Monday, October 20, 2014

Top 10 Least Favorite Current Comics Writers

These choices are not to say anything personal against the writers listed, nor to suggest they are terrible people or anything negative about their body types or ancestry. This is just a way to examine what I don’t generally care for in their work, and why their writing may not connect with me. If a writer mentioned below is one of your favorites, that’s fine. I don’t mean to suggest their storytelling is inherently bad. Except for JMS. Kidding! This is a companion piece to the entry "Top 10 Current Favorite Comics Writers," which you can find here. On to the list.

Brian Michael Bendis
- Brian Bendis: Bendis is generally a good writer. But the quirks!  Ten years ago, I thought Bendis was talented and would mature into one of the best in the business. That has been slow in coming, and I’m not sure it will ever happen. First off, he is in love with the “F” word. Not everyone talks like Al Pacino in Scarface all the time, even gangsters! In Bendis creator-owned books, every other word from every character is “f***.” I don’t understand it. At first I thought I did—Bendis was young and testing the waters. He was getting the piss and vinegar out of his system, rebelling against whatever he was rebelling against. Ten years later, every character is still a potty-mouthed sailor. Very few professionals speak like that, Brian! Please hang around a few and find out. Bendis characters tend to speak unprofessionally and out of character—in Scarlet, a Chief of Police, negotiating on the phone with a terrorist, yells, “I call bullshit!” Marvel’s Thing calls someone “dude.” Bendis needs to understand his characters, where they are in life, and why adults don’t talk like petulant teenagers. He is also one of the architects of one of Marvel’s biggest mistakes, the “Ultimate” universe. The concept as a whole seemed redundant to me. If you have good stories to tell, why not just tell them in the regular books? Why reboot the concepts in an alternate universe? But I hope Bendis continues to grow as a writer and portray his characters as more believable and authentic people.

Warren Ellis
- Warren Ellis: One of the most grating things about Warren Ellis is his stark hypocrisy. Ellis hates superheroes. He doesn’t like people who write superheroes. He resents the fact that there are superhero comics on the market. He once referred to people who write Batman stories as “bending over for the Bat.” So what makes up the bulk of Ellis’ work? You guessed it. Superheroes. Excalibur, Thor, Wolverine, Iron Man, Thunderbolts and Astonishing X-Men are only some of the superhero comics he has written. Oh, and don’t forget that Batman story he did for Batman: Black & White. Bend over much? Ellis has one stock antagonist for his stories: jerk, hates authority figures, wisecracking, bad attitude, smokes. That is every Warren Ellis main character ever written. His writing can also be frustratingly opaque. I tried to read his graphic novel Switchblade Honey because I liked the premise (instead of a noble Captain Kirk type, the starship captain in the book is a jerk, hates authority figures, wisecracks, has a bad attitude, and smokes). I’m not sure if it was the script or art, but I defy anyone to tell me what happened at the story’s climax. I puzzled it out for long minutes, then just decided it was for smarter folks than me to decipher. A lot of this could be excused if Ellis’ writing was generally good or interesting to me, but regretfully it has never connected. I don’t deny he certainly has his fans.

J. Michael Straczynski
- J. Michael Straczynski: I used to somewhat like Straczynski’s work. I never cared for his Babylon 5 television show—truth to tell, the few episodes I’ve seen mark it as most dreary sci fi. But his comics weren’t bad in the early years. While beset with constant delays, Rising Stars was a creative, original look at superheroes. Marked with the same delays but outstanding art was Midnight Nation, another original idea. Then came JMS’s Spider-Man. This work was so dreadful it made one question the quality of all of his work that had come before. JMS does not understand mainstream superheroes or how to write them. He made Spider-Man a legacy character with hundreds of Spider-powered characters before him. That’s overthinking the concept and not how the character was created. Then came the storyline “Sins Past” in Amazing Spider-Man. JMS took a lovable, innocent character who had been dead for years, Gwen Stacy, and retconned her into a neurotic, slutty cheater with daddy issues. JMS revealed that Gwen became pregnant with the twin children of Norman Osborn (Spidey arch-villain Green Goblin), then left the country to give them birth behind the back of boyfriend Peter Parker. That ruined a character I really liked and I haven’t read a Spider-Man story since. What followed was an unbroken line of unfinished or long-delayed work (Supreme Power, The Twelve) and universally panned stories (“Superman—You’ll Believe a Man can Walk,” which JMS also abandoned mid-story). I think this is a writer that comics would be better off without. I’ll continue to vote that way with my wallet.

