Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Talon #1 (December, 2012)

Hearing that the Batman had brought down the Court of Owls, Calvin Rose returned to Gotham City to see if he truly was free. Entering their headquarters, Rose set off an alarm that drew the attention of two very interested parties. The first was a female undead Talon, who survived several killing blows in combat with Rose. Calvin finally stopped her by stabbing the Talon through the head and shocking her brain with the conducted electricity of a Taser. The second interested party was Sebastian Clark, who killed the still twitching Talon by pouring liquid nitrogen on her head. Clark then took the injured and soon unconscious Rose back to his secret lair.

Erastus Clark had written a book called "The Secret History of the Court of Owls: The Truth Behind Gotham's Most Frightening Folk Tale." He and everyone else who had ever come into contact with the book were murdered, except his son Sebastian, who survived under an alias with the sole remaining copy. Now aged, Sebastian Clark had used his technology and connections to learn more about the Court of Owls than any man alive. While the Batman had struck the cultish operation a hard blow, they would surely recover unless the offensive was pressed while they were weak. Despite his protestations, Calvin Rose was eventually convinced to do what Sebastian Clark himself could not-- act as the agent of the Owls' destruction, "Ripped apart by one of their own talons..."

"The Gotham Trap" was by James Tynion IV & Scott Snyder on story, Guillem March on art. There's a phenomenon with TV show pilots where the creators put all of their heart and soul into that positive first step, then totally stumble on the second. This was that. Picking at threads from a Batman Family crossover like a vulture snacking on a corpse, the heroic Talon battled a villainous Talon again as they talked about how secret and unbeatable the Court of Owls were some more. An arch exposition spewing supporting character was thrust into the narrative as good Talon acted like an idiot to maintain trumped up drama. Despite reams of exposition, I as a non-Batman reader felt like I was missing important details that the writers assumed I should know, despite this being a solo series that I had read every issue of to this point. The artist only got to draw three characters in this story, and I got tired of looking at them after a while. In the end, good Talon finally accepted his life's mission, which I thought he'd already done in #0, as well as donning the horrible official Talon costume I'd forgotten he was stuck with because he looked decent for two issues without it. This comic effectively undid all the good will built up by the debut.

New 52's Day

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Warner Brothers versus Marvel Studios

Pulp heroes like Tarzan preceded comic strip heroes like Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy in becoming movie serials. It wasn't until 1941 that comic book super-heroes began appearing with Adventures of Captain Marvel. Batman and Captain America, along with several other now forgotten long underwear types, had years worth of head start on Superman. However, 1948's Kirk Alyn-starring Superman was just about the biggest serial ever, followed by Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950. The serials were dying out though, so Superman and the Mole Men was released as a feature film the following year, and then the whole shebang was moved to television with Adventures of Superman (1952-1958.) By that point, DC Comics was essentially the only game in super-heroics, and their properties dominated the airwaves throughout the 1950s-1970s.

Marvel Comics began to erode DC's heroic hegemony in the 1960s, but didn't offer truly noteworthy competition until the live action Incredible Hulk (1977-1982) and the various animated Spider-Man series. DC maintains a relative monopoly on live action television shows, but has been in constant conflict with Marvel for cartoon viewers since the 1990s. DC had the prestigious, well written, fluidly illustrated Bruce Timm shows, and Marvel had a flood of clunky fan-baiting crap, which was nonetheless perfect for the Chromium Age viewership. Marvel had considerably more trouble breaking into feature films, lacking the licensing power and recognition of DC. Where the first Batman and Superman films were boffo successes that paved the way for more four-color features, Marvel seemed bound to close every door DC opened, beginning with the notorious bomb Howard the Duck in 1986. It took another twelve years for Marvel to manage an actual (if minor) hit with Blade. In 2000, the X-Men arrived, and both features became trilogies. The sea change turned into a tsunami with 2002's Spider-Man, becoming a massively lucrative franchise. Other film companies had varying degrees of success with Marvel characters, but the true game changer was the formation of Marvel Studios to exploit their own properties, beginning with 2008's Iron Man. For the first time, the breadth of comic book "universes" had traveled with the characters into the cinema, allowing Marvel properties to support one another, and providing a consistency of quality supervision.

