May 4, 2009

"Kick-Ass" is Hilariously Gorey and the Plot isn't So Bad Either

Within the first few pages of Scottish comic writer Mark Millar’s most recent project, “Kick-Ass,” you’ll be laughing. By the end of the first issue, you’ll be wondering why you can’t wait to read another.

“Kick-Ass” challenges the conventions of the superhero comic, mocking and respecting them at the same time. Ordinary high school student Dave Lizewski loves superhero comics, and in the absence of real superheroes, he decides to be the first person to actually become one.

Dave’s first venture into the superhero business isn’t gloriously heroic. It isn’t an amazing victory. In fact, this amateur hero just gets so badly beaten that when he puts the costume on a second time, after months in the hospital and just getting off his crutches, it just seems as if he has a death wish.

So what’s so special about Dave Lizewski, then? Nothing really, except for his determination. When a video of the costumed teenager protecting a man from a beating shows up on YouTube, that determination inspires other normal people without super abilities to don the cape and mask. And Dave’s masked alter-ego finally gets a name: Kick-Ass.

“Kick-Ass” is full of references to other comic heroes such as Batman and Wolverine, and Dave aspires to be like them. Myspace is his version of a Bat-Signal so that he can find jobs and get the media attention he’s starving for.

Millar’s story is witty, hilarious, and a bit twisted. But should we expect any less from the writer that introduced us to the delightfully sickening “Marvel Zombies” series in a story arc of “Ultimate Fantastic Four”?

The characters are unique and pretty fascinating, and on some level, they’re easy to relate to. They’re really just doing what many readers of superhero comics have probably entertained the fantasy of at one time or another.

Dave’s basically a bored kid out there for a thrill that we get vicariously through reading comics. Of course, when you’re a geeky teenage boy pretending to be gay just to get closer to a cute girl, maybe the thrill of real crime-fighting is the only way to hang onto some level of masculinity.

It’s too bad for Dave that there’s a ten-year-old girl out there that can do the job with more ease than he ever could. Hit Girl steals the panel from the moment she is first shown skewering a bad guy with one of her swords. The pain that this preteen can inflict is frightening, but something about her, even covered in the midst of all the blood and gore, is almost adorable.

And that crazy Armenian guy who jumps to his death while trying to fly in the first three pages of issue one? The comic book wouldn’t have been the same without him.

John Romita Jr., co-creator of the comic, fleshes everything out gruesomely, with a generous amount of blood and guts splattering across the pages. If you want to see a sword slice through a man’s head, look no further than this series. Readers can enjoy “Kick-Ass” for many of the things that make “Marvel Zombies” such a charmer.

Thanks to Romita, the characters all have their appropriate physical traits and quirks. Dave’s lankiness suits him, and it’s especially noticeable every time he wears his green and yellow spandex costume. Big Daddy is so massive that he looks as if he could break skinny Dave over his knee without flexing a muscle.

“Kick-Ass” isn’t for the squeamish or anyone easily offended by overt violence. And you certainly shouldn’t bother reading it if you’re unwilling to open your mind to see it as more than something silly. It takes a special sense of humor to appreciate something like this. Otherwise, the seemingly absurd violence and bloodshed might obscure that this actually is a commentary of what happens when fantasy and reality collide where they shouldn’t.

While Dave treats everything as somewhat of a game (he’s usually more concerned with logos, superhero team-ups, and getting the credit for his often sub-par good deed than with actually making a difference), there is some seriousness to the series. Dave’s father is seriously in debt, thanks to the first hospital visit that being a “hero” earned him. Hit Girl and Big Daddy come from a pretty dark background and have a mean streak when they fight mobsters and drug dealers. And the people that Kick-Ass is interfering with don’t take it lightly.

Real danger exists in this “real world,” and no vigilante is invincible. They don’t even have any special abilities, just normal human ones that they can work to perfect. Apparently the Armenian guy was never told that, and, as funny as his failed flight might be, that’s just another reminder of how dangerous it is to believe you can achieve the stuff of fantasy.

The biggest threat to super-heroism in the comic world is normality, and Millar knows that well. After all, ordinary people scared of masked vigilantes and villains were the sole reason that the controversial Superhero Registration Act was passed in Millar’s “Civil War,” the Marvel crossover event that pitted hero against hero.

The first six issues of “Kick-Ass” embody the normality that threatens super-heroism. With two more issues to come in this story arc, we’re all about to find out whether or not a real hero can exist.

Apr 24, 2009

Comic movies... worth paying the $8.50?

