Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Things that Won't Happen

So, I was listening to PJ Stock on the Team 990 this morning and he threw out mention of a trade rumour whereby the Canadiens would give up Michael Ryder, David Aebischer, Sheldon Souray, Mike Ribeiro, and a 1st round draft pick for Evgeni Malkin. Interestingly, a blogger at posted this same rumour later in the day, claiming that he heard it not from Stock, but from another retired player from somewhere in TMR. We can tentatively conclude two things from this: 1) It's not going to happen, since with Bob Gainey as GM the rule has been that if you hear about a potential deal involving the Canadiens then it's already dead; and 2) It probably was being talked about inside the organizations involved, given that it's turned up from two different sources (though it is possible the guy who talked to Stock and the guy who talked to the blogger are one and the same. Who knows?).

Anyway, just for the hell of it, does the deal make sense for the Canadiens? Financially, it clears away a lot of one-year contracts. Opens up some cap room for signing Markov next year, plus maybe picking up a free agent to replace the depth they lose in the deal. From that angle, yeah.

Malkin over Ribeiro is a no-brainer; Malkin's the big, talented forward the Canadiens desperately need. Losing Ryder is tough; he scored 30 goals while playing through an injury. But the Canadiens are deep in prospects on the wing, so they can likely deal with it, and if worst comes to worst, they could sign Dumont (personally, I hope the worst doesn't come to the worst, but hey). Losing Aebischer puts a lot of weight on Huet's shoulders, but if you believe in Huet you go for it -- especially since Yann Danis can't clear waivers, meaning you kinda have to carry him on the team one way or another. So: vast improvement at one position, marginal step back at one, potential headache cleared up at another.

And now we come to Souray and the 1st rounder. The Canadiens aren't that deep on defense as it stands -- they could probably use a good top-4 d-man right now. Giving up Souray hurts bad; I feel he's more of a poor-man's Jovanovski than people realise. Physical presence, offensive potential ... also, granted, tendency to misread plays, but still. Not Jovanovski's level, but along those lines, and certainly a damn useful player and a key part of the defensive core. I don't know how the Canadiens would replace him. And a first-rounder, in what's supposed to be a very deep draft year? Here's where we get into the dicey waters.

I think I could stand the loss of the first rounder if I'm sure I've got a replacement for Souray somewhere. Or if the first rounder could get knocked down to a second. It's still arguably a good deal, though not the slam-dunk great deal some people think it is -- stars are highly overrated in the NHL. This is a team sport, where depth counts. Except ... sometimes you give up depth to get the right star, a guy you can build your team around or who complements the players you already have.

So. Risky deal. Could be good, could be bad, almost necessitates at least one more transaction afterward to fill a hole. But it does give the Canadiens that star power ... and a line of Kovalev-Malkin-Samsonov would be pretty sweet.

Anyway, it won't happen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Some thoughts towards random comics reviews

I bought comics today.

The Escapists #1

The cover doesn't actually hurt my eyes, but that's about all that's good about it. The logo looks lost, the dominant colour is a bright orange-red flourescent which somehow manages to be dull, and the attempt to use some dynamic framing techniques just looks like the picture was poorly-cropped. Plus, as a general rule, super-heroes and arm-hair don't seem to mix.

So much for Frank Miller's contribution. The rest of the book was very nice. Brian K. Vaughan tells a nicely upbeat tale of a young man pursuing his dreams, and the rights to an out-of-print comic-book character. Mind, the story's not completed, so it could all end in tears. Seems unlikely, though; the way the thing's coming together, it feels like something else. Vaughan's pace is solid, and his dialogue sharp. Even some basic improbabilities -- most notably the 'meet-cute' between two characters -- comes off smoothly. If there's a problem, it's that the story's a bit too easy to take; we're not really getting a sense of his main character overcoming obstacles and facing conflict. But then, he does have both parents die in the course of the story, so it's not like there's nothing happening. And Vaughan's dialogue and sense of storytelling is so strong that you get pulled in.

Philip Bond's artwork is incredibly strong. Vaughan calls for stylistic variety in this book -- mimicking a golden-age comic, dropping into black-and-white and back into colour -- and Bond delivers. More importantly, he gets the basics. Characters act and emote. The design sense -- of apartments, faces, cemeteries, basements -- is all just exactly right, always serving the story. It's an understated visual feast.

The high point of this book comes in a sequence aping an Escapist comic (the Escapist being the comic-book character created by the protagonists of Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Roth tells us how much the character meant to him as we see the Escapist fighting an evidoer named the Villainess. Roth's words about the importance of the Escapist replace the words in the speech balloons and caption boxes of the comic. It's a device that's been used before, notably by Chris Ware in a story in an issue of Raw, but whereas Ware used the device as part of his (essentially wise-ass) distancing effects, Vaughan and Bond make it work to draw the reader into Roth's story, to affirm the importance not just of the character but of the idea of the character; of the ability to escape. Roth's reaction to buying the last issue of The Escapist he needed to complete his collection is especially well-observed and well-imagined.

This story originally appeared in one of Dark Horse's earlier Escapist books, but here it's kicking off a new ongoing series. It did its job; I'll be looking forward to future issues. For an overall grade, I'd give this book a solid B+; call it an 89/100.

Detective Comics #821

It's a single-issue story, and a detective story at that, by Paul Dini. Dini (with his collaborator Bruce Timm) reinvented Batman for the early-90s animated series, and to my mind that show stands as the definitive version of the character; it was a nice mix of Batman as an infallible mystery-man and Batman as a fallible human investigator. Visually, it was often spectacular, a highly-designed gothic deco world owing something to the Fleischer Superman cartoons. So this book, by Dini and noted design-oriented artist J.H. Williams III, has some promise.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite deliver. It's not bad, and Dini does capture something of the feel of the cartoon; you can almost hear the actors delivering the dialogue in the word balloons. But what works over the air doesn't necessarily work as text. There's not much in the way of a sub-plot here, either. The story feels small. It has Batman, Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, assorted Gotham socialites, and a new masked villain. But it feels small.

Williams' art doesn't help much. It's too designed; there's no motion to it. His depiction of fight scenes is particularly jarring; every punch or kick has its point of impact picked out with a flare of black-and-white, and these hot-spots draw the eye all sorts of odd places at inappropriate times. Plus, Williams uses a trick I found annoying on Promethea: spreading panels across the page-divide with no warning. It's a difficult technique to master, and one which I find works a lot less often than many artists seem to believe.

All this being said, the book looks stunning. The colour choices on each page are excellent. It's a nice-looking package, no doubt about it. The story is solid enough, the mystery is coherent, and the fair-play solution is well-explained when all is said and done. It's a Batman story which hits all the bases. It's not something that leads me to think of buying another issue, but it's nice enough for what it is. For a grade, I'd give it a B-; 81/100.

Moon Knight #3

This is an odd book, in a lot of ways. Writer Charlie Huston has a hard-boiled style which, in combination with David Finch's almost over-rendered pencils, results in a lot of gore. That's not necessarily bad, but in this case it's jarring. Huston's talked about wanting to get back to the spirit of the original Moon Knight stories, and you can kinda see that; but the over-the-top violence gets in the way, shattering the tone completely to pieces. Further, part of the feel of those old stories was an almost anachronistic pulp sensibility. That's nowhere to be found. Instead, we have bits and pieces of old continuity -- characters, an evil criminal organisation, a familiar statue, all the knick-knacks of the past (including an old villain, thankfully back in his classic and snazzier costume).

On its own terms, it's not a bad book, I feel. This issue parallels Marc Spector, still suffering from an injury and not ready to take up the mantle of Moon Knight, meeting with an old friend. Who comes out of the closet. It works, somehow. Then the violence kicks in. I've seen an interview where Finch has talked about his determination to get better at drawing conversations; I think some of that comes through. At any rate, the emotions come through strongly, though we do get a lot of close-ups of eyes. The plot is strong enough; you can see what happens, why, and there's a logical and at least vaguely character-based structure behind it.

But somehow, this book just doesn't come together. It feels like it's been divorced from some source of strength that made the original series work. That could be the pulp sensibility I mentioned above. Or it could be Bill Sienkiewicz's art, which was likely the most outstanding thing about the original book -- consider that his design for Moon Knight is still in use, despite the craze for costume reworkings of the past ten years or so.

If the original Moon Knight series was a notch grittier than the other books around it on the stands, then I suppose this version accomplishes much the same thing. But in the end it's moving forward awfully slowly; this story is a long version of the old chestnut about the fallen hero recovering himself, and it's taking its sweet time about it. It's not an awful book, but it's less and less compelling with each issue. There's only so far visceral artwork will take you. Grade: B-, 83/100, but that's only because I'm in a good mood.

The Atom #1

Idea by Grant Morrison, plot and script by Gail Simone, art by John Byrne: and it seems like there's a disconnect at each step along the way. It looks like Morrison came up with an interesting take on the Atom; a new physics professor joins a mysterious New England University, falls in with a group of eccentric genius fellow-profs, and discovers his predecessor's ability to size-shift. Exploration of new worlds, new perspectives, mixed with Lovecraftian mystery. Conceptually, that's solid.

Except that it's not much like what we get in this book. That is, in plot outline, this is more or less what we get. But there's not much of a sense of atmosphere. The eccentric-genius supporting cast is introduced, for example, but don't really come alive. Whether she invented them or not, Simone didn't seem to know quite what to do with these characters; as a result, neither does the reader. And John Byrne, who can be a strong super-hero artist, is out of place in a situation where atmosphere is called for. Consider his establishing shot of the college campus; it looks like something out of the Italian Renaissance, fitting neither with the New England ('Ivy Town') locale nor the dean's dialogue.

Worst, though, is the size-changing sequence that introduces the new Atom's powers. You can see echoes of the cool-factor involved in the idea of a size-shifting superhero: getting lost in your own clothes, fighting a rat the size of a dragon. But between expository captions and fairly bland art, it never comes alive. I gave a positive review once to The Essential Ant-Man because Jack Kirby showed in that book how to make a shrinking super-hero work: you make the world around him strange, something entirely new. That didn't happen here. Some of the fault belongs to Simone; her description of the Atom's awe doesn't work as sparking the imagination or as a deptiction of the thoughts of a young genius (which this character is supposed to be). And Byrne's depiction of the battle with the rat is uninspiring -- especially since the rat looks a lot like a mouse.

Overall, neat ideas, bland execution. I've got no plans to pick up another issue of this one. Grade: C-, 72/100.

Uncanny X-Men #475

Simple, but effective. Well, as simple as an X-men comic can get.

Lorna Dane, or Polaris, gets chased through an Egyptian bazaar while Charles Xavier gathers a group of X-men for a dangerous mission. Said group end up rescuing Polaris in the book's major fight scene. Now, I don't understand who it was who was chasing Polaris, or what it has to with Apocalypse, or what's going on with her powers. So the exposition could have been handled better, because I don't think all of these things were intended to be mysteries. But given the complexity of X-men history, some confusion is a given. The structure here is solid, andmost of the characters are brought in nicely enough (though one, Havok, doens't get his own page of set-up); also, the story ends on a nice line.

The point is, it's a clear introduction to a new team of X-men, with a clearly-defined mission. Writer Ed Brubaker is almost invisible, in a stylistic sense; he's not reinventing anything, he's not bringing in any particular quirks of structure or dialogue; he's just crafting a strong X-men story. Billy Tan's art is clear, but nothing especially attractive. His characters are stiff; their emotions are clear, but lacking in nuance, and their poses and proportions seem sometimes clunky. Tan also uses photoshop blur effects to emphasise action, and of all the tricks artists use to try to get across motion in a still image, that's one of least effective when used consistently.

(Somewhere, there's a comic-book limbo full of all kinds of neat comics effects which are criminally underused in mainstream books these days. Thought balloons, sound effects, and above all, speed lines. Although, saying that, I notice that there are sound effects in this books; Nightcrawler "bamf"s when he teleports, Warpath's knives "thunk" home. But big robot-suits get demolished with no sfx comment, and a bazaar gets trashed soundlessly. There's something inconsistent about that, if only at some subliminal level.)

It's a promising start to a long storyline. Grade B, 85/100.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Good news, good news

Through the Asking the Wrong Questions blog I find an interview in which I read that the last book of John Crowley's Ægypt quartet is finally going to be published next year. This is great news, as I've been waiting anxiously for this book to come out. I've been happy to pick up the books Crowley's published in the meanwhile, but puzzled why he didn't finish the Ægypt books. Turns out he's had the complete manuscript ready for three years. Three flipping years, and no publisher was interested.

There are some things about this world that I just don't understand.

But at least I'll have the Ægypt books to read while I puzzle over it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


In one day at the Olympics, Canada's women' s curling team lost to Japan, Canada's men's curling team lost to Italy, and Canada's men's hockey team lost to Switzerland.

Mark my words: This ... is Stephen Harper's fault.

Monday, January 9, 2006

A comics thought

An awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time over the past several years talking about how different American mainstream comics are from the way they used to be, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This is often done with a stated or implied preference for older comics (more rarely, the preference is for the new stuff). But without making a value judgment, it seems to me that one significant difference between current and past Marvel and DC comics has not been mentioned.

