For example, it is rare for a movie to have a plot that unfolds in real time. Television shows are limited in length by half-hour increments, allowing, of course, for commercials. You may see a program that’s 15 minutes long, but never 45 minutes.
It’s theoretically possible to have a show be 20 minutes long or a movie that is in real time, but it’s rarely if ever done in practice.
Comic books are no different. They have their own rules and standards that creators are obliged to follow.
One of the most peculiar things about sequential art as a medium is that it is largely devoted to a single genre – superhero action/adventure.
There are certainly lots of comics that do not involve capes or tights. But the vast majority of the comics produced in this medium prominently feature superheroes.
It wasn’t always this way. In the aftermath of the Second World War, superhero titles began to disappear off the rack. Only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman survived in any form. Titles like Captain America, Captain Marvel and Green Lantern were replaced by Westerns, Romances and especially horror books.
However, as the Silver Age dawned with Showcase #4 and Fantastic Four #1, superheroes came back in to vogue. DC and Marvel plunged into producing cape and tights stories almost whole hog. Even characters that were of other genres like Nick Fury, Jonah Hex, Mille the Model, Patsy Walker and the Two-Gun Kid were folded into their mainstream continuity.
Since then, the medium and the genre have been inexorably linked. Sure, there are still some comics that do not feature superheroes, but they are few and far between.
It would be like if CBS and NBC’s programming was almost entirely police procedural dramas.
All this serves a lengthy preamble to talk about Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics, an attempt by the famed author to break free from the superhero genre. He introduced books like Top 10, Promethea and Greyshirt that were departures from the usual comic book fare.
The most prominent work in the ABC line was Tom Strong, an analog of Doc Savage, Tarzan, Tom Swift and other pulp-styled heroes of the early 20th century.
Although still definitely an action-adventure story, Tom Strong is not a crime fighter or vigilante of any sort. His primary interest is science and education. He’s constantly inventing Swiftian devices that, predictably, become useful in his latest adventure. He is a utopianist devoted to improving his world.
Of course, Strong is often beset by villains who want to destroy his hometown of Millennium City or kill him to avenge an earlier defeat. Enemies like Nazi air pirate Ingrid Weiss, technological plague the Modular Man and Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen plague the hero and his family.
They’re all fun, off-beat characters that can make you laugh while remaining threatening to the safety of Tom Strong and his extended family.
As always, Moore does a fantastic job of developing characters quickly and creating entertaining traps for Strong to unravel, all while maintaining the traditional sense of fun inherent in all pulp fiction.
Chris Sprouse’s artwork shines. It’s crisp, clean and expressive, while being remarkably detailed where required. He’s a master illustrator who can communicate emotions to his readers in a single, textless panel. It’s some of the best artwork I’ve ever seen in a comic.
Sprouse isn’t the only penciler on this series though. Other acclaimed artists like Arthur Adams, Gary Frank, Dave Gibbons and Jerry Ordway lend a hand. Their inclusion in the project was done in a very clever way – they draw all the flashback scenes. Because these looks into Tom Strong’s past are presented as older issues of the series, the different styles aren’t jarring and, if anything, add to the whole piece.
I would recommend Alan Moore’s Tom Strong to anyone who enjoys comics, but especially to those who want a break from the more mainstream and mundane superhero books that clutter shelves at your local shop. He remains one of the few creators in the medium that can shed the cloak of superheroes.
A recent strip from Let’s Be Friends Again by Chris Haley and Curt Franklin perfectly sums up how I feel about Marvel and DC Comics. Basically, I think that the two major purveyors of sequential art are in a creative malaise largely of their own making.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about an exercise - the Superhero Originality Game – that highlights that stagnation. The rules are explained at length in my previous post but, in short, the idea is to try and think of completely original characters that were created in the past thirty years that could (or have) carried their own monthly titles for Marvel or DC Comics.
I had gotten the ball rolling with a list of 10 characters who met the criteria:
6.Venom (Eddie Brock or Angelo Fortunato but not Mac Gargan)
I had invited my readers to try and add to the list, and they came up with an additional 14 characters:
12. Night Thrasher (Dwayne Taylor, not his brother Donyell Taylor, aka Bandit)
13. Amadeus Cho
14. War Machine
18. Beta Ray Bill
20. Cloak and Dagger *
24. Silver Sable
The point of the game was to try and highlight the fact that, to a large extent, the Big Two comic book publishers have produced less than one new marketable character per year. It’s not just that they’re no longer creating new series, there aren’t many original characters being created, period.
