Thursday, January 30, 2014

Climbing To New Lows: The Worst Of Comics In 2013

Sorry I'm late, folks.

It's time once again -- well, actually, it's past time -- to highlight some of the worst comics moments of 2013. This should have been done weeks ago, but hey, I've been busy, especially with a very active one-year-old running around the house. I'll give you the usual caveats: I have neither the time nor the money to have read every comic from last year, so I've likely missed some real clunkers, especially since I gave my pull list an indefinite Nu52-ectomy in the last quarter of the year. So here are:



The news back in November that J. Michael Straczynski would be writing a new Twilight Zone comic series for Dynamite was met with a collective groan among comic fans, particularly when he dropped this bombshell about his plans:

Some folks online have said that the issues should be stand-alone stories, but that misses a very key point: if you extract the amount of script from the average comic book, it’s equal to maybe ten or twelve TV script pages. So if you put 3-4 issues together, you have the equivalent of one half-hour TV episode. You can’t do a Twilight Zone story in ten pages, or one twenty-two page comic book; you need to be able to establish and develop the character, and that takes time. You could never do a single comic book with the depth of storytelling you’d get in, say, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, or “The Obsolete Man”. So by doing our stories in 4 issue arcs we’re doing just what would’ve been done in one episode.

So then Twilight Zone#1 came out on December 31st. How did JMS' new expanded format fare in practice?

As badly as expected.

The plot premise (a dishonest investment banker goes to a mysterious company to get a new identity to escape punishment) is standard Zone fare but the story itself is horribly decompressed and bloated. It seems "depth of storytelling" is JMS' code for "padding". This 22-page issue had 3 splash pages. The opening narration, (aka the "Rod Serling intro" but with no Serling image present here) was spread across two entire pages. And worst of all, the last page was a frustrating cliffhanger instead of the satisfying payoff that is supposed to be Twilight Zone's entire raison d'etre. (A cliffhanger, I might add, that Dynamite spoiled in its solicit.) If you buy this comic, the twist ending is that you'll feel ripped off.

You Can Call Me "Alex"

This above scene in Uncanny Avengers#5  pissed off a lot of people.

And I can understand why. It's symbolizes the "color-blind" mentality that plagues racial discussions. Instead of acknowledging and embracing racial, and in this case, genetic, differences between groups of people, it glosses over and whitewashes them. And yet, for this specific mutant, Alex Summers, and Alex Summers alone, it's perfectly consistent his past comic characterization. Alex has displayed that streak of mutant self-loathing in the past. And, as Ragnell once pointed out, he's also a bit of a tone-deaf idiot.

The trouble is when it's not Alex alone who embraces that attitude. But writer Rick Remender tried to make it the book's mantra, extending it to other characters like the Scarlet Witch. Which is...problematic, especially for those reading who don't fit in society's white default description.

Rough "Sex"

Don't mistake this Joe Casey-penned Image comic for the wonderful Sex Criminals also published by Image. I did, you see. And bought this comic by mistake. Hey, I was rushing!

I should have slowed down. The drop in quality from Sex Criminals to Sex is immense. The story is coarse and boring, reducing sex acts to mere bodily functions.  The colorist has a Chris Bachalo-like tendency to shade everything in overly-dark monochrome, but the pencils and inks are nowhere near Bachalo's dynamism. Instead, the bland, dimensionless art is of barely passable quality. But the worst part is the lettering. It's so thin it's barely legible, even in the "boldfaced" parts. So how does the comic accent particular words or phrases it wants to stand out? With colored highlighter. Reading captions in this comic made me feel like I was studying for a midterm. This was one of the only comics in recent memory that I actually ripped apart with my bare hands.

Young Fauxmance

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the first appearances of both Superman and Lois Lane. It also marked the release of the much-hyped Warner Brothers "Man Of Steel" movie starring both Superman and Lois Lane. So what did DC do in 2013? Why, it doubled down on a romance between Superman and....Wonder Woman. I've written about the problems with the concept of this relationship in the past, but the bigger problem in 2013 was the execution. I talked in detail last year about how Lois was adversely affected, but the characterizations of the titular heroes were also horribly mismanaged.

DC even squandered the one unique element that Kal and Diana's romance did bring to the table: the contrast between his realm of science and her realm of sorcery and mythology. Clark got a few tastes of the mythological last year, first in the Young Romance Special and then in the ongoing SM/WW series. But rather than play up Supes' weaknesses and insecurities around the supernatural, DC opted to advance his position as Lord King Alpha Male Of The DC Universe. Suddenly the formerly gentle and humble hero is arrogantly threatening to punch out gods to impress his girlfriend. Suddenly the formerly magic-sensitive hero is breaking Diana's magic lasso, catching Eros' heaven bullets in his bare hands without suffering harm, and punching current Greek god king Apollo into the sun.

Here's the larger problem, though: While all those above scenes served to artificially elevate Kal they greatly diminished Diana. For example, those same bullets that Supes caught Ozymandias-style in Young Romance had previously wounded Wondy in her solo book. So suddenly she's no longer the Justice Leaguer, or even the one in the relationship, most capable of defending against magical attacks. She's now second to Superman in what was once her unique edge. So instead of facing off against the Sun God herself on Clark's behalf, she's relegated to swooning over him playing strongman as if she were his groupie. And that's also the problem with the romance in general. It reduces the strongest woman in the DCU to an inferior adjunct of Superman, even in areas where she had been traditionally stronger than him in the past.

Now contrast that with Clark and Lois' relationship the last few decades before the New 52. With no super-abilities or special gadgets and a fraction of Kal or Diana's strength levels, she was still allowed to outshine Clark in a variety of areas, most notably reporting. Nu52 Diana is given no such consideration.

What's Black And White And Gross All Over?

After 40+ years, 2013 goes down in history as the year that Dan DiDio decided he found the missing ingredient in Man-Bat stories all these decades: child rape. Oh, and not just any children, but Kirk (Man-Bat) Langstrom's. So now this story has the added "benefit" of casting a pall over old bronze-age favorite Batman Family stories. And where is Batman in this story? Why, he's standing idly by while Man-Bat stone-cold kills the man who raped his kids, of course. Way to crack the code, Dan!

The other 4 stories in this anthology issue were actually good, but after reading that awful DiDio story, who cares anymore? It was like a turd dropped in the punch bowl: It nullified whatever goodness the rest of the "punch" may have had.

Which brings us to the worst thing about 2013 comics. This actually comprises several different bad comics and storylines, but I'm grouping them all together in one common thread, which I call.......


You've heard me and other bloggers complain about the main Nu52 Justice League team before: How they're assholes who don't trust each other and spend more time fighting themselves than actual villains. However, at least in 2011 and 2012 we were limited to enduring only one team of jerky Justice Leaguers.

In 2013, however, I ended up reading the adventures of no less than THREE alternate versions of the Justice League (disclaimer: I didn't get to read the fourth, Justice League Beyond), all of whom were evil and/or raging pricks. Let's tackle them in order:

They Dumped Legion Of Super-Heroes For THIS????

After some 50 years in circulation, 2013 was the year that DC terminated its Legion Of Super-Heroes title, retroactively setting the team's adventures on Earth-2. Why? So they could make way for the Justice League 3000 comic by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. A team consisting of......clones of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern. Way to go out on a limb, DC!

Worse, DC made one of their dumbest decisions of the year, even by 2013 DC standards: They replaced Kevin Maguire at the last minute due to his style being "not grim and gritty enough". The replacement artist, Howard Porter, has been serviceable in past assignments. Here, though? He was just awful.

But at least this version of the League is heroic and able to cooperate with one another, right?


Firs' You Get De Money, Then You Get De Power, THEN You Get De Superwoman.

Welcome to the Forever Evil crossover event, where the last remaining bits of Geoff Johns' subtlety came to die.

For example, while previous incarnations of Ultraman established that Kryptonite made him stronger, Johns' version was the first to have him literally snort it Tony Montana style.


A Grave "Injustice"

Last year Warner Brothers teamed up with NetherRealm, the creators of Mortal Kombat, to launch a new video game called Injustice: Gods Among Us. The premise: Superman has gone bad and, with the help of the Justice League, has conquered Earth.

Unfortunately, rather than leave the plot as simply "world with an evil Justice League" (essentially Earth 3), DC also printed a comic that explained in detail WHY Superman went evil, the answer being that the Joker tricked Supes into beating both his pregnant wife Lois and their unborn child to death while suffocating them in space.  Yes, this was how DC chose to showcase their flagship character for a video game aimed at teenagers. Apparently DC forgot (or didn't care) that much of Superman's traditional fan base was women, some of whom had experienced miscarriages first-hand in their past. I can tell you by reading the words of some of them that it was quite....triggering.

As awful as that was, at least DC made the attempt to establish a trauma for Superman to get him to turn. Wonder Woman's motivation for going bad seemed limited to a desire to get into Superman's pants. And the other Justice Leaguers didn't even get that.

Normally, I'm a sucker for evil and/or dysfunctional parallel universe stories, from Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" episodes to Lost In Space's "Anti-Matter Man" to South Park's Halloween episode. But all three of the alternate Leagues just left me cold. And I think I know why: Because it lacked a sufficient contrast in the mainstream universe.

A large of the reason I love those evil alt-universes is because, with the exception of the South Park example, they're so sharply different from the good mainstream universe. The base villainy of, say, the anti-matter Professor John Robinson and Major Don West in "Anti-Matter Man" is a stark departure from the courage and nobility of the regular John and Don. Similarly, the Crime Syndicate's evil was nicely counterbalanced by the unambiguous good of the Gardner Fox League in the '60's and the Morrison League in the '90's. It was earned.

That is not the case with the Nu52 League. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and even Captain Marvel Shazam are a bunch of selfish, cynically-written assholes. Even in the new Justice League Of America spin-off we had the Martian Manhunter threatening to lobotomize an entire building of innocent people.

How can you earn shock from Ultraman using his heat vision to kill Rainbow Raider Chroma or Injustice Superman doing the same to Captain Marvel when you have your mainstream continuity Superman doing this?

Answer: You can't. No matter how much you up the shock value.

Out of the six Justice League teams that I read in 2013 (once again, I didn't read Justice League Beyond), it's extremely telling that the League led by John Constantine was the most heroic and likable one.

(Special thanks to Dave Lartigue and Ragnell for inspiration, and to MGMT for part of the post title.)


At 6:12 PM , Blogger Siskoid said...

I hear you brother. All books and decisions I criticized myself (except the X-Men one, wasn't even on my radar, though I completely agree with you). These were terrible books, terrible ideas, and all particularly tone-deaf.

I'm not a politically-correct person by any means, but these stories were just trolling minorities, either cluelessly or cynically, and shock value for the sake of selling comics.

At 7:59 AM , Blogger SallyP said...

I agree with you completely. completely. Gosh, the Justice League has just been terrible! And all of the out of book appearances have been pretty awful least some of them.

Wonder Woman in her own book is fabulous. But in Justice League, or teamed up with Superman, it is as though she is an entirely different and inferior character.

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