Digital is Overrated or: Why You Should Buy Comics At Your Local Comic Book Store

 

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I used to be in my local comic book store every week, buying stacks of new books and speed reading them all in one sitting. I started reading in high school and I was a zealous convert to the cult of Marvel and DC (and eventually more obscure publishers outside of the big two). Around the time I started going to University, it was really hard to justify making trips out to my usual comic book store. My house was already in a corner of the city that was far away from the comic book store and now I was spending half of my time in a different, equally far away corner. So, I started reading digital comics to make sure I was still getting my fix. At first, it was great. Digital reading was a little cheaper and a lot more convenient. I loved scrolling through new releases and taking advantage of the weekly sales, which saved even more money! After a while though, a funny thing happened. I stopped reading, almost entirely. I would ebb into it every once in a while but I drifted, without fail, back out of reading regular books. Ever since my latest reading resurgence took the form of walking back into a nearby comic books store and actually buying physical books, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something (indeed, many somethings) off putting about the digital comics experience.

First of all, when you buy a comic book digitally the experience goes a little something like this: click “buy”, scroll through it and that’s it. Perhaps you read through it a couple more times but if you’re anything like me, you don’t think about it too much after that. There is a weirdly impersonal weightlessness to digital comics that keeps me from pouring over them in the way that I might with a physical addition. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. Seeing the latest issue of Harley Quinn or Green Arrow* on my table might encourage me to reread it in a way that has no real digital equivalent. When I am reading digitally, I tend to rack up more books than I actually read. This doesn’t occur when reading physical comics. Everything I purchase is read, usually more than once. I grant that this bit is subjective and even if this digital disconnect exists for you, it is by no means a deal breaker. After all, it is cheaper and leads to less clutter around the house. So, why else should you make the trek out to your local comic book store?

Well, a sense of community and an opportunity to bond with people over mutual interests is a pretty nice perk of the local comic book store (LCS) experience. I don’t want to get off on too much of a tangent but we live in an unprecedented era of isolation. Even people who spend all of their inside dwelling days talking to friends on Skype or Discord are in some sense lonely. Our stupid bodies make a distinction between socializing in person and socializing across long distances and, unfortunately, you really only get the full boost of serotonin and dopamine that comes with socializing when you are doing the real thing. So, why not go to a hub of like minded fans and talk shop with your fellow nerds?

It’s not just a social thing either. While comic book stores can be the inhospitable, gatekeeping institutions that you’ve often heard they are, this is actually something of a stereotype. A lot of comic book stores are filled with employees who can’t wait to recommend you good books based on your existing interests. If it weren’t for my LCS in Winnipeg I would never have started reading Marvel on such perfect, high quality entry points. I was recommended J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor and Brubaker’s Captain America, for the record. I would go to the store with the intent on chatting about last weeks books, trading micro-reviews and getting opinions on what else I might read. I know plenty of comic book nerds want this experience and I can safely say that it is worth the effort to go out and get it. It also helps recoup some of the costs, as you are much more likely to spend your money on something you’ll actually like with the guidance of seasoned experts.

So maybe I’ve convinced you that there are some perks to going out to your local comic book store. All of the little perks in the world won’t matter if digital comics are the best ones to actually read. I’ve heard a lot of people who prefer digital reading purely as a means of best enjoying the medium of comics and if guided viewing and being able to zoom in on individual panels is your favorite way to read then all the other stuff is probably going to fall by the wayside. For me, holding a physical copy of the book will always be the best. For one thing, the copy of the book in my hands never fails to load the next page and thereby hauls all the momentum of the story entirely. I equally enjoy that there are no failures to calibrate the page, such as the ones that occur when I rotate my tablet to get the best view of a splash page (This occurs without fail for me in the Comixology reader. The page goes off center and the scale gets all messed up, causing me to have to go back and then forward again).

Even if your experience is free of technical hiccups, guided views and panel zooms have the potential to do the medium a disservice. See, when a (good) comic book artist lays out their page they are always mindful of spatial relationships. To see what I mean, consider the following theoretical example of a page that depicts Batman leaping down into an alleyway and saving someone from a mugger. You might dedicate most of the page to Batman as he glides down in shadows then have smaller panels on the same page that convey a criminal’s fear of the Caped Crusader. Seeing a comparatively large Batman towering over a criminal who takes up little space on the page doesn’t just look cool, it metaphorically communicates that Batman makes this crook feel small and frightened in the face of his larger than life presence. The image relies on being taken in all at once rather than in the discrete bites it would be broken down into if you were using a digital reader. I’m well aware that digital readers need not utilize these features, I am mainly hoping to convey that the use of them isn’t necessarily the perk that I have heard some people claim it to be. For those interested, I will link an excellent video essay that uses pages from Art Spiegelman’s Maus to argue make the argument that I am making here.

There are other benefits to reading digitally, such as the lack of ads (though I love bad comic book ads that feature heroes somehow using Snickers bars to save the day) or making comics accessible if a disability is keeping you from making the journey down to the store. I merely want to give physical books their day in court, as I think that they are the superior way to enjoy the medium and, frankly, local shops need all the help they can get competing with Amazon and other platforms. I accept that the medium is probably going to undergo a massive paradigm shift no matter what any of us do. I would personally be surprised if DC and Marvel didn’t just go full digital and offer a Netflix style distribution system for all of their books. Each company has a service like this already, after all. Still, what I wanted to argue here was that if comic book stores are going to die off, then we should certainly try to delay that event as long as possible. The medium of comics will be hurt of access to physical books becomes more difficult than it already is. So, why not pop in and give physical books a try? I think you’ll be glad that you did.

*Yes, I’m a DC fan but I promise I’m not one of the weird ones that go around picking fights over the auteur genius of Zack Snyder.

 

 

 

Comic Book Review: Blackbird #1 by Jen Bartel and Sam Humphries

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I have recently gotten back into comics in a big way and I thought it might be fun to spotlight some of the best stuff I am reading here on this blog. While I’m mostly into DC comics, I promise I’m not one of those weird DC fans who skulks around twitter while picking fights about the auteur genius of Zack Snyder. DC just have my favorite roster of characters and my wallet can’t really support coming into my local comic book store with a buffet kind of attitude. Well, usually it can’t. However, I made a special exception for Blackbird by Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel.

I’m a huge fan of Sam Humphries’ work on the DC Rebirth Green Lanterns series and he seems to be revisiting similar themes here. Like Green Lantern Jessica Cruz – aka the best new character DC has introduced in as long as I’ve been reading – Nina Rodriguez is truly protagonists for the millennial generation. The world is disappointing to Nina and there is a palpable fatigue and inability to cope with that fact informing the character. Sadly, these feelings will almost certainly strike a chord with many people in their twenties today. I particularly like the way that Nina’s addiction to painkillers is handled. Humphries and Bartel effectively dramatize the life events that lead to Nina’s use of the pills while also making the negative impacts they have on her life viscerally apparent. This expert line walking leads to an excellent dramatic framework for the comic, wherein the audience clearly understands Nina’s perspective, as well as her helpful-bordering-on-fed-up sister Marisa. The interplay between the two characters is involving in a way few first issues can muster and I’m already emotionally invested in where their relationship is going.

Humphries’ script is solid but it is Bartel’s art that will get you to pick the book up off the rack and show it to your friends once you’ve finished reading it. Bartel, who also shares colouring duties with Hayoung Wilson, crafts rich and detailed pages that truly pop. The colouring is truly key here, as it is the glue that makes a world full of real life tragedies and magic blue monsters feel cohesive and lived in rather than disparate and nonsensical. The visual storytelling is also strong throughout the book. My favorite example is on the first page (pictured above), where the audience gets to look Nina right in the eyes and immediately begin to empathize with her post vision panic (In this great video essay, Patrick H Willems notes that the Wachowski sisters use a similar technique to align the audience with Trinity’s perspective early on in the Matrix). From a visual perspective, this is a clearly told story that evokes emotions on the power of images alone and this is all thanks to Bartel and Wilson’s stellar work.

As of now, the magical world of Blackbird is still fairly mysterious. That said, the book wisely makes the edges of the world that we are glimpsing as intriguing as possible. The scene in the Grand Oasis Diner is visually stunning while also provoking a mixture of awe and horror. I can’t wait to learn more about the Beacon and he mysterious “they” that seems to have sent her (who are apparently concerned with Nina’s appetite of all things). This curiosity goes double for the shadowy figure who confronts Nina at the end of the sequence as the panels being to stylistically tear away from the page itself. All of this and I haven’t even mentioned how cool the giant blue monster is yet.

Blackbird is a first issue at its finest and I encourage you to pick it up by whatever means you can. We live in an era of being told that you need to read 5 issues, watch two seasons, etc. before a series “gets good”, which makes Blackbird’s strong start all the more exciting. Now, if you’ll need me, I’ll be over here looking at everything else Jen Bartel has ever drawn.

 

 

 

Adventures In Streaming – Batman: Bad Blood (Netflix)

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An objective truth about Batman is that he is also a Bat Dad. Especially in the realm of cinema, this key element of the character is largely shunned by fans who want to see Bruce Wayne unencumbered by the rest of the Bat Family. Seriously, it’s crazy that Robin has only figured into two of the eight movies that have Batman’s name on the marquee (to say nothing of Batgirl and the rest of her peers). Batman takes on proteges as a part of his larger mission statement to always be there for people who find themselves in the same dire situation as he found himself in as a child. It is a key part of his character and, while this may not be a big live action tentpole, a large part of what works about Batman: Bat Blood (director Jay Oliva) is that it finally gives Bat Dad his cinematic due.

The micro Bat family that makes up our main cast is Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski), Nightwing (Sean Maher), Robin (Stuart Allan) and Batwing (Gaius Charles). We are introduced to Batwoman as sort of the new kid in town, wearing the costume and roughing up criminals in Gotham with no prior connection to the rest of the team. She’s a Bino (Bat in Name Only). Nightwing, on the other hand, has moved on from the Batcave and has a nice little setup in Bludhaven. We meet him in a familiar crime fighting situation with an unfamiliar spin. He’s chatting with Starfire during the fight, underlying that with his departure from Gotham came a departure from the isolation that came from working with Batman. This isn’t one of the strictly business chats we see Bruce have with Alfred. This is loving banter that puts a smile on Dick’s face. Batwoman and Nightwing get the most substantial character arcs in the movie and right from their introductions we get exactly what they are about. Robin and Batwing don’t fair as well. Robin isn’t a reluctant newcomer like Batwoman or a old hand getting dragged back into a life he was happy to leave behind. He is just there because he wants to know why Batman is missing. It’s not a terrible reason but his character is noticeably lacking in conflict relative to his siblings. Ditto for Batwing, who says some stuff about wanting to go down his own path that doesn’t really make for strong character motivation.

So, what’s going on with the big guy himself? Batman has been captured by Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin), literalizing his distance from his family unit. Batman’s urgent need of rescuing causes the rest of the team to reluctantly come together, as they realize that the bat symbol isn’t just good superhero branding, it is a symbol of resilience in the face of trauma. Kate uses it to cope with her dead mother and sister, Dick with the death of his parents and Luke with the recent attack of his father by Talia’s henchmen. The finale all comes together in the way that you might expect, with the team having to work together to save the day. The clever bit is that their antagonist is a mind controlled Batman. This development allows the film to take on two thematic stances with regards to Batman. Firstly, the Bat family is able to save Batman from his mind control. This victory proves that an isolated Batman is not as powerful as a team that works together with the same end (Nightwing takes the mantle of Batman explicitly in the film to make the comparison clear). Second, Bruce’s freedom from the mind control comes from his family appealing to his better nature. Here we see that in saving others, Bruce has actually saved himself. This is the Batman mission statement in microcosm and it is great to see play out here.

The villains are also thematically coherent with the rest of the story. Talia uses a clone of Damian named The Heretic (Travis Willingham) as a henchmen. This clone wears the Batman costume as well which allows the viewer to see that the iconography is hollow without the right philosophy guiding it. Also, The Heretic is functionally Talia’s Robin, which makes her a foil for Batman. She looks at her relationships as pragmatic associations rather than emotionally substantive connections and, in the end, this directly leads to her downfall as Heretic’s lover strikes her down in vengeance for her own careless murder of her would be son.

There is a lot to like about Batman: Bad Blood but there are significant barriers keeping it from being a Batman animated classic like Under the Red Hood or The Mask of Phantasm. As I gestured towards earlier, the character work for Damian and Luke is lacking in substance. Especially Luke, whose initial aversion to working with his Dad at Wayne Enterprises begs for an explanation. There is also a distinct lack of visualization when it comes to the Bat family working together. They have a real tendency to break off on their own during their act 2 and act 3 missions. If the team had been showing working together by strategizing or even via the film’s fight choreography then it would have cemented that their working together had value (recall that awesome tracking shot from The Avengers that depicts the various heroes playing off of each other in creative ways). The action in general looks nice enough but it all feels pretty samey. Batwoman uses guns and Batwing is basically Iron Man but they don’t do enough fun stuff with these differences for them to register. Again, the different flavors and fighting styles mixing up with one another would be more visually and thematically compelling then the generic punch-fests they cooked up for the movie.

There are other small details that bug me. For example, the Bat Family manages to accidentally kill more than one person over the course of the movie, which doesn’t seem to phase the characters at all. Also, Batman himself is depicted as a little too callus and cold for him to fully match up with the understanding patriarchal figure that the film suggests he is in the end. He muses about whether he should “take Batwoman under his wing…or take her down” and I can’t help but wonder why, if the movie is ultimately about the virtue in Batman as father figure, he would consider the latter option at all. Still, Bad Blood is head and shoulder above other recently released DC animated efforts and, as a huge fan of the characters involved, I really dug it. Now, if we could just get a sequel that brings in the rest of the squad from James Tynion IV’s run on Detective Comics.

 

Venom Review – Sony’s Spiderverse is more DCEU than MCU

 

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There is a fork in the road that a film writer encounters when they walk out of the movie like Venom. You can either contribute to the raging sea of negativity that envelops the release of bad comic book movies on the internet or avoid talking about the movie altogether. This puts me in a strange predicament, as I want to talk about my experience with my movie and I detest being even a drop in the ocean of the “your movie sucks and here’s why” crowd that constitutes so much of internet film criticism. So, I want to make a conscious effort to set the tone of this review in a non-negative light. No performative euphemisms, no creative curses and no snarky quips. Lets just talk about the movie.

From a critic’s perspective, the most important element of a movie is its thematic content. If a movie isn’t about anything then you wouldn’t need film criticism to do any interpreting or contextualizing. Critics could be replaced with algorithms. “We have determined based on your previous viewing habits that you do not like unfinished visual effects work, villains whose motivations make no sense or a total inability to balance comedic and dramatic tones so we do not recommend that you see Venom”. That being said, what is Venom about? Well, the answer to that question is frustratingly unclear. One might infer from the symbiote egging Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock on by calling him a “pussy” and forcing him to participate in violence when he is reluctant to do so that the symbiote is a metaphorical stand in for normative masculinity. That interpretation might not be defeated by the film’s ending, wherein Hardy and Venom have to stop fighting and learn to work together to defeat another symbiote but it is certainly something of a subtextual monkey wrench that the metaphorically monstrous masculine id is shown to actually be the path to salvation for our heroes (and the world!). The ashewing of a bifurcated masculinity that rejects its own destructive nature in favor of a unified, masculine hero who utilizes said destructiveness for positive ends is the closest thing Venom has to consistent subtext of any kind.

There isn’t just a lack of meaning in Venom, there is a full on aversion to it. When Brock’s inheritance of the symbiote is coincident with his reliance on alcohol to cope with his recently destroyed life, you think that the film is making an attempt at being about addiction in some substantive way. This is a smart move as it is a seemingly perfect fit for a story about Eddie Brock’s relationship with the Venom symbiote, at least as it has existed in other media. See, the Venom symbiote feeds on a host with negative emotions and empowers them to act on those negative emotions rather than change them. It is a balm that helps its users cope with frustration and perceived powerlessness. The fact that the symbiote is literally an addictive substance that is commonly used as a toxic coping mechanism couldn’t possibly have been lost on the filmmakers. I mean, right? Especially since alcohol is featured so prominently in the movie. Yet, the alcoholism stuff is dropped like everything else.

There are other half hearted attempts at meaning. Eddie is an investigative reporter, which plays off of a speech given by Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake about silencing those who question things but it goes nowhere. Ditto for the Elon Musk satire that seems to have been the organizing principle of Drake’s character. So. if Venom is only about something as tepid and uninteresting as “men need to be men…but better” (and, I remind you, it feels generous to even assign a concrete thesis statement to a movie this clearly mangled in the editing room) then is there anything else that can compensate for that lack of meaning? Um, not that I can tell. The action is awful, with the most elaborate sequence being shrouded in smoke to cover up the shoddy visual effects work. I’m not sure I should be too ungrateful for that though, as Venom truly features some of the worst VFX in modern action cinema. The rest of the technical filmmaking is equally weak and there isn’t a stand out moment to be had in the film’s entire runtime.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review I don’t like being overly negative, so I will do my best to end on a positive note. The truth is that I’m grateful for movies like Venom. They offer insight into how crazy these Hollywood productions can get and how wrong they can go. Ruben Fleischer and company made a movie about nothing, for no one and with no redeeming qualities. The fact that that can happen with millions of dollars bankrolling talented people is, frankly, fascinating. I learned a lot about what not to do from watching Venom and I hope the filmmakers did too. There is a sequel tease at the end of this thing and I don’t want to be sitting here again in 3 years trying my hardest to be nice to Venom 2.