Reviewing comics: process and theory

Hey there! I review comics and after a long conversation on reddit I’ve decided to write about writing about comics, based on what I’ve learned over the past year and a half that I’ve been doing it with any real regularity. In a startling example of arrogance and hubris, I think there’s a few things that could be useful for non-reviewers to understand about how the review process works and if there’s anyone who writes their own reviews then hopefully this could be of some use to them or form the basis of some discussion.

Reader beware! It seems I’m quite the self regarding so-and-so because this post turned out rather long. 

Process

When it comes to writing a review, there are certain things I look for in a single issue which I try to separate from my personal tastes in art, genre and storytelling techniques:

  • Catharsis. Payoff. Whatever you call it and however the story can deliver it I bloody well want some  in my comics – it can come in the form of action, emotional resolution, plot development, shock, etc – and when there is no catharsis in a comic that costs somewhere in the region of $2 to $4 then I feel ripped off (UK prices depend on the retailer – keep in mind I write about American comics for an American site with an American audience).
  • Competent and purposeful art. Again, regardless of style, I want the art to do its job of telling the story and actually adding something to the script.
  • A sense of design. Hard to quantify but when a comic has a clearly defined aesthetic utilising colour, typography, page layouts, lettering, etc, it is so much better than something which feels as though it was churned out on a standardised production line process.
  • Pacing. Again this depends on the type of story being told and number of pages available but generally a well paced comic strikes a balance between plot events, build up and characterisation.

There are also things I always mark down a comic for:

  • Wasted pages. In an expensive hobby, with comics that usually feature somewhere between 20 and 44 story pages, to dedicate entire pages on achieving nothing of note is a cardinal sin.
  • Poor dialogue and/or captions. I’m not expecting Quentin Tarantino here, but when dialogue is poorly done it stands out like a sore thumb. Characters should have their own voices which aren’t interchangeable. As for the captions, sometimes it’s best when a script allows the art to speak for itself; in spite of the fact that (as Kieron Gillen said) “the plot is the work” some have a tendency to forget they are writing for the artist and over-write their scripts with purposeless captions in order to be more visible to the reader (and possibly to justify their job).
  • Bad art. This is something I am very careful not to condemn too harshly, given that my own ability to draw is on a par with a 12 year old and that different art styles will appeal to different people or suit different purposes. Regardless, there are times when it is clear that a comic’s artwork fails to live up to its intended purpose; there are other times when art is obviously rushed out to a deadline with errors, or the storytelling otherwise unclear, lacking in emotion, dynamism or vibrancy.

For bonus points a comic can:

  • Do something I’ve never seen before.
  • Be ambitious – even if it falls short then it will still be more worthwhile than a comic which aims low and hits the mark.
  • Be meaningful and/or make me think differently about something.
  • Be clever and/or make me feel clever (OK I’ll admit that’s a subjective judgement and/or an appeal to my vanity – but whoever said “flattery won’t get you anywhere” was a god damned liar).

In graphic novels and paperback collections of ongoing comics there are a few things I approach differently, for example when it comes to structure I am much more forgiving towards decompressed and slower paced storytelling than in a single issue. Then again, if a paperback collection fails to provide catharsis or meaning in the significantly greater space available for storytelling I will condemn it much more harshly.

I also think it’s important to factor in the quality of the print, including paper stock and bindings. Most of the comics I review come in digital formats so I’m unable to evaluate them on their merits as printed piece of art but, speaking as a firm believer in the inherent value of comics and books as preservable physical objects, the quality of a comic’s production is vitally important. Within a decade from now (probably a lot less) the proliferation of low cost tablet computers (iPad, Android, etc) and e-readers (Kindle, Nook, etc) will be the death of most low value printed things, with only high quality and high desirability boutique items being worth the effort and costs involved in the printing process (alongside the likelihood of a robust market for second-hand books). Consequently, when I buy a printed graphic novel or comic today I don’t want it to look like a scrappy piece of unreadable shit if I look at it ten years down the line. Unfortunately, when you buy a monthly comic from Marvel or DC (or in some cases the collected paperbacks too), that’s exactly what you’re going to get unless you go accept the cost and effort required to preserve the paper; meanwhile it’s been left up to small or mid-size publishers like IDW, Image, Blank Slate Books, NoBrow, Self Made Hero or self published comics like Michel Fiffe’s outrageously brilliant Copra to fly the flag for print quality.

Image taken from Copra #1

Theory

There’s an impressive and rapidly expanding body of academic work dedicated to the critical analysis of comics, particularly coming from groups like Sequart or Graphixia (with post-grad courses like at Dundee University or online courses like ‘Gender Through Comics’ to boot), but I could never hope to articulate the theories behind such formal analyses in the space and time available to me here.  What I can do is briefly introduce some of the various other methods of reviewing that I’ve seen used by writers elsewhere and discuss their relative merits.