Instead, comic book fans are being treated to Spider-Man fighting the Vulture. Again. Or another Teen Titan dying. Rehashing and re-telling seems to be the name of the game.
It’s a disappointing trend.
Imagine if two major television networks like ABC and NBC only introduced a total of 24 new television shows over the course of three decades? Advertising revenue would quickly dry up and they’d be out of business. The stagnation would have killed them.
One thing I’ll say about these 24 characters is that they are an impressively diverse group. Six and a half (Cloak being one half of an entry)are visible minorities. Five and a half are women. One is a space horse.
They also have diverse origins and motivations, with at least 12 of them being spanning from “morally ambiguous” to “ethically reprehensible”. Whether they are mercenaries, assassins, exceptionally greedy or intelligence operatives for the government, they’re a surprisingly complex group of protagonists.
Unfortunately, only five are currently starring in a book, either in a solo title (Booster Gold, War Machine, Amadeus Cho, Deadpool) or a team book (the Sentry). Even in that group, War Machine’s book is being cancelled and there are rumours that the Sentry is going to be killed as part of the Siege.
This lack of creativity is particularly stunning when you think of all the characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created for both companies between 1960 and 1975. Together and separately they produced dozens of enduring characters. Why can’t their success be replicated even a little?
I think the big problem is that Marvel and DC Comics are incredibly risk averse and reluctant to try anything new. Instead, they’d rather play it safe and go back to the well time and time again, appeasing a hardcore group of fans rather than reach out and try out new characters that could appeal to a broader base of readers.
It’s a crying shame that in the long run will hurt the comics business.
*I looked into Cloak and Dagger and it’s kind of up in the air as to whether or not they’re mutants. They’ve been described as having powers that were activated by the experiments they were subjected to. To keep it simple, we’ll just assume that they’re not mutants.
It’s funny how everyone has a guilty pleasure - a band, movie or book that we love but was hardly a critical or commercial success. Comic book fans are no different. They always have at least a couple of characters that they hold dear to their heart.
I know that I’ve got a few. There’s one name that’s always at top of mind for me though: Booster Gold.
Never heard of him? That’s cool, most people haven’t. Indeed, it’s a running joke on an episode of Justice League Unlimited that everyone thinks that he’s Green Lantern and they’re disappointed when they find out that it’s Booster Gold.
Booster Gold is Michael Jon Carter, a collegiate football star from the far-flung future of the 25th century. He started placing bets on his own games and then threw them for profit. Disgraced, he became a night watchman at a museum that housed artefacts from the so-called Age of Heroes – our modern heroes like Superman and Batman.
With the help of a floating security robot named Skeets, Booster stole equipment and weapons from the displays, and used Rip Hunter’s time machine to travel to the 20th century. When he arrived in the 1980s he used his limited knowledge of historical events to position himself in the right place at the right time and become a superhero brand that would save lives as well as turn a healthy profit.
With Skeets acting as a roving encyclopedia, Booster blunders from heroic episode to heroic episode, often doing more harm than good while trying to create a public image that he can gain from financially. Recently (and somewhat improbably) he's become the guardian of the time stream, trying to maintain order and balance in the universe.
There are two things that appeal to me about Booster: his origin and how well he reflects the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
I think that the best fictional characters, superheroes and otherwise, have origins that explain their motivation for the rest of their existence. Sticking to comic books, some Batman, Spider-Man and the Punisher are popular because they are driven by a combination of guilt and anger over the death of their beloved family members.
All three of those creation stories make sense. To an extent, the reader can understand why these guys are dressing in spandex and putting their lives in danger. Their behaviour is clearly motivated by the tragedy in their origins.
Booster Gold’s driving force is simple: he’s greedy. He covers his uniform with corporate logos, puts money on the stock exchange before big bumps and is generally a glory hog. Or that time he married a sexagenarian for her money. It's not an altruistic reason for becoming a superhero, but it has an inherent logic. You can get what he’s about.
Just as Captain America was ideally suited to the surge of patriotism in the lead up to World War 2 or Marvel heroes like Iron Man and Nick Fury fit the Cold War era, Booster Gold’s 1986 debut was perfectly timed. He was just right for the greed is good, egotistical 80s. He developed as a character into the 1990s, just as corporate monopolies disguised as “synergy” and mass sponsorship became the norm in North America.
Booster Gold is often under-utilized but instantly appealing to anyone who grew up in the 1980s. He’s greedy, funny, a little bit cynical and surprisingly heroic. More than just about any other big name comic book character he fits into our contemporary worldview and, most importantly, he’s believable. The reader can understand why he does the things he does. He’s as real as a man from the future can be, and although he’s a guilty pleasure of mine, I rarely regret it.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more comic books and graphic novels. Hardly a self-improvement project, I know, but I want to get down with my nerd self.
My first graphic novel of 2010 is Captain America: Winter Soldier vol. 2, allowing me to complete the first story arc of Ed Brubaker’s popular run on one of Marvel Comics’ most recognizable characters.
I’ve never been much of a Captain America fan. I prefer grittier characters like Batman or the Punisher, so his squeaky clean image never appealed to me. And since I’m Canadian, all the patriotic beats were lost on me.
But Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline sucked me in. I’d heard that the new Captain America series was going to be bringing back Bucky, a character who had been dead since the end of World War II, and it hooked me.
This was a Big Deal to comic fans. Bucky had been Cap’s 16-year-old sidekick during the war, but was tragically killed when a missile he was trying to disarm exploded in mid-flight. The same incident dropped Cap into the frigid North Sea, freezing him until the 1960s.
The death of Bucky had always been cited as the reason why Marvel’s superheroes don’t have teenaged sidekicks - unlike their DC counterparts - and it added a sense of realism to the company’s mythos.
For Brubaker to be retconning a fundamental element of Marvel Comics seemed like heresy, albeit an intriguing act of rebellion.
Captain America: Winter Soldier Book One and Two brings together issues 1-14 of the fifth monthly series to star Steve Rogers. They revolve around a terrorist attack that was apparently perpetrated by a mythical Cold Warrior known as the Winter Soldier who may actually be Cap’s former partner Bucky.
Resurrection storylines have become commonplace in comics, a constant recycling of characters who had been killed for dramatic effect, only to return. It’s a trend that is holding back a medium that I love. But Brubaker handles the return of the long-dead hero with a deft hand that provides not just a plausible explanation for his survival, but an engrossing story.
Interspersed with action, character moments and plot developments, Winter Soldier begins with Captain America becoming angry and frustrated with the inability of the United States government to attack countries that sponsor terrorism. The detonation of a Weapon of Mass Destruction in Philadelphia leaves a trail that leads to former Soviet general Aleksander Lukin, and his shadowy operative the Winter Soldier.
Even the name Winter Soldier is clever work by Brubaker. It’s a reference to the loyal American revolutionaries who stuck with George Washington over the harrowing winter in Valley Forge, but also to the Winter Soldier Investigation, a Viet Nam era examination of atrocities and war crimes committed by the United States Armed Forces.
Brubaker seamlessly connects the Second World War, the Cold War, modern terrorism and Captain America’s complex continuity. It’s not just that he brings in plot points from every era of Cap’s 70 years of existence, but the pacing and style of the book draws heavily on these aspects of the character’s history.
To me, a classic Captain America story has him and a partner rushing off into danger to stop a catastrophe from befalling the United States or the world. Winter Soldier is no different, with Cap rushing to stop Kronas Corporation with the Falcon riding shotgun.
Steve Epting’s art work in this series is fantastic. I can’t think of a current comics creator who makes better use of inking and colouring techniques. His characters are expressive and natural in conversation, and dynamic and fun during action scenes.
In particular, the way he draws the acrobatic Captain America jumping, rolling and bouncing in fight scenes is thrilling.
Winter Soldier breaks an old comic fan saying: “No one stays dead, except Bucky and Uncle Ben.” The phrase refers to the fact that Peter Parker’s uncle and Captain America’s sidekick must stay dead because their loss is what, in part, forms the hero we know today.
I never thought I’d see the day where that axiom was successfully reversed, but the Winter Soldier saga does it.
The return of James “Bucky” Buchanan Barnes was enough to catch my interest and buy the first volume of Captain America: Winter Soldier, and the gripping story has lead me to the rest of the series. Brubaker’s writing isn’t some gimmick. It’s some of the best mainstream superhero comic work I’ve ever read.