Lipstick Traces

Meanwhile, in New York, 1978…

It was the beginning of my 3rd grade school year, and I bought a copy of Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4 with my allowance. Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4

There was something about the character that really grabbed me. Maybe it was his odd name, or his bright, garish costume. Maybe it was that he was a sarcastic smartass or that he had weird powers (he could turn one object into another, like in this issue when he turns the air around a gang of robbers into a huge, plastic pumpkin). Or maybe it’s that HIS HEAD WAS CONSTANTLY ON FIRE. Whatever it was, this comic in particular appealed to me. I got a pad of tracing paper and traced every page of the comic, including the cover. I renamed the main character (to the less dynamic “Flamethrower the Burning Man”) and rewrote all of the dialogue.

I wasn’t thinking about it at the time–in fact, I didn’t think about it until just now–but I was learning how to write when I did this. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but deep down, I was paying attention to panel layout and plotting, framing and narration, and, of course, dialogue. It was practice for when I wrote and drew my own comics that same year. But it was also practice and self-education for my writing now. I’m still thinking about how to create colorful, engaging characters, write fun dialogue, and produce stories that inspire other people to dream and create.

To be continued…


Avengers Assembled

I saw The Avengers this afternoon. While I knew I wouldn’t like it as much as the comics, I figured I’d like it. I just didn’t realize how much I’d like it. The Avengers is…really, really fucking great. Every actor does a terrific job, it’s got fantastic special effects out the wazoo, but what I really loved about it is the writing.

No, I’m not talking about the trademark Joss Whedon dialogue, although there’s a lot of it in the movie and it’s great. Zak Penn and Joss Whedon have written a movie that combines the best of Silver Age Marvel Comics with contemporary big-budget action movies and Whedon’s best existentialist thoughts on heroism.

The Avengers have always been a team of quarrelsome, peevish heroes who step on each other’s toes as much as they beat on the bad guys. They argue and brawl amongst themselves, they get moody and question if what they’re doing is right, but in the end, they come together and back each other up. That’s exactly what we get in the movie, and for old school comics fans, it’s wonderful to see. There’s a lot of big budget, special effects explodey, but there’s also a lot of well-written, character-driven emotey stuff. There’s great interplay between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton, Thor and Loki, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and Nick Fury and Maria Hill.

Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff stood out to me in particular. She gets the kind of treatment that, sadly, few people besides Joss Whedon would give her. She gets a lot to do in the movie, including a number of scenes that set her up to look like a typical Hollywood female character, only to have it turned on its ear. She’s strong, smart, caring, and not prioritized with attracting men. She plays a major role in ways that I wasn’t expecting. I was happily surprised.

Similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity, and Dollhouse, The Avengers features protagonists who take on the role of hero because somebody has to do it and they want to make a difference. There’s no higher power, no moral absolute to appeal to. In a chaotic, uncaring universe, full of people who don’t give a damn, the protagonists choose to help and protect people, to fight against tyranny and destruction, to sacrifice themselves to save others. These are the kinds of heroes I like to see.

The Avengers is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s also stirring and inspiring. From start to finish, it’s a fantastic ride. I kind of love it a lot.

The Best Canvas

Thanks to a multimedia onslaught, I doubt there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know that The Avengers movie opens this weekend. Although I was torn at first, I’ve changed my mind, and I’m really excited to see The Avengers as soon as I can. I think it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

That being said, if superhero movies are on the wane (and with the money The Avengers is looking to pull in, it doesn’t look like they are), I wouldn’t care. In fact, I don’t really care if any more superhero movies are made. I mean, I’ve liked the Iron Man movies a lot. Thor and Captain America were a hell of a lot of fun. And I’m apparently one of the few people who didn’t think Green Lantern sucked. But as much as I’ve liked them, all of these movies have made something very clear to me: live-action superhero movies will never be as good as comics.

Yeah, I know, people always say, “The book was better than the movie.” That’s not what I’m talking about. Books aren’t a visual medium. Comics are. Film is, too. Adapting superhero comics into movies is adapting one visual medium to another. And there are things you can do in comics that you simply can’t do in movies.

For one thing, as anyone who has watched the 1960s Batman TV show knows, people generally look really stupid in superhero tights. It’s why Batman’s costume in the movies has gotten to be more and more like armor, less and less like tights. It’s why the X-Men in the movies where black leather instead of colorful spandex. It’s why the Hawkeye of the Avengers movie doesn’t wear the purple costume he wears in the comics. Even Captain America’s traditional costume only shows up in the movie as a joke about showbiz glitz. I love colorful, goofy superhero costumes, but what looks cool in comics can look really lame in live-action.

Superhero stories in the comics frequently go from street-level gritty and slice-of-life comical to monumentally, cosmically epic. But with a few exceptions (the Thor and Green Lantern movies come to mind–and the Avengers movie looks to be pretty damn epic), filmmakers and studios shy away from the really big stuff. The first Fantastic Four movie has the team save Manhattan–but mostly themselves–from a snarky, small-minded Doctor Doom. Where was Doom’s time machine? His gadgets that shrunk the Four into a microscopic universe? His claim to be the rightful ruler of Latveria? Why is Superman always saving Metropolis or the U.S. from Lex Luthor when he could be saving the world from Brainiac? Why don’t the X-Men fight Magneto on Asteroid M, his rocky base that orbits the Earth, or battle the Sentinels aboard a vast space station? I like my superhero stories to be full of high-level imagination, crazy science, weird mysticism, and cosmic drama, and there are too few examples of this in superhero movies.

The nature of comics also allows for storytelling that has become a mainstay of superhero stories, things that don’t translate to film, like lots of smart ass quips and long bouts of dialogue in the middle of action-packed slugfests. Narration and thought balloons also don’t translate into film without being intrusive to the experience. The biggest way in which Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies fell down for me was in Spider-Man’s utter lack of smartass quipping during fights, something that is an essential part of his character in the comics.

