Saturday, January 06, 2007

Self-flagellation and dead horses

I read Frontline #10 today.

Notice that the word "bought" is not in that sentence.

Ye gods. Robbie Baldwin goes from happy-go-lucky to the world's most emo person ever in about the dumbest scene ever written. "These spikes hurt, but these spikes really hurt. And these spikes? You don't want to know."

So, I've been reading some of Jenkins' Newsarama posts on the subject. And I opened up Joe Fridays, always a mistake. I don't even want to write about this, and I'm quite tempted to throw the PG-13 language self-restriction out the window. It's not often that I get ticked at comics, really it isn't. But this is freakin' ridiculous. Spoilers from here on out, if you can call them that. It's on the damn cover, people.

So, here's the first big Jenkins quote:
This was first put to me by Joe, when I was in New York for the editorial conference that shaped Frontlines.

Joe explained to me that over the years he has watched with great interest as fans of Speedball get very worked up defending the character yet ultimately, the sales on Speedball books are very low. We talked about doing something with the character in Frontlines. Joe really wanted to build him back up again, generate interest in him that had been sorely lacking. My impression was that if you weren't a Speedball fan (of which there weren't too many) then you were probably kind of ambivalent about the character.

Joe felt it'd be a good idea to put this guy through the wringer because -- as I've stated elsewhere -- we can't care about him just because he shows up, we have to care about his conflicts and triumphs.

Most of the Penance creation took place while Joe and I would walk from his place to the Marvel offices. Joe had suggested, for instance, the scene where Speedball gets shot coming out of a building a la Jack Ruby and Lee Oswald. I came up with a new wrinkle: Namely, his powers are now driven by pain. My memory is that I first suggested Penance as a name but I wasn;t sure i liked it. But Joe and others did, so it stuck.

And a lot of this has been covered by the people on the board, but here are my reactions:
1. What "Speedball books" have low sales? The only "Speedball" comic ran for 10 issues back in 1988. Aside from that, he's been mostly in New Warriors, which did well enough in its first 75-issue run to spawn two relaunches. The most recent of those was a 2005 miniseries. Are we basing Speedball's popularity on team books from the '90s, and a miniseries from over a year ago? Or are we basing it on a book from the late '80s?

2. I didn't read New Warriors: Reality Check (the newest miniseries), but I do remember reading the reviews. Specifically, I remember a review from Fourth Rail or CSBG that said something along the lines of 'this book isn't very good, and I can't see how the reimagining would appeal to any of the New Warriors' fans.' The review basically wondered who they were targeting the book toward, since it clearly wasn't New Warriors fans, and it wasn't good enough or original enough to get a larger audience. Gee, I wonder why that might not have sold well. I thought at the time that it sounded like a hold-over from the relaunches and reimaginings that followed the success of the Milligan/Allred X-Force, the most memorable of which was the Fight Club-style "Thunderbolts," which tanked universally. The lesson there seemed to be that "radical, senseless reimaginings do not sell well, if only because they alienate the core audience." Penance shows that Marvel didn't hear this message.

3. If you aren't a fan, you're probably ambivalent about the character. He's not a popular character. You have to make people care about him.
So you "put him through the wringer" and make him completely unrecognizable and generally unlikable. I'm not seeing the connection here. Fans will universally dislike this change, because it completely changes the whole point of the character. Do you really think other people will be motivated to care about him now? They didn't care about him when he was Speedball, they don't care about Speedball, they're "ambivalent." So, why would they care about Emo Speedball? There's a difference between telling an emotional story about a less popular character, and trying to force an unpopular character into a different, "cool" mold.

The point is, if people didn't care about Speedball before, why will they care any more about him now that he's Penance? If all the new popularity and interest is due to the "wringer" that Robbie went through in CW and Frontline, then why not just make a new character? If you have to make the audience care either way, why not do it with someone who won't make some of the audience angry and hateful?

Or you could have done it with Night Thrasher. He's already armored, he's the leader of the New Warriors, and he's had a problem with guilt, anger, and impulse issues in the past. At least the change there wouldn't be quite so senseless, given the backstory.

