Monday, 4 October 2010

When Comics Go Lame

Comics are awesome. But not always. Sometimes, they're lame. Totally lame. Lamer than a lot of other things. I'm gonna run through a few examples of the lameness comics can produce here, focussing on the superhero comics released by Marvel and DC, 'cos they're responsible for a lot of lame, and I know them best.

And I'm not just talking shit costumes, like the issues of Avengers in which Hawkeye wore a skirt.

I'm not even just talking shit characters, though there have been plenty. Rather, I'm talking about storylines, plot points, moments or entire comics which have just been... well, lame. Anyway, on with the list.

1. "I Have Clones"

Back in the seventies, a couple of years after Marvel killed Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, in a really rather shocking story for the time, they seemingly brought her back. Of course, it turned out to not be the original Gwen, but a clone created by the Jackal, otherwise known as Professor Miles Warren. Warren had been a teacher of Gwen's at university who had fallen in love with her. Unable to let go, and blaming Spider-Man for Gwen's death, Warren hatched a scheme which would bring Gwen back to him (after a fashion) and lead to the death of Spider-Man. The plot culminated in a battle between Spider-Man, and a second Spider-Man which Warren had cloned from Spidey's DNA. At the end of the fight, one of the Spider-Men was seemingly dead, and the Gwen clone left to start her life over. And that was it. Or so everyone thought.
In the nineties, Marvel brought the Spider-Clone back. He hadn't actually died at all, and had in fact spent the last five years wandering America until, hearing that Aunt May was dying, he returned to New York. Thus began the Clone Saga. The original idea was that the storyline would only last six issues or so, and would once more end with a battle between Spider-Man and his clone. Things didn't quite go to plan, and the Clone Saga ended up lasting years. Inspired by how well Knightfall had sold over in DC's Batman books, Marvel decided to string the Clone Saga out. The Jackal came back. The Spider-Clone took the name Ben Reilly and began fighting crime as the Scarlet Spider. Gwen Stacey's clone came back. Two other spider-clones were introduced in Kaine and Spidercide. Doctor Octopus was killed off. Aunt May died of natural causes. Mary Jane revealed she was pregnant. And then, the biggest shock of all, we found out that Peter Parker, the man who had been Spider-Man for the last twenty years or so in our time (five years in Marvel time) was revealed to in fact be the clone. Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider, was the original Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man. He had lost the fight to his clone after all! Soon after, Peter lost his powers, and Ben became the one, true Spider-Man!
Quite naturally, this didn't go down too well with the fans. It wasn't too long before Peter's powers returned, and oh, whoops, the whole thing (which had been going on for a good four or five years remember), was suddenly a massively convoluted revenge scheme cooked up by none other than Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin! Who had also been dead the last twenty years. But it was okay, because look, Peter was the original Spider-Man after all and Ben was the clone. See, Marvel said, we fixed it!
Only they didn't. The Spider-Man books didn't recover for years. Osborn was back, but they couldn't decide what to do with him. When it was later revealed that Aunt May was actually alive, and the woman who died had been an actress, hired by Osborn and genetically altered to look like May Parker, things seemed at their worst. Marvel did the only thing they really could. They rebooted the Spider-Man books with new issue #1's. Only thing is, they gave them to John Byrne, who proceeded to, almost unbelievably, tell even worse stories for the next couple of years. It was only when J. Michael Straczynski came aboard as writer, and promptly jettisoned most of what had happened over the last ten years that things improved, and did so dramatically.
It was a dark time to be a Spider-Man fan, and all because of the Clone Saga.

2. "Argh, my hand!"

Aquaman, as a character, often comes in for a lot of stick. It's largely because of his powers. He can... Um... Talk to fish and control them. Okay, so he's also super strong and the king of Atlantis, but mainly, it's the talking to fish thing. DC revamped the character in the early nineties, giving him a harder edged look and attitude. This included the character losing one of his hands and havin it replaced with a hook. Those who watched the Justice League cartoon from a few years ago may remember the really quite awesome way they did this. Aquaman and his son are chained to a rock which is sliding towards a pool of lava. In order to try and save the life of his infant child, Aquaman attempts to cut through the chains, but to no avail. So instead, he hacks off his own hand. It's a brilliant moment, showing just what lengths a parent will go to in order to save their child.
That ain't how it happened in the comics. Aquaman had his hand eaten. By piranha. You know, fish. The creatures he's supposed to have command of. He didn't think to just, oh, I don't know, tell them to stop eating his hand! Sigh. Nice one DC.

3. Crossing Over

"So, here's my idea. You know Iron Man? One of our most popular heroes, founding member of the Avengers and all round good guy? What if he's actually been working for Immortus for years, kills a load of Avengers, and then dies so we can replace him with a teenage version of himself?"
At that point, had I been an editor at Marvel, I would've said "Leave. Before we have you forcibly removed." However, what actually happened was something along the lines of "Hmmm, not bad, but I don't think it ruins the Avengers quite enough. What else you got?"
The response "Um.... I could turn the Wasp into an actual freakish bug creature?"
And that's exactly what happened during The Crossing, one of the worst stories in the history of the Avengers. Thank Odin that barely five issues later, Onslaught happened and effectively wiped out everything that happened in the Crossing. Tony Stark, the proper one, was back, Wasp was human again and all was well with the world.

4. The Death of Batman. Wait, he's fine. Oh, no he isn't.

Grant Morrison used to be an awesome writer. His run on JLA was epic, and showed he got the characters better than many other writers. His takes on Batman and Superman were especially good. Witness this moment in JLA issue #3. The Hyperclan, the bad guys of the storyline, have taken the Justice Leagure captive. This is a team that includes Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lanten and the Flash. And they're all taken down. Except Batman. No matter, think the Hyperclan, we all have powers comparable to Superman, what harm can Batman do? Then one of them A-Mortal, goes missing. Protek, the leader of the Hyperclan, say's the following:
"This is insane! We must have a communications failure! A-Mortal's playing some kind of stupid joke! Batman! Batman!"
We then cut to a different panel, in which we hear Protek saying "He's only a man!" The focus of the panel isn't Protek though. It's a close up of Superman's face. And the Man of Steel is, well, it can only be described as smirking. Not only does this one moment sum up the relationship between Superman and Batman wonderfully, it also clearly demonstrates one thing above all others. Even without superpowers, Batman is one of the most dangerous men on the planet.
Morrison's run on JLA was filled with moments like this, where you knew he just got these characters and could write them blind. So it was incredibly exciting when Morrison was announced as the writer on Batman. Knowing what he'd done with Batman in the JLA, surely his take on the character's solo exploits was going to be something special. And it was. At first.
But something soon became obvious. Morrison had gone crazy. He'd always been a little out there with his ideas, but now he'd gone truly batshit (sorry) crazy. Morrison cooked up a storyline called Batman RIP, which... well, it's hard to describe because it made very little sense, but it ended with the death of Batman. Only it didn't, because Batman showed up alive and well later that same month in Final Crisis, a huge cosmic event book being written by, yes, Grant Morrison. Final Crisis made even less sense than Batman RIP, so Batman, who was dead, showing up and no one reacting to it didn't actually seem that incongruous. Until, at the end of Final Crisis, he died. Again. This time killed by Darkseid. Only he wasn't dead, he was sent back in time, or to an alternate reality, or both, or... honestly, who knows? It was a mess. But I think the thing which sums it up best is the following statement. In the space of a few months, DC killed Batman off twice. And nobody cared.

5. No, It's Fine, There's No Gravity

A few years ago, I started buying the Incredible Hulk on a monthly basis. It wasn't a title I'd really been picking up, but Peter David, the man who wrote the Hulk for years and years, and told some of the definitive stories about the character, was returning to the book. This was a big deal, and I wanted to see what he would do with it. He left after twelve issues, and I intended to leave with him. But I didn't, because this was followed by a seminal run from Greg Pak, which included Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, two stories I thoroughly enjoyed. After this, it was announced that Jeph Loeb was going to be writing Hulk. Anyone who's read Loeb's Batman work, or his Marvel "colour" books (Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk: Grey and Spider-Man: Blue), as well as his Superman/Batman team-up book, knew this was something to get excited about.
I dropped the Hulk after the fifth issue of his run. Loeb had lost it. He introduced Red Hulk, a malevolent, cunning Hulk who wasn't Bruce Banner, and who instead of getting stronger as he got angrier, gave off more radiation. The Red Hulk rampaged through the Marvel universe, taking down the Abomination, She-Hulk, Iron Man, and even ol' Green Skin himself, the original Hulk. The problem was, it was really badly written. Everyone was out of character, and the dialogue was awful. This couldn't have been the same Jeph Loeb, could it?
The biggest insult came in issue #5, when Red Hulk fought Thor. Some things you need to know about Thor. First, he's one of my favourite characters, and has been for years. Second, he's normally strong enough to go toe to toe with the Hulk anyway, and at this point he was also wielding the Odin Force, which increased his already considerable power by a significant amount. Third, only Thor can lift his hammer. It's nothing to do with strength, but an enchantment on Mjolnir which means that, well, only Thor (or someone else worthy) could lift it. Surely Red Hulk was going to get his arse kicked!
No. He wasn't. Now, had he beaten Thor by being crafty, outsmarting the thunder god, I could've accepted it. But no. Red Hulk threw him into space. Then, because there was no gravity, lifted up Mjolnir and beat the shit out of him. I'm sorry, but no. Just because there's no gravity doesn't mean you can break the hard and fast rules of the last forty years of Thor comics! The hammer is magic. It's enchanted. Gravity isn't going to change that. Thor was treated like a rag doll for the Red Hulk's amusement. It was an insult to Thor fans everywhere. I haven't bought a Hulk book since.