  • Descriptive with an attempt at forming a relatively objective assessment of functional qualities! That’s an awfully pretentious way of summing up everything I said under “process” above and it’s the method I generally try to achieve (with varying degrees of success) for my Comic Bastards reviews.
  • Straightforward self!  A lot of reviews are written this way and it’s perhaps the most honest way of imparting your personal experience of the comic to the review reader. When it’s done well it goes further than “I liked this because… I disliked this because…” and accounts for the reviewer’s subjectivity. The main drawback is that where a reviewer’s tastes differ from the reader’s, the reviews may prove to be less useful than other methods but conversely when you find a reviewer who speaks directly to your interests it is arguably among the most practical methods of discovering new comics.
  • Hyperbolic personae! Like the ‘straightforward self’ but with the reviewer writing as an exaggerated version of themselves. These tend to be ruder, cruder, funnier but often less practical (as a method of recommendation) than other styles.
  • Soapy stakeholder! A style of review that’s most commonly applied to superhero comics from Marvel and DC, simply because the stakeholder holds no stake in comics which aren’t a part of those fictive universes and is therefore uninterested. This kind of review focuses on discussing the merits of plot developments instead of craft, generally with emphasis on the emotional impact of these events and the interplay of long-established characters; they also tend to view comics that are heavy in fan-service more favourably than I do. There’s already something of the soap-opera in the structure of many superhero comics and this kind of review (whether consciously or not) is an actively buying into that soapy ‘permanent second act’ structure. Personally I have no use for reviews like this, I don’t give a damn about the ‘shocking revelation’ of Captain Trademark’s hidden history unless it’s part of a bloody good story that’s very well illustrated, but I do appreciate that a significant proportion of the market for ‘mainstream’ comics is targeted at highly invested fans/readers and this kind of review speaks directly and purposefully to their interests.
  • Group reviews! Several reviewers contribute their opinion and it all comes together to form a stronger whole – like Captain Planet. The advantages of this form are that it’s a lot less work for everyone involved and readers are given a multiplicity of viewpoints, increasing the likelihood that their own tastes will be accounted for. The main drawback is that it generally prevents deep analysis from any one contributor. We recently started doing these at Comic Bastards.
  • Meanings and metaphysics! A review which focuses on deconstructing and analysing the meanings and implicit values of a given comic, occasionally from a consciously subjective perspective. A good example would be Mindless Ones’ Batman Inc #6 review or their retrospective of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run. This is a fairly broad category, especially in terms of style, and it is something that is often included as one facet of a review that’s mostly written in one of the other styles I listed here – as exemplified in AV Club’s Big Issues. It’s also something I would like to do more, if only I had more time to do it.
  • Multi-review! A number of short summarised reviews grouped together to form a larger single article, generally covering a week’s most interesting releases. For this review format we can again look to the AV Club and their regular Comics Panel feature or another fine example from Mindless Ones.
  • Close reading and deep analysis! Bordering on the academic, this style of review is epitomised by the likes of Colin Smith’s ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Comics‘ blog, Sequart or Graphixia and serves a dual function of teaching readers about the comics form and advising whether or not they should buy a comic. I love reading this kind of work and I’d probably try write something like this myself if I didn’t already have a full time job.
  • Comicritical meta-comics! There’s a few of these kicking around the ‘net (e.g. Comic Critics and The Gutters) which I enjoy but generally these take the form of a commentary on the American comics industry rather than a individual comic. Given that the written word is the most effective method of reviewing prose fiction, why not review a comic through another comic? Depending on the legal technicalities of ‘Fair Use’ it might even be possible to incorporate a comic’s images directly into the panels of the review comic. Obvious drawback: the time it takes to make one.

(Looking over some of the examples I linked to above has proved to be a reminder of how  my own work is amateurish in many respects – clearly there’s a lot I still have to learn.)

There are other possible theoretical approaches to reviewing comics which I hope to discuss at some point in the future, as well as examining the various approaches in more depth.

Challenges

Besides the difficulties I mentioned in the sections above, there are a few other obstacles in the path of every reviewer which are worthy of consideration:

  • Art! We’re talking about comics not prose, so it’s absolutely crucial that art is discussed on an equal footing with the way a comic is written. From my point of view, it’s often the hardest part of a review or critical piece (partly because I’m trained to assess literature) and despite the sterling work by theorists like Scott McCloud (whose Understand Comics is the essential text for understanding comics) there’s not much of a formalised lexicon to fall back on. Generally I try to describe the style and I always praise artists who make intelligent use of the comics form as opposed to simply drawing pretty but disconnected pictures. It’s all about the layout!
  • Review scores! What’s the difference between “3/5”, “7/10”, “four stars” or any other shorthand for quantifying a qualitative judgement? Can these numbers ever really mean anything? How do we define these values? There’s an argument (espoused by the likes of my favourite gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun) to suggest that if a long form review is sufficiently thorough and well written then there’s no need to assign a score – readers should have figured out whether or not they’re interested from what you write. On the other hand, a scoring system can provide an efficient abbreviation of your review and can allow the review to mark up an assessment of comic’s quality that goes beyond their subjective opinion (i.e. they enjoyed the comic in spite of its poor quality or vice versa). Destructoid, another decent gaming site, has a definition of what their review scores mean adjacent to the “whatever/10” that I think is particularly useful for both reviewer and reader. At Comic Bastards we employ the “something/5” method, which I’m happy to use (particularly since the word count of a single issue’s review can’t be as lengthy as one for a 60 hour video game) but in hindsight I have looked back on my reviews and occasionally seen inconsistencies in my use of it. C’est la critique I guess. We’ve also started using a “Buy/Borrow/Ignore” rating for our contributions to the group reviews and, though that’s an even greater simplification of the critical thought process, it immediately communicates out recommendation to the reader with great efficiency.
  • Being fair to creators! This isn’t a problem when you’re saying positive things about a comic but I find that when I start to point out aspects of it which didn’t work or were lacking it weighs on my mind. It’s even harder when it’s obvious that the creators have put their heart and soul into the work yet it still comes out with significant flaws (and to be honest I’m always slightly more forgiving of self-published or indie comics). I particularly struggled in that regard with my review of Kuzimu, a labour of love where the creator’s artwork was astonishing but the story it served was a total mess. The challenge is to address your concerns while retaining full respect for the craft at work. Equally, sometimes it’s clear when reading that the creative team and publisher have rushed their product to print or produced work that is otherwise careless or substandard and in those instances they deserve to be castigated.
  • Spoilers! The bane of my existence (“haha hashtag first world problems” I hear you say – and you’d be right). Writing about comics and being a part of geeky online communities means that it can be bloody hard work for me to avoid having major plot points of popular stories spoiled in advance of their publication. I hate spoilers. I think the culture of “BIG SCOOP! CHARACTER X IS DOING BIG THING Y IN COMIC Z! OMG!” at certain notable websites and amongst a large section of fans shows a fundamental disregard for serialised comicbook fiction as an art form and reduces it to the level of a tabloid’s celebrity gossip column (but that’s another rant for another day and I appreciate that for most sites it’s simply a case of catering to demand). Did I mention how much I hate spoilers? Consequently, I try to keep them to a bare minimum in my reviews while still discussing the structure and relevant themes of a comic as much as possible.

And we’re done

Phew! That was a giant septic tank of self-indulgent guff for you to wade through; evidently this blog is aptly named. Thank you for reading! Time is a precious commodity and I appreciate your generosity.

For further reading check out Comic Bastards and you’ll see a greater variety of review styles than most of comicbook websites out there, which is one of the reasons why I think we’re rather good. 

‘Gender Through Comics’ (aka #SuperMOOC) – End of Week One Diary

Starting Tuesday April 2, Ball State University launched a pioneering foray into the world of online education with their course ‘Gender through comics’. Think of it as being like a literature module but without the formalised grading system (or the mammoth sized essays) and delivered entirely through a web based networks enhanced by social media. As you might have guessed from the title (and the existence of this post), I am participating in the course and so far it has been a lot of fun. It’s also free to join and as far as I’m aware there’s still a number of places available for people to join in.

The course examines the concept of gender in society – how it’s created from culture, how it effects us and how it can be reinforced or refuted through art – and applies feminist theory to comics. The course features live interviews with prominent writers and artists every Thursday night – this week’s was with Terry Moore (more on him below).

Week one mainly served as an introduction to the course, going over the basic questions we should be asking in order to analyse a comic through the lens of gender. Appropriately our first week was spent studying Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise and the first issue of Rachel Rising. Both are led by female protagonists and have other characters which subvert traditional gender roles, neither is an example of the superhero genre that stereotypically dominates the medium; Moore’s black and white artwork is as beautifully drawn as it is realistic, with his characters never feeling as though they are anything less than a believable individual even when their actions stray into ‘wish  fulfilment’  territory. Next week we will be studying Superman, through his earliest appearance in 1938’s Action Comics #1, a ‘silver age‘ Superman story and the more recent Birthright series.

Like any kind of literary study, you only get out what you put in and because there’s no grading or essays (mainly because it’s open to up to 7000 students) there’s nothing to stop you from simply refusing to do the work. Equally, those who do invest the recommended 5 to 10 hours a week in the discussion boards, social networking and supplementary reading are going to get a lot out of it.

The only real problem I have with the way the course functions is that the Canvas discussion board web design is functionally very poor. It’s far too difficult to keep track of the conversations you are participating in if you didn’t begin the thread because it doesn’t show up under the ‘discussion replies’ in your profile unless you created the thread. On a forum with thousands of users it’s extremely unwieldy and makes the course’s most essential classwork more awkward to participate in than it rightly should be. Other than that though, everything else about the studying process, the Canvas website, the teaching and the comics themselves has been fun and informative. I was very pleased to see that the course lecturer Christy Blanch was able to cut a deal with ComiXology, the world’s biggest digital comic distributor, to offer all the required reading at a significantly reduced rate.

For me, as someone who already considers himself pretty familiar with feminist/gender theory as applied to the written word and culture at large, it’s interesting to practice its application to sequential artwork (as well as getting a good refresher in the fundamentals of the gender). For those of you who aren’t interested in comics, or sees them as a purely childish pursuit that’s dominated by capes and costumes, the #SuperMOOC is an excellent opportunity to expand your horizons; while those of you who have never studied feminism can stand to learn a lot about our culture and how the gender roles/stereotypes it imposes on us impact on our lives.

Through comics. Awesome comics.

6 months since my last update? What the heck am I doing?

Hello, hello! I hope you are well and enjoying this most festive of weeks. It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything to this blog (busy busy, you see) so here’s a whole bunch of links to the work I have done elsewhere on teh interwebz:

Video game story review things

A couple of months ago I was invited by the thoroughly decent man o’ words Emmet O’Cuana to write a couple of guest articles over on his website The Momus Report. So instead of talking about books or comics (or anything I’m experienced in or trained to do) I decided to review two PC games and – being the pretentious sod that I am – I thought the best way to do this would be in the style of prose fiction…

Going Home… To A Place called Black Mesa

Thank You For The DayZ (with audio sections read by Emmet)

Still rockin’ dem camix

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web… Bastards! Comic Bastards!

For quite a while now I’ve been writing regular reviews alongside other members of the CB team, generally covering individual issues of monthly comics but also looking at full length graphic novels. I also pop up with occasional editorial features (like my thoughts on Marvel’s huge post-movie relaunch or my top five indie/alternative superheroes) and contributed to our end-of-year highs and lows roundup.

Here’s some of my personal highlights from the many reviews I’ve written over the last half-year since I joined CB:

Wild Children (hallucinogenic meta-fiction with gun-toting teenagers)

The Black Beetle #0 (a modern homage to classic pulp comics)

The Manhattan Projects #5 (a darkly comedic alt-history/sci-fi)

Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity #1 (eccentric, charming sci-fi/fantasy)

The Zaucer of Zilk #1 (psychedelic pop madness with a strong moral core)

Nonhumans #1 (a dark distopian post-human future)

Chew: Secret Agent Poyo (hyperactive action/comedy)

Change #1 (a surreal genre mash-up drawing upon Lovecraftian ideas)

Kuzimu (horror fantasy inspired by west-African tribal mythology)

Classic Popeye #1 (republished Popeye comics from the 1940s)

You can also click here for a full list of my CB work.

As you can probably imagine, all of this writing for Comic Bastards has led to me reading far more funny-books than I could ever hope to afford otherwise, so I’m looking forward to being spoilt for reading choices throughout 2013. If you’re at all interested in comics and graphic novels (hey there Walking Dead fans) then I urge you to check out the site – we’re all dedicated fans of the medium and we would love to point you in the direction of the best it has to offer.

Well then, I suppose that will have to do for now. Thank you for reading (you’re awesome) and I wish you the happiest of new years!

a right Bastard (of the Comic variety)

Hey there Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms/gender-neutral/??/Sir/Lord/Lady/Yo/Dr/Prof/ blog-reader person, how do you do? I hope you’re having a nice day.

Okay, enough with the pleasantries – let’s get to the bottom line: I’m very pleased to announce that I’m now a regular contributor to Comic Bastards, an up and coming American website about comics and related geeky things.

I’ll generally be reviewing two single-issue comics every week in advance of their Wednesday release date, which is an interesting challenge for me because I’m used to writing long, rambling articles about full length graphic novels with no deadline to work to. It means shorter, more focused pieces with a personal twist, and hopefully it will teach me to produce a readable review in fewer drafts. If nothing else I’m delighted to get the extra exposure (and some press/review edition comics).

Here’s my Comic Bastards reviews so far (in chronological order):
Haunt #24
Chew: Special Agent Poyo #1
Enormous
Wild Children
Dark Horse Presents #14 
The Manhattan Projects #5

With more to come soon!

Be sure to check out the main Comic Bastards site, for news, reviews, editorial opinions and a highly entertaining podcast. It’s growing all the time and is staffed with people who genuinely love their hobby.

Silver Surfer: Parable – the Stan Lee manifesto

When two titans of any artistic medium collaborate on a project it is bound to attract attention; when a graphic novel produced by Stan Lee and the late Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), two colossi standing astride American comics and French bande dessinee respectively, is reprinted for the first time in fourteen years it practically reached out, slapped my sun-starved face around and ordered me to read.