With Marvel's The Avengers earning 1½ Billion Dollars, there's been a major push at Warner Brothers to replicate that success. This forgets that The Dark Knight Rises made $1.1B the same summer. I've often taken the WB to task for fixating on Superman and Batman at the expense of all other DC properties, but there's something to be said for that focus. Besides keeping those characters vital and highly profitable for much of the past seventy years, Warner Brothers have so mythologized their role in popular culture that their films are increasingly approached as art. The pedigree of their directors and the operatic scope of their films are deemed worthy of Oscar attention. Marvel Studios want to be your friend-- they're funny and hip, but are they truly timeless? Personally, I liked Thor well enough on first viewing, but found it a tiresome, lightweight Superman 2 retread on home video. I watched Captain America: The First Avenger three times at the theater (with the specific goal of matching my previous inadvertent most seen projected film, the 1989 Batman) and several more times at home. I remain quite content with it, but is that because I have so much more love for that character, or perhaps because the Star-Spangled Avenger is the closest thing Marvel has demonstrated to DC's grandeur? On the other hand, I've liked the Iron Man movies in first run, but have found my appreciation grows through repeat viewing (my girlfriend throws them on all the time) and retroactive relevance. For instance, I hated Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2, but the improvements made to her character and performance in Avengers make me appreciate Black Widow more in her first movie through continuity.

That having been said, I see major problems in the future with Marvel's approach. At some point, Robert Downey Jr. is going to retire as Tony Stark. So far, a substantial amount of the appeal of the Marvel Movieverse has been based around personality, most specifically his. Marvel's The Avengers is a great film because Robert Downey Jr. got to bounce off of Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Samuel L. Jackson, just as what makes the Iron Man movies is his repartee with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle and the rest. Take Downey out of that equation, and do you really care about what these guys get up to? The "Phase Two" pictures are focusing more on the individual heroes' stories, but with the origins and build up to forming the Avengers dispensed with, how strong are the properties on their own? Captain America has the benefit of being a defacto S.H.I.E.L.D. movie and quasi-sequel to The Avengers by carrying Nick Fury, Black Widow, Maria Hill and even Jasper Sitwell with him. Thor has... the Dark Elf? Guardians of the Galaxy are relying on James Gunn, which should hopefully allow them a Joss Whedon style commercial victory for signing a cult favorite, but there's no guarantee in that. I must also confess that they went and killed my absolute favorite character of the entire Marvel Movieverse, Agent Phil Coulson as played by Clark Gregg. Knowing that Coulson won't be in any more movies is honestly and surprisingly a blow to my enthusiasm for the whole franchise, plus I now have this strange urge to watch episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Marvel Studios' approach owed a lot to Fox's X-Men films, which are themselves struggling to reinvent themselves. They've retained Hugh Jackman's star-making turn as Wolverine, and fortunately for the studios, his charm has never seemed to carry him past playing Logan again and again. However, Wolverine is a physically demanding role, and Jackman's getting older, plus he's associated with some very unloved installments of the franchise. The X-Men are sold as an ensemble, and has already proven capable of swapping characters and actors in and out in a way I'm not confident Marvel could with their Avengers. Wolverine is bigger than Hugh Jackman, so while I'm sure he's welcome to the part long term, you can get another surly, charismatic, well-built actor to portray Logan and still have a guaranteed audience. Further, Fox is rebooting their half-hearted Fantastic Four franchise, so even after losing the rights to Daredevil, they still have plenty of material to start their own cinematic universe of Marvel characters.

Marvel's biggest, easiest sell of a character remains Spider-Man, which Sony retains the rights to. The approach to the Spider-Man movies have been more grand, so while I wouldn't count on seeing a Black Cat spin-off anytime soon, Sony will continue to draw eyes to their Web-Slinger, who will inevitably compete with both Marvel and Fox for blockbuster dollars. Sony also proved with their soft reboot The Amazing Spider-Man that despite comparatively softer returns, they could return to the web-slinging business much more quickly after the broadly disliked Spider-Man 3 than Warner Brothers could after Batman & Robin or Superman Returns stunk up the place. Sony could even mingle Ghost Rider in there, not than anyone's dying to see that, but it could be a bridge to a darker franchise involving characters like Venom, Morbius and Carnage.