6. Demonic Daddy Issues

Chuck Austen's run on Uncanny X-Men, the flagship title for Marvel's merry mutants, is, quite possibly, the worst in history. There were some good ideas, to be fair, such as bringing in Northstar or reforming the Juggernaut, but there was also mutant prostitute, Stacy X, and, the absolute nadir of his run, The Draco.
It had been known for a while that Nightcrawler, one of the more popular X-Men, was the son of Mystique. That explained the blue colour and the yellow eyes. Well, Austen revealed that his father was the demon Azazel. Okay, you know what, that we can accept. Nightcrawler looks fairly demonic, and when he teleports leaves the smell of brimstone behind him. But wait, it gets better. Nightcrawler wasn't Azazel's only progeny. Azazel had fathered dozens of mutants, all of whom had teleporting abilities. Yes, it's getting a bit silly now.
Why did he do this? Well, Azazel was trapped in a hell dimension you see, and needed the power of multiple teleporters to create a portal that would allow him to free himself. But where to get these teleporters? Of course, he'll leave the dimension he's trapped in and father them, so that they can open the portal which will free him from the dimension. You know, the dimension he's trapped in but he can leave freely any time he wants to father another teleporter. Yeah. Nice one Chuck. Clearly put a lot of thought into that one.

7. The Dark Knight Strikes Out

In the eighties, Frank Miller was a rising star responsible for comics which would come to be seen as some of the best the industry had ever seen. Batman: Year One and his run on Daredevil are both incredible works, and his seminal The Dark Knight Returns, featuring an aged Batman in a dystopian future vision of Gotham City is up there with Watchmen as one of the best examples of not just a superhero story, but one of the best comics of all time.
So when it was announced that Miller was writing and drawing a sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, fanboys went wild. I don't think they've ever been so disappointed. The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or DK2) was a mess. None of the characters featured within were treated with respect, including Batman who actually approves murder and shows utter contempt for Dick Grayson, the first Robin. It's sexist, misogynistic, nonsensical crap. Batman maybe a borderline psychopath, but the important thing is that he never steps over the line. Miller ignores this, having Batman sprint over the line cackling like a mad man. It's almost an insult, especially considering how good the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns was, and still is.
Miller followed this up with All Star Batman and Robin, which he says is set in the same continuity as the two Dark Knight books. It's even worse than DK2, featuring a Batman who torments a young Robin, gets turned on by beating up criminals and utters the now immortal line "I'm the goddamn Batman".
I don't think any other creator has fallen quite so far as Frank Miller in the history of the medium.

8. The Punishing Angel

Everyone's favourite psycho gun-toting vigilante died once. Now, the Punisher, however you cut it, is a mass murderer. Yes, his victims were all nasty people, but he wasn't going to Heaven. The Punisher dies, he's destined for the other, slightly warmer place. But no, that didn't happen. Instead, I shit you not, the Punisher was recruited by Heaven to become a sort of avenging angel, who wielded angelic shotguns and... no, I'm sorry, I have to stop. It's too shit.

9. He Did What to the Poor Kitty?

Roy Harper used to be a really interesting character. Formerly known as Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick, Roy eventually became a drug addict, then fathered a daughter with the supervillain Cheshire. Roy cleaned his act up and became Arsenal, gaining respect in the superhero community and leading the Titans. Eventually, he followed in his mentors footsteps and joined the Justice League as Red Arrow. All of this was awesome.
So quite why DC felt the need to ruin him is beyond me. First, Prometheus hacked off his arm. Then they killed his daughter, causing him to turn back to drugs. An encounter with Cheshire ends with Roy practically raping her, and then, in what can only be seen as the ultimate crime in the current climate, Roy kills a kitten. For no reason. It's a moment which has become infamous in only a few months since it happened. How DC let this happen to one of their best loved characters is beyond me. It was badly written, sensationlist crap, which all happened because DC had messed up one of their best villains in the first place. Yes, bring back the Prometheus who was so awesome when Grant Morrison created him in JLA, but you don't have to fuck up another character to even it out.

10. The Frog of Thunder!

Thor got turned into a frog one time. Actually, that was fucking awesome!

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