of Aunt May. The Aunt May-ness of it may no longer be topical, but the main thrust of the thing is, I think.

And besides, I hate rewriting my column.


It was recently revealed (SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!) that a key character from The Amazing Spider-Man is going to (HEY... I WASN'T FINISHED YET.) Uh... a major character from The Amazing Spider-Man is going to die!!!


And that character is (LAST WARNING!!!) Aunt May.


I was thinking about this big announcement and trying to figure out if I care at all. And the answer is no, I don't. And it got me thinking about all the recent deaths in comics lately and why writers/editors decide to do that. And I concluded that there are a couple of potentially legitimate reasons for killing off a character and then a third, not so potentially legitimate reason...

1) To show that you're not afraid to do it, thereby raising the stakes in future episodes.

Back before super-hero deaths were common, killing one off was big news. With the death of Gwen Stacy, for example, Marvel established that they weren't afraid to kill off a major character. So, that theoretically makes future stories more exciting.

A really good example of this being done well is on the TV show 24. At the end of the first season, they very abruptly killed off a character who, up until that point, the audience assumed would come out of the whole thing okay. This, I think, was very smart. From that point on, the makers of 24 have been very ready to kill off major characters without warning and it definitely raises the stakes because you know that no one, with the probable exception of Jack Bauer, is safe.

This adds a lot of suspense. Which, for a show like 24, is pretty darn important.

The first death of Jean Grey also served this purpose. Not so much the next several deaths of Jean Grey.

The death of Barry Allen would be another good example of this.

2) The death of the character helps the main character to develop in an interesting way, thereby opening up the story.

Think of the death of Obi One Konobi (I don't know how the hell to spell his name... sue me.) His death served a definite purpose in that it forces Luke Skywalker to mature. An even better example would be the death of Buffy's mom in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. By killing off that one character, the writers completely altered Buffy's relationship to Dawn and to Giles, and it really altered the whole tone of the show. Suddenly, Buffy had responsibilities. Suddenly, she was an adult. And that moved the whole show in a new direction.

Again, I'd argue that the death of Barry Allen also fits into this category. Sure, it didn't do much to develop Barry's character, but his absence opened up a lot of possibilities for the DC universe. Not only did it allow Wally West to take his place but it also emphasized the sense that these identities are legacies and that the understudy will, in time, replace the lead.

3) Shock value. This is the third, not so legitimate reason.

Geoff Johns looooves to kill off minor DC characters because, presumably, he thinks it's shocking and will get readers all revved up. These are characters whose deaths serve no real purpose within the story. They happen and then are immediately forgotten in most cases.

I find this boring.

The death of Blue Beetle definitely fits this category.

"Oh, look! We just showed Blue Beetle's brains being blown out of his head! Did we... shock you???"

The death of Blue Beetle did not open up any storylines. Sure, there's a new Blue Beetle, but you could have accomplished that just as easily without killing Ted Kord. You could have had Kord retire. Or become a mentor to the new guy. Or disappear on a mysterious mission that no one knows about. Or something.

Anyway, the point is that Aunt May's upcoming death is an attempt to shock the audience and temporarily increase sales.

And it's boring.

For one thing, they've already done this. Aunt May died in Amazing Spider-Man #400. It was actually a pretty good story. Very nicely done.

There was a touching scene right before her death when Aunt May revealed that she knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man and she accepted that part of his life.

Good stuff.

Unfortunately, the impact of that story was somewhat diminished when, years later, it was revealed that Aunt May had not actually died in that story.

The Editorial Powers-That-Be concluded that killing off Aunt May was a dumb move and so they brought her back by explaining that the woman who had actually died in Spider-Man's arms was an elderly actress who had been genetically clone-modified to perfectly resemble Aunt May and had been trained to act just like her and given Aunt May classes where she learned all the stuff that the real Aunt May would have known and... uh... and it was all a part of some master plan by the Green Goblin (who was also dead) to... uh... to make Peter Parker think that this actress was... see, she looked just like Aunt May and she... she was an actress. So, then when Aunt May died, it was really not her dying. It was someone else. Who looked exactly like her. And had been trained to pretend that she was Aunt May. Because, uh...

Because the Green Goblin is evil!!! And that's all you need to know!!!


