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Monday, August 16, 2004
Comics: The return of Journalista and memories of NuMarvel

I see today that Dirk Deppey has brought back Journalista! to both and to the pages of The Comics Journal as a regular column. It's hard to believe that we comics folks have now been living without our daily dose of Deppey for over six months now (can that be right?) and while Kevin, Shane and others have been doing a bang-up job collecting the links around the net, I've really missed the commentary that Mr. Deppey brought to the table, and it's nice to have him back.

Reading through his recent columns (or excerpts, does anyone know if these are his entire Journalista! columns from the uypcoming TCJ #262?) on the X-Men Reloaded nostalgia-vent and a post-mortem on "NuMarvel," I suspect that these columns and the fact that Stephen Grant is now an official TCJ columnist are indicative of the less-"elitest" coverage that we can expect from the Deppey-edited Journal. Could we possibly be entiring an era wherein Marvel and DC aren't covered solely to be villified? It's also heartening to see Deppey taking advantage of the "NuJournalists" of the Internet age, both by adding Grant as a regular columnist and by either soliciting or accepting submissions from some of the more noteworthy folks who write about comics online: Bill Sherman, Sean Collins, ADD, Tim O'Neil and other comics bloggers all contributed to the young cartoonists issue, and I believe at least a few of them have other features or reviews in the works for the venerable magazine.

Jumping around just a bit, I was very interested to read Deppey's analysis of the rise and fall of "NuMarvel" (the late 2000-late 2003 Marvel management regime of EiC Joe Quesada and President Bill Jemas, as named by online pundits). I'm surprised it's taken the Journal or, indeed, anyone this long to start working through those three years in which Marvel seemed to actually be on the cutting edge of storytelling, at least storytelling featuring company-owned properties.

It's really a classic story of the little guy (if Marvel could ever be perceived as such) changing from a 98 lb (bankrupt) weakling into a giant corporate licensing behemoth by virtue of following a few simple rules, including turning their hype machine on overdrive, and then falling again (or starting to, anyway) as a result of believing their own hype. It would make a great book if anyone who was there were willing to write one - Quesada comes in to "try something new" on a couple of failing books (Daredevil, The Punisher) and properties which needed their copyright solidified (Black Panther, Inhumans), gets promoted to EiC (possibly at the expense of his friendship with Jimmy Palmiotti, the co-editor of the Marvel Knights line, if online rumors are to be believed), and starts rebuilding Marvel's big-gun properties almost from the ground up using some of the biggest name talents around.

Along the way, the company President comes in and starts brainstorming with the creative types and suggesting storylines and directions. When a few of his ideas work out, he begins to think that he knows how to create better comics than the writers and artists that they've hired, so he starts dictating storytelling rules (every story starts with an origin, no flashbacks allowed, and more that probably never got leaked out), which in turn alienate the very creators who have rebuilt the House of Ideas. Once said President has made the company enough money, aliening creative types, retailers and even fans along the way, the big bosses come in with dictates to return to classic stories and he is once again demoted to a non-creative position.

Of course, all of the above is simply conjecture, put together with the help of online rumor columns and the like, so the book would have to be written by someone who was inside at the time, or by a particularly resourceful TCJ writer (who would have to research the story on spec, of course). But still, it does make a good story, doesn't it?

One thing that surprises me, though, is how little credit anyone (including Deppey) gives Warren Ellis for NuMarvel. I know Ellis was one of the few A-listers who didn't jump from DC to Marvel in 2001, but his influence was felt just the same. In fact, I'd almost venture to guess that Quesada built his Marvel based on Ellis' recommendations, either in essays for, his mailing list, or his 1999 column series for CBR, Come in Alone (also available as a collection at finer comic retailers everywhere from AiT/PlanetLar). Maybe I've just missed it, but has anyone ever traced how many of NuMarvel's ideas came directly from Ellis? Let's take a look:

1. Decompressed storytelling - Ellis was the first mainstream creator to discuss the usefulness of "decompressing" storytelling, as seen in Japanese manga (before manga was cool) to really capture the action, though Frank Miller was decompressing stories while Ellis was still in his nappies (okay, not quite, but close).

2. The importance of collecting comics in album format - "The graphic novel or album (or other more suitable nomenclature yet to be coined) is the optimised form of 'comics.' The intermediate form is the serialisation towards collection, what used to be termed the 'miniseries.'" (Item 3)

3. Putting the best creators on the best books - I may be misreading Ellis' intent here, but if memory serves, he once called the team of him, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura DePuy "The Fucking Beatles" when they were on The Authority. Ellis is the King of creator hype, and he understands the excitement fans get from seeing new work from their favorite creator. (ref Come in Alone and Item 4 of The Old Bastard's Manifesto)

4. Making covers into their own "objets d'art" - I wish I could remmeber where the essay was, but I seem to remember Ellis writing a pretty long piece on how ugly mainstream comics covers were, and how iconic images are what is needed to lure readers in, and to let them know what they're buying (granted NuMarvel pretty much only took Ellis' advice with Kaare Andrews' Hulk covers, but they took the letter of it across their line).