Matt Fraction
- Matt Fraction: I found Fraction’s X-Men work impenetrable, his Punisher work execrable and his Iron Fist stories a politically correct bore. I haven’t read everything he has ever written, but I’ve tried a pretty wide sample and I have to say his writing is not for me. There is no inherent understanding by Fraction of heroism, self-sacrifice or goodness in his characters. They’re just selfish jerks like the rest of us. That’s not what I want in a superhero comic. Friends whose opinion I trust rave about his Hawkeye series. That’s fine, but I’m not interested.

Mark Millar
- Mark Millar: Millar has two writing modes: Nihilistic sociopaths and worse nihilistic sociopaths. For some reason, Millar can’t seem to grasp the concept of a person who would care about others or put the safety and happiness of others in front of his own. Every character he writes is a publicity-seeking scumbag out for himself. This was perfectly fine in The Authority, a book about such attitudes, but didn’t work as well in his mainstream Marvel work. His Civil War made no sense. Characters who had been friends for years suddenly wanted to kill each other for no reason. Captain America turned evil. Johnny Storm, commenting on some young superheroes who were killed filming a reality show, referred to them as “C-listers, at best.” And Johnny used to date one of them. According to the comics I’ve read for the last 40 years, Johnny Storm isn’t a prick.  Book after book, Millar’s characters acted as his plot-hammering forced them to, not as they had since the ‘60s. His Ultimates (Millar’s take on the Avengers in an alternate universe) was appalling—the Hulk was recast as a cannibal and brother and sister Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were recast as an incestuous couple. In his creator-owned work, the protagonists are even worse. No character has any thought for anyone but themselves. Everyone screams the “c” word (Millar’s favorite giggling twelve year-old boy curse word) at the top of their lungs. His ego is out of control too, constantly bragging about his wealth and how Marvel “backs a money truck” up to his house and regularly empties it on his lawn. Forget the awful stories, the profane dialog, the lack of characterization skills, the out of control ego. Millar is simply a one-trick pony who writes the same nihilistic story over and over again. And it’s not very good.

Kevin Smith
- Kevin Smith: I think Smith is simply out of his depth. As in his films. all of his comic characters are obsessed with sex and bodily fluids. Under his pen, every character becomes a sex-obsessed, pants-wetting adolescent. His bland Green Arrow work was highly overrated, as were his wordy Daredevil comics. His nadir was the Spider-Man miniseries “The Evil that Men Do.” It wasn’t enough to feature child rape, or homosexual child rape, in the story. It had to be incestual homosexual child rape. In a Spider-Man comic? It’s hard to blame Smith himself—he is constantly rewarded for his low class, immature behavior by money, fame, and funding for new movies. Someone is paying him to write comics. But what was the Spider-Man editor thinking? I’ve tried many of Smith’s works and some of them are funny—most of them intentionally. But he is another one-trick pony—writing endless dick and fart jokes told by sex obsessed boy-men in superhero costumes. Kevin, go make a jillion dollars in movies, but please stay away from comic books!

Joe Casey

- Joe Casey: Casey is a writer whose work has just never connected with me. I have no opinion on it, good nor bad. I’ve read many Casey books and I can’t remember the plots or themes of any of them. I’m not sure he has anything to say as a writer.

Dan DiDio

- Dan DiDio: I know this is shooting fish in a barrel. But he is horrible. If he didn’t keep hiring himself to write comics at DC, where he runs the company, no one else would.

James Robinson
- James Robinson: Robinson’s Starman in the ‘90s was his magnum opus. A sprawling, epic story of a true hero told by a master. His Justice Society Elseworlds project, The Golden Age, was pretty good too. Robinson left the comics field for a decade or so to write screenplays. When that didn’t work out, he came back to comics. I really wish he hadn’t. His work since he returned has been strewn with tedious stories and politically correct diatribes. His recent Action Comics Superman stories were bland and just missing something—excitement, maybe? Justice League: Cry for Justice may be one of the most mocked and awful comics of the decade. His Fantastic Four has been a total letdown. His Earth 2 series for DC is a politically correct mess. I’ll stop going on, but I have to ask, what happened? What turned one of the finest comics writers working into a sensationalistic, politically correct activist? Again, this is referring to the work, not Robinson himself.

Grant Morrison
- Grant Morrison: I admit it, I don’t get the universal wonder that is Grant Morrison. Morrison is so fixated on telling a story on seven levels and forcing metamessages and multiple layers of meaning into every word balloon, he fails in telling an engaging story. I used to find myself putting down Morrison’s books and just scratching my head, missing the experience some folks in the fan press had. I used to wonder if we read the same books. Going back as far as Arkham Asylum, his work has been tiresome, pedantic and inscrutable. I never read Invisibles or Animal Man (except for the last issue, which was a horrible secular humanist screed). Morrison is so busy telling readers how smart he is, how ahead of the curve he is, how other writers rip off his every concept that he doesn’t realize how dull his stories are. His Final Crisis is so obtuse I can’t make heads or tails out of what happened. Characters appeared out of nowhere and the plot jumped from one non-sequitur to the next. It was even worse than a typical Morrison story. I prayed for his long Batman run to finally be over—Silver Age Batman stories don’t work today, despite Morrison’s insistence that they do. I half-expected Batman to turn up in a Rainbow or Zebra costume. I believe Morrison would think that was cool. His New 52 Action Comics work was the worst of his career and perhaps of all time. It’s not 1938 anymore, Grant. Superman doesn’t have to fight embezzling politicians or auto makers who don’t install seat belts. We have teams of lawyers who do that now. Morrison’s New X-Men run was the worst in that group’s history (perhaps tying with Chuck Austen’s). Morrison is in love with his own voice and ideas for a story, no matter how bizarre or ineffective they may be. It seems he has enough power in comics do whatever he wants while writing a title.

To be fair, there is one exception to Grant Morrison’s oeuvre. The late 1990s Justice League. It was earlier in his career and my guess is that an editor kept him in line and insisted stories make sense and have a beginning, middle and end. Some of those stories were wonderful and told me a decent writer lives in Grant Morrison. He just doesn’t come out very often.

Apathetic Mention: Ann Nocenti, Joe Kelly, Kieron Gillan, J.T. Krul

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Top 10 Current Favorite Comics Writers

Following, in no particular order, are my picks for the best current writers of comics.
Terry Moore
- Terry Moore: If someone had told me years ago that my all-time favorite non-superhero comic series would be about a lesbian, her straight best friend, and their wishy-washy male pal, I would have said you were insane. But Moore’s Strangers in Paradise still holds up as the best illustrated human drama of all time. As cliché as it sounds, the man is a genius. Next came Echo, a wonderful sci-fi tale about a woman with magic boobs. Okay, that’s oversimplifying, but check it out for some of the best-written sci-fi of the last decade. Presently, Moore is publishing another winner, Rachel Rising, about a murdered woman in a small town coming back to life and searching for her killer. Moore draws real, believable characters and gives them distinctive personalities. Forget strong women or strong men, Moore does strong characters. I would purchase anything he creates, sight unseen.

Chuck Dixon
- Chuck Dixon: Dixon has been on my best list for almost thirty years. He has forgotten more about adventure writing than most writers will ever know. Starting on Eclipse characters such as Airboy and continuing with Sky Wolf, Valkyrie, Sgt. Strike and so many others, Dixon set the standard in the ’80s for adventure fiction. Branching out to creator owned comics, he gave us Winterworld, which has just resurfaced as a comic and possible TV show. Then he blew the doors off with his DC Comics work, with record-setting runs on Batman, Detective, Robin, Nightwing and Birds of Prey. Along the way he co-created Batman villain Bane and added prize character after character to the Batverse at DC. Dixon never phones it in, whether it’s a new Airboy story or adding to the G.I. Joe mythos. His finest attribute as a writer is that he always moves the story and characters forward. He is a writer I admire personally and professionally. Recently Dixon has branched out to movies, television and novels (his Hard Times time-travel novels are a hoot), but I hope he never stops working in comics. I’m selfish that way.

Garth Ennis
- Garth Ennis: Scotsman Ennis has many naysayers, mostly for the level of sex and violence with which he infuses his work. Indeed, not everything he has written has been to my taste (I’m looking at you, Preacher). But I’m attracted to his clever plots and nobody-does-it-better dialog. Ennis listens to how real people speak and captures it like a drunken Scottish poet on the page (and I do love me some Robert Burns). He has had the definitive run on Hellblazer, and deconstructed superheroes in The Boys and heroism in Hitman. War Stories is his salute to fighting men, which is obviously his dream project. His recent Red Team comic about a group of vigilante cops left me cursing the end of every issue for not having the next one now. Ennis always has a fascinating point of view in his work, and is one of the most talented writers of his generation.

Kurt Busiek
- Kurt Busiek: Who does superheroes (and fantasy, and sword & sorcery, and tons of other genres) better than Kurt Busiek? Few people. I’ve loved his work since The Liberty Project, a 1980s Eclipse comic about superpowered teenage delinquents. He stunned the comic reading world with Marvels (with spectacular painted art by Alex Ross), then stunned them again with possibly the most creative hook for a superhero series ever in Marvel’s Thunderbolts. The last page reveal in Thunderbolts #1 is still one of the most shocking moments in comics—how they kept that a secret I’ll never know. Busiek’s Astro City comic has run for nearly two decades and has never run out of things to say. His lesser known works, such as the World War I fantasy Arrowsmith and offbeat superhero tale Superstar always offer a quality reading experience. If anyone is unfamiliar with superhero comics and wants to get acquainted, you couldn’t do better than start by reading anything by Busiek.

Peter Milligan
- Peter Milligan: I know Milligan has been a big deal in the UK for some time, but he snuck up on me as writer of Vertigo’s Shade the Changing Man as someone who could tell a story. I next remember his work on the quirky and wonderful X-Statix for Marvel. How that book was green-lit by Marvel is a story I’d love to hear one day (the scene where Iron Man and X-Statix hero Mr. Sensitive fight for their lives naked, on the grounds of a French Abbey? That’s high concept). His best work so far has been a years-long run on one of my favorite books, Hellblazer. He closed the doors on that book and always had some new ground to cover with anti-hero John Constantine. His new book The Names is a riveting conspiracy/murder mystery. Everything I’ve read from the man has been worth the price of the book; he has a gift for presenting original ideas in a more than slightly skewed way.

Ed Brubaker
- Ed Brubaker: Brubaker is probably the finest crime writer working today. I discovered him with the miniseries Scene of the Crime, about a crime scene photographer who gets caught up in a murder investigation. The story is well worth seeking out. He then did some work at Marvel, with an original take on the Iron Fist title and a long run on Captain America. His Captain America was excellent when he wasn’t trashing the Tea Party, but that’s a conversation for another time. His absolute best work has been with artist partner Sean Phillips, and they get better with every project. Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out—Brubaker and Phillips are masters at everything they attempt; horror, gangsters, secret agents or superheroes. Brubaker’s best recent project is Velvet with artist Steve Epting, about a spy secretary framed for a murder who tracks down the real culprits. Sort of “what if Moneypenny was the hero of the James Bond films?” It’s astounding work, and one of my all-time favorite spy stories. Brubaker has many, many years of storytelling ahead of him and I can’t wait to see what’s next. As long as it doesn’t involve the Tea Party.

Bill Willingham
- Bill Willingham: Television’s Once Upon a Time is a poor shadow of the comic it ripped off; Willingham’s greatest creation (so far) Fables. Fables has led to an empire for Willingham; the comic spinoff Fairest, toys, statues, hardcover reprints, original graphic novels and even a video game. There are rumors of a movie adaptation; perhaps the movies will finally get it right. One might say Willingham was a 20-year overnight success. He certainly labored in the trenches of comics long enough; with writing or art stints on Comico’s Elementals, DC’s Green Lantern and some creator-owned books. Everything Willingham wrote was outstanding, it was obvious from the first he was a gifted storyteller. But you may not know he’s a fantastic artist too. He has obviously preferred writing recently, and Fables is one of the finest fantasy books ever. He also knows how to go out on top ... Fables is ending in a few months with issue #150. I will desperately miss the book, but Willingham already has his next creator-owned gig lined up. So, while the king is dead—long live the king!