Now she's been back for a while and the Editorial Powers-That-Be have apparently decided that she's not that much fun alive, either. So, they're going to kill her off again.

Hey, why not?

Then Spider-Man can be all broody and dark.

(Quite literally. He's going to wear the black costume again. Sort of like Morrissey.

"I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside")

(Side note: Wouldn't it be awesome if Peter Parker retired and Morrissey suddenly appeared in the comic and was all like "There must be a Spider-Man!" and became the new Spider-Man. And he could, y'know, be sort of depressing about it. He could be fighting crime and singing "Heaven knows I'm miserable now..."

I'd buy a series about Morrissey swinging around dressed like Spider-Man. Wouldn't you?)

But, anyway, I digress...

Uh, what were we talking about? Oh, yeah. (SPOILER!!!) Aunt May's death.

Yeah, whatever.

Give it a few years and we'll find out that it was an actress who had been genetically altered to look like the real Aunt May. Or it'll turn out that moments before dying, Aunt May was poking at a glitch in the time-space continuum and so travelled to the future before dying and is acting as the warden of Tony Stark's Negative Zone Space Prison. Or she'll be the Winter Soldier. Or some damn thing.

But her death serves no real purpose beyond shock value. I don't see as one more death in Spider-Man's life is going to make any real difference at this point. He's pretty much maxed out on feeling guilty for stuff. I think Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy pretty well covered that area.

So, it's not like there are a lot of story possibilities that open up once you remove Aunt May from the equation.

On the other hand, I'm not at all outraged by her (almost) death because it's not like her presence was all that interesting either. So, nothing has been gained, but nothing has really been lost.

Poor Aunt May. I know she wouldn't speak this way about me if the roles were reversed.


Jump forward two days...


Well, don't I look silly now. Here I am, doing a column about the death of Aunt May and then--Wham!!!-- that news becomes totally obsolete because the big death-y news is the death of Captain America.

And, to make matter worse, I just learned that Aunt May isn't officially dead yet. She's "hanging on by a thread."

Ah, the proverbial thread. Aunt May, she knows it well...

So, I think that there are two ways we can interpret this latest development:

1) I'm really in tune with the zeitgeist (is that how you use that word?) and so wrote an article about death in comics two days before it became a huge topic. Conclusion: I rock!

2) I just spent hours writing the wrong article. Conclusion: I suck!

Anyway, I could tell you what I think about Captain America's death and what it means to the future of our country, but that whole topic is pretty much done by now. I'm tired of hearing what people think about it. Maybe I'll talk about it in a few weeks, when the news is old. That's the Hoopla! way, after all. For now, suffice it to say that:

1) I thought the actual comic-book (Captain America #25) was very nicely done.

2) I have faith that Ed Brubaker will tell a good story.

3) I do not doubt for a second that Captain America will return to us someday.

Here's an excerpt from an interesting interview with Ed Brubaker over at newsarama.

NRAMA: Playing devil’s advocate here - we've seen Cap dead before. Hell, we've seen him frozen in a block of ice before. There are and will be fans who are doubting this, and asking about dead really being "dead." Thoughts on the doubters, or words of advice for them?

EB: My advice -- Just read the comic if enjoy it, and don't if you don't. Stories are like a ride you go on, and if you don't like the ride, or don't want to see which turn comes next, you should get off, because you aren't in the driver's seat and you aren't steering -- the creators are. Hopefully, more readers than not will like the ride. So I say, take it for what it is, and try not to bring in preconceived notions of how it will or won't go. That's how I try to read my episodic comics. But this constant second-guessing and need to get angry about stuff before they know what's happening that some comic fans have is a waste of their time and energy. And I can't hope to please those kinds of fans. Nothing does, generally, especially not anything big. I can only try to tell a good story and follow my instincts. I'm confident in the story we're telling, and since Cap is one of my favorite Marvel characters since childhood, I wouldn't have killed him if I didn't think there was a great story to tell here.

I interpret that to mean, "Yes, Captain America will be back at some point and we all know it, but please shut up and read the story and stop asking me if he's ever coming back."

Which I'm okay with.

Anyway, let's get on to some comic-book reviews, ja?

Ultimate Spider-Man #106
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley
Published by Marvel Comics

You know that perfect comic-book reading experience where you get totally sucked into the story and forget where you are until the comic is over and you look up and say, "Oh. I just missed my stop on the bus." or "Huh. I'm in a burning building."

Well, that's what happened to me with Ultimate Spider-Man #106. Not the burning building part, but the part about being so totally absorbed.

I love when that happens.

I wasn't even going to pick up #106, which is the first chapter of the "Ultimate Knights" storyline (Daredevil and a bunch of other people try to kill the Kingpin) because I've been kind of bored with Ultimate Spider-Man over the past several years and only pick up the occasional issue.

But I've found that the first chapter of Bendis' stories is usually the one I most enjoy, because in the first chapter there's usually a lot of character-driven stuff. The last issue is almost always my least favorite, because it's almost always a big fight scene. Bendis' fight scenes don't do a thing for me. I like the parts where Peter Parker is in school, dealing with girlfriend problems, etc.

So, for me, #106 was pretty much perfect.

It's got Mary Jane and Peter figuring stuff out together, it's got J. Jonah Jameson being kind of a jerk, a little bit of Aunt May, and a nice soap-opera twist at the end.


It remains to be seen whether or not I'll pick up the rest of the story, but this first chapter was a mighty good buzz.

Thunderbolts #111
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Mike Deodata, Jr.
Published by Marvel Comics

I'm having problems with this series.

I really enjoyed Thunderbolts pre-Warren Ellis, when it was an 'old school' Marvel title. It was colorful and nonsensical and fun.

Now it's more of a dark-edged, dark humor, darkity-dark-dark-dark kind of thing and sales have gone waaaay up, but I'm having a really hard time enjoying it.

The premise, for those of you who haven't picked it up yet, is that the very worst Marvel Universe villians have been recruited by the government to act as their soldiers. So, you have homicidal killers like Venom, Bullseye, etc. being lead by Norman Osborne (the original Green Goblin) running around beating the crap out of super-heroes who haven't registered.

Issue #111 is the second issue of this new take on the series and the plot is essentially this: An old friend of Captain America's, Jack Flag, has not registered and so the Thunderbolts are sent to kill or capture him. In the end, he's permanently paralyzed so that he'll never walk again and is then taken into custody.

So, I guess what I don't understand is what part of this I'm supposed to be enjoying.

Sure, it's well written and the art is perfectly fine, but it's so mean-spirited that I just felt kind of icky when I finished reading it. I don't like the members of this new group of Thunderbolts. And you can argue that I'm not supposed to like them, but usually when there's a character that you aren't supposed to like, there's something about them that still grabs you.

Example: The Irredeemable Ant-Man is a jerk, but he's also kind of funny. There's something about him and the way he's totally oblivious to his own jerkiness that's really very entertaining.


Doctor Doom. Very bad guy. But he's also strangely noble. He's capable of terrible things, but every now and then you get to see things from his perspective and you realize that he truly believes in what he's doing. He's evil, but he's sincere.


Al Swearengen in the show "Deadwood." He is an evil, evil guy. He does terrible things. But as the series progresses, you begin to like him despite all the horrible things he does. For one thing, he's got the Archie Bunker thing, where it's kind of fun to see him explode with fury at all the morons he's forced to deal with. And, too, he's a man with a philosophy. The world, to his mind, is a harsh, cruel place. If you want to survive, you've got to be more harsh and more cruel than the next guy. Being soft can get you killed. So, when Swearengen does something truly heartless, you may hate what he's done but you can also understand why he's done it. And, occasionally, he's the only one with the lack of conscience necessary to do what needs to be done (as seen particularly in the stunning finale of the first season).

So... back to Thunderbolts. There's nothing noble about Bullseye, Green Goblin, or Venom. There's nothing amusing or entertaining to me about them permanently crippling some guy whose only crime was saving an innocent woman from being raped. And there's no sense of moral outrage that goes along with this act. It's just kind of, "Isn't that cool? They're totally evil and the public loves them."

I don't know. I guess the attitude behind this comic is just a little too harsh for me to enjoy. And the degrading treatment of one of the original members (Songbird) at the beginning of the issue didn't help. This is a character that had previously been flawed, yes, but ultimately heroic. Someone who had risen from low-level villian to the highly effective leader of the team.

