The blog for The Solitaire Rose Experience. Yes, the blog revolution is utterly and completely over. However, I haven't figured that out yet, so I'll be listing articles, ideas, links, and other internet debris. Now, you can join in! And be mocked mercilessly!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My beef with Chuck Dixon's essay

Chuck Dixon wrote a heartfelt essay going into detail able what he feels like is broken in comics.

First off, before responding, Dixon is a write who, when he is on the top of his game, I enjoy quite a lot. When he's not, well, everyone has to pay the rent, I don't begrudge anyone working at their craft to make a living. I just don't enjoy it as much.

The core of Dixon's argument is that new writers don't write stories that they should be writing, and they deal more with shock, breaking characters and disrespecting the idea of a Hero. I won't get into the irony of this being done by one of the minds behind the breaking of Batman's back and having him cured with healing magic...

Making iconic comic book characters more “realistic” or “grimmer” or “grittier” is most often the product of a bankrupt imagination rather than the opposite.
is how he starts, and while on the face of it, I can agree, but does anyone really believe that in EVERY case it is a bad idea to take a long running serialized character to a new place? I would say that the first character this was done with, Daredevil, was sorely in need of something. The book was one of the first Marvel heroes, but had fallen on very hard times before Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller changed him from being a gimmicky Spider-Man knockoff to a dark vigilante in a film noir version of New York? It was a new interpretation of the character having roots in the origin story and Made Daredevil a character that creators bring their "A" game to. There are a very few people who can say that the Stan Lee wisecracking, fake brother having, dating slang spewing character of the 60's is one of their favorites.

Did people go overboard with it in the 80's and 90's? Of course. Comics ALWAYS go overboard and end up beating a good idea into the ground. That's how they STARTED, and they keep doing it. If 1 is great, 2 is better and 40 is best.

He brings up Batman (a character Dixon has worked on and recently finished runs on a number of books in that editorial office), who I contend is a character who was lessened by the 90's characterization of Batman driven to such an extreme that Bruce Wayne no longer existed, and he was, quite simply, a psychopath who fought on the good guy's side. This wasn't going back to the character's pulp roots, this was lazy writing, boring storytelling, and an excuse for rote storytelling where any number of paint-by-numbers plots could have been plugged in.

Heroes do something about their faults so they don’t become permanent personality traits. We look up to them because they have the strength of character to do what we often cannot. They are meant to inspire us and show us our better angels.

In a single story, that's true, but in serialized fiction, the character HAS to keep their flaws if they are inherent part of the character. Batman CAN'T get over the murder of his parents, or he has no reason to fight crime. Spider-Man can't feel he has done enough or he no longer is driven by his inherent guilt. Green Arrow has to feel that the rich and powerful are hurting the weak and downtrodden or he loses his "Robin Hood" drive. Stan Lee's big revelation for the Marvel line was that the heroes had PROBLEMS, and if they were to be solved, the impetus for the character is drained away, fixed, draining that character of a reason to BE a hero.

Back to Daredevil, the character had lost that feeling that he HAD to fight crime to save men like his father, men who were weak, men who were scared, who needed a man without fear. By 1978, Daredevil fought crime because if he didn't there wouldn't be a new issue every two months.

There’s a cynical disregard for what makes these icons work but it only serves to mask their own inabilities to create within guidelines and restrictions.

Which is something each generation says about the next. I will point out that Dixon did a LOT of stories that "disregarded" what made an icon work. Dick Grayson was no longer Batman's faithful ward, the Punisher didn't fight mobsters and he wrote Batman as a psycho in a suit. Why? That was the take on the icon at the time. It took a person with "cynical disregard" for what had happened with the Punisher since 1986 to make the character entertaining again. Garth Ennis was asked what he would do with the character and he said, "He's going to kill a lot of people with vowels at the end of their name" and in "Welcome Back Frank", he did so, sweeping away the last 20 years and going to the core of the character and writing the first true classic Punisher story since Steven Grant.

When your favorite, beloved character is revealed to be a deviant basketcase or found dead in an alley after being sexually violated it’s more a case of unbridled hubris rather than unbridled imagination.

I'll assume he's exaggerating here, but there is this anger some writers have against the kind of "Everything you knew was wrong" that Alan Moore created, and SOME writers are able to pull off brilliantly. Moore did it with Swamp Thing, taking a character who had never been a big sales hit, and making it the core of an entire line of books. Morrison did it with Animal Man, making that character interesting and relevant for the first time ever. Miller with Daredevil. Mike Grell with Green Arrow. Howard Chaykin and The Shadow (and pretty much anything else he wrote for the mainstream in the 80's). Is it hubris or a case of a writer saying, "You know, maybe this will get some people to read this."?

Captain America was unreadable for years. Mark Gruenwald did a lot of bland stories that no one really remembers outside of camp value, then Mark Waid came in and made the character interesting again. When he left, again, a long run of forgettable stories until Ed Brubaker came in, shook things up and made it a must read comic, even with Steve Rodgers dead. If you list the story beats, they seem disrespectful, but if you actually READ the book, it is one of the best written comics of the last ten years and sets up all of the shocking revelations in a way that they WORK.

