Boston ComicCon!

I spent my weekend working Boston ComicCon with my wife, and as always, the cosplay watching was one of my favorite parts.

My now-autographed copy of Solo Avengers #12, featuring Amanda Conner's first published work.
My now-autographed copy of Solo Avengers #12, featuring Amanda Conner’s first published work.

 

Before I get to that, I have to share my happy fanboy moment. Writer/artist Amanda Conner, one of my favorite comic artists, was at the con, so I dug out my copy of Solo Avengers #12, which features her very first published work. This is an original copy, which I’ve held on to throughout the years (and through several comic collection purges) because I really liked her art — so much so that I wrote to Marvel and praised her work. Marvel ran the letter three issues later.

I have no idea why her artwork struck me like it did, I just knew Amanda would one day be big in the industry, and that I had to keep that comic no matter what.

I brought both to the con for Amanda to sign, and when I presented her with the issue with my letter, she exclaimed, “I remember that letter!” Apparently, I had authored her very first fan letter. She signed that issue too, adding a very nice inscription. I guess this stands as an object lesson to people trying to make a career of their art: a few sincere words of encouragement from a complete stranger can be very powerful.

Amanda Conner's note to me. You can see my name at the top edge of the photo.
Amanda Conner’s note to me. You can see my name at the top edge of the photo.

Now, onto the cosplayers. BCC wasn’t quite as cosplayer-heavy as some other shows, but they were out in force. Here are some of my favorites…

My favorite costumes of the show. The really cool part? They were two individual cosplayers who just happened to bump into each other.
My favorite costumes of the show. The really cool part? They were two individual cosplayers who just happened to bump into each other.
My friend Laura as Pepper Potts (on the right, obviously).
My friend Laura as Pepper Potts (on the right, obviously).
My friends Lara (who, cheap plug, runs Black Cat Tours in Salem) and Kate as two iterations of Captain Marvel.
My friends Lara (who, cheap plug, runs Black Cat Tours in Salem) and Kate as two iterations of Captain Marvel.
Kate again as Black Widow (bonus fun fact: she is Russian, and she can kick your ass), my buddy Justin (the Jake Hawking series) in his award-winning Assassin's Creed outfit, and some guy who shouted "Geronimo!" a lot. Weirdo.
Kate again as Black Widow (bonus fun fact: she is Russian, and she can kick your ass), my buddy Justin (the Jake Hawking series) in his award-winning Assassin’s Creed outfit, and some guy who shouted “Geronimo!” a lot. Weirdo.
Arya Stark, complete with Needle and Nymeria.
Arya Stark, complete with Needle and Nymeria.
A very cool and subtle Kamala "Ms. Marvel" Khan.
A very cool and subtle Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan.
My favorite part of Mad Magazine!
My favorite part of Mad Magazine!
Usagi Yojimbo. Please note the raised eyebrow. I love little touches like that.
Usagi Yojimbo. Please note the raised eyebrow. I love little touches like that.
My wife with one of the many Deadpools. Head to storiedthreads.tumblr.com for the full story on their meeting.
My wife with one of the many Deadpools. Head to storiedthreads.tumblr.com for the full story on their meeting.
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Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.

Spoiler Theater: Green Lantern

Green Lantern showed up in the mail the other day, and I knew going in that this was not a well-reviewed film (it earned a painful 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.com). Not quite Catwoman bad, as comic book-based movies go, but certainly not The Dark Knight either.

It wasn’t a good movie, but it wasn’t terrible either. What it was, however, was nearly two hours of lost opportunities.

Look at the strongest of the comics-turned-films — The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, Iron Man — and one of the elements that makes them great is some strong characterization.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

The big problem with Green Lantern is that none of the characters, including the title character, have an appreciable character arc, which is especially tragic since the writers had a potentially meaty arc sitting right in front of them.

I’ll start by looking at the title character, Hal Jordan. As a child, he saw his test pilot father killed in a crash, and that pivotal event winds up defining his life in a somewhat perverse way: Hal grows up to become a test pilot — a very reckless test pilot. Why would he embrace a career that killed his dad?

Geoff Johns, who writes GL’s comic adventures, addressed this in his take on Green Lantern’s origins, tying the death of Hal’s father into his borderline self-destructive behavior; Johns portrays Hal as a man who faces his fears with such ferocity that it borders on a death wish — and yet, he never truly faces his great personal tragedy. Simultaneously, Hal is honoring his father’s bravery; Pappa Jordan sacrificed himself to steer his crashing jet away from spectators, saving their lives.

It’s an interesting contradiction. That complexity would have put some great meat on the character’s bones for Ryan Reynolds, but all we got was one instance in the opening sequence when, while his own plane hurtles toward earth following a combat demonstration, Hal freezes at the controls as he flashes back to his dad’s death. Later he pays some lip service to his fears and his difficulty in facing them, but Reynold’s Green Lantern neither gains a sobriety that tempers his recklessness nor does he discover untapped courage to help him overcome clipping fear. This aspect of his character is introduced and resolved without ever being explored.