In Warren Ellis world, though, she's beneath contempt. Norman Osborne essentially accuses her of being a traitor and a slut, then tells her the only reason he'd even keep her on the team is because she's sort of pretty and they can make toys of her and sell them.

Does she punch him in the face?

She does not.

Instead, she meekly takes his abuse and then signs on.

Sometimes I really get the sense that Warren Ellis truly hates super-heroes and has contempt for those who enjoy reading about them. And while some people may find his contempt entertaining, I just find it off-putting. I don't think Thunderbolts is clever or funny or daring. There is not one character in the story with an ounce of depth; everyone is either "a psychotic killer" or a victim.


Fantastic Four #543
Writers: Dwayne McDuffie, Stan Lee, and Paul Pope
Artists: Mike McKone, Nick Dragotta, Mike Allred, and Paul Pope
Published by Marvel

Now this was a pleasant surprise.

As mentioned in previous columns, I started picking up Fantastic Four when Dwayne McDuffie started writing it and I've been pretty darn pleased with it thus far. I like McDuffie's writing and, although I wouldn't say his work on this title has blown me away, it has been quietly enjoyable.

Issue #543, however, is the 45th anniversary issue. So, we've got a lead story that basically recaps the FF's career thus far and that features "interviews" with their many friends and foes. Nothing too radical here. And then, too, there are two back-up stories.

Normally, a comic-book featuring the above would pretty much suck. Recap stories are dull unless you've never read the book before and back-up stories are almost always absymal.


The recap story, first of all, is actually a lot of fun, particularly the scenes of the Thing and the Human Torch watching the Fantastic Four TV special with Franklin and Valerie. As always, McDuffie's characterization is spot on. There's the usual levity between the two characters but there's also a depth that few writers manage to get. Their interactions with the kids, with each other, and their (very) brief acknowledgement to each other about how things have changed since the events of Civil War and how it's affected them are enjoyable and insightful.

The real pleasure of this issue, however, comes from the back-up features. The first one is written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred. If you were a fan of their work on X-Factor/X-Statix, you'll love this. Basically, the whole thing reads like an issue of that series, but starring the Fantastic Four and Stan Lee instead of the X-Factor/X-Statix team.

Finally, we get a short story written and illustrated by Paul Pope. For those of you who aren't familiar with Paul Pope, he's pretty much amazing. The quality of his writing fluctuates (I still think his best work was THB) but his art is consistently brilliant and unique. The story in Fantastic Four #543 is pretty light, but you get to see Paul Pope's version of J. Jonah Jameson, the Human Torch, the Thing, Spider-Man, and lots of cool race-cars and flames. Good stuff.

As much as I've been enjoying the Fantastic Four, this was issue was an extra-special treat and a great way to celebrate an anniversary.



Our link of the week is to one of my favorite comic-book reviewers, Paul O'Brien's The X-Axis. O'Brien's been doing his weekly column for a long, long while... actually, a quick look at his archives section tells me he's been doing it since 1999. If you've ever written one of these things, you'll realize how insane that is.

[The answer is: Very.]

The thing that I love about O'Brien's reviews, though, is that he's the single most articulate reviewer I've ever read. Yes, he's often funny and interesting and all that other important stuff too, but he has an uncanny ability to pick out precisely what it is that does (or does not) work within a given comic-book. An example would be this recent review of the final issue of Civil War. While most reviews I've read are scattered rants about how much Marvel sucks and how out of character everyone in the story is and how much Joe Quesada has ruined their childhood memories and so on and so forth, O'Brien is able to distinguish between the intention and the execution, the parts that work, the parts that would have been cool if they had worked but didn't, and the parts that were just bad ideas from the start.

Every week, come rain, snow, or shine, O'Brien is there.

I love you, Paul O'Brien. Please be my valentine.


Well, that's more than enough for this week, don't you think? Next Week is going to be an extra-special posting, as I'll be away on Spring Break and so will finally be using my Mystery column, which has nothing at all to do with comic-books.

What is it about, you ask? Well, it's a surprise. But I think you'll like it.


Until then, I hope you have a wonderful, comic-book filled week and that no one tries to mess with your continuity!

No comments: