23 January, 2011

To be a Steve Ditko character or not to be a Steve Ditko character. That is the Question.

Global warming gave us a snow day, so I appreciate that. Weirdest thing, I've turned into a baby about the cold. At first I thought it was because my body was acclimated to where I spent the summer, but over Christmas I spent hours working outside in Nebraska, with only a t-shirt and jacket. No hesitation, no problem. But now that things are back to normal, I might add a hat and sweatshirt when going outside, if I don't already have them on. [not the hat]

Over half of the first draft has been edited. It's time-consuming, but going through line-by-line is working as a slow, steady process. It also takes more mental effort, I think, than most of the original writing. Except on the worst days, it was a lot less depressing to think about adding another three paragraphs than I currently feel when I look at how many remain unedited just on the page I'm looking at now. But most of the expected roadbumps weren't there. I haven't found any places where major surgery was required, and I've almost reached the only real problem, a chapter I had mentally sketched out but wasn't able to complete.

I'm tinkering with the cover design and the overall package, thinking about the technical expertise I'll require to get them precise. I don't know if I'm going to hit my target date for having a finished product.

It's kind of enjoyable not going on endlessly about politics. One of my favorite scenes in Peter Bagge's Hate is when Buddy meets Valerie's parents. Sounds like a sitcom description, and Hate is about the closest thing comics has ever had to an original sitcom. Basically think of The Simpsons when it was at its best, and remove everything that a child could understand other than the cartoony drawing. Anyway, Valerie's father brings Buddy out to have a beer, and saying he likes Buddy more than other guys Val's brought home because one wrong word would set them off and they'd start ranting about politics and he couldn't stand people like that.

As you might guess, it's only a few panels later before he's screaming 'talk about human rights violations, do you know what the interest rates were when Carter left office?' and it's very funny. Bagge, a noted libertarian, is currently doing strips for Reason magazine online [ http://reason.com/people/peter-bagge/articles ] and the collection "Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me" is quite good.

Anyway, I check the news and see if anything's blown up, but don't quite have the urge to bitch about politics for the time being. I've been compulsively re-reading Garth Ennis' The Boys, the superhero series that out-Preacher's Preacher for extreme sex, violence and swearing.

The series is about two-thirds of the way done, and I'm amazed at how much of the background information is still unknown. After The Seven [analogues of the JLA] failed on 9/11 - because having immense superpower doesn't make you automatically better at complicated tasks like terrorists, hostage negotiation or understanding atmospheric pressure and how a plane flies through the air - they encountered The Boys, goverment operatives meant to keep the supes in line. There was a fight at the still-smoldering Brooklyn Bridge - they didn't know how to land either - and current issues are describing what happened.

In his spin-off miniseries also coming out now, it's clear the old guy Wee Hughie is talking to is none other than Colonel Mallory, the mysterious founder of The Boys, who will reveal secrets about Butcher, The Boys' current leader. Hughie is the likeable doofus/reader stand-in and Butcher is, well, a butcher. Ennis' usual themes of violence and male cameraderie show up. I think the secret is that Hughie and Butcher are related. Hughie's an orphan, and I suspect Butcher's problem with the Homelander ["Superman"] a lot further than he was letting on.

It's established that his hatred for the Homelander is personal. He tells a convincing story, but I think it's a cover. I think his origin goes back to infancy, probably as part of the same brainwashing program the government gave the Homelander when they're trying to convince a walking atom bomb to be a likeable pro-American superhero. This will no doubt tie back into the Vought-American superhero-industrial complex that wants superheroes used for national defense so they can clean up.

Issue 50 should be out any time, and we've never gotten a hint of anything about the Man from Vought, even his name. He's just a guy in a business suit who represents the company to The Seven and tells them what to do. They play along because it's easier to live decadent superlives than to run the world, but the Homelander is slowly breaking free of his programming. He has a Pavolovian reflex towards obedience to the Man from Vought, seen at Herogasm, but he's managed to kill more people and get away with it since, and he's had a secret meeting with other superheroes where he presumably said what he'd been unable to before, again at Herogasm.

The Man from Vought has hired Plucky Girl for an assistant, and she's already influencing him, pointing out that some things can't work no matter how much money is thrown at them. Black Noir ["Batman"] has had a subplot all along about learning to fly his Noirplane - he was supposed to fly the plane to safety on 9/11, but whoever was carrying him through the air dropped him early on - and the problems they're currently having are building to a storyline in the near future. Ennis said that one of The Seven would have a major problem, and I think that's what it is.

We also don't know what Noir's problem is in the first place. He violated Hughie in one of the earlier storylines. Queen Maeve ["Wonder Woman"] was the one to bug their own headquarters, which is a surprise. She spends every waking moment drinking and staring out the window to where the Bridge used to be, and it doesn't seem to have stemmed from 9/11 as I'd assumed, because she planted the bugs before then.

A-Train, Jack From Jupiter and The Deep ["Flash", "Martian Manhunter" and "Aquaman"] don't seem to have changed at all or be in the middle of on-going plotlines. A-Train is the major character in these three, and his relationship with Starlight will probably be a part. I swear, this series is chock full of Watchmen-level attention to detail. Ennis must have had it all planned well in advance, and with a much larger canvas to boot.

Except for Starlight. According to a recent interview, Ennis said she'd surprised him. She's the point-of-identification for the reader in the superhero aspect, and gets her goody two-shoes principles hopelessly ravaged right from the start. He'd intended her to be an eventual joke until he found himself writing her second meeting with Hughie and realizing that they were such sweethearts that they could have fun for a while. I mean, leaving aside the romance hook itself, how could such a master of using cliches correctly ignore the whole secret identity part of it?

Hughie knows what she did to join The Seven - exactly what you think - but she still doesn't know anything about what he does. She thinks he's an insurance investigator. But that argument is waiting to happen, because she still wants to know how he saw her "audition". It might even be Maeve who reveals it. In an Ennis book, I'd suspect Annie will lose it and hit Hughie. She's a superhero, but hasn't shown any signs of superstrength. Unbeknownst to her, Hughie was dosed with Compound V, the source of all superpowers designed by Vought-American, when he joined The Boys. Whether or not he hits her back, that will probably propel their relationship arc towards the conclusion.

Of course they're both extremely likeable, and naturally we want them to have a happy ending, with or without each other. Or at least a satisfying conclusion. I'd hate for them to turn out like Featherstone and Hoover - one of the few 'mehs' in the conclusion to "Preacher".

The other members of The Boys haven't gotten much screen time. I think Mother's Milk keeps his mother's decaying corpse locked up, and gets a little more each time he fills up his flask. Butcher's the obvious suspect to have taken the flask - hoping to uncork MM's non-commissioned officer rage - but we don't know that for sure. Frenchie remains the funny foreigner, and looks out for The Female, who fills the psychotic killer role in this team of psychotic killers, (but they're protecting us from the superheroes). These three have their story arcs, but don't receive anywhere near the attention Butcher and Hughie get.

Their government connections are changing, as Monkey is replacing whatsername. I haven't been that interested in those characters, but Monkey's sexual obsession with women in wheelchairs appears to be gaining prominence with advance art showing such a woman who just won a javelin championship (?) and will meet the President of the United States soon.

That's the other major plotline building. Vought-American played all their influence and bought the Vice-Presidency for Vic the Veep (they would have gotten one of the Bush family, but their fortunate son took his head off with a chainsaw). Every other defense contractor who would go out of business if superheroes start being used for national defense managed to get their boy in as President. The President ordered the planes shot down on 9/11, but something happened before the last plane could be destroyed.

It's not clear if Vic the Veep is still the GWB cliche, but either way he's not to be underestimated. When he was told that Dakota Bob would die soon and he would fill out the term before running for election, he responded way too quickly. It's also not clear if he actually did knock the President out and stand down the order to fire on that last plane so that the superheroes could strut their stuff the way they do in the comic books. The Man from Vought stresses that Vic the Veep is not as stupid as he appears. I think we're going to find out what happens when an actual supervillain shows up, who makes no pretenses about heroism or brotherhood, who will reveal himself as Doctor Doom the instant he gets the chance.

All these storylines naturally flow into each other, for the most part. The Boys have worked their way through various analogues of other superteams. Payback [the Avengers], the G-Men [X-titles], Malchemical and Super Duper [Legion of Superheroes, sort of, they're not from the 30th century or anything]. There's been riffs on standard cliches for short interludes. Tek-Knight [the ordinary man who wears an electronic suit], his sidekick ["Batman and Robin"] and the murder of a gay kid by a gay superhero.

There are references to "Red River", which sounds like a rival corporation infiltrating the Secret Service, but we have no details. Intimations of SHIELD vs. HYDRA no doubt. We also don't have any clue why the Russia storyline existed, other than to introduce the comedy relief. He's Russian, 300 lbs and his supername translates to "Love Sausage". No information about the war in Pakistan either. All these characters and all these on-going plotlines, and there's a whole big bad world outside.

This is one of the things that has made comics such a wonderful medium, and a shining example of what they can do in longform. It takes dedication and professionalism in addition to creativity to make this happen, but a reliable series that comes out over many years and utterly rewards the attention. Trying to read the series in order when I got back last fall kinda bored me, but I've been obsessively going through the books at random, and even have most of the issues out that haven't yet been collected. God willing, Ennis, Darrick Robertson and the other artists will have us a work which will be known as 'the longer version of Watchmen'. There are fewer meditations on quantum physics, but more people getting their face ripped off and amazingly the effect is the same. It just takes more pages to explain why the face ripping-off was important.

The Boys is the best-selling regular independent that doesn't star zombies, and even there we have the three superheroes who have been resurrected so far. Nubia ["Storm"] whom we saw in the G-Men storyline. The Lamplighter ["Green Lantern"] who died in the fight with The Boys after 9/11, the one being detailed in current issues, remember? And Blarney Cock, the one Hughie killed on his first case, from the Teen Titans analogue. The corpse gets another shot of Compound V, which can reanimate muscle but not dead brain, the "resurrected" hero does a few press conferences and is never seen again. The Seven didn't bother to do this with Mister Marathon ["Flash", died on 9/11], they just brought in A-Train. They realized that the Lamplighter wouldn't be back, so they brought in Starlight. But there's going to be a lot of people dead before this series is over, and Compound V is expensive. Wheels within narrative wheels.

Ennis says the series will go to roughly issue 72, plus a Butcher miniseries coming up shortly. I don't know if it's a monthly, but that would mean only a few years left to go.

When it's over, The Boys will surely stand among the greatest comic book stories ever told, and it'll almost be a shame to never again be able to read it without knowing how it ends.

Also credit to Darrick Robertson, John McCrea and the rest is due. I don't know or particularly care about the missing deadlines behind the scenes problems there have been. Everyone involved says the timely release of the book is the priority, so they'll all be big boys about how that gets accomplished.

Robinson's art varies in quality - I'm assuming most of it is his but I haven't looked closely. Sometimes it's incredibly gorgeous and sometimes it just looks wrong. The other artists are good, but not all that great. But with very few exceptions, they are doing the most important part of their job well, they are maintaining the consistency of the characters, which is sorely neglected.

There are quite a few Spider-books where I can't tell which one is Peter Parker just by glimpsing at it. If Mary Jane didn't have distinctive hair, she'd be out of luck. Grant Morrison's Batman had a whole subplot with Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, and I couldn't tell them apart. [Or what they were doing in the first place.] There's a reason Archie is such a staple of kid's comics, because you can tell who the characters are. Or you could, now that they're moving away from a Dan DeCarlo style art, which makes no sense. The point is, whoever's drawing a given page of The Boys, there's no mistaking who's who. The art is the most time-consuming part of the job, and that has to be taken into account on a long-term project like this.

This has implications for creator's rights as well. Ennis can write every page of the series more easily than Robertson can draw them. As co-creators, I don't think anything except a 50-50 split is fair. And if other artists are brought in and get a share, that should come out of Robertson's side.

There are alternatives, but as the baseline division, an equal split between the creators of the property is the only fair way to go. Ennis and Robertson could decide that however much a share McCrea or the others get of the complete property, the rest is 50-50 between them. McCrea could get a large percentage of a book he's drawn, or a percentage based on how many pages he's drawn in the overall story.

Now if I think the writer should get half of the property and the artist loses what comes out of his share, I think the artist deserves virtually every penny that comes in immediately. If the writer is paid at all up-front, it's a fraction of what the artist gets. You wrote a comic book page, it's not like you had to stare at it for a day or two. The artist should get the lion's share of the money of the collected edition. Not all of it though. Not that I don't think the artist doesn't deserve it, considering how little money most collections will bring in, but that it wouldn't be fair to the writer. If it's successful enough to warrant a second printing of any kind, it's disrespectful to the writer to not let him get something. If the initial page ratio was 1/100 writer/artist, the first reprinting of the work in any format should be at least 1/10. After that, I think the writer's share should be bumped in future printings until the dollar value each side has received has been equalized, at which point it's a straight 50-50 split, minus the shares that go to contributing artists.

If the writing and the art aren't separate jobs, then it's going to have to be a case-by-case basis, until policies emerge through precedent. If the writer draws out the page and the artist copies the layout, if the artist contributes dialogue and scenes, if the artist has an inker/finisher and is considered an equal partner, if someone else contributes to the writing or it's a collective work from a group, then it becomes an exponentially-increasing problem. In Hollywood, the writer and director guilds have specific percentages for how their jobs are apportioned. The writer on a given movie or tv show may only have contributed 80% of what's shows up on the screen for their job. I don't know the actual percentage, I just made the figure up, but this sort of division could be applied to the writer/artist dichotomy.

The problem is there aren't many precedents, and even fewer successful ones. The majority of collaborations took place in work-for-hire mainstream comics, so these things never came up. Ennis and Robertson took their property away from DC after it had published the first six issues, didn't have to give up anything, and it's been published by Dynamite ever since. Free movement of a property is not unprecedented, but given the blatant rip-offs of DC property, they didn't even say "boo".

Reliable workhorses are where the comics field has made its greatest impact, whether or not there was creative freedom. The Will Eisner sweatshop, EC, the Marvel Bullpen, newspaper strips. The longer-running and more productive writers and artists past and present had more of an impact than those who took years to produce what others could do in months.

The daunting task of trying to fill several years of one's creative abilities is enough to keep anyone from starting, but the few who can make it will be the trailblazers everybody's waiting for. It's not something to give up your day job for.

Well, that was fun. I've also had similar thoughts regarding rock stars. With my ongoing fascination with Guns'n'Roses, I've realized that Axl has lost the game. 13 million dollars, 14 years and only one album to really show for it. There may be two or three more albums worth of material recorded, but if it had any commercial value the record company would have released it by now. Axl must be so far in breach of contract that very few people will talk to him. He refused to promote the album, and a couple of months later, said in an internet chat that there would be a video along "soon", as soon as the drummer from Metallica [?] signed off on a clip because it's going to be in the video.

It's been a couple years now, since he said that. Meanwhile, Slash has recorded an album with a dozen or more high-profile people, and toured it, and gotten them to make a couple videos. [I'm having problems loading "Beautiful Dangerous" with Fergie or I'd link to it, but I like the opening] More touring, and he's getting ready to start the next Velvet Revolver album, probably with a new lead singer. And he's released extra tracks from the solo album (which I, for one, would like to find on amazon or someplace).

Whatever else Axl (or anyone else) might say about Slash, the guy works. Sure, Axl is touring, with a setlist still weighed towards Appetite For Destruction. Half of it is played at every show, with only one from CD with that representation. 4 songs from Use Your Illusions are also played every time. Another three each from Appetite, CD, plus "Patience" are played the majority of the time. Nothing else from the Illusions is played except "Dont Cry" which has made rare appearances recently, especially if Axl can coax Izzy to show up. A couple of songs from Lies are played rarely. One more from Appetite a quarter of the time, one from CD played half, another a third. Filling out the setlists are covers and the remaining CD songs, which are probably few and far between to the Guns fan in the audience.

If there was any more money to be made from Chinese Democracy - like an immediate follow-up such as Axl said he was planning for all these years - it would have come out by now. No record company executive is going to stake their career on the guy who's wasted 13 million dollars and 14 years. And no one's going to let Axl into a recording studio again unless it's coming out of his pocket.

Axl's probably touring because royalties alone won't keep him the lifestyle to which he's accustomed. But unless he can do something - hey, how about recording demos on the road with the band you play with every week - that's just a treadmill towards his eventual burn-out. There's no sign of him being a functioning adult, much less capable of performing like that the rest of his life.

But anyway, I was pondering other rock stars of his ilk and wondering how they rate on the productivity scale, roughly since the 80's, give or take. Let's see if we can do this without Wikipedia.

Paul McCartney, about a half dozen albums of original material since 1990, some of them self-performed, plus a few albums worth of classical, avant-garde or rockabilly covers. Tours for most of these too.

U2, album every few years for as long as I can remember.

Aerosmith, dysfunctional and possibly terminal. They've toured, but no album in years and no album of original material in even longer. Steven Tyler's in his 60s, WTF is he trying to go solo for now??? Joe Perry's released a few solo albums to cover the gap, so he's reasonably productive.

Pete Townshend, kept up a pace of albums every couple of years through the 80s, then only one Who album since around 1993.

Elton John, he keeps announcing he's done his last album and then a couple years later brings out another one. Tours occassionally with Billy Joel, who retired from making pop music in 1993, and only has one album of classical music since.

Sting, I think he regularly releases albums. Nobody cares, but he's still there.

Robert Plant, took a long break but released new work regularly both before and since. Won't go back to Led Zeppelin and (shades of Aerosmith's problem) they can't work without the lead singer.

Van Halen, nothing in over a decade. Sammy Hagar is the workhorse he's always been, pretty much doubling his recorded output since VH got rid of him, while they only have a few new songs with him and Roth, plus the album sung by Gary Cherone to show for it. Eddie Van Halen claims to have dozens of albums worth of material, but we've heard that before. Supposedly the reunion album with Roth will be out this year. Wouldn't surprise me if it happens. With Michael Jackson dead, there are so few entertaining train wrecks left in the rock pantheon.

Paul Simon, releases something once in a while. I think Bruce Springsteen has regular releases. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are prolific. Metallica's albums are about four or five years apart (remember, I'm not checking for sure, just an estimate) which isn't bad compared to the competition.

Pink Floyd, despite an almost-complete absence from the music world, seem to only have increased in public estimation. Songs they did with Syd Barret are popular among teenage kids, not to mention Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Roger Waters is now flogging the latter on a worldwide tour, having spent years flogging the former. He's even begged David Gilmour to show up at a special performance at some future point. Waters has a few solo albums, Gilmour has one, the band has three albums and a two-disc Best Of to show for everything since 1980.

Anything else? Just one last note about G'n'R. A random check of Amazon's rankings revealed that Chinese Democracy is second to lowest when compared to the rest of the catalogue, Slash's album and Velvet Revolver's two. Even The Spaghetti Incident ranks higher than CD, only Contraband was lower.

Axl's fanboys complain that there was no promotion of the album, but notice they're not saying Axl should have, I dunno, gone on tv or something, even once. 14 years and 13 million dollars. Unbelievable.

I was going to look for a Youtube clip, but never mind. Don't stay up too late now.

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