Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bravest Warriors #1 [review]

            It’s been months since I’ve bought comics, but I made a trip down to Salefish to order Cow Boy (The best thing I’ve read so far this year). As luck would have it, Bravest Warriors #1 came out today, and buying it alone reminded me just why I liked Wednesdays so much. Having a new comic in my car while trying to drive home to read it is just excruciating. Now I know what all you goyim go through on Christmas.

            I’ve been stoked for Bravest Warriors since I first read about it in February, and seeing it officially as a thing is just wonderful. It’s by Pendleton Ward and has the same art/humor style as Adventure Time. The tagline summarizes it best: Four 16-year old heroes-for-hire warping around galaxies and saving cute alien worlds with their emotions.

            The first issue does a great job of introducing the characters both through narration and dialog, using the premise that they are relaxing with a movie night. There’s Chris, the ultra-rad dude who “isn’t afraid to put safety first in the kitchen. Wallow is a super-nice, super-big samoan dude who “can bench-press like a billion pounds. Danny “laughs at danger even when danger hasn’t told a joke yet”. Beth has the same Princess Bubblegum science attitude when she makes cupcakes fight to the death. There’s also Plum, the unofficial 5th Bravest Warrior who immediately reminds anyone familiar of Marceline the Vampire Queen.

            There’s a lot of Adventure Time visible in Bravest Warriors, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s a solid book in it’s own right and I’m really excited that it’s here. It’s funny and unabashedly positive (which there isn’t enough of in comics), and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

            The back-up story (which is something more comics need to do) is also great. It’s another solid story that does a good job characterizing the team while they play laser tag against each other for who will get shotgun in their spaceship. It also has one of my favorite lines in the first issue, “My instinct to heroically sacrifice myself for the team beat out my incredible killer instinct”.

              It’s things like that which showcase just why Bravest Warriors is good. It’s funny. It’s sincere. Most importantly there’s a heart to it that makes you like the characters immediately. The thing about that line is it wouldn’t work without the face. Chris is serious about his instincts. You can see the same line from Finn in Adventure Time and not roll your eyes because you know they both mean it.

              Bravest Warriors is good, and I can’t wait for the next issue. There are variant covers out the wazoo so pick your favorite. It’s definitely a buy. It feels nice to be this excited about a series again. Pick it up at your local comic book shop before the cool Star Wars cover is gone.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Think of the Children!: Censorship and Taking Offense

            Censorship is a funny thing. It’s not really ha-ha funny, but there it’s something that interests me a lot. Aside from the FCC (which deals only with content on public airwaves, meaning AM and FM radio and over-the-air TV) the vast majority of American media is self-regulated. The MPAA, ESRB, and CCA are all industry based regulatory bodies who have no actual power to prevent content from being released, but do control what major stores or theaters will carry. Most theaters will not show movies rated NC-17 or that have not been approved by the MPAA, and most stores don’t sell unrated games.

            Of course, with the Internet being incredible for disseminating digital content, selling something in a store is no longer important, meaning more and more content can skirt past regulation. And while the ESRB is weak (at best) the MPAA has a lot of weight in terms of mainstream movie content. A lot of their rules are interesting and their policies on sex in cinema (especially homosexual sex) have come under a lot of scrutiny in the last decade.

            The marketplace does a phenomenal job of regulating indecency (a term that I don’t like to use but will anyway) simply because if something makes the vast majority of viewers uncomfortable, they won’t watch or play. Advertisers will pull out and the producers ultimately lose money. The only time the government will step in if it is being broadcast over the air, on networks like Fox, NBC, or ABC or on AM or FM stations. The last big to-do was the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, but honestly the FCC can’t really do too much except send out fines. They may be big fines, but honestly it’s not as bad as the advertisers that would leave.

            More recently there was the Don Imus incident. He didn’t get pulled off the air by anyone, but by the market. Advertisers said they wouldn’t support him, and CBS chose to go with that.  That’s the lesson, do or say something that goes too far and people will treat you like you have the plague.

            Comics went through all of this in the ‘50s thanks to Dr. Freric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. After the book incited a moral panic and led to a congressional inquiry into the business, companies formed the Comics Code Authority, which placed draconian censorship rules on the medium and decimated the titles available, leaving mostly only superhero comics.

            Comics couldn’t even use the word “zombie”. It was bad, and it nearly destroyed comics. However, after Dr. Wertham’s panic stopped, pretty much everyone forgot about it and the code and the Comics Code Authority are no longer things. The symbol for the CCA has actually been adopted by the Comic Book Legal DefenseFund, which is a pretty great organization in the fight against censorship.

            I stand strong against censorship, and believe (like a true American) that the market will decide what is and isn’t appropriate. If most people find something offensive then it will go away simply based on backlash. If you find something really offensive and most people don’t then try and explain your point of view. Back during the summer there was the whole thing with Daniel Tosh making some rape jokes, and I’m sure a lot of boys who have grown up on X-Box live where rape is a verb of choice didn’t really see what the big deal was.  Granted, explaining anything to a 14 year old boy is damn near impossible, but they need to get it sooner or later.

            However, sometimes if something offends you it may be just you (this does not include rape jokes, those are not cool, just making that clear) . There’s a group out there called One Million Moms, which is a part of the American Family Association. They are awful. They have a serious problem with gay people, calling for boycotts of everything from Glee to Friggin’ Archie Comics, mostly for featuring homosexual characters. When you’re offended by Archie, that’s the time to reconsider your life.

            America is meant to be a place of tolerance for our fellow man/woman/dog regardless of who they are. A lot of people think this means we have to tolerate offensive humor, but they’re wrong. One of the most interesting things about American culture is how we slowly come to national terms about what’s acceptable. If someone does something uncool with the majority they get punished for it in the most American place they can: the wallet.

            After OMM made their statements about a gay wedding in Life with Archie #16, CEO John Goldwater responded with this:

"We stand by Life with Archie #16. As I've said before, Riverdale is a safe, welcoming place that does not judge anyone. It's an idealized version of America that will hopefully become reality someday.

We're sorry the American Family Association/ feels so negatively about our product, but they have every right to their opinion, just like we have the right to stand by ours. Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people."

America. F$#% yeah.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cheesecake Factory: How the boys club is hurting comics

            While browsing through a gallery of cosplayers from New York Comic Con I found a particular picture of a woman dressed as Emma Frost, and while she most definitely pulls off the costume much better than I could, it drew my eye to a problem that comics have had for decades.

            How we portray women in most superhero comics could be, at best, described as juvenile. And while like most red-blooded, red-meat-eating American Men I enjoy looking at attractive ladies, I always get this weird feeling like the writer/artist/director is sitting next to me saying “Hey yo man check out that girl’s ass”.

            There’s been a rumor floating around for years that artists/writers would slowly increase the size of Power Girl’s breasts each issue to see if anyone noticed. Power Girl is a really good example of a woman drawn for men, by men, and the amount of creepy things found when Googling her is a reason to avoid doing so. It was hard to find a way to describe her without sounding creepy, so I’ll allow Wikipedia to do it whilst I clear my search history.

The character is consistently depicted as a large breasted young woman, and her physique is one of her most recognizable attributes—-to the extent that various writers have acknowledged it in both serious and humorous ways.

            There is a really good quote she has on her ridiculous “cleavage window” that goes like this. [the costume "shows what I am: female, healthy. If men want to degrade themselves by staring, that's their problem, I'm not going to apologize for it."

            That’s all well and good, and more power to her for her convictions, but the fact is that she’s a comic book character and the men staring at her aren’t feeling like they’re degrading themselves. The men who drew her weren’t thinking about sending a message of strength or something like that, but something more along the lines of what will sell to comics’ premier demographic.
            It seems like it’d be hard to be a girl and be a fan of superhero comics. If you’re a 10-13 year-old girl who likes superheroes, what are you reading? This is a legitimate question and if there is an answer I’d love to hear it.  If nothing is being written for you, then what are you going to read? If you’re not reading, then who will be writing in the future? Comics are already a boys club, and it might be nice to have more women writers on staff to explain why showing Batman and Catwoman in a thoroughly unpleasant sex scene or making Starfire a skank was a really bad idea.

            I’m a firm believer that comics are for everybody. I don’t mean that every comic should be for everyone, but I do believe that there should be a comic out there for anyone who wants to read them. When I look at mainstream titles I find myself wondering what isn’t being written for 14 year-old boys or people who are already ardent fans. The people reading comics now will be the ones writing them in a few years, and what they read will have a profound impact on what they create. If all we show them is this I can’t help but be a bit afraid for the future of the mainstream superhero comics.

            If you’re going to have women heroes and villains, get some female writers. It’s really that simple. There is one man who can write women well, his name is Joss Whedon, and he’s busy with Avengers stuff so find someone else. There are many talented female writers and artists out there who would love the opportunity to write one of their heroines, so maybe instead of giving Geoff Johns another book give one of them a chance.

            All I’m really saying in all this, and what I say in pretty much everything I write, is we need to stop writing for adolescent boys. We need to write for everyone if to grow our market and make something people will love. This doesn’t just apply to comics but to games as well. Look at almost any fighting game and how they portray women. You can say it’s supposed to be funny until it actually is, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly creepy.

            If we keep designing things for fourteen year-old boys then we’ll end up only having Rob Liefield, Michael Bay, and Call of Duty and that’s an incredibly bad thing. By adding in new creators and new perspectives we grow as a medium and as a culture rather than continuing to stagnate like I’d argue we are.  If we want to keep degrading ourselves further, then steady on.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

War Stories: How do we handle war in entertainment?

            War comics used to be a big part of overall comics titles. Blackhawk, Sergeant Rock, and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (which should sound pretty familiar given Nick Fury’s resurgence and the Howling Commandos’ appearance in the Captain America movie) were all popular titles, yet they have fallen by the wayside in modern comics. Curious about this, I went on Marvel and DC’s websites but I couldn’t find any war comics. DC had brought back titles like Men of War, Blackhawk, and G.I. Combat but all of them have already been cancelled.
            Of course, most of these comics had already gone away around the same time in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Audiences weren’t engaged with them anymore. Blackhawk was revamped in possibly the worst reboot of all time. Most of these comics faded away with the new prevalence of TV reporting in Vietnam showing Americans the real face of war every night. War comics fell by the wayside.

Seriously. Look at this nonsense.

            That said, I’m not sure why DC brought back these titles in the New 52, but I have a pretty good idea why these comics were cancelled (again).When comics are cancelled it’s simply because they aren’t selling. Serious comics about war are hard to sell to comics target market. A serious and mature war comic like Blazing Combat that had “stories [that] were both gritty and realistic ... showing the true horror of war" isn’t going to sell to your average Call of Duty player, and a comic that attempts to ape the juvenile adolescence of most modern shooters to attract that market is going to be offensively simplistic.

            Comics and gaming are relatively easy to talk about together because they share a target market and as such thought of as juvenile, and given the vast majority of what is published by mainstream titles it’s easy to see why. When you treat war the way Call of Duty and Battlefield do, it really demeans the entire concept. Other games do it better, of course. Medal of Honor has always presented war in a more serious light. I still remember playing MoH: Frontline’s level set in Arnhem and being incredibly moved by it.

            An interesting thing to note is that the older war comics were usually about World War II, as were most shooters in the early 2000’s. Now, most shooters are set in the modern era, and maybe the fact that there isn’t as much of a set narrative in a hypothetical war with Russia. There isn’t a lot of pathos there. The War on Terror has its share of it. I’ve read some pretty great stuff with the War in Iraq. Joel Turnipseed’s (A name that may be familiar with some of you) Baghdad Express or Brian K. Vaughn’s Pride of Baghdad are both incredible works, but this kind of depth rarely makes it into war games.

            It’s hard to really write war without trivializing it if you fail to show the actual personal consequences of it. While researching this article, I was amazing to find this sentence on the Wikipedia page for Medal of Honor: Warfighter that said, “The game's plot reveals Tier 1 operator Preacher returning home to find his family torn apart from years of deployment.” That’s pretty impressive to include in a modern war game. Spec Ops: The Line is based on Heart of Darkness, which means it is a brutal exploration of the human psyche.

            Of course, this raises a pressing question. Can a realistic war game be entertaining while at the same time giving due decency to the subject matter? Should realistic war games be fun at all? Of course, even the idea of a realistic war game is a bit bizarre, given as if you get shot in Call of Duty you duck behind a bit of wall for 5 seconds and wait for the red to go away, and in real life you spend three months at Walter Reed adjusting to a C-Leg. I guess that wouldn’t be fun though.

            And I guess that’s the problem with war entertainment (if that concept enough doesn't strike a bad chord). If it’s fun it doesn’t give the subject the respect it deserves, and if it’s serious it isn’t fun. Comparatively few people will play a haunting game that forces them to plumb the depths of their very soul, and even fewer will buy a comic that makes them more and more depressed with every issue.

            I guess the only thing to do at this point is to accept that perhaps war comics from mainstream published are a thing of the past. Maybe that’s a good thing, considering how DC has been writing of late. I think it’s time we look at what we write and what we play a bit more seriously, and ask ourselves just how it portrays serious topics. If we want the mediums we care about to gain acceptance as art, we need to challenge mainstream publishers to produce content that challenges readers and presents itself as honest with actual depth.


            Something I’m going to start doing whenever I write something broad like this is to give some recommended reading for anyone who might be interested.

            Blazing Combat: A controversial but incredible anti-war graphic novel about Vietnam from the 70’s.
            Last Day in Vietnam: This is by Wil Eisner, who is an incredible writer and artist, presents his take on war. It’s pretty amazing to say the least. It’s probably available in your college library (I know it’s at UNCG, that’s where I read it).

            Pride of Baghdad: I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it’s about lions and the Iraq war. It’s powerful and incredibly sad but offers a wonderful message. I read it at Edward McKay’s a while back, and I had to leave the store before anyone noticed I was about to openly weep.

           The Long Road Home and The War Within: Taken from Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury, these are two short books about a solider losing his leg in Iraq and readjusting to life in the States afterwards.