Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Loving the awful

It's easy to forget how awful Jeph Loeb is at writing comic books until you actually sit down and read some of his work. He throws everything he can into a story, often leaving the reader with the vague impression they're better than they really are.

But a quick flick through some of the comics he has written over the last decade takes that vague impression, beats it with a rubber hose and takes it out behind the chemical sheds to be shot.

It's got to the point where you know exactly what you're going to get before you even pick up one of his books. Characterisation is stripped down to the bare minimum, with pop psychology and plot machinations replacing anything recognisably human.

Dialogue leaves no cliché unturned and Loeb's ability to find exactly the wrong word to come out of a character's mouth is almost unmatched in modern mainstream comics, with the degree of awfulness turned all the way up to 11.

Loeb's own brand of caption overkill brings all these failings up to the front and centre. And, at the most fundamental level, his plots are nothing more than the small bits between the clumsiest of cool moments, (see Superman/Batman) or so completely flawed from the beginning you have to wonder what the hell Loeb was thinking when he came up with it, and how he convinced his editors to join in, (see Wolverine).

So how come every time I come back from the local library with a big stack of books to read, I'm always compelled to read one of his books if it's in there, over something I know will be intellectually and emotionally rewarding?

What the fuck is up with that?

Obviously the train wreck factor is there, seeing how bad it can get every time, getting cheap thrills knowing a four year old could do better. But enjoying something for its sheer awfulness can only go so far, the so-bad-it's-good theory falling apart in the face of so-bad-it's-just-fucking-bad counter-idea.

Then there is the unashamed fanboy button pushing. Those moments might often be horribly misjudged, (Superman throttling Wonder Woman is high on the list of stuff I never really needed to see), but Loeb's love for the Awesome-with-a-capital-Awe moment still shines through. Sometimes it has all the logic of a kid playing with his favourite action figures, and how can you judge that too harshly? It can be pretty funny to watch.

Loeb has also proven the master at having the cool guest star show up at just the right moment, even if the logic behind the appearance is, at best, dodgy as fuck.

Maybe it's just the sheer pop power of the majority of his work for both Marvel and DC, with the piling on of the guest stars adding to the colour and spectacle and sheer volume of it all. I know when Loeb takes a more subdued tone, such as in his work with Tim Sale, it just doesn't feel as exciting. Sometimes it feels more like a chore than a cheap thrill.

It's unfair of me to single Loeb out, (or even comics, since the first movie I watch when I hire a pile of DVDs from the local store will invariably be the biggest, dumbest filim of the lot, thanks very much Starship Troopers 3). Especially as there are several other creators who make me wince with almost every page, but still compel me to grab their work with glee when it shows up on a library shelf.

The idea that Loeb's work is more readable the less seriously he takes it stands up when I try to read Brian Bendis' stuff, with his big, fat and important writing on things such as Daredevil or Powers frequently hard to get through, while his big, fat and loud work on some of the Avengers or Ultimate Spider-man books are a joy to read.

I don’t really like the New Avengers, but I burned through that instead of starting a Scalped collection when I got both out from a library over the weekend, even though I knew damn well that the Vertigo book was better for me.

But Loeb is the king, when it comes to that special and joyous “Oh-God-what-is-he-doing-now-guess-I-better-check-it-out” feeling.

As shallow as it sounds, it’s probably all about the shininess. Comics always look better with vivid reds and garish greens and more yellow than is strictly necessary. Picking up a Heroes For Hire book is easy when it’s covered in bright purple, while that new hot monochrome indie is emoting its arse off over there, but doesn’t grab the eye. Just because it’s Vertigo doesn’t mean it has to be brown.

This can’t be good for me. My taste has no say in this. I’m going to to read that Scalped, and I bet it will be funny and moving and exciting.

Right after I finish this Ms Marvel book.


Nik said...

Totally with you on Loeb. The man's writing is just CLUMSY, which would be fine if he was some amateur just puddling around, but he's ostensibly one of the bigger names in comics, yet he can barely string together a coherent plot. It baffles me. (As TV's Heroes slowly started to go off the rails I told my wife it was all Jeph Loeb's fault.)

Bob Temuka said...

I just got a couple of his recent Hulk issues yesterday for $1 each, and was completely baffled. Lovely Art Adams art though...

Still, I'm keenly awaiting the day when his Ultimates turns up at the local library, and I will grab it with glee when it does.

I once had shame, but no more.

Anonymous said...

I'm feeling you, but seriously Loeb's Ultimates is dangerously bad. Wolverine bad. Read it and you'll start to worry that there's something very, very wrong with your life.

You have been warned

Inkwell Bookstore said...

3 things:

1. Your local library sounds like a pretty well-stocked place.

2. "Just because it’s Vertigo doesn’t mean it has to be brown." When Vertigo decides it's time for a makeover, this oughta be their slogan.

3. Your writing is wonderful. You're my favorite 'new' voice on the net.

Bob Temuka said...

Zom: Oh God, I know. The bits of it I read in the store and the general critical mauling it received were enough to convince me of the awfulness, and yet....

Thanks for the kind words, Inkwell Bookstore. I'm trying my best. I do have access to an excellent library, and after recently spending two years in a small town where the only comics in the local library were the first Geoff Johns Teen Titans trade and one of his Flash books, I've been devouring everything a proper big city library has to offer.

In fact, I am currently a member of seven different libraries around New Zealand, and have been regularly borrowing books from two in the same city for more than a year now. I think I might have a problem with library addiction.