Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Two Comic Writers I find Annoying

The League is not a very discerning comic book reader. We pick up lots and lots of stuff, and often it takes quite a bit before we admit something is not to our taste.

Sometimes its because the core concept just isn't our thing. Sometimes its because the writing is off, or the art is just so wearisome that we just don't want to look at it anymore.

However, most often, its that something about the writing throws me off. Its tough to nail down what bothers me about some writers. For example, I am very hit-or-miss with Bill Willingham. I feel Jim Starlin, of late, has long periods of being dull interspersed with "oh, wow. That was great."

But two writers who just bother me are: Brian Wood and Warren Ellis.

Brian Wood:

I read Channel Zero a few years ago, and I've tried, in earnest, to read DMZ, and I can't do it.

More recently, I decided to give his new Northlanders series a try, figuring that he'd drop some of that in order to tell the stories of vikings. Instead, he brought his modern, post-post-punk sensibilities straight into the Viking world. Rather than giving us a protagonist (and Wood seems intent on protagonist rather than "hero", which is fine in my book) who comes off as just not very clever. Instead, he seems to be going for a level of "bad-ass" that ensures the reader their protagonist will prevail, no matter how thoughtless his protagonists behave. It's an odd pact to make with the audience.

In short, a character who doesn't come off as very bright runs a risk of becoming irritating reading. At least with Miller's Marv in Sin City, you were curious to see how Marv would make things shake out. Here, we get a fairly standard tale of usurpation of the throne by a mean-spirited uncle. Sound familiar? I can't believe Wood ripped off The Lion King, either.

The vikings drop the f-bomb some, and say "shit", which is totally awesome, I guess. It's all just not very convincing, and after two issues I didn't see why I should care.

Warren Ellis:

Ellis's level of annoying traits extend well beyond the page. He spills a lot of ink complaining about superhero comics even as he continues to line his wallet by writing tales of folks in spandex. He maintains an amazingly self-congratulatory web-presence in which he pats himself on the back for drinking and buying gadgets, and cultivates a following via chat group interaction with fanboys hoping to sponge up a little of the coolness Ellis tells them he brings to the table.

Ellis's 90's era book, Authority, was groundbreaking, big-screen superhero madness. The characters were a new breed of no-holds-barred, let's-kill-the-villians superhero, or, rather, enforcer of the status quo. It made for exhilarating reading for the breed of comic reader who always wondered why Batman didn't just kill the Joker, or Superman didn't just fry Lex up like a sausage with his heat vision. Cities were leveled, body counts of civilian collateral damage were enormous, and the world was just a playground for the Authority.

The characters were tougher than normal superheroes, seemingly laughing in the face of death and mayhem and taking civilian casualties in stride. Everyone had ice in their veins, a quick quip for their victims, and was always harder than whomever they were up against.

And then Ellis did it again. And again. In Planetary, and other Ellis comics, the problems would be of epic scale, all the heroes always cool beyond words in the face of interplanetary disaster, and the dames would be tougher than the dudes. And they'd often tell people exactly how bad-ass they were, and how they were going to kill them, and then they'd do it. Which is cool, like, the first fifteen times, but then... well.

Ellis reads the modern equivalents of Omni, so he was throwing around words like Nanotechnology before they'd made it into most comics, but after anyone who watched Nova already knew exactly what Nanotechnology was.

After a while, you sort of got the feeling, well... Ellis began to feel kind of like the guy you met when you start at college who is the third year, still living in the dorms who seems really cool, who knows where to buy beer, etc... But then, sometime after Christmas, he's still telling you how it is, and how to be cool and... hey, is he really planning on staying in the dorms again next year?

I try to pick up Ellis's stuff, because, like Wood, the concepts always sound fairly interesting. But you sort of get the feeling that all of his protagonists are really just 1-degree of separation from Ellis, as they all sort of speak and act the same way. Actually, let me clarify... I suspect they're all sort of 1-degree away from how Warren Ellis believes himself to be when he's alone at night, looking in the mirror and wondering what tough guys say before they beat the tar out of someone.

I dunno. Sometimes I just don't get writers. Or I do and I don't care.

Ellis certainly turns out a lot of work. I wish he's do a bit more to put his money where his mouth is and quit writing superhero comics or superhero comics lightly disguised as dystopian futures, lifted sci-fi premises, etc... The man is probably immensely talented, so I'm kind of lest wondering what sort of story he'd be able to tell if he weren't leaning on existing tropes of genre fiction.

Anyway, that's just my opinion.


Michael Corley said...

I thought I would have nothing to say of this post, as I don't know a great deal about most writers, but I did read most of Authority while frittering away the hours at Borders and Barnes and Noble. I, as you said, found the concept compelling enough to keep reading, but became increasingly frustrated with the characters. Of course, part of that may be they kept dying by the truckload, but the characters were passionate about, what? They killed other people. A lot. They sort of saved the world, but it was impossible to tell them from the villains other than they had the cool ship (until the bad guys took it away, which they are required to do by comic book contract).

The central force of the plot seemed to be as follows: "As long as we're 51% good, it's all good, because the baddies are at least 49% bad."

I realize this is meant to be morally ambiguous, but there comes a point when ambiguous graduates into plotless and no progression of character (by the by, did you seen any character change? I've always been told that's the key to good writing).

Simon MacDonald said...

I find that Ellis' best work are his finite series like Transmetropolitan and Global Frequency. They don't suffer from the same lack of progression like some of his other work like the X-Men as they have an established end date. Also, they are not superhero comics which is just what he does to pay the bills between his new ideas.

The League said...

Simon, it's been a while, but Global Frequency is kind of what I meant when I was talking about appropriated genre tropes and "not quite superheroes". As the TV show "Heroes" has shown us, the genre of superheroes doesn't necessarily mean costumes. Ellis substituted people with marginally more believable skills and abilities and put them into a secret cabal of like-minded individuals operating beyond the law for the good of man-kind...

There are comics out there which are decidedly not superhero work. Love and Rockets, Blankets, even Scrooge McDuck and Archie Andrews.

Honestly, i wouldn't care about Ellis sticking to sci-fi and superheroes if he'd at least be honest about it and quit claiming he's beyond the genre.

I agree enough with Machael's point that its more or less why I quit following Authority and certainly Planetary.