Warner Brothers has faced a lot of criticism for their handling of the DC Comics heroes, especially in light of how well the Marvel characters are doing across three other studios. They're also the people that brought us Supergirl, Steel, Catwoman, and Jonah Hex, besides running Superman and Batman aground at various points. To my mind, Green Lantern was their greatest recent failure. It was clearly an attempt to create their own Iron Man, but with none of the passion or clarity of vision that launched Marvel Studios. Instead, disinterested hacks had gobs of money thrown at them, and the first legitimate attempt to expand the DC film universe beyond the World's Finest duo performed poorly enough that everyone involved seem to hope it will simply drift out of the public consciousness. Curiously, it reminded me a lot of that first disastrous Marvel movie, Howard the Duck, from the casting of Tim Robbins to the scattershot tone to the poorly played thin characters to the visual excess... all in service to a formulaic plot. Nothing seemed left to chance, with a script worked over into a safe, dull patchwork of tropes that failed to connect to an audience. Warner Brothers adopted all of the trickiest aspects of the Marvel shared universe and botched the execution of all of them. It's frankly terrifying to think of their attacking the Justice League property with the same mercenary, misguided zeal.

I'm personally disdainful of two out of the three Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films, but I think that even if Warner Brothers could manage to properly replicate the Marvel Studios formula, they would still be just one of several studios trying to produce that same sort of super-hero movie. Richard Donner, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan defined the Warner Brothers approach of treating comic book properties respectfully as a form of modern mythology, while Sam Raimi successfully applied that interpretation to Sony's Spider-Man films. The three super-heroes chosen as their subjects are inarguably among the most important in popular culture, and by taking them seriously, this trinity have risen above all others in longevity, relevance, and of most concern to studios, profitability. Zack Snyder approached Watchmen with a similar aesthetic, and while that property lacked legs with the general public, signs point to Man of Steel being something truly special under his hand. For gods sakes, they have a completed script for a Wonder Woman movie by Joss Whedon sitting in a drawer, so what exactly is the hold-up in getting a director and filming one of the only other characters that could compete on a world stage with Superman and Batman in recognizability?

At the same time, Warner Brothers has to understand that the Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter and most of their other properties have been consigned to Super Friends and Justice League reruns for years, with far less of a resonance than most Marvel characters. They don't have to spend a fortune on each of them, but they will need to take chances and recruit daring, committed filmmakers to make properties such as those resonate with modern audience (with Guillermo del Toro's Dark Universe being an excellent initial step.) I think that Warner Brothers should allow Marvel to have its day, since the inter-dependency of their movies will likely feel structural stresses as their current actors age, falter or price themselves out of service. Marvel Studios can't reboot any one of their properties without having to restart their entire universe, and they don't have the strength of a Spider-Man or Wolverine to fall back on if Iron Man doesn't fly with, say, Jesse Eisenberg under the hood. I feel it's best for Warner Brothers to take the long view, to set aside the time and effort to make each of the best loved DC heroes work in their own individual features. Then, when the heat of Marvel's moment has passed and they're trying to figure out how to make things work on tight budgets with lesser actors and characters, Warner Brothers can blow everyone's minds with an epic, sturdy Justice League film to bowl over the next generation of viewers. In the meantime though, how about that awesome Wonder Woman already?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Talon #0 (November, 2012)

A boy of eight was locked in an old, isolated dog kennel by his father and left to die. For three days, the boy tried to break free, until he finally gave up and prepared for death. This resignation allowed the boy the peace of mind to spot a weak link in his chain and smash it with a rock just so. The boy fled, eventually finding himself at Haly's Circus, training under an aged escape artist. The old man passed away within a few years, but the boy had learned his act in full, and was prepared to star in the Gotham City Spectacular at age thirteen. Instead, with much sadness, Mr. Haly offered a private show for the Court of Owls, a secret society that ruled the metropolis. Having proven his outstanding abilities and with the nudge of his "rat" father's wickedness as a motivation, Calvin Rose agreed to stay in Gotham and train as an agent of the Owls.

Rose was instructed in the martial arts, developed incredible stealth skills, and displayed exceptional aptitude in circumventing security systems. In his teens, Rose was placed in a labyrinth and forced to overcome and execute an older agent that he was intended to replace. Rose was then left with the corpse in the maze, expected to stave and go mad to show his devotion to the Court. Instead, Rose was the first individual to escape the labyrinth, his exhibit of skill proving enough to appease the Grandmaster despite his rebellion.