Further, it’s never clear whether Hal Jordan is a pseudo-fearless daredevil or a man who bares keeps his anxieties in check. He shows elements of both, but neither aspect of his personality hits an extreme; he’s more a balliser-than-most type of guy with a touch of self-doubt.

Aside from failing to define the main character, and thus failing to give him a direction, the writers missed a chance to tie a great theme together through four other characters: Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), daughter of Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders), owner of Hal’s employer, Ferris Aircraft; and Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), son of Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins).

The plot establishes that Ferris Aircraft is in line for a lucrative government contract for a drone fighter, and Hal nearly blows the deal when, in front of Senator Hammond, he actually beats the “unbeatable” drone — and in doing so, wrecks one of Ferris’ expansive fighter jets. His actions nearly destroy the company, but Carol — the company’s heir apparent — manages to salvage the deal.

Hector Hammond gets involved when, through his dad’s behind-the-scenes manipulation, is brought in to examine the remains of Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), the alien that gave Hal the power ring he uses to harness the power of Green Lantern.

The fear of failure is a basic and common human frailty. It’s something to which almost everyone can relate. And fear of failing a parent? That’s even more powerful. That’s the kind of framework the writers had in their hot little hands and failed to capitalize on in the main character alone: What if Hal’s fear was not of dying, but of failing to live up to his father’s (real or imagined) expectations, of failing to become the kind of selfless hero his father was?

Carol’s relationship with her father is touched on, and it appears to be just fine — therefore, dramatically dull. But what if Carol, facing the daunting prospect of one day taking over the company her dad built from the ground up, fears letting her father down? Especially in the face of a catastrophic financial blow caused by her erstwhile lover Hal — the man she personally chose for the demonstration? Instead of her saving the company complete off-screen, apparently with little effort or stress, there could have been a solid subplot involving Carol and her father dueling over whether she was worthy to take over.

As for the Hammonds, a couple of off-hand lines indicates that the senator thinks his son a loser, but it’s never clarified as to why he feels this way. Hector, a college professor, is a bit of a shlub, but that’s his greatest offense; he doesn’t ever come off as a disgrace to the family name or as simply failing to live up to some amazing potential. It’s also a question as to why Senator Hammond pulls the strings necessary to get his son into the lab holding Abin Sur’s body. Was he trying to give his slacker son a leg up on a better career? Was it a pity move?

This relationship could have been defined, and made much better, simply by employing the time-tested trope of playing Hector as a man following his own path while simultaneously trying to please a disapproving parent (think The Jazz Singer…or that episode of The Simpsons with Krusty the Clown’s rabbi dad).

This theme of fear of failing a parent could have broadened a little to include what is supposed to be a key figure in the Green Lantern mythos: Sinestro (Mark Strong), the Green Lantern who rejected his membership in the Corps, embraced the power of fear, and became the Green Lantern Corps’ greatest enemy.

The movie’s main threat is Parallax, a former Guardian of Oa (the Green Lantern Corps’ bosses) who tapped the power of fear and transformed into the crazed, world-destroying living embodiment of fear. Abin Sur, the greatest of the Corps, imprisoned Parallax, who escapes at the beginning of the movie and takes out his captor (leading to Hal inheriting the ring from the dying Abin Sur).

Sinestro, Abin Sur’s protege and the Corps’ biggest gun after Abin Sur himself, leads the Corps into battle against Parallax and gets slapped down, hard. In response, he proposes forging a new ring to tap the yellow energy of fear, intending to fight fire with fire. Before he can use it, Hal faces Parallax and sends the monster hurtling into the sun.

(I know, it all sounds pretty wild. Trust me, it makes perfect sense in context.)

Throughout the story, Sinestro is portrayed as proud, pragmatic, dedicated to the Corps, and uncompromising. Therefore, when at the very end of the movie he steals and dons the yellow ring, there’s absolutely no reason for it. Nothing that’s happened in the story feels like sufficient incentive for him to turn his back on his beloved Corps.

In the comics, Sinestro defected after he came to believe the Corps was soft and lacked the resolve to cross a few lines (murder, for example) in the name of the greater good. That would not have played well in the film’s story, but what if Sinestro had been explicitly faced with the opportunity to prove himself to the Guardians as worthy of assuming Abin Sur’s mantle as the greatest member of the Corps? His failure to take down Parallax — at the cost of several other Lanterns’ lives — and thus his failure to live up to the Guardians’ expectations AND Abin Sur’s legacy could have provided the motivation he needed to attempt the radical solution of tapping the yellow energy of fear.

Green Lantern had other problems at the script level, but had the writers focused a little more on developing an underlying theme and tying the characters in to that, the movie might have at least gone down as a noble failure instead of, as stated on Rotten Tomatoes, “Noisy, overproduced, and thinly written.”