Mark Waid
- Mark Waid: Waid is an example of a writer whose work runs hot and cold for me. But overall, the man always gives his best. I may not like everything he produces, but he is always thinking around corners and not doing the same story repeatedly. I first remember reading his work on DC’s The Flash, a character for whom Waid obviously had long affection. It showed. His Kingdom Come (with Alex Ross) rewrote the future of the DC Universe in a story that still resonates with its themes and execution. His creator-owned work scores through the roof, with Empire setting the bar for villain-based comics. That is, until Irredeemable, about a superman gone bad, and companion title Incorruptible, about a career villain turned good. Waid always has something to say and something new to offer. I didn’t care for his take on the Man of Steel in Superman: Birthright or his Fantastic Four run—they weren’t terrible, just not to my taste. Waid made up for those lapses with his current run on Marvel’s Daredevil. Daredevil is currently the wittiest and most fun read on the stands. I’ll follow Waid to whatever he does next and at least give it a try. He has earned a look from me at whatever he produces in comics.

Jay Faerber
- Jay Faerber: I have never read a bad comic book by Jay Faerber. On the contrary, he keeps hitting it out of the park, book after book, concept after concept. He should be a monster hit writer, but life doesn’t work that way. I first remember his work on DC’s Teen Titans, but that pales in comparison to his creator-owned output. Noble Causes was about a Kennedyesque family of superheroes that ran for years and was extremely enjoyable. Dynamo 5 was a terrific action/adventure book about a group of illegitimate superpowered children of a Superman-like father. Near Death was a unique concept about a hitman who dies and is revived, then sets about helping people in need. Not for any kind of altruistic purpose, but because he glimpsed Hell and doesn’t want to go back. Point of Impact is a gritty crime miniseries about a murder and its aftermath that doesn’t pull punches. His newest series, Copperhead, is a sci fi Western about a female sheriff and her young son, keeping the peace on a frontier planet. I love these books and they are all well worth your valuable time to find and read. I’m not sure any of them sold well, and Faerber remains, in my opinion, a vastly underrated writer. He has turned to television recently, writing for the shows Ringer and Star-Crossed. I hope comics never loses him, but discovers how truly talented he is.

Brian Michael Bendis
- Brian Bendis: I thought long and hard about including Bendis on a best list, but ultimately decided he deserved to be here. He has his indelible quirks (which I will discuss later), but overall his work is unique, fun and—dare I say it—mostly original. And I don’t doubt he loves comic books, so we have that in common. His creator-owned book Powers has been around over 10 years now and has always been worth reading—even though co-lead Deena Pilgrim is the most annoying comic book character in history. The book has looked at super people as criminals in a novel way no one has really thought of before. His man-crush on Luke Cage at Marvel has revitalized that character and put him once again at the forefront of the Marvel Universe. His runs on the Avengers titles have been down-to-earth and cosmic while still exploring the characters and moving the story along. Secret Invasion was one of the best Avengers stories in years. His newest book, The United States of Murder, Inc., has an intriguing premise that Bendis is exploring with glee. While his creator-owned titles have generally been successful, Bendis is still committed to mainstream superhero comics, which I appreciate. They need all the talented creators they can get.