Calvin Rose became a Talon, and his first task was to break into the heavily defended skyscraper of the deeply (though justifiably) paranoid Securitus CEO Eric Washington. Recently deceased, Washington's estate had gone to his daughter Casey, and the Talon was meant to end his bloodline to free up valuable patents. Rose found that the twenty-three year old also had a daughter of her own, Sarah, age two. The Court of Owls had promised him "rats" to kill-- evil men-- and Rose wasn't prepared to shed innocent blood. He escaped with the two women, helped find them a secure place to continue to live, and began his own life on the run from an implacable foe.

Rose worked for a time on the New Trigate Bridge, until he was tricked into a deathtrap by a Talon and left nude in the trunk of a sinking car with the bodies of two innocent bystanders. Rose had secreted a lockpick in the calloused skin at the bottom of his foot, escaped the trunk, and bashed the Talon waiting at the water's edge to kill him with the chain that once bound him. The captured Talon admitted that his having stabbed Rose and left him for dead was a test, to see why the Court of Owls continued to value him so much. They still had big plans for the lad, and the patience to wait out his willfulness until Rose could be broken for them to command.

"The Long Run" was by James Tynion IV & Scott Snyder on story, Guillem March on art. It would take more words than I care to invest to express how little interest I have in reading a spin-off series from a Batman Family event, so suffice to say that this is a high quality product for its ability to overcome this massive obstacle to win my approval. You could draw up a graph to clearly illustrated how by-the-numbers the plot is in conveying a proven formula to win over audiences. While that level of calculation might have alienated me elsewhere, in the stumbling idiot medium of comics, the effective employment of fundamental storytelling is laudable. Where everyone had been expecting New 52 Azrael, this origin story has all the strength of a classic Kirby character like Mister Miracle, because it's the exact same origin scrubbed clean of any New Gods references. Again, in the world of comics, obvious unapologetic theft is forgivable so long as the end product is worth what was paid for it. As another example, Guillem March is more obviously the child of Joe Kubert than either of his birth sons, infected as they are by the syphilitic influence of Homage Studios. March's deviations involve seduction by European masters like Jordi Bernet and Guido Crepax, which is to say that March is a better Kubert than anyone bearing that name thanks to his fluidity, intricate but clear layouts, and sensuality. Talon is in no way shape or form original, but it is so very much better than it deserves to be.

New 52's Day

Saturday, April 13, 2013

DC Super-Media and Relevancy

Mark Millar is a popular comic book writer who has managed to get many of his creator-owned properties optioned and even made (Wanted, Kick-Ass) with their storytelling aesthetic relatively intact. On the other end of the spectrum, 20th Century Fox (the Bryan Singer entries in the X-Men franchise notwithstanding) has a reputation for showing little regard for comic book properties, as proven by the lukewarm reviews and box office receipts for the Daredevil and Fantastic Four flicks. Marvel Studios are now breaking records with their multiple successful franchises, so FOX hired Mark Millar as their "superhero creative consultant," and in this role he's decided to run down DC's super-hero properties as out of date and otherwise too silly to thrive in a SciFiNow interview. I personally don't have much regard for Millar as a creator, and absolutely no faith in him as a media figure. He's repeatedly shown a willingness to lie his face off for industry ink, and I suspect he'll ultimately have as much creative input in FOX's movies as Stan Lee. That having been said, it doesn't mean he's not right about the irrelevancy of most DC properties.

There was a time when DC Comics was king of all super-hero media. The breakout comic book stars in the earliest days of the medium all got themselves adapted elsewhere. Whether it was newspaper strips, radio shows, or serials, many of the vanguard entered and remained in the public consciousness for decades. Superman starred in all three of the platforms mentioned, plus some of the most revered cartoons of all time. The Adventures of Superman TV show ran six beloved seasons before the suicide of star George Reeves halted production. Regardless, Superman became a fixture in television animation until the late 1980s. The feature films started rolling out in 1979, of which four were produced in the original run (two of them outright blockbusters.) Superman and his younger self Superboy headlined multiple TV programs of varying degrees of success from the '80s through to just a few years ago. Superman has always tended to be the crown jewel of super-hero adaptations, or at least he was until 1989, and he's surely still the biggest draw in live action television.