Originally published in 1988 as a two part mini-series, Silver Surfer: Parable has recently been reprinted in a new ‘deluxe’ hardcover edition featuring an introduction by Stan Lee, a fascinating afterword by Moebius explaining the artistic process behind the graphic novel, and a somewhat unnecessary additional Silver Surfer story from 1990 (Silver Surfer: The Enslavers). The story of Parable is relatively simple*: Galactus, an alien being of unfathomable power who feeds upon entire planets, returns to Earth (having previously sworn an oath not to attack it) and demands that all humanity to worship him as a god (as a way of circumventing his oath) so that he can eventually consume our world; the Silver Surfer (who is himself a powerful alien being living amongst us in exile) sees through Galactus’s plot and fights a hopeless battle to save us. Yet this simplicity belies the moral and philosophical worth of Parable, which stands in stark contrast to the occasionally thoughtless (and sometimes despicable) fare served up by many contemporary superhero comics**. Stan Lee’s writing often feels unnecessarily elaborate (much more suited to an earlier era of thought-balloons and paternalistic narration than post-1980s comics), but in this book he shows enough restraint to allow Moebius’s art to speak for itself and his un-naturalistic dialogue is strangely suited to the grandiose visuals and biblical tone of Parable.

Perhaps the main weakness of Parable is that it lacks the wider appeal of other literary superhero stories (such as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns). It doesn’t feature a character who is popular amongst mainstream audiences, it doesn’t take place in a self-contained world, nor does it break new ground for the genre in a way that attracts the praise of literature critics. The individual styles of Lee or Moebius won’t be to everyone’s liking; Parable seems far more likely to alienate people who don’t often read comics than those aforementioned works and, though it is impossible to account for personal taste, I suspect the doubly idiosyncratic nature of this comic might have prevented it from reaching the level of popular acclaim it deserves. Being out of print since 1998 probably didn’t help either.

The fusion of French and American artistic styles in Parable helps it to stand apart from any other Marvel comic, especially other works of the same period. Moebius made a conscious effort to adapt his working methods to the American tradition – drawing action sequences from Kirby-esque perspectives with rougher, more dynamic pencil sketches than usual – which he then inked over with the grandiose landscape panels, flowing anatomy and laser-like precision that was his hallmark. Moebius and Lee used the ‘Marvel method’ of collaboration to develop the story, where the writer gives the artist the plot, the artist draws the page layouts and the writer returns to flesh out those pages with dialogue and captions, possibly also suggesting some alterations – which shows how far out of his comfort zone Moebius was prepared to work. He also chose to use the more limited palette of colours that was traditionally utilised by American comics (compared to their European counterparts). Despite the radically different approach, the artwork within Parable is immediately recognisable as having Moebius’s idiosyncratic style, even down to the lettering – which, unusually for an American comic, he did himself. Moebius’s illustrations conjure up an incredible sense of scale on the page, with careful arrangements of  empty space juxtaposed against areas of intensely detailed ink lines, and the qualities he brought to the comic made Parable aesthetically unique within the superhero genre.

The purpose of a parable is to use a narrative to suggest how we should behave or what we should believe, it should therefore be obvious from the title that this story that Lee has a moral lesson to teach us. Though Parable appears on the surface to be a story about religion, featuring masses of people proselytising before a would-be god, an evangelical charlatan and the messianic Silver Surfer, it is actually closer to being an allegory about two different ways we relate with and respond to power. On the one side is the all-powerful Galactus and his self-appointed high priest Colton, both of whom prey upon the weak to sustain or increase their power; on the other side stands the Silver Surfer and Colton’s sister Elyna, who put their principles first, despite the impossible odds they’re faced with, and seek to inspire ordinary people to draw strength from each other as well as themselves. To illustrate this, I’ve included a few quotations below:

“I am come to set you free, free from guilt! Free from worthles man-made laws! If you would be saved, do what you will! Take what you will! There is no wrong! There is no sin! Pleasure is all!”

“Consequences are for lesser beings, I am Galactus. That is sanction enough.”

– Galactus

“Truth is but an abstraction. Power is all!”

– Colton

“In truth, any man can make a difference. It is not given to us to know whether we shall succeed or not. In failure there is no disgrace. There can be but one ultimate shame… the cowardice of not having tried.”

“Flawed as man may be, he has ever aspired to nobility, despite war and crime, poverty and pestilence, the human spirit still burns bright.”

“Only the coward or sycophant worships power and might.”

– Silver Surfer

“Why did the supreme being give us minds if not to use them? Are we just sheep to blindly follow the mad dictates of a stranger?”

