Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why I love the current Marvel Universe (and you should too), by Joe Rice

So Bob's on vacation with the missus, and he asked if I'd like to write some sort of fill-in for his blog. Bob and I have known each other for years now, writing together, talking comics together, pushing each other forward, and even getting sloshed in real life when he visited the States. I haven't really written about comics at length for a while. I used to be at Comics Should Be Good, and I semi-recently did a few pieces where I brought non-comic-diehards to a comic shop, got drunk, and read comics and reviewed them. I remember writing with Bob back at Listen To Us,We're Right (I still love that title), back when I was pretty sure I was running out of things to say about comics. He was great there, but has really come into his own on this labor of love.

But you know that much, at least, don't you? If you're still here past that introduction it means you're actually here to read about comics and want to get on with it (or you are bored at work and there are no new videos of cats doing things very catlike or very uncatlike). Bob said to write about something I love that not necessarily anyone else is talking much about. Well what I love is talking about and examining the elbow-pits of third string superheroines. You can always tell the ones with the really filthy elbow-pits. Oooooh, baby.

Well now I'm just obviously avoiding my real topic. I doubt anyone remembers anything I used to write, but I was very indie-centered, "Let's push comics," 99.999999% of supercomics suck and loudly so. And I still think these things. Sergio's Funnies might the my favorite comic on the shelves these days, and every Love and Rockets makes my loverocket rocket lovingly. So there's a part of me almost ashamed to so publically state something I know so dearly in my heart to be true.

I fucking love Marvel Comics. Not just the Stan/Jack/Steve stuff. I love TODAY'S Marvel Comics. It took me a while and it took some twists and turns, but my monthly reading list has been almost completely conquered. No, I'm not actually embarrassed to say this, because I know it's not crazy and I know they're not bad comics. Just ...to write at any length about this is to risk diving into super fanboyism, and not in the nerdy stereotype way, more in the "true believer" way ...like someone with a vested interest in one faceless corporation over another.

But here's the thing ...I only feel like that when talking to other comics fans. My previously-mentioned "normals in comicworld" articles were borne from a real absolute interest I've growingly noticed among "the outside world" about this hobby I love so much. I got asked about comics by non-fans on dates, for Chrissake.

Point being, when I'm asked to talk about comics and what excites me, after I get past the general and what is obvious to anyone reading this, most likely (the juxtaposition of words and images, playing with time and space, auteurism AND collaboration, etc) I always end up talking about the current state of Marvel Comics. And this is not due only to Avengers being A Huge Big Deal.

I believe that a huge part of this comes from two intertwined factors: a) a relatively hands-off editorial staff; and b) the idea of the "architects" or whatever ...a group of skilled, smart writers more or less "in charge" of the universe as a whole. Now, of course, there are still editorial mandates, but everything we've read from both DC folks and Marvel folks make Marvel seem almost like a paradise relatively, these days. Have you read George Perez talk about the editorial interference that drove him off Superman? Gah, but, again, I don't want to make this a Marvel vs. DC thing. I've got no horse in this race, I just want to read smart/fun/thrilling/scary/whatever comics.

So, anyway, at Marvel, you've got Bendis, Brubaker, Hickman, Fraction, and Aaron working with editorial above, and other talent semi-below(?) to create direction and coordinate ideas. These guys have some serious indie cred from before and during their time at Marvel. And whether you like them or not, together, they certainly know how to tell a story. (Side note: I once read a complaint that none of the "architects" are on the artist side of the creative team. I don't think that's fair ...Bendis, Brubaker and Hickman all have worked as artists, but drawing monthly action comics isn't quite their forte.)

So these guys getting together every now and then to bounce ideas and plan for the future? This is a good idea. This is how it should be done, not a simple editorial "WE NEED MORE LONGSHOT" followed by "LESS LONGSHOT NO MORE WELL MAYBE A LOT MORE NOW LESS" or something like that. Get smart people, each of whom brings their own skillset and background into a room and have them work together and then have them "share out."

I have long loved me some Morrison comics, but when it comes to his current Action run, I have no idea what the hell he's doing, and, clearly, neither do any of his coworkers. Sure, I get giving Morrison a free reign. Have him supported by other high-quality writers who know what he's up to at least, not 90s Marvel Murderer's Row flying blind.

OK, someone's already thinking "THE EVENTS OH GOD THE HORROR THE EVENTS!" Is Marvel too event-centered? Sure, probably. I mean, they have to do what sells I guess, and as long as it produces interesting stories, I don't care if it's an event. And even back to Civil War--the idea of which was monumentally stupid and required a lot of weird logic bends--allowed for some good stuff to be produced. Right now I'm thinking of the rise of Luke Cage in Brian Bendis' New Avengers work of the time. Guy went from being a joke to a major player all the while being sharply written. Since then, the events have had ups and downs, but all of them had some pretty amazing bright spots AND set the stage for a year or so's worth of other stories. In a way, these events keep us from the dodgy repetitiveness of silver age superhero work. I mean, yes, it's mostly the illusion of change, but at the very least arcs are set up and possible.

I mentioned Bendis. He's probably the most divisive of all these big writers. I'm not sure if it took me time to like him on Avengers (really the first thing of his I read) or if it just took him some time to get the feel for it, but for the last couple of years or more I have always looked forward to his superhero work, from Ultimate Spidey to all those millions of Avenger comics he writes. I like that he writes the Avengers as people who are superheroes, and who eat and joke around with friends. It feels more authentic to me.