I've mentioned before that I find movies based on comic books to be a bit questionable. Their quality as films isn't exactly the problem, though plenty of them are just plain bad ("Spider-man 3," "X-men 3," and the last two films of the "Batman" franchise before the Christopher Nolan reboot, to name a few). There are plenty of great movies based on comics, but a good movie based on a comic book isn't always a good comic book movie.

Comic book movies are rarely ever accurate to their source material, and they are incorrectly carrying the comic book subculture into the culture of mainstream America. Popularity isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the popularity is for a distorted image. Michael Keaton's Batman isn't bad, but he definitely isn't the Batman I always read about. The villains he fights are also hardly what they should be. And, while "Wanted" was a pretty cool movie, the popularity had more to do with Angelina Jolie than with the story that was very different from its source.

I understand that some things in comics don't translate well to film, as much as the two mediums are alike in their use of image and dialogue. That's why the Sandman should never have been in "Spider-man 3" with such limited attention and the Penguin... well, he should never be translated into any film. No matter how much we like some of them in print (not that I really like the Penguin ever), once you take the comic book pages out from under them, some characters are positively silly.

Of course, there are just some things that shouldn't be ignored or altered. Just like an incorrect translation of a language, an incorrect translation of a comic into film results in a loss of meaning. The "Spider-man" films are frivolous, paling in comparison to their source material. Taking a character like Gwen Stacy, who in the comics is such an important part of defining Peter Parker's character, and making her a minor background character while Peter dances around the room for Mary Jane's affection is practically a crime. And if Sam Raimi really wanted to make a dark, tortured Spidey instead of the ridiculous and immature one we got in that last movie, he would have done much better by using the real Gwen Stacy storyline.

Thankfully, the past three or four years have shown a significant shift in the way comic books are turned into films. The reboot of the "Batman" series may not include the truest films to the source material in events, but "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" manage to keep the essence of the character and the series. I commend Marvel for self-producing some of the more recent films. "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" were a great start, nearly making up for the mistake of killing off Cyclops in "X-Men: The Last Stand" to give Halle Berry's Storm a bigger role that the character never really had.

"Watchmen," however, takes home the prize for the most faithful adaptation. Much of the film is adapted word-for-word, so much that it even feels like reading a comic book. Certain plot points are missing, but they couldn't be fit into the long movie. The filmmakers did their best to give fans what they wanted, though, and even included nearly all of the missing material in either a feature-length animated film or in the special features of the upcoming DVD release. The one thing I could be nit picky about is the drastic change in the ending, but I don't want to. This is the one time I'll probably ever say something like this, but the film got the ending right.

Honestly, I will probably never stop going to see these movies. Just like all the teenage girls that don't care how crappy the acting, the camera work, and pretty much everything else about the "Twilight" movie is, I'm always going to love seeing my favorite characters on the big screen. I just have one stipulation (I know I've said it before, but there's is no saying it enough): No more dance scenes for Spider-man.

Apr 15, 2009

Marvel vs. DC

Yes, there are other big companies that have characters that are easily recognizable, such as the Ninja Turtles and Hellboy, but they don't really even come close to achieving the popularity that both Marvel and DC have. Pretty much every comic book reader has their preference for one of the two largest comic book publishers. I've been a Marvel reader for years, Spider-man having been my first love in comics, but I've come to also love DC and its imprints more recently.

Of course, ask almost anyone who doesn't read comics which company is better and Marvel will probably be the one he names (assuming he knows the name). While DC has had great success with "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," Marvel has been much more exposed in the film business in recent years. Hits like "Iron Man" and the trilogy of Spider-man films have done a lot to popularize Marvel's characters and stories.

Honestly, I think it's a shame that the Marvel-DC debate is now taking films into account when most of these films aren't completely accurate depictions of the characters. DC's films are actually truer to the original material, but Marvel has had more overall success by accounting for what audiences want to see. I'm not criticizing either company's films (Okay, maybe I'll criticize Marvel for letting Sam Raimi and Tobey MacGuire destroy Spider-man, but I've said plenty about that before). There are a lot of them that I really love. Unfortunately, looking at such films, good or bad, really distorts the comparison between the two companies.

I've come to recognize that DC may be the best company to look at for great graphic novels or limited series comics. I don't think that I will ever become a regular reader of Superman or Green Lantern comics, but no one needs to threaten me to get me to open a DC graphic novel. I love a lot of the Superman limited series, such as ones under the Elseworlds imprint that puts DC's most familiar characters into self-contained universes completely unlike the regular continuity. Some of the best stories in comics come out of them.