I clearly like a good superhero movie. But even the best superhero movie is a poor substitute for superhero comics. For some stories, live-action film is the best canvas. But for superheroes, nothing beats the comics.

The Long and Short of It

Late last night, I caught a couple of episodes of the 1990’s X-Men animated series on TV. The dialogue and animation were just as rough as I remember them being, but just watching those two episodes was more enjoyable than watching either of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies. (There’s really no point in mentioning Brett Ratner’s X-Men movie, is there? Right, pretend I didn’t mention it.) I tweeted about it and have since been thinking about why they’re more enjoyable, even if the animated series lacks such terrific actors as Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and (not a knight) Hugh Jackman. I’ve got a theory (and it isn’t bunnies).

The X-Men really gained popularity as a comic when Chris Claremont was writing the “All New! All Different!” Uncanny X-Men. One of the hallmarks of Claremont’s writing, and one of the reasons I believe the series became so popular, was a really good handling of soap opera-esque plotting. It wasn’t just the characters that people liked or Claremont’s melodramatic but engaging dialogue, it was the way he (and John Byrne, when they co-plotted the series) wove storylines involving the Sentinels, Magneto, the Savage Land, the Shi’ar Empire, the Hellfire Club, Alpha Flight, Doctor Doom, the Morlocks and especially the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” And if you go back to the original X-Men team, the best stories are just as drawn out and soap opera-esque.

Soap opera storylines are pretty much impossible to do in movies; the dramatic structures of serialized comics and feature films are just too dissimilar. I love the way the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies have all led up to the forthcoming Avengers movie. And Marvel Comics has been doing extended, twisty, soap opera plotting in all of their superhero comics since the ’60s. But it’s such a part of what makes the X-Men in particular a comic I keep going back to–I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read the original and “new” X-Men comics–I have a hard time imagining an X-Men movie that will ever be as enjoyable to me as the animated X-Men series of the ’90s.

My Caped Crusader

After my previous post about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, I’ve been thinking about how I would do a Batman movie (or series of movies). Buckle up, here we go…

First of all, the movies would look very much like a German Expressionist movie, with long shadows and twisted, creepy sets. Gotham City would be heavily stylized, very Art Deco and Bauhaus. At the same time, the actors would play everything straight, not campy. This is a world that believes its own internal logic. It doesn’t need to wink at the audience or play up that it’s unrealistic. It simply is what it is.

Batman, I feel, has had too much emphasis put on “rich guy with gadgets” and not nearly enough on “world’s greatest detective and martial artist.” Batman wouldn’t wear body armor or a heavy, rubber outfit. Batman’s costume would be tight, but flexible, allowing him to do lots of acrobatics and martial arts moves. Does this make Batman more vulnerable in fights? Realistically, yes. But again, this world believe its own internal logic, where a man can dress in a spooky bat costume and fight crime without getting crippled or killed. The story itself would revolve around Batman using his incredible detective skills to solve a real mystery and to plot and plan against his opponents. Think Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes mixed with Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Jet Li as…well, whoever Jet Li plays.

Yes, Batman would be pretty grim and humorless (although he’d be the opposite as Bruce Wayne). But he wouldn’t be completely obsessed with eliminating crime–that is, he’d also be looking out for ordinary citizens, especially children threatened by crime or random bad circumstances. He’s the Dark Knight, but I see that as an honorable, caring knight who dresses in dark colors and lurks in the shadows. He’s not morally grey, he’s simply chosen to appear spooky to scare the bejeezus out of criminals.

The villains (the Scarecrow, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman and, yes, the Joker would all be my top picks) would be flamboyant, but not campy. (Well, the Joker’s pretty inherently camp.) They’d be sinister and villainous, colorful and surreal, the flip side of Batman, who would be dark and mysterious but heroic.

And that, my friends, is how I would do Batman movies.

The Dark, Dark Knight

The trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, the final movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is out. Having watched it, my response is…meh.

I saw Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in the theater. I remember enjoying both movies, but if I’m being completely honest, the only good thing from either movie that has stuck with me is Heath Ledger’s brilliant (and tragic) performance in The Dark Knight. I’ve never really had a desire to watch either movie again, except to see if my lasting impressions are wrong and I really do like them. But here’s what I remember about the movies: I didn’t like Batman’s costume; I hated the husky, shouty voice Christian Bale used as Batman; I hated the ATV Batmobile; I thought the choice of having Liam Neeson play Ra’s al Ghul only made sense to trick the audience into thinking Ra’s al Ghul was someone else (but made so sense for the character or the story); I found the movies to be uncomfortably “realistic” and dark.

I’ll admit, Batman’s not my favorite superhero, but there are a hell of a lot of Batman comics I’ve enjoyed. I’m not a fan of grim, dark, pseudo-realistic superheroes. I generally prefer my superhero stories to be colorful, fantastic, uplifting and inspiring. And yes, I think it’s possible for a good Batman story to be like that. (My pal Gregg Winsor just said to me, “Nolan’s Batman isn’t a superhero, and the movies aren’t ‘superhero’ movies.” Which I think nails why I haven’t gotten much lasting enjoyment from them. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they fail to meet my expectations and my wants.)

As a long-time comics geek, I feel weird admitting that Nolan’s Batman movies aren’t my cup of tea. I can proudly admit that I find Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, universally reviled as they are, to be camp crap. But to admit that Nolan’s acclaimed Batman movies rub me the wrong way? It’s like admitting some dark, terrible secret. But I’m putting it out there, for all to see. Pelt me with tomatoes and cabbages, if you must.