Batman was also an early adopter of multi-platforming, including his own serial, and later, the cultural phenomenon dubbed "Batmania" that spawned a hugely successful TV show and feature film. Batman had a spottier track record in animation, though. However, a second wave of Batmania launched with Tim Burton's 1989 movie, from which three sequels were born, and one of the most endearing cartoons ever, Batman: The Animated Series. Only Spider-Man has ever challenged the Dark Knight as champion of comic book box office, though the bofo business of the Christopher Nolen film trilogy helped pull the Caped Crusader that much further ahead. Batman has also dominated animation, with more cartoons than I care to count.

The 1970s were the pinnacle of DC Comics' cultural relevancy. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel each had well liked live action shows, but the true jewel was the animated Super Friends. Ten seasons were produced over thirteen years, and the iconic Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman were each represented. Aquaman, who had his own single season cartoon in the 1960s, became synonymous with oceanic heroics (and the first Super Friends season even listed him as one of "the world's four greatest heroes.") The show (re)introduced general audiences to the Flash ("the" super-speed hero of record,) Green Lantern, Hawkman & Hawkgirl, the Atom, Firestorm, and Cyborg. There was also a slew of heroes created specifically for the show who are remembered today, like Black Vulcan, Apache Chief and the Wonder Twins. Plastic Man even managed to score his own spin-off show for a couple of seasons. In the 1970s, "super-heroes" were synonymous to "Super Friends," and there was very little competition from outside the DC ranks.

The problem with being at the vanguard of a movement is that you tend to get as far out ahead of everyone in mistakes as you do with innovations. The DC shows were corny all-ages entertainment, but Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League as a whole descended into outright camp at various points in their careers, and no one lets them forget it (except Batman.) Awful Marvel outings like the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man show and the TV movies of Doctor Strange and Captain America are largely forgotten, but it's tough to ever live down the self-parody of Superman III, Batman and Robin or Legends of the Superheroes. Marvel Comics in particular learned a lot from DC's missteps, and always managed to stay hipper and edgier than the Distinguished Competition. The modern age of Marvel films started with the R-rated Wesley Snipes Blade franchise, after all, and Marvel Studios has yet to have as catastrophic a blunder as the painfully boring Superman Returns.

Diversity was the stone that slayed the Goliath that was DC Comics. From the cancellation of Super Friends in 1986 until the launch of the Cartoon Network's Justice League in 2001, DC simply shifted back and forth between Superman and Batman in live action and animation. Even if Marvel had been satisfied with the enormous success of Spider-Man and the X-Men, the latter still provided teams of spin-off characters to exploit. Yet, instead of resting on their laurels, Marvel consistently pushed to expand their universe of brands, from the Fantastic Four and Iron Man to the Hulk and the Avengers. The Punisher could shed all the blood he wanted while Captain America kept things clean and nostalgic. Everybody got their own super-hero with Marvel, while DC only had the World's Finest white men in capes. They didn't even bother to sustain all the multicultural icons from Super Friends after the cartoon died, taking a bold initiative of inclusion, then freezing it in amber as a comical example of feel-good post-hippie liberalism. People who've never read a comic book in their lives have had regular opportunities to get to know Storm, while El Dorado is only a vaguely recalled Generation X trivia question/punchline.

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Justice League arrived rather late to the party, and any progress it made in modernizing the image of the DC heroes was undercut by the more broadly seen and utterly ridiculous Smallville. When DC had the opportunity to inject racial diversity into their image through the cartoon's John Stewart, film audiences were instead "treated" to Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan in the expensive flop Green Lantern. The media ambassadors of the DC Universe have by and large been low rent and goofy as hell, which means that with the exception of Batman, it's an uphill climb to get any of their heroes taken seriously. Superman was on a dumb show and in an dull movie. Wonder Woman was the least appealing female on a basic cable group cartoon. Aquaman was a running gag on Entourage and remains low hanging fruit for stand-up comics. The Flash dies after one expensive season against Cosby. No one even wants to bring up Robin anymore. Somehow, Warner Brothers has managed to be so myopic and misguided in their shepherding of the DC Universe, that Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy are perceived as more viable than most of their super-heroes. It'll take something beyond excessive piping and the abandonment of overgarments to dig them out of their present hole.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

2009 Power Girl color art by Yıldıray Çınar

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Yildiray Cinar draws Kara's once and future costume!