– Elyna

When applied to society at large, Lee’s message is clear: we must put our noblest aspirations before our cynicism and pragmatism if there is to be any hope of advancing human civilisation. Yet the dialectic between the two opposing ideologies represented above also invites us to question the superhero genre itself and our enjoyment of it: just what is it that we value most about these marvellous super-people? Is it the powers they possess or the values they represent?

Given the date of Parable‘s initial publication I find it difficult not to view it in the context of what was happening to the superhero genre at that time. The popular and critical success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – among others – only a few years earlier had elevated superhero fiction to a new level of sophistication and helped to make their audiences receptive to a different kind of caped caper; it’s doubtful that this could have escaped Lee’s attention and, by working with as gifted an artist as Moebius on such a contemplative story as Parable, it’s possible that he wanted to show that he could do it too. If that’s true, he did so in some style:  Parable won the prestigious Eisner award for ‘Best Finite Series’ in 1989 (equivalent to winning the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’). Today (and ever since the explosion of grim n’ gritty superheroes in the early 1990s^), it seems as though too few super-comics remember the lesson Lee preached in Parable: it takes a lot more than a brightly coloured costume to separate the heroes from the monsters they fight against.

I expected to enjoy Parable for its artwork, and in that respect Moebius certainly did not disappoint, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the comic as a whole. Stan Lee’s abilities as a publicist and his remarkable capacity for dreaming up fantastical characters^* have often been praised but, if it wasn’t already apparent from the message espoused by such creations as Spider-man (“with great power comes great responsibility”), Silver Surfer: Parable shows us that beneath all the flash and bombast of his public persona is a concerned and thoughtful man.

———————————————-

Details, details

Silver Surfer: Parable is published by Marvel Comics and the current hardcover edition was released on 16 May 2012. Story by Stan Lee, with artwork (including colours and lettering) by Moebius. It should be available from all worthwhile comic-book retailers and many regular bookshops, but if you’re having trouble finding a copy you can always feed the corporate uber-beast and buy it from Amazon like I did.

———————————————-

Endnotes

* I said relatively simple. The story doesn’t involve any other superheroes and, unlike a lot of Marvel’s comics, you don’t need to be literate in the company’s shared universe for anything to make sense.

** I’m not suggesting that all superhero comics should be philosophical masterpieces or anything like that, but when Spider-man and Captain America torture people it sends out some (*ahem*) mixed messages about what Marvel think a hero is supposed to be. Either Dan Slott & Marvel’s editorial staff think that torture is okay or they simply didn’t care enough to think through the implications of the scene – I can’t decide which of those alternatives is the most troubling.

^ If there was ever a better example of a sub-genre’s writers completely missing the point than the post-Alan Moore/Frank Miller boom in ‘dark’ comics then I’d love to know. More blood, more boobs and bigger guns does not always make for better comics.

^* Spider-man, the X-Men, Iron Man, The Hulk… the list goes on and on (and on and on). Rather than waste my time copying and pasting it all, it’s probably better for us both if you take a look at the extensive wikipedia page.

fingz wot aye bin in an dun

It’s been a while since I last uploaded anything to this blog so I thought I’d post a quick update on what I’ve been writing lately (because that’s like totally interesting to *so many* people) and include a few links to some websites I’d like to recommend.

I wrote a short story just before Christmas which I submitted to an upcoming indie anthology called As Above So Below and was both surprised and delighted to have it accepted! It’s extremely rare for me to even my fiction writing, so as you can probably imagine I was pretty chuffed. You can find out a little more about this collection here. Early versions of the various stories will be serialized online prior to full publication. The previous anthology from the same editor (The Red Phone Box) features a story from none other than the mighty Warren Ellis (who wrote this) and I am fortunate enough to be receiving a review copy to write about when it is ready for release.

I am now contributing to a very cool website called Tastes Like Comics, for which I just finished my first article ‘Politics & the Hero: a personal view’ (and y’all can make me very happy by giving it a read). I intend to write a lot of shorter comic reviews for them as well as my usual long, rambling pieces, so in future this blog will probably contain considerably fewer articles about comics (and that’s no bad thing, variety being the spice of life).

If you’re at all interested in comics or nerd culture then be sure to check out Tastes Like Comics. It’s a great site that’s jam-packed with quality articles written by genuine enthusiasts and covers all sorts of geekery, not just the realm of comic books.

Another website I think anyone interested in comics should check out is the Comic Bastards. I actually was the recipient of a brief shout-out on their latest podcast, which was the highlight of an otherwise dreary Monday (it also features the best outro I’ve ever heard on a podcast). In an indistinguishable ocean of websites seeking to emulate Aint It Cool News these guys are a lifeboat of refreshing frankness and strong opinion. I don’t always agree with what they have to say but I certainly enjoy hearing them say it.

