Some things that are on my geeky mind:

1) Avatar is just damned amazingly good. Kid-equipped people should be making it preferential viewing. Non-kid people should also consider watching. The episode that really convinced me it was the kind of kidvid that my brother and Kevin were calling for in Saturday Morning Fever was the one where the title character convinced two warring tribes that their mythological narratives of ethnic conflict are in error, because he was around a century before when their conflict supposedly started. After he’s convinced them that they’ve mistaken a children’s sporting match for a huge primal cultural conflict, the two tribes make nice and wander off together happily. The protagonist sighs and turns to his two close friends. They express amazement that he happened to be there a century before and that the story was so simple to resolve. The Avatar laughs: he lied, just to get the two groups to stop being so stupid.

I fell in love right at that moment: it’s exactly what would never have happened in 1970s era kidvid but also what doesn’t happen in ironic self-referential kidvid either. The show is marvelously moral and yet also incredibly entertaining and wise at the same moment. First-rate stuff.

2) I’m almost done with superhero comics. That’s an amazing thing for me to say. There’s a few that I still enjoy, but largely only as trade paperbacks (Geoff Johns on Flash, Bendis on Powers). I was afraid about Identity Crisis a while back and I think my anxiety turns out to be well-warranted.

Superhero comics are serial drama, and the desire to consume them turns on parallel forms of arrested development involved in the consumption of soap operas. I’m not at all apologetic about those preferences. However, doing it right is a real trick: a good creator of serial drama has to both satisfy the consumer desire for more of the same while also delivering the impression of something new. I’ve written in the past about how the inability of the owners of the contemporary mainstream superhero universes to allow their metafictions to develop a more consistently imaginative foundation or backdrop has undercut the storytelling capacities of their creators.

Nothing’s changed as far as that goes, but the major remaining strength of both DC and Marvel, the nostalgic investments that long-time readers have with characters, is being steadily eroded. This is the same thing that brings soap opera viewers back from temporary disaffections with particular storylines or phases of their favorite shows: once the creative team moves on, the characters are still there, the mood of the genre form is still there. The genius of the core fiction behind a character like Batman is still there, a trusty if somewhat antiquated engine capable of churning out new narratives. A writer can even mess with some aspects of that core fiction to good end, but the anchor is still there as a last-instance guarantee of the reader’s pleasure.

But there’s a kind of malign spirit gripping both companies at the moment: stories that aren’t just mean and grubby in their narratives, but which backwash that sense into the characters and their anchoring mythologies. There are a lot of recent examples: the gratitutious unpleasantries of the “Disassembling” of the Avengers (and the crassness of a “New Avengers” that includes the most overexposed character in the history of the comics, Wolverine), but the worst I think I’ve seen lately is Batman #644. I read through it in the comic store rather than buy it: it’s almost finished my interest in reading standard-form superhero comics, at a time when I’m down to only one or two titles already. In it, the character of Dr. Leslie Thompkins, a long-time fixture in the comics, the character whose anchoring morality was an important part of the development of Batman’s origins, is consigned to the dust heap, as DC decided to make her a murderer out to end superheroic activity. Whatever. It’s more than a stupid story: it’s a kind of throwing water on the embers of an almost-dead fire. In the end, the main thing I ask of the intrinsic silliness of mainstream superhero titles is that they still be fun to read. Most of them aren’t fun any longer, but they’re still not about real people in real situations or even fantastically real people in fantastically real situations, so what’s left? Very little, at least for me.

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9 Responses to Geekout

  1. emschwar says:

    I’ll second that recommendation for Avatar– it’s one of the few shows that keeps me thinking not-completely-terrible thoughts about the US animation industry, especially after Disney practically fired its entire 2D animation studio.

    While I’m geeking out, although it’s radically different than the comics that spawned it (Gar/Beast Boy as comic relief? le sigh…), Teen Titans is also excellently done; they’ve pushed the limits of Y7 so many times, I’m suprised they haven’t just gone ahead and gone for a TV-PG rating. Justice League Unlimited my well be DC’s last saving grace; it just finished a fantastic series about what happens when those who watch the watchers aren’t watching themselves closely enough.

  2. joeo says:

    Batman #644 sounds horrible. Part of the problem is that kids don’t buy comics anymore. This is reasonable considering comic’s cost and the kid’s other entertainment options. But, the comics just get bleaker and bleaker.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Teen Titans isn’t bad, I agree. My daughter loves it. She also, thankfully, loves Justice League Unlimited, and even more impressively, my wife, who is very ungeeky, loves Justice League Unlimited. (Especially Green Arrow…I’d be jealous if he weren’t a cartoon.)

    Basically Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in their various DC-universe cartoons understand the genre and its attractions about two thousand times better than the people currently in charge at either company. There is this peculiar thing going on now: in TV and films, superheroes are doing quite well; in their source medium, they’re withering and dying, losing appeal to all but a few truly lost souls. I mean, if you’re excited by current DC superhero comics on the ground that they’re “gritty” and “realistic”, you’re really messed up in some fashion. A person whose aesthetic tastes are governed by the need for “realism” doesn’t sensibly turn for their main satisfaction to reading superhero comics.