Okay, let's dive into another quotation (this one is responding to another poster):
Well, you begin by describing the new character as cliched... how would you expect me to respond? He hasn't even done anything yet. If in comic terms you mean the concept of a man whose powers are driven by pain, then I'd ask you to show me all the other characters like this... especially the ones who torture themselves to drive them forward.

Your last paragraph suggests you think Joe and I are being disrespectful to Fabe's work on new Warriors. That's not it at all... we simply wanted to reinvent the character because he wasn't really carrying any stories, as I understand it. Nothing to do with Fabian, who is a wonderful writer. "Loyal fan following" is like "critical acclaim"... Marvel are in the business of publishing, which means they expect to make money.

"Loyal fan following" seems like the kiss of death to me.

1. Except that Speedball has only once before "carried" a story. He's a supporting player. Should we 'reinvent' everyone who isn't an active participant in a popular series? Hey, let's make Black Bolt into a heroin-addicted rock singer! And what about the Impossible Man? He hasn't carried a story in quite some time. He'd be much better as a serial killer who tries to commit suicide every night, but whose shapeshifting body won't let him die. That's an awesome reinvention.


2. You know what sounds like the kiss of death to me? "Pointless reinvention." Or how about "blatant disregard for audience"? Yeah, Marvel wants to make money. Explain to me precisely how having Speedball be a fun, entertaining character was standing in the way of that, and how Penance will remove that problem. Are fun characters anti-moneymaking? "Marvel Adventures" and "Power Pack" would seem to contradict that. Why couldn't Speedball be reinvented as a Sumerak/Gurihiru kids' superhero? Wouldn't that make more money than "angsty former teen superhero turned antihero"?

3. I love that first paragraph: "show me all the characters that are just like this one. Hahah, there are none, therefore I'm original." Hey, Paul, "former teen superhero turned angsty antihero/'mature' hero/villain" is about the oldest cliché in comics since the 80s: Nomad, Red Hood, Winter Soldier, Powerpax/Powerhouse, Darkhawk, Flash IV, etc. Just because your boy dresses up like a gimp doesn't make him original.

Oh, and by the way Paul: characters who have to feel pain to use their powers? Check out Nico Minoru.

Last quote from Jenkins:
He's had a hard time coming to terms with the death of his mates, and the death of hundreds at Stamford. He feels his Speedball ID is partly to blame and wants to move ahead differently.

You say it doesn't ring true and I say, "To what?"

It rings true in the context of the story, surely.

And there's the rub. Yeah, it rings true in the context of this one story. Just like Tony Stark's evil manipulations, Reed Richards's impassioned defense of McCarthyism, Dr. Strange's standing-in for Mark Millar, and Peter Parker's public unmasking all make sense within the context of Civil War.

Unfortunately, Civil War is not the first story in the Marvel Universe. If it were, we'd be fine. It'd still be riddled with plot holes, but we'd be great. The problem is, these characters existed before Civil War, and their behavior during Civil War is in direct opposition to how they acted prior to the crossover. So, what the poster Mr. Jenkins was responding to was saying was that 'this doesn't ring true with everything ever done with Speedball since his creation,' not 'this doesn't ring true with what Speedball has done since Illuminati.'

I hate being this angry and snarky at Paul Jenkins. The man has written some of my absolute favorite Marvel stories in the last few years. He has written some supremely fun issues of Spider-Man. If you'd asked me a month ago "who are the most fun writers at Marvel," I would have said "Dan Slott and Paul Jenkins" (sorry, folks, I still don't care for Nextwave). But this storyline, this idiotic "reinvention" of a fun character into a depressing ball of angst and spikes, is about the most flagrantly ridiculous concentrated anti-fun ever imagined. It verges on self-parody. It's like "The Dark Ambush Bug Returns" or something like that.

Here's Thunderbolts editor Molly Lazer on the changes.
Robbie is on a path to redemption. He wants to do good, and sees joining a “villain rehabilitation program” as a way to start. He was given immunity once he registered, but there’s a difference between being cleared of all charges by the government and still feeling guilty inside.

"I want to redeem myself. Obviously, the best way to do that is to use my incredibly destructive (and self-destructive) new powers to assist a team of murderers and criminals in tracking down the greatest heroes who ever lived! I mean, I'll be on a team with someone who once killed a bus full of nuns! And a guy who uses his sister's skin as leather! That'll totally redeem me!"
No. Redemption isn't feeling sorry for yourself and torturing yourself and treating yourself like a criminal. You want redemption? She-Hulk did an issue where Jen Walters tried to make up for the damage she caused as She-Hulk by working with rescue crews as a normal person and trying to rebuild. Not by joining up with the Masters of Evil and having big public battles, then going home to whip herself. There's nothing redemptive about self-absorption.

But as always, to get the real dumbassery, you have to go to the horse's mouth. No, sorry, the other end. Take it away, Joe!
Speedball in many ways is very similar to Peter Parker, so I was thinking along the lines of what if so much stuff was dumped on Peter that his whole outlook on life would be changed 180 degrees, permanently. So, what if this very lighthearted, upbeat character who bounces, changed in ways that no one could expect? Could the tragedy in Stamford be enough to do that to someone like him? To me the answer was yes.

The most telling phrase in there is this: Speedball in many ways is very similar to Peter Parker. You're right, Joe, they are very similar. They're both fun, happy-go-lucky characters who may not have the best lives, and both were co-created by Steve Ditko. Oh, and the real big similarity between the two: YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND EITHER OF THEM.

Yeah, let's dump so much stuff on a character that their entire outlook changes 180 degrees! Speedball's a lot like Spider-Man, what would it take? Maybe...
  • Being partially responsible for your uncle's death
  • Being partially responsible for your girlfriend's father's death
  • Being more or less directly responsible for your girlfriend's death
  • Being more or less responsible for your best friend's father's death
  • Being partially responsible for a police officer's death
  • Being partially responsible for your best friend's death
  • Being partially responsible for the destruction of your Aunt's house
  • Being directly responsible for the creation of several alien-suited mass murderers
  • Putting your family in severe danger by disclosing your identity to the public, then putting them in more danger by joining a group of outlaws
  • Etc.

What would it take for such a character to change their outlook on life 180 degrees?

Hasn't the Marvel Universe always (or at least, since the Silver Age) been about taking adversity and trying to make the best of it? People get blown up, bitten by radioactive things, turned into stony freaks, or born as members of a hated minority, and then they turn those unfortunate accidents into reasons to be heroic. Spider-Man's the perfect example: he is driven by guilt and adversity toward becoming a better hero, toward atoning for his mistakes by saving lives and trying to make other people's lives better in the process. He doesn't cut himself for every death he's caused. Spider-Man turns selfish emotions like guilt into reasons to be more selfless.

I threw up a little at this quote.
That’s tough to say because while I’ve joked about Speedball for a while now, I really wanted to see something cool done with the character. When Mark selected the New Warriors to be the catalyst for Civil War, that’s when I saw an opportunity to do something interesting with Speedball. So, it was serendipitous in that sense. But that’s the beauty of something like Civil War, you find yourself with many happy accidents.

1. Joe, please grow up. "Cool" only means "turning into an angsty leather daddy" when you're in Junior High. Marvel went through its angsty leather daddy phase. Ghost Rider was popular, Luke Cage had a flattop, and Daredevil wore armor. We got over it. Please do the same.

2. Happy accidents? $%&*ing damn it. There is nothing happy about this, Joe. "Happy" was Speedball before the Civil War. "Happy accident" was Speedball surviving the inciting incident of Civil War. "Turning into an emo gimp with self-flagellation issues" is not a "happy accident." It is about as far from either of those terms as it could possibly be.

So, to me, Robbie has had a life altering experience. Do you think that when he first became a superhero, when he first joined the New Warriors, that he ever expected that his life would end up where it is right now? I don’t think any of us ever expected it and now here we are.

You know why no one expected it? The same reason no one expects flaming Penguins to start flying out of your nose while you juggle sheep's brains: because it makes no $%&!ing sense!

Also, Penance, going forward has a very interesting origin from the very onset. He was once a happy go lucky, bright and shiny teen hero and now he’s something completely different. Where does he go from here will be a lot of fun to watch.

When you describe a character as "something completely different" from what they were before, that's usually a bad thing. It's called "inconsistency." Speedball was happy-go-lucky as of eight months ago; less in comic time. A few months in prison, some undeserved guilt, and now he's ready to join the murderer's guild? Has Robbie always had integrity issues?

Damn it. I'm glad I dropped Frontline. I just wish this idiocy didn't make me feel like I should drop every other Marvel book as well. Thank goodness most of what I'm reading is pretty isolated from the mainstream 616.

2007 is going to be a banner year for dumbassery, I can feel it. Come on, Joe, kill off MJ, seal the deal!


CalvinPitt said...

Golly, I'm so pleased I haven't seen a copy of this. I might have dismantled the local comic store in a Hulk-like rage. Of course, since I operate in Old Marvel, this rage would harm absolutely no one, despite massive property damage.

I suppose the simplest reason the fools did this, is that old "We don't care what kind of reaction we get from the fans, as long as we get a reaction."

Apparently, Joey Q feels the numbers will be better by pissing off the Speedball fans there are, by making a character that most casual fans won't care about.

If Joe and Mr. Jenkins want to see making a character interesting to more fans, look at what DC's done with Catman. or what they did with ted Kord. The sitautions aren't identical - since Ted died at the end of Countdown, and Catman's an antihero at best, making for a different perspective - but this, is not the way to do it.

Speedball used to look up to Spider-Man. Now he's going to help Norman Osborn and Not Venom hunt Spidey down. Outstanding.

Dorian said...

And yet, I've seen plenty of reactions from Marvel readers on the various message boards who apparently LOVE this change, that I'm forced to sadly conclude that Quesada and co. are all too aware of what their audience wants. Sadly.

Anonymous said...

You know, I did care about Speedball.

Not from New Warriors.

From Frontline.

I had never heard of the character before Civil War. I had no idea who the New Warriors were.

But I read Frontline. I followed the story (since, you know, Speedball was the main character), and god dammit, I started caring. I started to wonder what would happen to this one guy who got caught in the wrong fight in the wrong place with the wrong villain, who was just getting crucified by the media and the public and out-of-character-Tony-Stark, but who refused, who refused to give in, because he knew he did nothing wrong, he KNEW that he was not to blame for Stamford. For nine issues I was genuinely involved, and I could say to myself "Well, most of Civil War sucks, but at least (the main story) in Frontline is genuine and good and won't get turned to crap like a lot this stuff will/has. Thank god for Paul Jenkins."


To say that I am angry with Marvel is a gross understatement.

Tom Foss said...

I get crucified every time I say it, but I think there are all too many Marvel fans whose mentality is right in line with Quesada's, which is about at the 14-year-old level. The coolest things are spikes and leather and chains and people who don't take no crap from nobody. Some Marvel fans want everyone to be Wolverine and Punisher and Ghost Rider. I think characters like Speedball and 3-D Man and Bi-Beast and the other wacky people in the annals of Marvel history embarrass them, because they don't ride around in a hail of bullets and ass-kicking. I don't see that problem at DC; DC embraces their silly characters and wacky history (now). There are writers at Marvel who will (Slott, Kirkman, even Whedon to some degree), but most would prefer to sweep it under the rug for grim "realism."

And yet, somehow, badass motorcyclists with claws and flaming heads, and once-bouncy guys in emo gimp costumes, fit right in with that "realism." I'll never understand it.

Marc Burkhardt said...

I saw the Penance sequence on Scans_Daily and truly must admit it was one of the most distasteful things I've ever read in a mainstream comic.

(Even worse than the sushi-porn issue of Supergirl ... )

Sadly, I agree with you and Dorian. This is the kind of stuff that sells these days and it's why books like All-New Atom are labeled a "commercial disaster."

So many fans are convinced that angst, anger and leather = realism that it seems there's no turning back. (DC is guilty of this as well, with Trials of Shazam and Supergirl.)

The ironic thing is that when super-heroes do cross-over to movies, tv, etc. it is usually in configurations that more closely resembles the Silver and Bronze age versions of the characters.