Despite this, one thing is not going to change for me: Marvel's characters are just better; there's not even a competition there. I like to see a certain realism (well, aside from the powers and the dressing in costume to fight crime) in my comics, and Marvel achieves this more often than DC. I find myself able to connect better with characters like Spider-man and Wolverine, because they seem to be realistic products of their pasts. Don't get me wrong. I love Superman, but sometimes his morals, too much the equivalent of a boy scout's, are just boring (thus the reason I like Elseworlds).

So when it comes down to what comic book I'd prefer to be reading... I'll still take a Marvel comic any day.

Apr 4, 2009

You think your comic is great? Well, I hope it sticks to these rules...

Just like every other form of art, comic books have their highs and lows. There are some bad comics out there, there are some good ones, and then there are the great ones. But what makes a great comic or graphic novel? Here are my top criteria:

1. An awesome hero (obvious, yes, but it must be said). The less obvious thing is what constitutes a good hero. Personally, I think perfection is highly overrated. If you've got a hero without flaws, you've probably got no story (or, at the very least, one with the depth of a teaspoon). Oh no! A giant monster rampaging in the city? Piece of cake for your hero. A huge meteor is about to collide with the planet and destroy half the population? Forget it. Mr. Perfect took care of it ten minutes ago. An evil mastermind has a genius plan to take over the world by turning everyone into zombies? No big deal. Ms. Infallible already knows how to stop it.

Vulnerability is the key to making a hero interesting. Call me crazy, but I like my superheroes to mess up once in a while. Superman isn't always my favorite superhero when he's close to perfect, but at least he's got his kryptonite. He's got to have a few setbacks when he's trying to stop Lex Luther. Iron Man started with the daily threat of shrapnel piercing his heart if he didn't charge the magnetic chest plate keeping it out. Spider-man was just a nerdy teenager dealing with the typical dramas of being an unpopular high-school student. It only took four bullets from a sniper rifle to take down Captain America, a guy who had survived decades frozen in a block of ice.

More than just a vulnerable hero, I tend to love a tortured hero. I think we all like our heroes with a hint of cynicism and questionable methods. The comic book world is full of anti-heroes that are tormented by either their pasts or some fearful insight into human nature, and the only way many can respond is to embody the chaos of the dog-eat-dog world. These are the most compelling characters in comics. Wolverine's visceral drives are a huge factor in his immense popularity. He doesn't always do things by the book, and neither do characters like Rorschach and the Comedian, to whom we are drawn and interested in despite his obvious flaws and seemingly unforgivable mistakes. It's always going to be more interesting to follow a character teetering on the ledge between heroics and wrongdoing.

2. A villain who would make you shake in your superhero boots. Sure, the idea of common burglars and muggers in everyday life may seem pretty scary, but knives and guns are pathetic in comparison to the super-powered or technically-aided vigilantes they're up against. A good villain needs to have powers, and those powers should probably be much greater than the hero's. Galactus may wear some crazy headgear (at least, he does as we meager humans see him), but he is the Devourer of Worlds, the embodiment of the cosmos so powerful that his true form is inconceivable to anyone. There is no way that anyone should be able to beat that, but that's the kind of thing that readers want to see the hero either overcome or be defeated by (the bad guys have to win sometimes). Of course, there's nothing wrong with intellectual powers either. Some of the scariest bad guys are the evil masterminds that are otherwise ordinary human beings.

Often, a great villain comes straight from the past of his or her hero counterpart. Why are Venom and Carnage awesome foes for Spidey? They share the connection of being bonded with deadly alien symbiotes like the one (in the case of Venom, the exact one) that tried to bond itself with him. And you can't forget all of the family rivalry that goes on in comics, especially when a former good guy goes bad (whether under the influence of mind control or not). Nothing like having your wife attacking you, huh Cyclops?

3. Gray areas. Morality isn't exactly clean cut. Any comic that presents it any differently probably won't be a great read, because if everything is perfectly black and white (and I don't mean the artwork) there is no room for a hero to ever lose. This is one of the most captivating themes at the most basic levels of almost any good comic. The two best characters of Watchmen are personifications of the chaos created in gray areas between right and wrong. And Wolverine? Well, he eats your perfect morality for breakfast.

Mar 26, 2009

Leave Spidey Alone!

Poor Spider-man has had it pretty rough in this past few years. Aunt May got shot and then a ill-advised wish altered his universe so that he was never married to Mary-Jane. While this was going on, moviegoers everywhere had to suffer the atrocity that was Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3." Of course, fans of the comic books felt that watching the first two films of the trilogy was torture enough. No one wants to see their favorite webslinger reduced to the mopey, unlikeable geek of a character that Tobey MacGuire portrayed him as. I missed Spidey's witticisms and sarcasm, and I wanted to see the substance that the comic books have always contained .