    Stepping back from my own irritation, though, I think this is yet another case of how odd the “culture industry” really is, how its internal dynamics can lead to the production of product that nobody really wants. The writer of Batman #644, Bill Willingham, recently said that he thinks it’s a good thing if people hate his story, and that he doesn’t believe that anyone who says they’re disaffected from comics really is going to stop buying, and even if they are, he could care less. I think he should look a little at the sales trends in comics over the last decade and think again about whether he doesn’t care. But in many respects, it’s a typical attitude inside the culture biz: it’s the same thing that lets the music industry and the film industry blame piracy for their own inability to make product that consumers actually want.

  4. emschwar says:

    What’s interesting to me is the transformation of comic book companies into larger media conglomerates. I read recently (on slashdot, I think) that Marvel will be funding, in-house, 10 films over the coming years– and given the returns for superhero movies at the box office, that’s probably not a bad bet on their part.

    Maybe the state of the comic industry is simply due to the comic book companies just not caring about comics anymore– all the money’s in movies. This makes some sense– in many cases, movies are what many comics wanted to be all along, I think. Even so, it’s kinda weird, as a somewhat older-school geek, to think of DC and Marvel selling comic books as cheap advertising for their movies.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    One of Marvel’s 10 films is going to be “Ant-Man”, which makes all the joking on the show “Entourage” about an Aquaman movie look positively serious by comparison. I suppose someone could come up with a treatment for it, almost inevitably comedic, that would be ok. The problem with the second- and third-string Marvel (and DC) properties is that they’re mostly derivative in the first place, long familiar in films in other contexts. “Shrinking man”. “Giant”. etc. There’s a very small number of comics characters who are either independently iconic in their own right or who have a unique high-concept that might make a good film. It’s a really good point that the comics industry may not care because their comics are just intellectual-property holding patterns for movies at this point.

  6. emschwar says:

    Okay, I’m going to totally embarrass myself here and admit that I read several Ant-Man comics when I were a wee lad, and enjoyed them. There, I said it. I still have *no* idea how you can make a movie out of them, though; at this point, I’m hoping that Marvel was just tossing out names to get people talking, and that they’ll really do Daredevil 2, or something similarly innocuous.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    See, if you’re plugged into the deep continuity of Marvel comics, Ant-Man’s actually a pretty neat character, but that has to do more with the specific character’s history than his powers or costume or whatever. He starts as no more than his concept (“shrinking guy!” “scientist guy!”) but then ends up interesting (the Hank Pym Ant-Man/Giant-Man) because he’s unstable and neurotic. The problem is that deep continuity does not translate at all to a movie. I was pretty surprised that X-Men worked as well as it did as a film given how baroque those characters have become, but they pulled it off by cleaning off the continuity gunk and going to the archetypical racism parable. With Ant-Man I don’t think there’s an archetype there to be found. Even the way he relates to ants in the comics is pretty weird–individual ants are his buddies but he also routinely sends tons of them to their death. Maybe that’s an angle, kind of like Cronenberg’s treatment of The Fly: what would a man becoming more like an ant be like? Nothing very superheroic, that much I’m pretty sure of.

  8. emschwar says:

    One possibility that just occurred to me: several of these B- (and let’s face it, C-) list titles may well end up feeding off each other. You point out that many of them only make sense in the context of a larger Marvelverse– what if the plan is to introduct Ant-Man, for instance, in a completely different movie (or even movies) as a sidekick or tertiary character, and release his feature after interest (and sufficient backstory) have been built up?

    I could see him retconned to be working for Tony Stark, when he discovers the Pym Particles, but then you’d have to explain why Iron Man can’t do what Ant-Man can… even so, I suspect this kind of intricate (some might say baroque) world-building is what Marvel is aiming at in movies, as it’s worked reasonably well for them in their comics.

    Oh– and since I just now remembered to whom I’m talking, you probably really want to check out _Master Keaton_– it’s a Japanese animated TV show about a guy who’s sort of a combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones. If Indiana Jones would rather be in a classroom than a gunfight, that is. Or if Bond had a daughter he loved more than almost anything else, but was separated from. It has, I think, possibly the single most realistic portrayal of academics in visual fiction that I’ve seen in a very long time– in fact, one of the most outstanding images from the early part of the show is where he prevents government officials from disrupting a class he’s giving on archaeology at a free university in Paris; it’s a good deal more stirring and inspiring than the scene not 5 minutes earlier, when he disrupts a terrorist group’s plans to hold a hostage in the suburbs. Netflix has the whole series, if you’re into that sort of thing. I have a slightly fuller review here.

  9. maxfuller says:

    Nice post. I know what you mean about superhero comics. I think the content of comic books is changing.

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