That is this: in the Silver Age, and through to probably the eighties, superhero comics were seen as belonging to or at least coming out of a certain kind of subculture. Specifically, the science fiction/fantasy/horror subculture. These comics were heirs to the old pulps, and they knew it. An extended run on Doctor Strange could be an homage to H.P Lovecraft, complete with some issues scripted by pulp and comics veteran Gardner Fox. Comics writers were steeped in the lore of the pulps, and of their fandom — look through any comic written by Roy Thomas to see what I mean. It was as though a lot of the writers accepted that they had a large juvenile audience, but also a strong (if secondary) audience of sf fans. They were probably right.

On the other hand, starting with the rise of Image and the artists involved, comics began to re-imagine their audience and their relation to the culture at large. Rob Liefeld appeared in a jeans commercial. Todd MacFarlane bought into a hockey team. These creators had no interest in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy fiction. They marketed their comics in Hollywood, looking to score movie deals, TV deals, animation deals. By definition, comics were no longer looking to the subculture. They were developing a more mainstream orientation.

Nowadays, Marvel and DC still hire fantasy, sf and horror writers when they can: Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Michael Moorcock. But they're not advertised as fantasy writers; they're advertised as prose writers. Real writers. Like mystery writers, or the TV writers. The sf subculture no longer seems to register. There are good reasons for that.

When DC comics tried to launch an imprint for sf comics to sit alongside their Vertigo imprint of (then) dark fantasy and (now) crime and horror comics, the line didn't last. Science fiction readers were not turning to comics. Personally, I used to shop at a sadly now nonexistent store which stocked both sf/fantasy novels and a wide range of comics. I bought both. Most other customers stuck to one or the other. There was no easy crossover of readership.

With all the discussion of the audiences comics have lost — and there's no doubt that mainstream sales are down considerably from the pre-Image era — it may be that the most significant is the sf/fantasy readership. Lacking them, superhero comics lack something of their identity. Who are you writing for when you write a superhero book? Superhero fans, yes. But there aren't that many of them. Who else? The logical answer would be: people who have a similar interest in big ideas, in adventure stories, in non-realist stories. People who like to see real characters, but in very unreal situations.

Without that audience, not only does the superhero market shrink, but it becomes more homogenous. Cosmic heroes can't attract a readership. Neither can fantasy-oriented characters, even old standbys like Doctor Strange or Thor.

On the other hand, this trend arguably began at the height of the collector-driven craze of the early 90s. Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, in The Comics Book Heroes, note that at this time DC in particular seemed to be trying to make all of their characters fit the same basic template: lone angry white male in his early twenties. It didn't really work. But in retrospect, it might represent the first time the comics market began to turn its back squarely on one traditional part of its reader base (and thus of its creator base) and look to the wider world beyond.

For better or worse. The question remains: is there a mainstream readership for traditional, or even reinvented, superhero comics? If there is, they've been very slow at comign forward.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The irreducible experience

The same day that I started seriously reading Plato, I found myself involved in a not-so-purely-philosophical dilemma. I don't want to go into detail about that, but I do want to say this: I understand now both why the rationalistic approach of Greek philosophy was so valuable, and also why so many people find it unsatisfactory.

There may be some people for whom instinct is a sure guide to behaviour. But for everyone else, what happens when your instincts freeze up? When they're unclear? What happens if your instincts are based on some defect in your own nature? If your instincts are telling you to take the easier path, are they giving you good advice, or are you just looking for an excuse? Most importantly, and, in my experience, most commonly: what happens if two instincts are at war? What do you do when faced with the paralysis of emotion and intellect which results?

Rationality is great tool in these situations. It makes things clearer. It can guide you to what is right. Then it's just a question of doing it. Rationality is, in the end, calming.

On the other hand, consider this premise from Protagoras: "[E]verything has one opposite and not more than one[.]" Now, it's not clear that this had actually been proven during the preceding dialogue. Nevertheless, it's a dictum that Plato uses as essentially axiomatic: to everything its opposite, and only one opposite. It's a binary approach to the world. A backslash approach. On/off. Good/evil. Pain/pleasure.

Real life doesn't operate in this way. It can't be reduced to this simple a level. The axiom is false; not an absolute falsehood, but a reductio ad absurdem of lived experience.