The first two Spidey movies contain more Lee/Ditko/Romita references than you can shake a stick at, and the symbiote/Venom story is, what, 20 or 30 years old.

The so-called innovations of modern writers are pretty much swept aside, as the comics themselves become the province of a smaller and smaller subset of collectors with a skewed idea of "reality."

Tom Foss said...

I'll agree with Trials of Shazam (and you can throw Martian Manhunter in as well), but I'm not so convinced with Supergirl. Loeb did his usual thing, and Rucka set up a little leather incest whatnot, but Kelly's been doing moderately decent work since the Kandor arc ended. I don't know...the angst feels more natural with Supergirl. It's probably because the character actually is a teenager and is actually given reasons to be angsty. They may not always be good reasons to be angsty, but I remember being a teenager, and not having a good reason didn't ever prevent me from pouring on the angst.

I think angst and teen characters, with some exceptions (see: Captain Marvel, Jr.), works well. I don't mind seeing it in Runaways or Legion of Super-Heroes or even Supergirl, because at that age, angst is like oxygen. When it's characters who, even as teenagers, weren't all that angsty (see: Speedball, Impulse, CM3), but are suddenly overcome with Junior High Existential Angst, then it feels forced, unnatural, and outright stupid.

Anonymous said...

I give Joe Kelly a lot of credit for Supergirl, because honestly he didn't just finish up the random (albeit interesting) Rucka-Kandor arc, it's fairly clear he siad, "You know, this arc is stupid. Lets be done with it."

Cue a bunch of good issues of Supergirl trying to deal with essentially living under Supes' shadow, teeny angst, and the only books I can think of where Captain Boomerang's kid is interesting. Oh, and cheesecake. Lots of cheesecake. (Hehe)

Honestly, Trials of Shazam is one of the many reasons I constantly ask, "Why does Judd Winick have a job?" I was even tolerating Outsiders for a while there after OYL, but since Clark has left I've had to deal with sub-par art/imitation along with sub-par story, and now it's just depressing.

Do people actually buy Trials of Shazam for any reason other than the very pretty Howard Porter art? Probably. Eeugh.

Anonymous said...

I buy Judd's Shazam to see if there are any ideas I can salvage. Suprisingly, there are.

David C said...

Supergirl is surprisingly decent, now. I think one key to writing about "teen angst" well is to avoid over-identifying with the angsty teen.

Clearly, Supergirl is a pretty unwell person at this time, and the overangst, while honest, isn't helping anything. In a lot of books, it'd be "My pain makes me right!"

Rachel said...

"And what about the Impossible Man? He hasn't carried a story in quite some time. He'd be much better as a serial killer who tries to commit suicide every night, but whose shapeshifting body won't let him die. That's an awesome reinvention."

That made me laugh out loud. :)

PS. Hi random person, I found you on comicspace, by your cool Freakzoid avatar. :)

SallyP said...

You mean that there was actually some sort of editorial fiat, that said take a reasonably happy-go-lucky character and turn him into a flagellating weirdo, with huge metal nipples and a codpiece! I kid you not, Robbie has a codpiece.


Why do they have to do this to the slightly less dark characters? I thought the 90's were over. Ya know what I liked? DAMAGE CONTROL! That was good stuff! NOT Dark Speedball!

Sorry, getting a little incoherent here.

Anonymous said...

Dude, I think you're missing the point about Speedball/Penance. He can teach us solid life lessons.

For instance, you know how every Marvel book this week came with an insert for 25 free songs for eMusic? (it made the books a bitch to unpack and stack) Well, I already used a free eMusic trial a few months ago. But it turns out that if I used my work address and a different credit card, they wouldn't know it was the same guy, so I used the free trial again!

But after a day or so, I felt guilty. So I stuck two toothpicks in my eyes--one for each time I abused eMusic only for free MP3s.

Also, my exploits are now going to be taken over by Warren Ellis, even though he always says in interviews how he hates people named Eric. Good times.

Vaklam said...

I agree with this post to the greatest extent it is possible to agree with anything.

That is all.

LurkerWithout said...

Bit late to finding this post. But I just want to say that I think I love you. In a strictly Dixon approved hetero way...

googum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.