Also, I have just begun working on a couple of scripts for comic books, which I will then use to make fully scripted page layouts. Because my drawing skills are extremely limited I would love to find an artist I could collaborate with. On the off-chance that someone reading this can draw and is relatively local to me (i.e. somewhere vaguely close to the cities of Winchester/Southampton, UK) then please get in touch with me through my twitter account (or using the comments below if you prefer). My current thinking is that if we were able to produce a finished product then I’d self-publish a limited print run through a local press and also sell electronic format copies online, but I’m willing to cross that bridge if and when I come to it.

Romance, regret and the function of fantasy in ‘Spider-man: Blue’

First, a confession of bias:

Some readers might wonder why my reviews tend to accentuate the positive, rather than drawing attention to what I didn’t like, or what I’d rather see; and after all isn’t an affectation of wearied cynicism the mark of a truly discerning consumer/reviewer? The reason for this is simple: I can’t be bothered. In the limited time that I have I would rather review and recommend the things I like than to spend another moment thinking and writing about the things I don’t. If someone was prepared to pay me a fee or salary for my opinion then I’d happily review crap material and call it like I see it, but nobody does, so I won’t. One day I might write a bullet point list of books, TV and videogames that you shouldn’t waste your money on. Maybe.

Also: I love Spider-man.

With that out of the way, let’s proceed…

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-man: Blue is a special creation, a superhero graphic novel that can be enjoyed equally by new readers and hardcore fans alike. It revisits the early years of Peter Parker’s web-slinging career, when he was still a college freshman struggling to make ends meet, and tells the tale of how he fell in love with the gorgeous Gwen Stacy prior to her tragic death (a watershed moment in the history of American comics) at the hands of his arch-enemy Green Goblin/Norman Osborne. For a superhero story, it is sweet, sensitive and surprisingly profound.

It is impossible to discuss this piece without talking about the superb illustration, so let’s begin there. Tim Sale’s artwork is in Blue is a homage to the style of John Romita (who was at the forefront of Marvel’s ground-breaking artistic team during the ‘silver age‘ of comics, replacing Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966, illustrated ‘Spidey’ through some of his most iconic years) and has a distinctly retro feel that I find particularly appealing. Sale’s lines are clean and uncomplicated; while the use of colour is simplified, especially in comparison to the level of realism often found in modern Marvel comics such as Civil War. Throughout Spider-man: Blue Sale uses large swathes of colour as indicators of mood, which is appropriate for a comic that strives to be as accessible and relatable as this does. When a comic’s illustration is further away from being a symbolic representation and closer to being a photo-realistic reproduction of its subject it becomes more difficult for readers to personally relate to its characters, and it is this kind of engagement that is absolutely essential in order to allow Loeb’s narrative to function. Scott McCloud (author of the brilliant Understanding Comics and inventor of the ‘big triangle‘) calls this the “amplification through simplification” effect. This isn’t to suggest that the incredibly detailed images with perfect flesh tones and multiple differentiated light sources which typify Marvel’s contemporary creations aren’t beautiful, they are most impressive indeed, merely that that they can be far less effective for the kind of emotionally driven storytelling seen in Spider-man: Blue.

Tim Sale's reworking of Mary Jane Watson's famous first appearance.

Spider-man’s popularity is due, in part, to how his fans were able to easily identify with the character, in stark contrast to competing superheroes such as Batman (an obscenely wealthy genius) or Superman (a god-like alien). Whilst these characters have all evolved over time, it was their earlier incarnations that established the core character concepts and set the tone for what was to come. But in order to fully understand the unique appeal of Spider-man, and why Blue works so well, we must look a little deeper. When Peter Parker first became Spider-man he was a bullied high school student, shy, socially awkward (especially around girls) and possessing a deep sense of self-loathing, in short: a ‘nerd like us’ with added spider powers. The strength of the traditional superhero genre is in its capacity to offer us an escape from reality to a place where the good guy (usually) wins, justice (generally) prevails, bullies get taught a lesson in humility (even if it is by a guy in spandex) and the world can be put to rights with a well aimed punch; essentially a form of wish-fulfilment fiction and, in this regard, Spider-man is no exception. Where Spidey differs from the superheroes that preceded him is that his unmasked self is equally as important in his ongoing story as his costumed persona, to the extent that The Amazing Spider-man has been described as a ‘soap opera for boys’ and it is this trait in combination with the wish-fulfilment function which generates the character’s unique appeal. Parker’s powers enable him to be a surrogate for his fans, acting out the ‘amazing fantasy‘ that his super-heroism represents for us before returning to a more mundane and relatable existence. Furthermore, it is this relatable, childish fantasy aspect of Spider-man that makes the style used by Sale so suited to the story told in Blue; because by asking us to engage our own imagination to interpret its images Spider-man: Blue effectively invites us to place ourselves in the story, to picture Parker’s triumphs and defeats as our own.

You go Gwen.