Now, however, the world is doing Peter Parker his greatest wrong. You might ask me what could be worse than "Spider-Man 3?" Well, I regretfully inform you that "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is set to be seen on Broadway in February 2010 as a musical. No, your eyes have not deceived you. A Spider-man musical.

I went through a range of emotions upon hearing this. First, I denied it. It just couldn't be possible. Why would anybody want to do this? I became furious. This is a disgrace to Spider-man and a disgrace to theater! I prayed that it wasn't true, that it might get scrapped (I'm still hoping for that one). And now, I just find the thought thoroughly depressing.

I'm grieving the death of my favorite superhero, the character that got me hooked on comics. I haven't quite moved on to acceptance, though. How can I with the knowledge that Bono (U2) will be destroying Spidey with corny lyrics and music? The movies failed to capture the essence of Spider-man, so how does anyone expect Bono to do that any better? It was painful enough watching Peter Parker dance for 2 minutes in "Spider-Man 3," and 2 hours of it will be excruciating.

Move over Venom, Carnage, and all the rest of you villains. Spider-man lovers trying to make a buck off of him are doing more to destroy him than any of his worst enemies.

A taste of what the musical could potentially be like:

Mar 19, 2009

Because this is a blog about comic books...

Here is an excerpt from a proposal I've written for a senior thesis about the literary value of comics and the role of the superhero/vigilante, including a very brief overview of the superhero and of comic book criticism:

With an absurdly caped superhero typically the first thing imagined when one hears the words “comic book,” it isn’t entirely shocking that many people misguidedly think of comics as frivolous. Comic books have hardly been considered a genre worth serious study. If a person goes to a large local or university library that may have entire sets of shelves dedicated to critical analyses of individual authors, that person will find it difficult to come by many analyses of comics.

Despite the lack of thorough academic attention to them, comics play an important role in society. The superheroes and glorified vigilantes of comic books are much more overt than the hero that exists in mythological and literary works. Yet, that explicitness of the hero in the medium, which also gave rise to the anti-hero, is thoughtfully used to comment on and allegorize society and culture by being placed in the forefront of historical events.

I plan to analyze superhero and masked vigilante comics as pieces of heroic literature, looking for their themes and literary devices, and to examine individual characters. I will do this in the form of a review of past and present comic book criticism, as well as in a series of individual critical analyses of more significant comic books and graphic novels. For this, I have chosen comic books that have been major benchmarks of the superhero genre or contain meaningful social commentary.

Therefore, the first part of my research will be in the study of epic and hero comic books. Familiar with many different forms of literary criticism, I would like to learn more about some methods, particularly deconstruction and cultural studies. Cultural critics have done the most to include comic books in literary criticism, so I think that I must fully understand the perspective and apply it in my own readings of different comics. I also would like to become more knowledgeable about deconstruction, because the critics that have discussed the significant comics books of the 1980s have talked about them from this viewpoint. I wish to analyze comics of the 1980s and onward by discussing the change of the standard superhero, because the characters I will mostly focus on are the anti-heroes and the flawed heroes, individuals alienated from the rest of society. Among the many critics and cultural theorists that I plan to study are Stephen Kershnar on Batman’s dark motives for vigilantism, Scott McCloud who has written many books about comics as a distinct literary form, Iain Thomson on the deconstruction of the superhero, and Bradford Wright on the cultural value of comic books.

I intend to explore the origins and importance of the hero in mythology and literature, especially the epic hero and the tragic hero (by both Aristotle’s and Arthur Miller’s standards). Many of the traits of comic book characters have been drawn from those in myths, folklore, and literature; for example, Newbery Award winner Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is filled with characters from myths. Also, just as the traditional hero in literature has changed throughout the history, the traditional superhero of comics has changed. Different ages such as the Gold and Silver Ages (each dominated by separate comic publishing giants with their own directions) have carried with them changes in styles and themes.

Comics and their heroes have changed tremendously since the 1930s, but the 1980s are generally seen as the major turning point, marked by the acclaimed graphic novels Watchmen by Alan Moore and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I’ve chosen these two limited series comics published by DC Comics to start the bulk of my literary analysis because they are considered to have brought on the maturity of the genre with their further development of the anti-hero that had only been introduced to comic books in the previous decade. These comic book heroes exhibit nihilistic views of life and morality, presenting a world where the heroes cause nearly as much trouble as they resolve. Watchmen, in particular, has altered the notion of the hero by intertwining the lives of some of the most seriously and normally flawed characters with only one all-powerful superman. This has added a great amount of depth to the genre and its characters because the function and responsibility of the hero or vigilante in society seems to be in question within the genre that created him or her.

A recent example of this theme is Marvel Comics’ crossover event Civil War. This a culmination of previous crossover events (the most important of them was House of M) also led to its own significant changes in the Marvel Universe, not least of all the death of the ideal American hero, Captain America. Both Watchmen and Civil War involve legal Acts made to outlaw the anonymity of the masked vigilante and forces characters to face their own senses of morality and values and to decide whether or not to compromise those values. The characters also have to face their own identities: Are they masks or men?

, Civil War, and Superman: Red Son, among many others, also place their heroes in the midst of major historical events. The heroes of Watchmen and Red Son live under the two opposing world powers during the Cold War, and history has been rewritten to accommodate them and to show the negative impact that people can have in power. Civil War focused on that same theme by writing a new history in which the fear of terror has turned against the heroes on the home front. Certain comic book writers have an uncanny ability for commentary of different political and social situations.

Finally, after my analyses of these selections, I would like to discuss the role of comic books as source material for films. It seems as if these films may not always be based on long-existing materials. Marvel Comics published the first issue of a new comic titled Kick-Ass under its Icon imprint in April of 2008, and the film adaptation is currently in post-production. This could lead one to wonder whether this comic was tailor-made for the big screen rather than as its own form of art. Some of the movies based on comic books, such as Spider-man, have severely missed the mark when it comes to the morals and values behind the stories they draw from. Their heroes are reduced to having to simply beat the bad guy and win the girl. If writers begin to create comics to be adapted for the spectacle of the movie screen, there could be a complete lack of depth in the original writing.

Mar 17, 2009

"The Wizard of Oz" is visually wonderful, but it's a swift journey down that yellow-brick road

Eric Shanower, writer of five graphic novels about the land of Oz, is back with yet another, but this time the story isn't entirely his own. Published by Marvel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is a comic book version of the Frank L. Baum children's classic, but its writing has a much different feel.

There is a long tradition of non-canonical works about Baum's fictional land, and people in all different areas of arts and media seem to love the idea of recreating the classic any way they can. It only seems natural that Marvel would give it a shot, and Shanower must have seemed like their best candidate in choosing a writer. His history with Oz not only includes the five Dark Horse graphic novels but his illustrations for another set of Oz comics as well. Unfortunately, a history with Oz doesn't necessarily produce an adeptness at retelling a great story.

Shanower's writing is rushed, to say the least. Of course, he is trying to fit a novel into an 8-issue comic series, but that's no reason for the speed through which he blows through the story, much the way his tornado already begins to blow through by the third of 32 pages in the first issue. Maybe the assumption is that readers won't mind, as they know the story so well, but when Dorothy expresses her desire to return home from Oz I have no clue what she is yearning to return to. The story really lacks a sense of who Dorothy is and where she comes from, despite the images we are shown of her Kansas home. Henry and Em are merely a "farmer" and a "farmer's wife," and we have no idea what their relationship to their niece is. It proves that you can't rely on the classic status of a story to carry the weight of it adaptation.

The saving grace in all this is the artwork drawn by Skottie Young. Much different from the style typically adopted by Young in his artwork for other Marvel comics, the images seem like a combination of artwork in a typical children's book and standard comic book art style. The outlines are bold but also rough and sketch-like. The characters each have their own visual quirks, bringing life to them in a way that Shanower has not. From the artwork alone you can see Dorothy's innocence and naivete, and even the artwork depicting the hideous evil witches shows a lightheartedness suitable for the children's story.

Dorothy's three famous companions have been refashioned rather uniquely and have gained softer appearances, even Tin Man, and the appearances, for the most part, suit the chara cters. Scarecrow has a much goofier style with his big belly, lanky limbs, drawn eyes, and stitched smile. Lion looks more cowardly than ever thanks to a frizzy-looking mane that surrounds his massive head. Only Tin Man's design seems to be lacking a bit, as his mustache gives him a harsher look than expected.

Aside from individual characters, the backgrounds and scenery created by Young and the colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu are impressive. Images of Oz and Munchkin towns are vivid and exciting. Even the drab colors of the simple Kansas landscape were beautiful.

Overall, it isn't a bad choice for some of the younger comic readers and even some older art-oriented readers. Just don't expect to be wowed by an imaginative retelling of the well-known story.