Honorable Mention: Peter J. Tomasi, Chris Roberson, Dennis Hopeless, Victor Gishler, Jonathan Luna &Sarah Vaughn, Joshua Williamson, Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Movies - Gone Girl

Since Gone Girl was the best novel I read last year and David Fincher is one of my favorite directors, I couldn’t wait to see the film version of the book. I have to say everyone involved did a superior job bringing the story to life. Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, whose wife Amy disappears on their 5th Anniversary. Nick denies having anything do to with it, and Amy’s concerned parents believe him. Search and support groups are immediately formed and a national search is undertaken to find Amy. The police suspect Nick, but they really don’t have any evidence or motive ... until they find Amy’s diary.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, just see this terrific, layered and thrilling drama. The cast is incredible; British actress Rosamund Pike is note perfect as Amy. She captures all sides of the character and makes her character arc not only believable but inevitable. Neil Patrick Harris is subdued and a bit scary as Amy’s former boyfriend Desi. Patrick Fugit and Kim Dickens are right out of the book in the roles of the detectives who investigate Nick for Amy’s disappearance. And even Ben Affleck was acceptable as Nick. I honestly don’t think much of Affleck’s acting ability and the film would only have been better with a professional actor in the role. However, the part mostly called for Nick to be clueless and stand around with his mouth open. Even Affleck can do that. It helped that original author Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay, but Gone Girl the movie is faithful to, and almost as good as, Gone Girl the novel. Outstanding.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Friday, October 10, 2014

Graphic Novels - The Shadow 1941: Hitler's Astrologer

This 20-year old graphic novel was recently reissued, I missed it the first time around. A brilliant Shadow story by Denny O'Neil and Michael Kaluta. The Shadow and his operatives help a German Astrologer in America with a plan to end WWII. Since Hitler was an Astrology nut, they figure if they can get him a false chart that convinces him invading Russia will turn out well, it will divide his forces and save Britain. Lots of real Nazis guest star, and they're just as odious as they were in real life. The climax takes place in Berlin, with the Shadow in a complex battle of wits (and guns and swords) with the Third Reich. Kaluta handles the artwork beautifully; the Shadow and his supporting cast have never looked better. I really wish he had more of an output through the years, he is one of comics' greatest artists and doesn't disappoint here. Full of history, intrigue and action, this one is highly recommended.
Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Movies – The Equalizer

It’s tough for Oscar winner Denzel Washington to be anything but handsome and charming—and his character in The Equalizer is both, but with a deadly edge that Washington pulls off beautifully. The movie is based on the Equalizer TV show from the ‘80s, starring suave British actor Edward Woodward (The Wicker Man). Same as the show, the protagonist’s name is Robert McCall, an ex-secret agent who helps regular folks right some nasty wrongs. We’ve seen most of this movie before, there is almost an action movie checklist at work here: the secret agent who has sworn off violence and thinks he’s retired, the evil mobsters who prey on his innocent friends, the hooker with a heart o’ gold, the fat sidekick who overcomes his fear and fights back—but everything is pulled off so well it’s still an enjoyable ride. Washington is a believable action hero, especially how his character evaluates every bad situation threat by threat and puts his plan into explosive action. The climax in a big box store is worth the price of admission, as McCall uses the tools at hand to kill most of the world’s Russian mafia one at a time. It’s slick, violent entertainment that stands up to any recent action movie.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Books - Queen City Gothic by J.T. Townsend

First time author J.T. Townsend knocks it out of the ballpark with Queen City Gothic, about the most famous unsolved murder cases in Cincinnati history. In these cases there lie equal parts interest, fascination and frustration that the authorities have never solved the mystery or punished the perpetrators. Each case keeps the reader up at night turning pages, but the one that I can't stop thinking about is the Bricca case, and the eyes of the beautiful little girl that will never age. Equally frustrating are the cases that were solved (sometimes with a confession!), but were botched due to police incompetence or O.J.-level jury stupidity. Other cases examined here include the Cincinnati Strangler, the Cumminsville Railroad Killer, the shooting of Frances Marie Brady and many others. A well-researched, outstanding true crime book the reader won't be able to put down. I'm looking forward to the author's next, about the most famous solved cases in Cincinnati history.
J.T. also does a terrific series of murder case lectures around Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, about everything from the cases in QCG to Lizzie Borden (spoiler: she did it) and Jack the Ripper. These are riveting, not-to-be missed talks by a true expert. I dare you to be bored during a presentation by J.T. Townsend. J.T. will be presenting his next Jack the Ripper lecture on October 21st at 7:00pm at the Florence branch of the Boone County Library (7425 U.S. 42, Florence, KY). I'll be there.

Check out J.T.'s website for more information.