I may be mis-remembering a few of these points, and I'm sure someone will tell me if I am, especially since I can't find links to everything that I seem to remember reading, but I don't know that anyone who thinks about it could dispute that Ellis' Authority laid the groundwork for pretty much everything NuMarvel did in terms of storytelling and selling their comics (and this from someone not even a member of the cult of Ellis!).

I mean, you want the fucking Beatles of comics? Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on New X-Men, JMS and JR jr on Spider-man, Mark Millar and Adam Kubert on Ultimate X-Men, Millar, Hitch and Neary on The Ultimates. And even if they didn't have the fucking Beatles of the mainstream comics world, they tried the same thing with the alt-comics world. Never before, and probably never again will we see creators like James Sturm, R. Sikoryak on the Fantastic Four, Peter Bagge on Spider-man, Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel on the Thing, or Scott Morse on Elektra.

Unfortunately, like all good things, NuMarvel was not meant to last. I may write some more on the subject later, when I have a bit more time, but I for one was sorry to see NuMarvel go away. But alas, we knew it wouldn't last, this is Marvel we're talking about, right?

EDIT: Tim O'Neil wrote to remind me that he isn't new (or "Nu") to the pages of TCJ; he's written for the journal for a few years now, long before he started his excellent blog. Thansk for the reminder, Tim! (For some reason, I'm also thinking that Bill Sherman has been published in the pages of TCJ before, too. Can anyone confirm that for me?)

Back from Hiatus - Take 2

Okay, trying this again. Hopefully, I'll be able to get my blog on better this go round than I was a few weeks ago.

I was supposed to go out of town last weekend to meet up with some friends that I haven't seen in far too long. Unfortunately, that trip was cancelled at the last minute, leaving me with a "free" weekend. Since Mrs. Coffee Shop had already made plans for most of Saturday and part of Sunday, I was left to my own devices for entertainment. I knew this could only mean one thing - a weekend at the movies! But before I get into some short thoughts on the actual movies I saw, let's jump into some . . .

Trailer Reviews

Before I start, I should explain that I'm of two minds with regard to trailers. On one hand, I love seeing previews of what's coming next, knowing that a well-made trailer can get me into a movie theatre as much as any amount of pre-release hype or reviews. On the other hand, I hate when trailers show too much of a movie, to the point where I can either figure an entire movie out from the trailer or I spend my time when I'm watching a movie waiting for X, Y or Z to happen because I saw it in the trailer. I suppose in the scheme of trailers, I prefer a well-made teaser trailer than a full-fledged trailer. On to the comments:

-Batman Begins. This is pretty much exactly what I like from a trailer: enough to whet my appetite, but not enough so that I can really say anything about the movie (or tell if it's going to be silly). Good stuff, Maynard.

-The Forgotten. I like Julianne Moore, but she tends to work best in either meaty or quirky roles; she's pretty untested in suspense thrillers (except for the forgettably bad Hannibal). I'm afraid far too much is given away in this trailer, though. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that she was probably part of some sort of group (maybe governmental, maybe not), who set up a false life for her and now is taking it away for whatever reason. I'm sure it has to do with memory implants. Also, if they're trying to remove all memory of the kids, why not repaint the wall in Dominic West's apartment instead of just covering up with burlap? Probably a by the numbers thriller, but it might be enjoyable enough.

-National Treasure. Could this movie look any worse? Some sort of loosely plotted action-fest which is trying to cross Indiana Jones with The DaVinci Code and featuring Nic Cage at his action movie dumbest. I doubt I'll see this one, even when it's on a movie channel.

-A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the children's books of the same name (the only children's books I've read in the last 15 years, by the way). I love the books. Daniel H . . .er Lemony Snicket's particular brand of wordplay really appeals to me. Surprisingly, Jim Carrey really seems to have captured the villainous Count Olaf, and the filmmakers seem to have captured the very dark world of the books. Sadly, it appears as if Sunny, the "baby" in the books, is a four-year old in the movie, which means they'll miss out on some of her funny "babytalk." Likewise, the movie Klaus does not appear to have glasses, which is kind of silly since having glasses is kind of his schtick in the books. I wonder if Violet has a ribbon for her hair. (note, I don't think I'm picking nits; these are important character traits in the books, and I can't fathom why they'd do away with them in the movie).

-Without a Paddle. Hey! Let's remake Deliverance as a comedy! What a great idea! I suspect that this will be a train wreck, but it has Seth Green in it, so I'll probably see it.

-Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. My thoughts as I watched this trailer: "Hmm. Looks kind of cool in a ripped off Indiana Jones way. Bunch of scientists left to their own devices in the Amazon after a boat wreck. Could be good. What the f-? Some kid drew an Anaconda on the print! Oh shit, it's a "sequel" to the low point of Ice Cube's career. Not for me." Seriously, though, is that the worst CGI in recent memory?

-Paparazzi. I like Tom Sizemore, I really do. I loved him in that short-lived Michael Mann produced cop show (what was that called again?). This? Seems a bit too much Hollywood up their own ass. And could it be any more by the numbers? Action star stalked by psycho paparazzi who pushes him too far and turns him from the stalked to the stalker. Bone-chillingly dull, I'm afraid.

-Mr. 3000. A baseball movie starring Bernie Mac, who I think is genuinely funny. It's sad, though, when the preview makes a movie look so by-the-numbers. Geez, louise. I'll give this one a pass unless it gets some majorly positive buzz.

-Taxi. Another stinker.

-A Dirty Shame. Ah, John Waters returning to John Waters territory, after far too long an absence. Whether you like this appears to depend on your fondness for Pink Flamingos, but I expect it will be very dirty (and probably gross in ways the Farrelly brothers can't even dream of). I thought that Selma Blair's "enhanced" chest was pretty funny, I must say.

-Shaun of the Dead. Can you say, I can't wait for this movie? Combines two of my favorite things: zombies and British humor. I so don't want this movie to suck.

I probably saw a few more, but that's all I can remember right now. And so, on to the actual movies . . .

[I'm going to try to keep these reviews Spoiler free, if I can, but tread lightly if you continue reading, because I make no promises]

-Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. A funnier than it had any right to be stoner movie starring my friend Billy, er I mean John Cho, as the uptight Asian-American pothead (is there any other kind?) who can't speak to the girl of his dreams, and the very funny Kal Penn as Kumar, the Indian-American pothead who doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps to become a doctor. The movie follows the two friends and their misadventures as they embark on a quest to satisfy their craving for White Castle sliders. Yes, it's by the numbers, but in this case it's really how you get there that makes you laugh. The semi-celebrity cameos are all pretty good, especially the under-rated Chris Meloni (who my friend David thinks should play Batman) as "Freakshow" and Jamie Kennedy in an (uncredited?) scene that had me laughing harder than I should have been. By this time in your life, you probably know if you like stupid stoner movies, so my opinion will hardly convince anyone to go see it, but it was funny and certainly worth my $5.

-The Bourne Supremacy. Although I don't think I could tell you anything about The Bourne Identity, I can tell you that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it when I finally got around to seeing it on DVD. Matt Damon was surprisingly believable as an action lead, the car chase was really cool (not quite as cool as the one in Ronin, for my money one of the best ever), and it came across as very stylishly directed by Doug Liman (of Swingers fame, but he also directed the under-rated "Go"). As a result, I came to this one with higher expectations than maybe I should have. I suppose it was a perfectly acceptable big budget action spectacular, but it just seemed more predictable and less stylish than the first one. I will say, though, that Damon as Bourne is a pretty good super-agent and as long as they keep the European "feel" of the movies and don't let the villains escalate to Roger Moore-era James Bond camp, I could see this being a pretty decent action franchise. Not great, but no really huge complaints.

-Open Water. Fans of Shark Week, take note: this is the movie you've been waiting for. Let me tell you, I was on the edge of my seat for most of this movie's 79 minutes. The leads are completely believable (maybe too much so) as a couple of yuppies who get left behind in the middle of the Atlantic during a scuba expedition at a resort. The range of emotions that they go through during the course of the movie is not only believable but actually pretty realistic. The camera-work, all done by the director and his wife (?), is quite simply amazing and makes the movie all the more intense as the camera bobs up and down showing the couple above the water and everything below (most of which they can't see). If the idea of sitting in a theatre watching two people bobbing in the mid-Atlantic bores you to tears, don't waste your time on this movie. For those of you whose calendars are marked months in advance for Shark Week, hie thee to a multiplex forthwith.

For the record, I also watched Magnolia for the first time on IFC last night. I don't know why everyone hated it; it's really quite good the way it weaves the lives of its 9-10 protagonists together. When it was over, I mentioned to Mrs. Coffee Shop that it seemed more like a novel than a movie, the way it layered the narrative and developed its characters, and she agreed. Don't let the running time scare you. This one is worth it.

[For the record, though, I don't completely understand the parallels between the story that was told and the strange anecdotes narrated at the beginning. I understand that they're all about lives weaving together to produce an unexpected result, but I don't see that there's an event in the lives of the characters in the movie which quite matches up. Is the somewhat improbable "rainfall" supposed to be that event? If so, I don't quite see the parallel between that and the events in the stories; there doesn't seem to be the same type of causality involved. Can anyone help?]

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