And THAT is the core of good writing. Anyone can have a BIG SHOCK in a story, and Dixon has more than his fair share of them on the last page of his comics to get you to trundle down to the comic shop the next month to see how it would be resolved, sometime in a page or two before a completely different story started. (Yeah, Chuck, I'm still upset about those old tricks...THAT'S lazy writing). A GREAT writer can shock you and still make it seem perfectly logical and part of a great story.

I mean, Ro9bert Bloch shocked us all about poor milquetoast Normal Bates. Does mean he demeaned the character in the first two acts of Psycho?

Largely, the creators have eschewed plot for characterization. They want to explore what makes the character work and have that be what drives the stories. Try that with your iPhone and call me on a landline later to tell me how it all worked out.

I don't know. It worked pretty well for Ulysses, ANYTHING by Dorothy Parker, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Great Gatsby, The Shining, Simon and Kirby's romance comics, the entire run of Seinfeld, and so on. Just because you don't care for a style of storytelling doesn't invalidate it. Many excellent writers go by the theory that the plot is just there to show character, the Maguffin style of storytelling as I was taught in film class to call it.

Don Daley, my old editor on the Punisher back in the DeFalco days at Marvel, had a drawer full of scripts labeled “The Ultimate Punisher Story.” He let me read a few of them one time. There were scripts by wannabe and amateurs and a surprising number of top talents. They were of varying degrees of competence and professionalism. The one thing they had in common was that they were all the same story. In each story the Punisher accidentally kills an innocent. A child. A nun. A cop. Frank Castle then quits being the Punisher and becomes a priest. In every story. Every damned one. In some he quits being the Punisher forever and in others he’s dragged back into the vigilante game for some compelling reason. The other element that these scripts shared other than inciting incident, plot and resolution was that they got the core character of Frank Castle so entirely wrong that it was breath-taking. Unable to come up with a story for the Punisher, they decided to break the franchise and glue it back together in a new form they could understand.

That's a fine example of doing it wrong. I have another:

The Punisher discovers some nondescript evildoer with a complex plot. The story lasts five issues with a lot of the bad guys underlings being taken out as the Punisher tracks down the big bad, and when he does, they have a physical fight for some reason which the Punisher wins because, well, he punches the other guy harder than the guy punches him. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The best genre fiction knows that it can't change the hero much, so instead it concentrates on giving that character interesting adversaries. Judge Dredd is the best example: Instead of focusing on a VERY one dimensional character, the creators spend their time on the setting and the adversaries. They carry the storytelling weight because the main character can't. The Punisher plot listed isn't very good, but is it any worse than the endless array of boring thugs he "fought" through the 90's until the novelty of a hero who kills wore off? Nope. BOTH are bad ways to tell a story. It's just that one saw print and the other didn't.

Now, rather than ending up in a drawer of discards, this kind of scorched earth approach is at the center of multi-year event comics.

Really? Name ONE event comic that has done this. Infinite Crisis brought back the DC Multiverse and created interesting new villains for the first time is years. Civil War changed up the Marvel Universe and went back to the old dynamic of the "heroes" being on the wrong side of authority for a time (kind of like those old Stan Lee stories about the heroes being sought by the government/police, or ANYTHING done by Steve Ditko). 52 brought back the creativity of DC's Silver Age. House Of M got rid of the excesses of the 90's where there were more mutants than normal people and so on and so on.

Just because they don't fit what you wanted to read doesn't mean they were all bad.

Dixon really sounds like my grandmother talking about TV shows and movies showing some moral ambiguity and she hated movies like "The Godfather" and "Dog Day Afternoon" because they glamorized the bad guys and tried to make you UNDERSTAND them. Storytelling change. Comic books change. I have a friend who won't buy ANY comic book printed after 1969 because he feels that that is when they all turned to crap. Mort Weisinger wasn't editing Superman anymore, and he hated the approach Julie Schwartz took with his heroes. He constantly complained "Why can't they make comics like those any more." Comics like Big Bang Comics or reprints of those stories (ones he hadn't read) were passed over as he complained about the Superman and Batman comics of the 90's which he said were all crappy artwork and Big Stupid Events like Knightfall, Contagion and the like.

Rather than railing against those damn kids not having any respect, he could have just bought the stuff he liked and moved on from comics to other forms of entertainment he enjoyed.

Dixon too seems a bit disingenuous, seeing as how he was part of the team that had a killer take up the Batman uniform, ripped off the movie "Outbreak", destroyed Gotham City in an Earthquake and had the federal government declare it a "No Man's Land", and killed off Green Arrow in an explosion as well as other stories and events that drove the Grim and Gritty trend in the 90's.

But then, that's just how I see it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

10 Take Aways From the Bush Years -

The Washington Post has another nice article from Bob Woodward where he gives advice to Obama, even though the article is a nice list of the BIG mistakes Bush made as a manager.

Bush's biggest mistake wasn't the war, the economy or any of the things people think about. It was not being informed, curious or interested in much of anything than advancing a right wing agenda. He keeps saying history will judge him, but I think we're all pretty clear on what history will say.