EVERYTHING BUT IMAGINARY 8/27/03 -- TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS
To the Stars By Hard Ways
Since I spent a column a few weeks ago discussing the current expansive crop of fantasy comics, it seemed inevitable that I would be deluged my mountains of e-mail from the fans of science fiction, demanding that I devote equal time to the genre they love and admire and spend several American dollars on. Incredibly, however, this didn’t happen. Since it can’t possibly be because the legions didn’t read the column, it has to be because, in some circles, there’s a certain contemptuous attitude between comic book fans and sci-fi fans. I’ve never quite understood this, but there are people who load themselves down with stories of spandex-clad warriors every Wednesday, then roll their eyes at someone in pointy ears or carrying a glowing plastic sword, and vice versa. Oh it’s not all of them – it may not even be most, but they do exist.
In the 40s and 50s sci-fi comics were ubiquitous, but this was a time after superheroes had seemed to die out and every publisher was trying to predict the next great trend. Most of those comics were similar to the sort of movies that were made in that era – ugly, improbable aliens swarming on Earth or brave space explorers facing down horrible monsters in the depths of other galaxies, and even in comic books, where there was no production budget to worry about, the aliens tended to look as cheesy as they did in the movies. Part of me would dearly love to juggle around various copyrights and turn out a comic book called Journey Into Mystery Science Theater 3000, which would feature silhouettes of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo making fun of old Space Cabbie stories.
This may be at least part of the reason that sci-fi comics don’t seem to grab quite the fanfare fantasy titles do these days. Sure, some of it is even my fault. When I start to discuss CrossGen comics, for instance, I usually go straight to Meridian and Route 666 without mentioning how great Negation is. Tony Bedard has crafted one of the most inventive sci-fi worlds in modern comics, and it was done by piecing together elements from the other CrossGen titles. In Negation, scores of creatures – some human, many not – are abducted from worlds across the CrossGen universe and transported to a brutal parallel universe as guinea pigs for an empire contemplating an invasion. The series follows a group of rebels who have escaped the clutches of the Negation’s mad ruler, Charon, and are now struggling against him.
As good as this title is, in the eyes of a lot of readers it automatically has two strikes against it – it’s a science fiction title and it is one of the linchpin titles of the CrossGen universe. CrossGen’s creators have never made a secret of the fact that their titles have several common threads and that some of these threads will converge in a story later (they recently announced this title as next spring’s miniseries The War.) Negation, however, is not a book that relies on other titles. You can point to characters drawn directly from the worlds of The First, Sigil, Mystic and even a character who actually was pulled over from Crux, but all of this is done in a fashion where the book easily stands alone. It’s a great sci-fi war epic with real, relatable characters and real stakes, and that ain’t easy to come by.
Another problem with science fiction comics is that “hard” sci-fi, the stuff that’s the bread and butter of the prose realm of science fiction writing (you know, those books without the pictures) just flat-out don’t translate well to comic books. Comics are a visual medium, and even during a quiet, character-based issue (see my “Favorites” pick at the end of this column for a great example), a comic has to be propelled by the pictures as much of the words. This is not the optimum medium for stories where the reader has to be made aware of things like quantum theory, the construction of positronic brains or the unified field theory of the universe. Most science fiction comics try to ignore this facet of the genre entirely, and those that do tackle it usually bring it down to the level of the reader. Fantastic Four is a great example of that – whenever Reed Richards starts a litany about the various properties of his latest multidimensional cosmic foam reduction array, you’ve got Ben Grimm ready to translate that by saying, “Ya mean this framistat can shrink things, Stretcho?”
The FF brings to mind another difficulty in getting people to check out sci-fi comics. Sometimes (let’s face it folks) it seems like the only comics that sell really well are the same old superhero titles. Even though a great deal of superhero comics have sci-fi trappings (X-Men, Iron Man, Superman, Green Lantern) and a number of sci-fi titles have superhero elements (Crux, Adam Strange), there doesn’t seem to be a really perfect synthesis of the two… or does there?
Legion, baby. Legion.
The Legion of Super-Heroes, as a property, has been around for over four decades. (I can only assume they dropped the “of Super-Heroes” from the latest incarnation because it seemed too hokey… which is ironic, since, as I just said, it often feels like superheroes are the only genre that sells.) It’s the 30th Century and the worlds of the United Planets are protected by a band of teenage heroes from across the known universe. Simplest concept in the world, but with some of the most complex characters around.
I know some people have a problem with the Legionnaires because of how goofy some of the characters are. Frankly, the goofy characters are some of my favorites. I’m an unabashed fan of Matter-Eater Lad, and I’m holding out hope for a Legion movie because Chuck Taine, Bouncing Boy, is the only superhero I could ever hope to portray on-screen. (If anyone at Warner Bros. is reading this, I would be willing to shave for the part.)
But even if you hate the goofy characters, you no longer have any excuse to avoid this title. They’re pretty much gone, or at least modified, to a much more modern, oh-so-cool sensibility. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have crafted a grand space opera combining classic sci-fi elements, even the old-fashioned ones, into a modern story. And with all due respect to Oliver Coipel, Chris Batista was born to draw this series.
Oh. And apparently Superboy is going to be showing up soon. I have no idea what that’s all about, but man, I’m anxious to see it.
The last little oasis of sci-fi comics we must discuss are… the adaptations. Even though approximately 4,742,212,439.7 people saw the last couple of Star Wars movies, even the most successful Lucasfilm comic doesn’t burn up the sales chart. With writers like John Ostrander on the title, I just can’t figure out why. The only possibility that comes to mind is the fact that very few artists, even the best of them, can draw characters that are satisfying analogues to the actors who play the characters, and that turns off the die-hard fans.
My solution to this is simple: read Futurama Comics. I’m a freak, I know, but I loved this TV show even more than The Simpsons, and I’m still furious at Fox for shuttling it around the schedule and dropping it in a slot where it got pre-empted for football 90 percent of the time. It was the funniest show on TV for a while, and the characters in the comic look like the characters on the show.
So put on your space helmets and have a little sci-fi fun when you pick up your comics this week, friends. And give Keith Giffen and Colleen Doran’s Reign of the Zodiac a try too – the first issue comes out this week, and I’m at least curious about it. Head out to the stars, guys, and see what you can find.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: August 20, 2003
Over in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski has turned Peter Parker’s Aunt May into a strong, intelligent character for nearly the first time since she was created over 40 years ago. That only makes it more impressive that Brian Michael Bendis has done the same thing in Ultimate Spider-Man #45, and done it in a completely different way. Straczynksi’s May Parker is a woman who has taken the tragedies of her life and turned them into a steel resolve that she hides beneath a maternal exterior. Bendis’s May has suffered many of the same hardships, but much more recently. She’s someone who is still dealing with things like the death of her husband, the guilt over seeking someone new and the fear of losing her nephew as well. Ultimate Aunt May is someone who seems to teeter on an emotional breaking point almost as dangerous as the physical breaking point the mainstream May seemed to rest upon for so many years. And boy, is it making for great comic books.
(By the way – this is the cover to Ultimate Spider-Man #47 – 45 seems nowhere to be found on the ‘net, and since most Ultimate Spider-Man covers are nothing but pin-ups anyway, it doesn’t matter too much.)
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People's Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the novel-in-progress ”Summer Love” at Evertime Realms. He’s also the co-host, with good buddy Chase Bouzigard and Not-On-the-Internet Mike Bellamy, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcasts. E-mail him at Blake@comixtreme.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms.