Category Archives: Direct Message

Direct Message 02: Sleeper: Part One

If you may recall, Chad Nevett and I host a little discussion series called Direct Message, in which we chat about comics. Five months ago, we kicked off DM by discussing the DC Comics relaunch, and now, some time later, we return to you to present a lengthy conversation centered around Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Sleeper, a maxiseries the duo produced for Wildstorm between 2003 and 2005.

The discussion has been split into two parts; part two is over on Chad’s blog. Without further introduction, here’s our conversation …

Alec Berry: Sleeper ran for 24 issues and spanned two volumes; the book belongs to that special, influential era of WildStorm comics that set the stage for what we know today, and in some ways I think it’s safe to say Sleeper marked the end of that era, running alongside Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.S. 3.0.

What’s also important to note is the collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. The team had worked together previously in smaller ways. Phillips inked two issues of Brubaker’s 1999 Veritgo Comics mini series Scene of the Crime, and he illustrated 2001’s Batman: Gotham Noir with Bru at the helm of the script. Sleeper, though, really meshed these guys together and transformed them into the A-team they are today. Sleeper is where the voice and the attitude found their feet.

Chad and I want to make Sleeper the focus of our second Direct Message conversation. Originally, we settled on Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal, which I’m sure would have supplied plenty of good discussion, but after thinking on it, I changed my mind and proposed to Chad we do Sleeper. He happily agreed – although, I believe he had to move a few boxes in order to re-read it.

So, yeah, Chad, there is where I’ll stop talking to the audience and turn toward you. I’m sure we’ll touch upon Point Blank at some point in here, but I just wanted to start off with your personal history with this book. I know you love this era of Wildstorm. Were you reading Sleeper at the time, or was this something you came to later in trades?

Chad Nevett: The Wildstorm of this era, beginning mostly when Wildstorm was bought by DC and sort of relaunched itself at the start of 1999 and ending… well, pretty much with Sleeper (although The Intimates started after Sleeper Season Two and, then, there was Desolation Jones…), is probably my favourite publisher (or imprint) of all time. So many comics that I love came out during that time — and, since I turned 16 in January 1999, I was the perfect age to have all of those greats comics hit me.

I came a little late to Sleeper. With a lot of Wildstorm stuff, I read my dad’s copies since he bought almost everything they put out. He had gotten Point Blank, but didn’t get Sleeper for whatever strange reason. So, I missed out on it for a while until I got the first trade shortly after it came out (a combination of positive buzz and Sean Phillips art got me aboard) and, then, bought up the second half of the first season in singles. I think that was when issue 11 came out. Not too far behind the times, then. Right? From that point on, I bought the book as it came out and, eventually, went back and got Point Blank as well, making for an odd collection where everything is in singles except for Sleeper #1-6. And, yes, I had to move boxes to get at this. Not as many as I feared I might, though.

How about you? You’re almost ten years younger than I am, so I assume you came to this after it ended. Right?

AB: Way after. I think it might have been 2008 or whenever Wildstorm decided to recollect the series into two, thick volumes. I read it right in the heyday of my Ed Brubaker obsession, when I would have easily declared him the greatest writer ever and named my potential child after him (boy or girl!). My absolute enjoyment and attention to his work came from the fact he was the first writer who I noticed explored consistent themes and wrote in a certain fashion across works- things that were eye-opening to me at the age of 16, which I guess is still kind of sad because that wasn’t so long ago …

Seriously, though, I did little reading when I was younger. Harry Potter was as far as I went, and the rest of my time was spent running around the neighborhood. High school is what put me in the closet, so I finally turned to some form of reading, as in comics. I’m still trying to make up for what I’ve missed, and you know, read actual fucking books, watch David Lynch and listen to Depeche Mode. I’m probably a shitty “pundit” or whatever because of that, to be honest. I was pretty sheltered up until, like, my junior year of high school (strict mom).

But, yeah, Brubaker introduced me to the concept of the writer’s individual voice, and because of that, I latched onto him. One, because of the discovery, but also because I liked what his voice and style had to offer. The whole noir, espionage thing in his Captain America comics, and how it’s paired with the sly voice overs – that spoke to me. I think the aesthetic of all that was perfect for the age range I was in at the time because the whole thing was just so cool, and it felt “mature.” Sleeper sort of amped that whole thing up, and even reading it again now I’m taken away by the atmosphere and tone this comic puts forth. I’m sucked into it in a way not many other comics can do to me.

CN: This will sound harsher than I mean it to, but I never really thought of Brubaker as the sort of writer who would be so big to someone. A completely strange thing to say considering how many fantastic comics he’s written and how many of his things I buy on a regular basis. I guess he came too late for me to really fill that role, so I never think of him as the sort who could fill it for others. I’m so used to guys like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Garth Ennis being that that it doesn’t occur to me often that, yeah, there’s a whole mess of people like you that are the right age for guys like Brubaker and Bendis to be the comic book writer. Brubaker, as we’ve established, sort of entered my consciousness at the tail end of the big ‘movement’ that made its impression on my late-teenage self.

Also, I want to support people reading actual fucking books. That’s how I got to where I am today. We should make the next Direct Message be about some prose book.

Well, we’ve got the introductions over with, let’s get down to the business. I want to start with what came before Sleeper, because it annoys me that everyone focuses so much on Sleeper and completely forgets Point Blank. What the fuck, people? After all, Steven Grant wrote in a Permanent Damage column from 2004: “So what’s the best superhero story ever told? WATCHMEN? DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? This week I’m swinging toward Ed Brubaker and Colin Wilson’s POINT BLANK.” Those are some bold words from Mr. Grant and, while I wouldn’t go so far, I do think it’s a damn impressive comic. So controlled and methodical that I’m not sure Sleeper ever quite matches it on a pure craft level of storytelling. But, that’s also an advantage a five-issue mini has over a possibly open-ended story. Brubaker may have had small endings in mind should the series be cut short, but that’s not the same thing as setting out to tell a short, focused story about a man trying to solve a crime he committed and not only failing, but never actually remembering that the crime occurred!

I assume you’ve read Point Blank, right?

AB: I have, and I remember just how hard the ending hit when I originally read it. It’s just such a mean fucking ending. But after a reread, I will be honest, Point Blank doesn’t hold up as well for me. I still find it a good, solid comic, but it ultimately feels like the work of a young writer; one key aspect of PB supports my argument.

Like how Brubaker writes with a bit of a heavy hand. I mean, it’s a procedural, but I saw this comic kind of slipping into Scott Snyder narration box territory at times (he even uses the issue opening anecdotes). Not that narration is bad, or that words in a comic are bad. It’s just heavily used, and the story seems to hinge itself on that rather than letting the other elements tell the story.

It’s certainly key to view the situation from Cole’s perspective, and the style of writing gives you that, sure … I just would have enjoyed a bit of a balance, though. Because Cole doesn’t necessarily always have an interesting tidbit to tell me. Much of his narration keeps running through the steps, and when it’s not, Brubaker hits certain points over the head. Like how the bar Cole hangs around messes with his head. The whole thing feels so obvious when you read it back.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy procedurals. I do. Point Blank just needed more subtlety because it’s way in your face at times. That type of writing signifies a young writer to me because that type of writing is so forced and only exists to insure the point is made. A skilled scripter trusts the subtle marks he makes. Brubaker’s not doing such a thing in PB. Instead, I think he’s still in the process of learning to tell a mystery plot, and that’s why Cole constantly reviews the steps and highlights things he learned in “spy school.”

Although, PB does manage to keep the super hero stuff out of your face, and that’s what I dig the most about it. Because the whole thing takes place in the Wildstorm universe, but Brubaker and Wilson play it up like it’s Mean Streets or something. The notion of Grifter not wearing the mask really gets that across. Cole even says in the comic he’s not a big fan of masks. Point Blank entertains because its technically this grand tour of a super hero universe, yet it does such a good job of hiding the super heroes. And not by taking away the costumes or simply making them invisible – if anything Wilson and Brubaker put them up front in one, easy-to-find place with the bar set piece. No, they just convey super heroes in a very nontraditional way, so you kind of forget they are super heroes. That’s how they bury them.

I really dug the approach, and it’s something that obviously carried over to Sleeper and Incognito. But that’s kind of what the Wildstorm of this time was doing, right? I’ve read very little of it, but it seems like what’s done in Point Blank sums up the Wildstorm approach. I feel like a lot of writers and artists were working in this somewhat traditional super hero setup yet were doing all they could to go against the tradition. At least, that’s what The Authority and Casey’s WildC.A.T.S. sell to me.

CN: The ‘in your face’ nature of the comic never felt like the work of a young writer, it has always come across to me as the work of a writer letting the character dictate how the story is told. Cole Cash is not subtle. He’s sloppy in his investigation and that’s how the story is told. More than that, he’s also a nostalgic sort of guy, making the style of the captions make more sense. You mention the ‘Scott Snyder captions’ like using that anecdotal style of captions is bad when, really, Snyder is associated with that type of narration because he uses it a lot across a variety of books. That approach works with a character like Cole, because everything about the man is looking back to the past. He’s an old soldier with no war to fight who spends his time getting drunk — and, here, one of his oldest ‘friends’ is shot and he’s determined to solve the case. The past is what drives him in this story. He doesn’t like Lynch, but their past connects them.

It’s that approach that makes this such a tight, compelling read. Brubaker doesn’t just deliver a procedural about solving a crime, he tells it very specifically from the perspective of a character and everything we see is determined by that perspective. So often in comics, writers use first-person narration to offer ‘insight’ into the characters while telling a third-person story because we can see what’s happening. There isn’t a single scene in that comic that Cole doesn’t experience first-hand. It may be faint praise to talk up Brubaker for that because so many of his ‘peers’ get that wrong so often…

You’re right that it’s an odd little tour of the Wildstorm Universe in its way — and that’s part of the point. Like I said, this is a character and a story rooted in the past. It needs to go through history a little and touch on different areas, if only to make Cole feel even more distant from his comfort zone. Nothing is like what it used to be and he’s struggling hard with that. Brubaker picks up the ball on what Joe Casey was doing in volume two of Wildcats in that regard. It’s a story about the pain of memories with the twist being that Cole can’t remember the most important thing in the story.

It’s always struck me as better crafted than Sleeper because it’s a more cohesive whole. Sleeper, because of its nature, slips into a very episodic structure that Point Blank avoids. There’s a throughline in Sleeper, sure, and it’s one that reminds me of TV. Point Blank is more a movie or novella, while Sleeper is a TV show. Ultimately, for telling a large story, I find that the former lends itself to a stronger structure than the latter, if only because the needs of telling semi-self-contained chunks of story isn’t there as much. I love that Brubaker made an effort for most issues of Sleeper to tell a complete story in every issue in some way, I just think that, when looking at the whole, that detracts in a way that Point Blank’s issue-by-issue structuring and pacing doesn’t. In some ways, there is a higher level of skill and craft in writing a series that functions on self-contained chunks like that while telling a larger story. I guess it’s what you’re looking for.

AB: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it is a matter of what you’re looking for.

What you wrote about the craft of the story supporting the type of story it is makes a lot of sense, and most likely that’s probably how the process went down. And maybe the tight-knit nature of the writing suggests the work of a skilled author, showing that he, Brubaker, can get from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way possible.

Something about that, though, bores me and supports my idea of a young writer crafting Point Blank. I feel as if Brubaker laid out an outline for this story, noting up some sheet of notebook paper, scribbling down how and when he’s supposed to hit certain scenes rather than, say, going with it, trusting his own talent. Granted, I don’t really know how he wrote it, and I’m sure most writers tend to outline their stories in some fashion, but that’s what I interpret when I read Point Blank. Some guy over-preparing a story, containing it to something. Some guy relying a bit too much on the rules of a procedural story rather than writing it how he feels it should work.

I think that’s where Sleeper excels and beats out Point Blank as my area of interest and favor because it is such a sprawling, as you said, episodic, go with the flow type of narrative. And as you said, the structure does leave more room for mistakes, and you’re right, but I also think the room and open spaces in Sleeper make it a very atmospheric, organic work rather than a list of bullet points, which is what I feel Point Blank is.

But as you pointed out, Point Blank is a five issue mini series. It really doesn’t have the room to run like Sleeper, so Brubaker probably just wrote how he needed to. So, maybe, I don’t really have an argument.

But you were starting to explain why you think Sleeper slightly fails structurally. You mentioned that the approach to telling a complete story in each issue didn’t necessary work for you, and that it ultimately detracted from the overall work. How so? (Not trying to be defensive, just interested in your thoughts). How does that approach fail, and what do you think is lost in Sleeper because of it? Just pure craft points, or do you feel it affects the voice and style of the comic in some way?

CN: I’m thinking more of the first twelve issues of Sleeper, I guess. The pacing of those twelve issues seems geared very much to the monthly reading habit. Threads are picked up from last time, but issues stand on their own, tell their own little story. Reading those issues together, there’s a very stop-and-start feel to it. Less like chapters in a novel, more like episodes of a TV show. Which isn’t bad, I’m just the sort of guy who’d more interesting in novels, I guess. Season Two wasn’t quite so bad in that respect. It improved upon that area of the craft, making things a little smoother issue to issue.

On a pure craft level, there isn’t a lot that drives me forward while reading Sleeper. Brubaker makes me care about Carver, but that’s it. It’s all character. The plot, pacing, and structure don’t push me forward at all. Brubaker does some fantastic character work and that’s what makes me keep reading. Point Blank has a story that’s much more geared towards moving forward, reading on. In many ways, Sleeper’s plot could easily have become something entirely different had Carver just accepted his role in Tao’s organization and not fought against it at all. Now, that would have been a different character, obviously — not one SO different, though. Especially once he realizes that there isn’t much difference on either side, he could have shrugged and just gone with the flow. Because that option was always there, the series was definitely executed in a very step by step fashion to provide reasons for Carver to not give up and resign himself to being one of Tao’s best men.

You basically said the same thing about Point Blank, but Sleeper seems to run off an outline a lot. Each issue is another step in pushing Carver in a certain direction. Hell, I can remember individual issues of Sleeper and Point Blank runs together as one big story.

Goddamn, it sounds like I don’t like Sleeper much, doesn’t it? I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that that isn’t the case — Alec just suckered me into being the ‘negative’ guy through his overwhelming praise and positivity. All sides must be represented, right?

AB: I only brought out the ever-present crank.

Nah. I think your critiques of Sleeper are fair ones, and I think it’s clear you enjoy the work. Why else would we be writing this?  And honestly, I don’t really believe Sleeper is a perfect work. I may have set this discussion up to spell out a feeling like that, but in all truth, there are issues with it in terms of plotting and direction, and they are quite obvious when you read the entire story in a sitting (or two).  Especially when you read Season 2, which is clearly where the story lost it’s tight focus to adopt a philosophy of “we gotta keep this rolling because Jim Lee likes it and wants to give us money.”

I think that in the end, yeah, there was a clear point to Season 2, but I definitely felt the stretch reading those 12 issues.  It’s really not until Carver decides to pit Lynch and Tao against each other and abandon “sides” does the narrative gain any sense of point. Until then, it’s just more of the same of what we read in Season 1. Carver working for Tao, only he’s not entirely a double agent anymore. I don’t know, it just wanders about a bit in this first few issues of Season 2.

Season 1 was such a determined thing told in a loose, relaxed fashion, and I think that’s what makes Season 2 a bit jarring because I didn’t sense a determined path from the get go. The only thing that sort of inhibits Season 1, I think, is the ending – revealing Lynch alive – because it carries on a story I felt was at a solid enough end point. But Season 1 does have such a strong drive from start to finish, and I’ll agree with you in that Brubaker and Phillips perform some excellent character work – which absolutely propels the reader forward. But I also feel the team creates such a tone, and offers such a cool aesthetic, that Sleeper gets by on more than character work alone. If anything, this is one atmospheric comic where the vibe goes from extreme paranoia, to straight noir, to pulpy vitality in such a smooth fashion, making up for some of the more technical flaws.

But enough of this court session. I no longer want to prove Sleeper’s worth. We both like this comic, Chad, so let’s talk about what works in it and why this has stood out for us.

Let’s take this conversation somewhere new.

Check Chad’s blog, right now,for Part Two.

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Direct Message 01: A&C: DC Part Four

[Chad Nevett and I have written a lengthy discussion piece on the DC Comics Relaunch. Parts one, two and three are already available. Part four, the conclusion, follows … ]

Alec Berry: I don’t know. O.M.A.C. was weak.

But yeah, Nevett, you missed out in the Justice League department because my boy Johns…Ok, maybe he’s not my boy, but I need to come clean. I’ve found somewhat of a liking for Geoff Johns as of late. Used to despise his work. Can’t say so anymore.

You know why? Because Flashpoint, which started all of this, did “event comic” right. Big. Dumb. No holds. Said something. Looked great. Flashpoint is the book in which Geoff Johns comes to terms with his role at DC and the projects he’s penned. The comic speaks toward a resistance to change, yet ultimately realizes change is necessary. It’s Johns dealing with his many silver age revival comics, and saying it’s time to stop because really it’s just selfish. He cannot preserve or channel the past. He cannot return everything to the good old days. Such attempts only place a small band aid on the huge, messy wound. No. Progress must happen. Time moves whether we wish it or not.

Flashpoint, as blogger Sean Witzke noted, allows Johns to let go and say, “you know what, we need to go somewhere else.” And then we get the DC New 52 and this very article we are typing.

This inspired my new respect for Geoff Johns. The dude managed to get personal in an event comic, and you know what, I’m sure what Johns went through to write it was very much the same sentimental feeling much of the hardcore DC audience experienced.

And, hey, the concept of change relates to many things. The story works as well as a comic book comment as anything else.

And then we arrive at Justice League #1. The comic may not break the medium as some may have hoped, but it certainly works as a commercial super hero book – which, is what it’s supposed to be. The book supplies the necessary punches, and Jim Lee draws it to look cool. Batman’s in it as well. Hey, brand name recognition!

What I really took away from JL though was how it chose to introduce the super-hero. Granted, super-heroes are not a lost or obscure archetype at this point in culture, but the comic book super hero, I think, seems a little lost. People now understand Iron Man as a film character more than they do a comic character. Super heroes will always be synonymous with comic books because super heroes automatically come packaged with the thoughts of flipping pages, but super heroes are more recognized for the film work nowadays. Films just draw more attention. It’s that simple.

So Justice League, and arguably the entire DC relaunch, exists to remind the general public of the comic book’s existence and that super heroes exist primary within them. But JL exposes people to heroes who are either egotistical jerks or armor clad, power plus gods not role models. There’s nothing really welcoming about the comic. Instead, it’s abrasive. Citizens of the DCU express fear when the term “super hero” drops. SWAT teams chase down Batman like he’s some criminal. The feeling even exists in Morrison’s Action. Superman’s feared, and the character runs around unchecked. Both books are just angry, but they’re, hypothetically, people’s first exposure to icons who are meant to be looked up to.

The JL also fall under a very human portrayal which is somewhat similar to Bendis’ approach on the Avengers. Bendis writes his characters with a lot of dialogue. No new observation there, but, at least for his Avenger’s work, I see the dialogue serving an interesting purpose. The dialogue gets in the way of the Avengers taking action. People like to complain about this when they speak of Bendis’ work, but really it serves an important role as establishing the cast as human and flawed. Rather than jumping to and getting the job done, the Avengers talk about it and discuss what they should do. Super heroes don’t do such a thing, but in the Marvel Universe, where everyone carries their own problem, the Avengers wouldn’t be the best super heroes. They’d be people with extra talents who sometimes get things done. The rest of the time they procrastinate. Like people.

Johns’ Justice League get right to work, but he humanizes them via their social skills. He writes Green Lantern as a self-centered jerk and Batman as an illtrusting, paranoid man. The abilities are there. The willingness and ease of getting things done is there. But the social collaboration? Weak.

So there’s this odd attempt to sell super heroes as these flawed beings. Maybe it’s an attempt to Marvelize DC’s characters?

The take my not be my ideal version, but I still find it interesting within its execution. I can’t hold anything against the book because of that. JL made me feel something or at least think of a larger picture outside of the comic book. Anything that can do such gets my respect. 

Chad Nevett: Justice League is kind of a tough comic to discuss, partly, because I haven’t read it, and, partly, because I’ve pretty much decided that the best way for me to engage with Geoff Johns’s writing is to not engage it at all. I don’t like his writing and, instead of beating that dead horse, I try to simply ignore its existence. So, by default, I’ve pretty much ignore Justice League #1 aside from a couple of points that struck me as noteworthy:

1. The idea that this is a group that needs an origin. This is a complaint that goes outside of this book to a degree, but I’m just tired of comics that feel the need to explain thing that don’t need explaining. It’s tedious and I’d rather just get on with it. Even if I didn’t have an embargo on Johns’s writing, I would have skipped this because I don’t care about how the Justice League formed. I really, really don’t. I hate the idea to a degree. It’s unnecessary for me to ever learn that, because the specifics don’t matter at all. More than any other superhero team, how the Justice League formed is completely useless knowledge. The team formed because there was a threat so big that it took them all to defeat it. Does it matter what the threat was or how they came to realize that they should work together? Not one bit. Therefore, any origin story threat can easily be shown threatening Earth when there’s an established Justice League. Even the character bits that people liked (the bickering mostly it seems) could still be there.

2. Was this the right comic to ‘launch’ the relaunch? When the first week came out, Action Comics #1 seemed like a possible better choice to kick things off. Grant Morrison’s name means more outside of comics these days and pretty much every opinion I’ve seen proffered said that Action Comics #1 was better than Justice League #1. More, to use your term, it wasn’t incredible – why the fuck not? Shouldn’t the lead book be the best comic DC can produce?

AB: Two solid points. I agree. As your launch book, yeah, you should work to make it the best it can possibly be, but also, I wouldn’t completely shun a book for being average. Which is what the internet seemed to do upon its initial release. I’m not saying Justice League is the best comic of the year. It’s not even great. But the book was solid enough. Maybe I should be harder as a critic, but I don’t see anything wrong with being solid. Not everything will blow away the world. If so, everything would be average anyway.

And I think JL was the better pick over Action as a launch book. Morrison may draw in an outside crowd, but those people will show up anyway when Action drops a week or two later in the relaunch. Plus, when the goal stands to grab attention and snatch up new readers, you need a striking visual look. People enjoy visual pleasure. It’s why we purchase certain sugary cereals over others. Rags Morales would have fucked that train up. Jim Lee, whether you find him a technically brilliant artist or not, makes the most sense. He won the 1990s by simple cool points, and hey, it can easily work this decade. Plus, Jim Lee still carries as much as a name as Morrison. The guy rarely draws comics, yet still sells big numbers. People crave Jim Lee, and if you want to bring up the whole “lets captured lapsed readers” point, Lee’s artwork, for someone who read during the 90s, may be artwork they fondly remember.

Origin? I’ll agree with you here. At this point, yeah, origin stories for these characters are unnecessary. We get it. Some dude gets powers, some alien crash lands, someone’s mom dies…a quest for justice is acquired…crime fight. All origins tend to hit the same buttons. You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. And as you put it, “the team formed because there was a threat so big that it took them all to defeat it,” the origin takes a one sentence blurb to explain.  

But, still, the choice serves a purpose. Not ideal execution, but I find it interesting. The execution goes back to the take I mentioned earlier. DC’s humanizing the Justice League, and they’re doing it via social interactions a.k.a. showing how the team meets.

Johns, to accomplish this, has to write the story this way. 

CN: Ah, but should that be the goal? DC has tried from time to time to ‘humanise’ their characters in a way that’s similar to Marvel and that works… for pretty much all of the characters that aren’t the ‘Big Seven,’ particularly guys like Superman and Batman. They’re so iconic and conceptual in this existence that they actively react against that approach. They’re not Marvel characters and a Marvel approach doesn’t work with them. It’s like DC trying to fight against what it is and that seems like a strange approach.

While the first issue was a disappointment, I’d have to say that Stormwatch got what DC is about. Even with the bickering, none of the characters felt human. They were more types. They were larger than humanisation, beyond it. You don’t need to think of them as people to follow their adventures. It’s an approach that definitely builds on Morrison’s JLA and Ellis’s The Authority where it was about the ‘mission’ and maybe two bits of dialogue that would hint that these people all had different personalities, but who actually cares… Humanising the characters grounds them in a specific reality, which goes against their staying power.

It’s like, if you want to read about a superhero who you care about and can relate to, you read Spider-Man. If you want to read about heroes being heroes and doing cool shit, you read a Superman or Batman comic. And I grew up in the era where Superman had the most ‘human’ alter ego with Clark Kent as an equal/bigger part of the equation. I still didn’t care about him the way I cared about Spider-Man. Trying to replicate Marvel’s approach is the wrong way to go.

AB:  Yeah. This is the point where I would bring in some of my personal tastes and criticise Justice League. Johns and DC present a defined take on the cast, but as you say, it ruins what’s so unique about these characters.

It’s funny we hit this point of the conversation right when we do because Tim O’Neil just posted his thoughts on DC’s new Superman last night, and he said something similar to what you just did. I’ll also echo those sentiments. What’s great about the DC roster of characters, or at least its main players, is that its beyond us and beyond our world. Not necessarily technologically or politically, but in some higher sense of humanity the DC Universe stands taller than ours. It’s the point Grant Morrison tries to make in Supergods. Super heroes are who we could be physically, mentally and morally, and Superman or Batman are the concrete cultural symbols of such ideas.

Even if you take away the philosophical aspect, I still just like reading comic books where super heroes aren’t necessarily relateable. Like, why would they be relateable? Spider-Man makes sense because he is the teenage super hero (today, I’m not sure what he is, unless we’re talking Ultimate), but not every guy or girl with super powers will be someone we know or get. They’re post-human after all.

Plus, when super heroes are written to go out and get shit done, it’s usually much more entertaining than the JMS approach of overwriting or drawing out emotional moments.

So, yeah, I would enjoy it if Johns made Superman the character of solid core and composure rather than this angry, angst ridden take we’re seeing. The approach moves away from what I really love about DC Comics. Oddly enough, though, the take works for me in Morrison’s book because Morrison seems to base his Superman from an acceptable place. Action Comics Superman ties back to what Siegel and Shuster did as well as bounces off of the current cultural touchstone of Occupy protests and other zeitgeist beliefs. There’s an actual reason for what he’s doing while Johns and crew write the character as if, “hey, angry Superman may sell a lot of books because don’t people hate perfect Superman?”

The entire thing just feels like a dumb attempt to bury what makes DC unique in order to cater to a mass audience who enjoys grit and grime.

I will say though that Justice League hasn’t touched a level of crying capes. Yet. The first issue still depicts fast moving characters, and while they’re human in the social setting, Johns writes them to be above the ordinary human. The cast is separated by the costumes but also by a sense of fear felt by the DCU citizens. The Justice League stills presents an element of godliness. Just not the nice kind. I haven’t read The Authority, but do you feel Johns is looking to mix in that influence? If so, isn’t it a bit late? Also, I know Stormwatch was a weak first issue. I kind of hated it. Have you continued on to #2, and if so, has it improved? 

CN: The difference (from what I can tell) between Morrison and Johns in their approach to this Superman is that Morrison’s Superman is just as compassionate and caring as always, but directs his action towards different targets than we’re used to, while Johns’s Superman is just a dick. Actually, from what I’ve heard, Johns’s entire Justice League roster is filled with the biggest bunch of assholes you could ever find. Hell, Ellis is known for writing ‘bastards’ and the Authority was a cheerier, more cooperative bunch!

Stormwatch did improve with the second issue. I was glad I stuck around for that.

Is there anything left to say? I know we skipped a bunch of books, but I don’t think we need to do a rundown on everything we read. Also, it’s almost November as I write this sentence and September seems so long ago. What the hell did I read then? I will say that Aquaman #1 sounded like the perfect one-shot that needed a cover with the Justice League all laughing at Aquaman as he shouts “My writer says I’m cool!” Except he’s not. DC really missed the boat by not recruiting Craig Ferguson to write that comic.

AB: We’ve definitely gone farther with this than I thought we would, and no, we don’t really need to cover every single book because frankly we’ve already covered all the interesting ones. Besides Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. It wasn’t as great as Animal Man #1, but Lemire still impressed me.

But yeah. Not a whole lot of the DC 52 really cries for discussion. Now, I’m totally talking out of my ass as I say that because I have not even come close to reading everything, but when I look at the remainder of the line up I see very little that shouts “interesting” or “worth the time.” Most of the line just says “property advertisement.” The DC 52 is a collection of pamphlets that celebrates Time Warner’s intellectual properties, and these books exist as a new attempt to generate awareness out in the general population. Most of these stories appear to be formula super hero tales that exist to fulfill a job. Overall, I’d say the whole relaunch was kind of disappointing, and you know what, 52 comics are way too many. 30 books would be more reasonable. Most of these characters do not require their own series, and the talent behind them doesn’t really have anything to say.

We did manage to find a few worthwhile comics in the bunch, though. If anything, that’s a positive, and it shows that a handful of creators are trying to make super hero comics interesting and meaningful. Azzarello, Chiang, Morrison, Lemire, Manapul, Williams, Ponticelli, Foreman, Capullo … I salute you.

So, Chad, any final thoughts? Do we care anymore? I mean, it is Month 3. Month 1 was so two months ago. 

CN: I’m buying more DCU comics now than I was in August. So, I guess DC won. But, my excitement heading into November isn’t high. It isn’t low. It’s more that there are comics coming out from DC that I buy and that’s a reality. Is that a win? I don’t know. Then again, I doubt DC is looking at the two of us as a sample audience to listen to. It’s been fun, sir. We need to do this again.

AB: I agree. Let’s just try to not go over 11,000 words next time.

[So, yeah. That’s it. If you read all 4 parts, well, I fucking love you. It’s 4am. Peace, yo.]

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Direct Message 01: A&C: DC Part Two

[Chad Nevett and I have started our own conversation series to discuss, you guessed it, comics. This time around, we’re tackling the DC Comics Relaunch because you obviously have not heard enough about it. Seriously, though, we’ve gone through Month 1 of the event and have discussed as much as we can. This turned out to be a massive conversation, so we’ve split it into 4 parts. Part 1 can be found over at Chad’s blog. Check it out and come back here for Part 2 …]

Alec Berry: If you look at it, Snyder really is one of the few strictly horror comic book writers. American Vampire. Severed. Even his Detective Comics work danced the line of psychological horror.

I agree that Paquette uses a smooth, polished approach, but I feel he can still generate the necessary tone for this Swamp Thing comic. I found the neck snappings quite effective in their depiction. His figures are crisp and clear, but  I think the clear depiction only heightens the uneasiness. The characters’ nuanced facial expressions sell the pain and fear of the situation, and to top it off, Paquette allows his panels to bleed together by only separating them with scattered black blots. The sequence is very ominous because of those panel gutters. The panels appear to be sinking into some unknown void.

I guess this marks our first disagreement, sir.

I find it odd Snyder took the approach he did. Swamp Thing, a character with such a revered background, screams fresh start. At least to me. So why then, when offered the opportunity of a brand new beginning, would you tie your story to the highly revered previous events? Playing armchair writer, I would so start new and make Swamp Thing my own rather than build off of continuity and precedents. I would think such approach might free you of the given traps and snares. New continuity allows a writer to escape Moore’s shadow. At least, to some extent. The work still exists, so the context is there for anyone familiar with Moore’s work. But on a technical, in story level, new continuity frees you as a company writer. Why throw that freedom away unless you feel you can add something worthwhile to the Moore work? If that be the case, Snyder must be pretty confident.

Of course, DC did make quite an effort to bring the character back via Brightest Day. The decision could relate to a desire keep that event in canon. Cause, you know, fans care.

As for your point on mismatching “reboots” and “relaunches” … I think such a method could easily work. We knew certain stories and concepts would stick around going into the New 52. The big sellers, like Johns’ Green Lantern and Morrison’s Batman, are big sellers for a reason. People care about those plot lines, so DC would be wrong to dissolve them.

Is it confusing on an in story level? Maybe, but I think it makes fine sense. I’m looking at the line as a New DC Universe, and I’m coming to it as it continues its daily routine. This DC plane exists with or without me. I’m just peeking in, and I have no idea what it already contains. So there’s a Batman Incorporated? Oh, that’s interesting. Hal Jordan usually is the Green Lantern, but not at the moment. Why? Those plot lines we know of the old DC line give the new DC line a little history while only being a month old. I enjoy that. The DC 52 seems self-sustaining and organic in an odd way.

Also, Justice League takes place 5 years in the past of this DC Universe while the other books are in the present, so this detail somewhat explains the “reboot” versus “relaunch” feel you mention. Really, a reader must only understand one thing – some of DC’s old stuff worked and some of it did not. The working parts get to stay. The glitches get a reboot.

But back to Scott Snyder …

I find him a good comics writer, but I would not label him “best of the business” as I see some people doing. His early Detective issues impressed me with their tight plotting and entertaining mysteries, and, to give credit to my Chemical Box co-host Joey Aulisio, I found Snyder’s approach to the Morrison details fun. If anything, his best work involved the Jim Gordon character, and for awhile his ability to evoke the Frank Miller Batman/Gordon relationship felt exciting and bold.

His Detective run really lost steam towards the end, though. The final issue literally bored me. American Vampire is consistent enough each month, and I might even reach to call it one of the better mainstream comics out each month because of said consistency (and Rafael Albuquerque).

I don’t know, though. Snyder just seemed to hit hot at first, and now he’s struggling to keep me entertained. To bring up David Brother’s point once again … you really notice Snyder’s use of that technique when you read several of his comics in one sitting. I couldn’t imagine reading this work in a trade paper back and not rolling my eyes. His method for setting up an issue, by telling some old wise man story, is fine enough, but after a while the constant recycling of said method resembles a novelist who constantly uses prepositional phrases. And it’s not exciting, and it really wears on you. Writers cannot rely on the same techniques page in and page out, and I feel Snyder needs to work this out soon because already, with only a year or so under his belt, you can map out his formula for a single issue comic book.

That said though, I enjoyed Batman #1 quite a bit.

Chad Nevett: Snyder has said he’s a GIANT Swamp Thing fan, that this is his dream book, and I think that’s where the problem lies. I’ve always been very wary when someone comes on board a title and says that this is their favourite character, their dream book, the one thing they’ve wanted to do in comics since they were a teenager… I don’t trust that quality writing will come out of that mentality. I think I’m the only guy who reads interviews and cringes when writers mention loving a character. I like a bit more objective approach to the material than someone who’s been thinking about what they’d do for years and years. That fan approach could explain his approach; he doesn’t want to ignore everything he loves about the character and his world. Another writer without the same attachments probably wouldn’t hesitate to cut 95% of it, go back to the basics, and try his best to forget that Alan Moore exists.

Batman doesn’t have the same fault. It’s actually fairly economical a first issue. Very on point and direct. That newspaper bit was both laughably inane and actually quite in tune with Gotham, I thought. No actual paper would keep running a feature that seems to trash the city week in and week out; then again, no actual city is as horrible a place as Gotham. I made a joke recently that Superman’s ‘never-ending battle’ tagline makes him seem like a failure and deluded fool. Well, Batman’s continued war on crime in Gotham that never actually makes the city better is right up there. I don’t know if everything in Gotham’s past is still in play, but, if it is… yeesh. Plagues, earthquakes, mob corruption, homicidal maniacs that enter Arkham one day and exit the next… and a guy who dresses up in a costume and beats them up without actually preventing them from doing the crazy things they keep doing over and over again. If that city actually existed, I could see its paper running that “Gotham is…” feature even though the responses are horrible. The publisher is clearly trying to tell everyone to kill themselves or move far away, because living in Gotham is living in Hell.

Um… maybe now I’ll get back on point?

Batman #1 was fine. The art was very hit or miss for me (more miss than hit) and the writing was fine. Nothing really jumped out and grabbed me, but nothing made me want to run screaming for the hills. Middle of the road superhero comics and an average first issue. I’m sure you liked it more than that, so why not tell the readers of your love for Batman and why I’m wrong?

AB: I wouldn’t call it love, but yeah, I enjoyed Batman more than you because I actually like what Greg Capullo does here.

I’m not sure what your stance on this guy was prior to this comic. I’ve kind of always had a thing for his work because I bought such books as Spawn and Haunt. Not my classiest purchases … although, early Spawn still offers some amount of fun. Capullo certainly rocks a McFarlane influence, and I am completely unashamed to admit my personal enjoyment of Todd McFarlane’s artwork. His drawings still excite and entertain while hitting me in some visceral, gut-jabbing way. (I blame my childish, nerdy affection for Spider-man and his connection to the character.) But Capullo manages to do one thing McFarlane can’t, and that’s design pages laminated in motion and fluidity.

My friend Joey has said before that Capullo made him realize the importance of comic book pages and their layouts. Reading this issue of Batman, I can’t help but understand what he means. I look at these Batman pages, and all I can see are the efforts of an artist who puts the flow and feel of story first. Capullo pulls off what I feel most readers are after – the cool, individual style – with ease, but he spends time on his page layouts. Yeah, I don’t necessarily know that for sure. Maybe he whips these things up in two seconds. But, reading this comic, I sense a time and focus put into how the story tells itself visually. Capullo wants your mind to work and move and blend itself with the story like you’re actually there within the book. He takes into account the big moments and finds sure-fire ways to convey them. He ensures the comic pages move your eyes along in an fun fashion.

For the sake of example, view the first page. Three separate views of Gotham City, yet Capullo makes our eyes descend over the page like we’re descending on the same location or view. Someone could say this is a fault of Capullo’s – a lacking ability to clearly illustrated different locations – but I find this intentional. Gotham is a shit town that its citizens or even Batman cannot escape. If you lived there, you would see shit in every direction, and no building or alley would be individual nor provide escape. Capullo communicates this idea to me. Three different buildings but they look the same and feel as one because they’re all dubbed in trash, smog, and shadows. Three different buildings blend together to feel like one image transposed over three panels. The page works so well as a tool to bring the reader into the world because you see the buildings and the darkness, but the page also literally moves the reader’s eyes to the next page as they descend to the bottom right corner – or figuratively, descend into Gotham. It’s a nice example of atmosphere as well as movement within a comic book.