So the positive virtue of rationality, its ability to clear away clutter and present incisive solutions to muddled problems, becomes a vice when taken too far: the tendency to reduce reality to simple and unreal abstractions. One might conclude that rationality's main characteristic, then, is its tendency to concentrate, to distill all things to their essence — even if the essence does not exist, or if the essence resides in precisely what is inessential.

That ability to reduce by means of the intellect is something tremendously useful. Also tremendously dangerous; people go to war over abstractions. But they also go to war over their instincts. Reason's ability to clarify represents a tremendous leap forward for human cognition; even, perhaps, a movement to something more purely human. That is, if what humans do better than any other known animal is think, then the means of focussing thought enhance one's ability to be characteristically human. But that's a great "if"; what about the ability to act in accord with a moral nature? Or to create art? In both cases the intellect is involved, but in both cases something else, some other faculty, appears involved as well. Reason, in other words, has its limits.

There have been times in history — many of them — where more rationality would have considerably helped the world. But it is possible that too much rationality may be as dangerous as too little.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

X and Y

It's often assumed that the best stories are those which focus the most closely on their theme and/or plot. All things not central should be edited out. Every element must tend toward a single end. Even style ought to be disciplined, ought to be pruned of all nonesential verbiage.

Yet any number of writers have produced great work which defies the above guidelines. Melville, Tolkien, John Cowper Powys, Iain Sinclair — these writers produce fascinating, powerful work which refuses the centripetal urge. What I mean by that is that in Moby Dick or The Lord of the Rings there are any number of long passages, about whaling or the history of Middle-Earth, which seem to have nothing to do with what the book is ostensibly about. These are novels which resist the urge to cohere; which do not have a single centre of gravity giving unity to their text. A centre of gravity, in this context, might be a story or a conscious theme; it is some idea which is developed, and which gives obvious form to a novel.

Yet even books which resist the pressure of gravity still very clearly have a form, have some kind of coherency and structure which gives them a unity. The Lord of the Rings would not be what it is if the long passages on landscape or history were excised. Moby Dick would not be what it is without the long passages on whaling. A Glastonbury Romance would not be what it is without the shifting, multiple points-of-view which extend even to the cosmic forces of the universe. There is not necessarily a conscious attempt to pull all this material into a shape. It's just there. Part of the world the writer presents. Something the writer felt compelled to include, something which works in defiance of accepted critical strictures.

In fact, if you look at the underlying principle of said accepted critical strictures, you quickly realise that they don't make much sense. There was a Peanuts cartoon once where Linus bugged Lucy to tell him a story until she finally gave in and snapped out: "A man was born. He lived and died. The end." And that was the story. And the truth is this: If you really wanted to cut down a story as far as possible, there's really not much more to say.

So, let's consider the possibility that while it is true that what gives a story its shape is what you leave out, it is also true that what gives a story its meaning, its importance, is what you leave in.

Think of it like a graph. The horizontal axis is a measure of plot; the drive forward, the development of story or theme. The vertical axis, on the other hand, is a measure of the material the author brings to the story. The didactic material. The connections, the atmosphere, all the things which aren't logically relevant but which are artistically necessary.

Traditional critical thought, then, would suggest that a straight line across the horizontal axis is the ideal shape for a story. But I suspect that stories of that kind are at some level unsatisfying. Certainly a lot of cleverness in the construction of, say, a mainstream film story goes into disgusing necessary elements, making them seem like interesting side bits until the story reaches the point where they stand revealed as vital to the forward momentum of the plot. The result is something smooth, clever, and fundamentally empty. There's a lack of healthy eccentricity.

So if not a straight line, what? A straight line up the vertical axis would be at least as unsatisfying, in a narrative sense. Perhaps that's the line of nonfiction; of an encyclopedia. Narrative entirely forsaken, information finding its own order.

Likely the old image of a narrative arc is most apt. A story begins, slowly moves forward, accreting images and facts and background, then at a certain point begins to really rush toward its climax, with less extraneous material being thrown in. But the amount of vertical detail given earlier lends the arc a steepness, a velocity, as it races toward the finish.

Then again, perhaps some stories don't have a single line, a single equation, to them at all. Perhaps just as some cosmological theories suggest that the universe is closed, finite, and some sugest it's open and endless, so some stories are closed (horizonally-oriented) and some are open (vertically-oriented).

The point is mainly that there are a lot of different ways to think about stories and story structure; sometimes conventional wisdom is best ignored, opening oneself up to a potentially useful point of view.