The period of character development that is revisited in Blue is particularly significant to Spidey fans because we see Parker develop from the social outsider he was at school, a disliked “bookworm” bullied by the likes of Flash Thompson, to someone whose intelligence and kindness starts to shine in a college environment, “an okay guy” suddenly attracting attention from the fairer sex. This isn’t to say that his problems go away, far from it, but it is heartening for any nerd to witness one of their fellows growing into their own skin. Loeb demonstrates Parker’s elevated status by contrasting his fortunes to those of his rival Flash, a former high-school football star, who is unable to comprehend why the likes of Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson are drawn to Parker and begins to feel that his life lacks purpose.

Parker’s superhero career having adverse (and often devastating) consequences for his friends and family is a consistent theme across the numerous publications he has appeared in and Blue is no exception. His attempts at romance and socialising are repeatedly frustrated by either his sense of duty driving him to rush off to fight a costumed villain (because “with great power comes great responsibility”) or by an enemy (literally) bursting into the room. Ultimately Peter’s dual-life would mean the death of Gwen Stacy, though Loeb has, perhaps wisely, chosen to reflect upon but not to include the event itself in this particular story. The suggestion by some fans and commentators that Gwen, not MJ, was always Peter’s ‘true love’ is heavily drawn upon by Loeb in this narrative and the retrospective romance of Blue is persistently shaded by Peter’s sense of regret.

I can't say enough good things about Sale's artwork; it has the dynamism of Marvel's late-60's classics and a contemporary eye for detail.

Key moments of Parker’s life from the ‘Gwen Stacy’ period have been incorporated into Blue, woven into a single narrative focused on the progression of Peter and Gwen’s relationship, as well as an enigmatic enemy hunting Spidey from the shadows, and are thereby given greater significance in the context of its condensed form. Amazingly, the plot of this book is entirely self-contained and can be read independently of any other Spider-man material.

Perhaps the greatest success of Blue is that it can be enjoyed by new readers as much as by the most dedicated of fans; and whilst the book requires no prior knowledge of its characters for the plot to make sense it also manages to avoid any unnecessary exposition. Rather than re-writing or replacing established continuity (like DC have, time and time again) Loeb’s story intertwines with and expands upon existing history, offering a fresh look at Spider-man for long term followers and an ideal introduction for potential new fans.

This book is not without flaws. It is arguable that a book about the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy should feature more of Gwen Stacy, who remains an enigmatic figure, and less of Mary Jane. Loeb’s decision to use Peter Parker speaking into a tape recorder, complete with a “klik…whrrrr” sound effect, to frame the chapters is probably an unnecessary flourish and occasionally feels awkward. There are also several instances where Loeb has crammed too much dialogue into a fight scene, an unfortunate trait that has generally been eliminated from contemporary comics, and though this may have been a deliberate decision to replicate Romita and Lee’s Spider-man era, it occasionally felt forced. Some critics have chosen to criticise Sale’s artwork for lacking detail in some panels (especially in the background) but for me this is an endearing example of Blue’s retro charm and, as I stated earlier, an accurate reproduction of reality would totally alter the tone of the comic. For the most part these imperfections are born of deliberate artistic decisions by Loeb and Sale and, on the whole, they are minor complaints that hardly hinder the story itself.

If you buy just one Spider-man book in your life then I suggest you buy Spider-man: Blue. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of its authors for them to have crammed so much of what has made Spider-man/Peter Parker such an appealing character to generations of readers into one book. Most importantly: it’s a great piece of escapist fiction, in the best tradition of Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale – take a bow.

Gwen Stacy, by Tim Sale... 'nuff said.

If you’re interested in reading more self-contained graphic novels by Marvel then you might be pleased to know that there are several new works coming soon. It’s clear that Marvel are showing a desire to expand upon their previously limited, though generally well-received, efforts in the graphic novel format (such as The Sentry, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or Daredevil: Yellow), with the announcement of the ‘Season One‘ range. These are similar to Spider-man: Blue (or DC’s highly successful Batman: Year One and Superman: Earth One books) in so far as they are a contemporary return to the origins of Marvel’s most popular characters. I believe this represents a step in the right direction for an industry that is notorious for struggling to attract new readers, and as the demand for original graphic novels continues to grow (to the point where they can be considered relatively mainstream) it would seem sensible for the ‘big two’ to make use of their most recognisable properties to attract consumers from a demographic who won’t want to grapple with five decades worth of established continuity.

Additionally: I apologise profusely for the amount of alliteration I have tried to crowbar into this piece, it is an attempt at tendering a tenuous tribute to the technique’s proudest proponent, Spider-man’s own inimitable inventor: the sensational Stan Lee! (I really hope that last bit wasn’t as painful and cringe-inducing for you to read as it was for me to write. I promise not to do it again.)

I would have liked to have examine the “function of fantasy” in the success of Spider-man further in this piece than I have but I had to draw the line somewhere and actually finish this thing; perhaps I will be able return to the subject in the future.