But, yeah, Scott Snyder wrote this. I agree with your assessment of Batman being a very economical first issue. I’d term it the DC Comics version of a pop song, but a good pop song you could unabashedly bounce your head to. Batman contains all the necessary elements:

1.) Batman
2.)Joker
3.)SideKicks
4.) Jim Gordon
5.) Shit town
6.)Dreams of better
7.)Arkham Asylum
8.)Mystery/Crime

Like all pop songs, there’s an equation to balance out. Snyder does such with this comic book, and I’d say he does it well. The book touches all the right beats to make any fan smile (see list above). One thing Snyder mentioned (in an interview somewhere) was how determined he was to make this book as, I guess, self-contained or un-reliant on other Batman material as he could. I believe he said something to the rift of, “I want this run to be an easy trade paperback pick up for someone in a random ass book store.”

It’s funny because he does so, and it’s such an opposite from Swamp Thing and what we decided it was. If anything, I think Snyder was pulling his best Jeph Loeb on this comic. The caption boxes, the rogues gallery, the clean separation from other books, the splash and flash – all trade marks of Mr. Loeb and his approach to comic books, which again, are all pop songs.

So, for fans of Batman: Hush, I’d say this book is your best bet.

CN: I’m not a Capullo guy. I, like all good internet fanboy critics, have evolved past the Image style… though, haven’t evolved enough to start appreciating it again in what people think is an ironic stance but is actual genuine enjoyment.

Moving from Batman to Superman, Action Comics was almost like Batman’s opposite. It wasn’t a ‘greatest hits pop song’ in any way. It wasn’t an angry punk song either despite that partly being what Grant Morrison was going for, I think. It was, like, a happy folk song done on an electric guitar maybe? Young, righteous Superman is a Superman that I can get behind. He’s taking on corruption and having fun doing it. He comes off as a character that’s genuinely enjoying his life. Strangely, it reminds me of All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder where Batman so obviously LOVES being Batman. He loves going out and hurting people and that’s why he’s so over-the-top. Superman is similar, except he doesn’t call himself the ‘Goddamn Superman’ or narrate in stilted Frank Miller hard-boiled sentences. Still, the idea is the same.

Me, I enjoy comics where the heroes seem to be enjoying themselves. That Spider-Man “Oh woe is me” concept works, but to a point. Spider-Man can do that forever and I’m cool. Superman enjoying himself is almost novel at this point. For so long, he’s been stoic, practically burdened by the responsibility of being Superman. The idea weighing him down as he lives up to the image of the ‘S.’ Here, that’s not a problem. He rushes around, a smirk on his face, and fucks shit up for the Man.

Lex Luthor’s reasons for wanting Superman gone also make sense: an alien lifeform is not good for the planet. There are the usual elements of jealousy thrown in, but, otherwise, it’s a logical reason that we can get behind. What dangers are inherent from Superman simply existing on Earth? What unknown/unseen consequences?

The weakness of Action Comics is clearly Rags Morales who seems incapable of delivering an entire issue of polished art. For every panel that looks great, there are three that look thrown together and altogether lacking in refined detail. He nails the goofy smirk of Superman while delivering a Lex Luthor that’s a vague pudgy bald creature that we know is Lex Luthor because he’s bald and kind of evil. I wish Doug Mahnke were drawing this comic. I really do.

AB: I would honestly take anyone other than Rags Morales. I’m sure he’s a nice person, but his artwork makes me shake my head. The way he composes some of his panels makes me question his idea of what is visually interesting and everything simply comes off as stiff and uninspired.

And I really dislike how he draws faces. Everyone in a Rags Morales comic appears to be malnourished and cross-eyed. I have no desire to look at anything like that.

As a script, Action Comics #1 succeeds. I wouldn’t call this the greatest Grant Morrison comic book, but I dig his approach of making Superman an urban legend or folktale. Almost similar to Batman in some regard. Or more like a Robin Hood type. It’s interesting for the character because Superman never seems to step down from that high pedestal he’s placed on. Everyone treats the character as a god, and I’m fine with that. I like Superman as god, but after having such interpretation be the norm for so long Working Class Hero Superman sounds like a welcoming bellow. And, hey, for the time and spirit of the 99%, this take makes a lot of sense. I know Morrison has received some shit for his “statement” on the Siegel and Shuster situation, but I honestly feel the guy speaks what he speaks through his work. Morrison could probably be an activist. I’m sure he has the resources to do some good in the way most would expect. I just think Morrison does good for the world in another fashion: through story. Maybe story activism disappoints some people, but if Morrison can inspire a few by way of his Superman interpretation I’d call it a good day. Stories last longer than most things anyway. Stories possess more power and influence than money any day. I find it telling Morrison wants to bring power and relevancy back to Siegel and Shuster’s creation.

The decision says everything if you ask me.

Morrison does a nice job building the environment too. Without really seeing it, I sense characters in this Metropolis walking about the street whispering to each other of “him.” You feel a certain energy in this fictional city. Things buzz. The concrete takes care of itself.

I also agree that Action #1 is a very fast paced, free wheeling and dealing super hero comic book, and I too am a fan. The title of the book is, well, ACTION Comics. Morrison lives up to the title. You feel a bit out of breath when you finish reading the comic because the book runs and runs. I say such feeling is a good one. Like you put it, Superman comics usually focus on the pressure and overbearing responsibility of being the ultimate man. A fun, care free Superman comic sadly feels revolutionary. Or maybe revolutionary is a bit strong.

Action Comics isn’t one of the most complex Morrison works (not yet at least), but it’s entertaining. I feel in time the book could develop into a nice package of social commentary. Just ditch Rags Morales …

[Part 3 is on Chad’s blog.]

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