You've got Hickman working on this years-long Fantastic Four epic ...the semi-recent climax thereof had me actually making audible sounds of appreciation as I read it. Fraction going in opposite directions in Thor and Iron Man, and Jason Aaron just absolutely KILLING it in Wolverine and the X-men.

Another thing they've been doing that I've loved is the "partner writing" as a way of bringing up newer writers. Gillen works with Fraction for a while then takes over his own books. I remember when Hickman was "Bendis' partner" on Secret Warriors. Brubaker brought Fraction in, I think I recall. This is a ridiculously simple but effective idea. If you're going to have a shared universe, have the writers work together. Dan Slott may write Spider-man, but he can use help from other writers on their topics, too. (Speaking of Spidey comics, they've been really good. REALLY good. Thoughtful, fun, and still clearly building to something while spinning off great concepts.)

Now you've got Remender on the rise. Honestly, anyone that can make both Flash-Thompson-as-Venom AND X-Force work has got my vote of confidence.

Now this doesn't even start to delve into the talent on Marvel's writing bench. Gage, Parker, DNA, Wood (way to lose talent, DC), Van Lente, Casey ...the Marvel bench is mad deep, yo. And art? Holy God, where do they keep finding these great new talents? Pichelli, Rivera, JRjr, Immonen, Bradshaw ...I'm not going to sit here and type every name out but come ON these are some gorgeous looking books.

When you have all these people (and more, of course) working together, there can be a cohesion unavailable to other methods of doing ...this, I guess. Marvel superheroes, from their roots, were grounded not only in a more naturalistic mindscape, emotionally, but were grounded together, socially. They knew each other previously or met each other later on or worked together or served on teams together or fought or what have you. And that's still all there, giving a depth unnecessary for the enjoyment of the stories, but it's still there if you're looking for it. When Johnny Storm dies, it affects Peter Parker. When Johnny comes back ...somewhat different, it is meaningful because it is different.

I was talking to a friend lately ...talking about all the relationships across the MU. Why, for instance, Captain Britain has a place in X-Men lore, or Scarlet Witch's place in the grand scheme, or, hell, Quicksilver (just try to relationship-map that guy). The fact that these disparate things can not only co-exist but actually build upon each other ...the slow burn friendship between Peter Parker and Log--James--Wolverine, for instance, is kind of amazing. From the old 80s "WE CAN'T TRUST EACH OTHER!" to the complicated thing it is today. And let's not forget Ben Grimm ...

Anyway, I was talking to a friend about this and we started talking Defenders, a comic I'm REALLY enjoying these days. And there's good old Namor ...still a great character after all these years. Who else has been an Invader, an invader (small case), a Defender, an Avenger, an X-Man, a member of the "Cabal" and the "Illuminati" ...I've heard comics fans say this sort of complicated continuity is what keeps other people away. Not true, from what I've seen. This sort of thing, this layering of relationships, this intertwining of stories and genres and ideas ...this is what people come away excited about when we talk comics. What better way to exploit this than such collaboration and creative co-planning?

So Marvel's going to shake things up now. I am sad to see the Bendis-era Avengers pass. I am sad Hickman is leaving Fantastic Four. I am sad Brubaker is leaving Cap A. But I'm excited. Hickman's meticulous planning and methodical approach to detail for a year or two of Avengers stories? YUP. Bendis doing "cosmic" and the original X-men as time travelers? Uh, totally didn't see either coming, but I'm in with a grin.

The best part is, you don't have to get sucked into every little nook and cranny if you don't want to. The current Marvel Universe is as immersive as you want it to be. Want to stick to off-beat tales of regret and discovery? Just stick to Defenders. Want some one-off action explodeys? Hulk has your back. Scheming, planning, and excellent character work? Try Thundarkavengerbolts (SEE WHAT I DID THERE???). And if you want to get balls deep in the most deeply-coordinated yet widespread fictional setting around, then go nuts. Read Daredevil for beautiful but haunting heroics, then switch to Spidey always trying his hardest while poor li'l Loki is also always trying his hardest ...

It's a pretty damn good time for Marvel superhero comics. It's really--

Hm. Remember when Morrison was going on about the complexity of the DCU and how it would reach sentience and he was seeing it already start to influence our existence? He was so close, wasn't he? But DC gave their infant universe mindwipe. Who is it invading the mainstream now? Guys, I had a mother from the class I teach freak out about frickin Thanos. Thanos, not Hulk, Spidey, or even Iron Man. Thanos.

Don't get caught up in corporate politics or your own hangups. Look around at what Marvel has. Find what sounds fun to you. I mean, really, do I give a shit what you're reading? No. All I'm saying is I have been having a goddam great time reading Marvel for quite a while now, and that's about as close as I get to human emotion without drugs.


Bob note: Joe Rice is a genuine Kentucky Colonel, (which I find massively impressive), and the biggest single influence on my blog writing (which is slightly less impressive). He was called the Dadamerican when I first met him, but I always think of him as Rocket Fish.


Islington Comic Forum said...

Nice article. Like it. Disagree about the Hickman Fantastic Four stuff - but nodding my head at the rest of it.

Bob Temuka said...

Ha! That's exactly what I said....