I don’t like Jeph Loeb. I don’t mean as a person, I’m sure he’s a great guy. I just don’t like anything I’ve read that he’s written. Now granted I’ve not read Batman Long Halloween and that’s the one every tells me is the gem, but Batman is like most other superheroes – unless a writer I like writes him (Morrison) I have no use for any more Batman stories. I’ve read a handful of great ones, now we’ve got the movies as a re-imagining in a different medium, I’m done. But besides that, regardless of the raving, I just cannot imagine Long Halloween being good based on the how bad the stuff by Loeb that I have read is.
Flashback – several years ago my comic shop dealer Mike began harping on me to way to read The Ultimates. This was about the time the first book came out. I consistently replied that I had no use for characters like Captain America or Iron Man. I’d stopped reading supe books long before and other than a few fairly decent forays into their territory back in the 80’s* I’ve generally never cared for any of the Avenger characters. However Mike knows my taste, probably better than I do, and he continued to push this on me for quite sometime. Finally once the entire 12 issues of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s original Ultimates run was released in HC he forced it on me with mild threats of writing love letters to Todd Mcfarlane in my name if I refused. What could I do? I certainly didn’t want the man who put Spiderman in a devil-cape to think I was charmed by his ridiculous visual prattlings so I took the book home and a couple days later opened it to see what all the harping was about.
I promptly read it in a couple hours and LOVED every single moment of it**.
Here were the characters who had always been a little too perfect for me, written as real people with real problems. I mean, dude, Hank Pym beats his wife? Tony Stark is drunk, like all the time? And Cap, shit Cap carries a gun and reels between states of hyper-violence and soul-destroying sadness, totally unhinged due to his displacement in time and endearing struggle to acclimate to modern life. In fact, Millar put what has to be one of the best observations about modern life in Steve Rogers mouth, one I’d always felt myself but never clarified in words. It’s something to the effect of, ‘Everything today is about lifestyle. No one gives a damn about honor anymore.’ Damn -nailed that one, eh?
So I was in love. Luckily Mike’s breaking of my defenses coincided with the release of Ultimates 2 and I dove in with full gusto, loving every issue (they killed Hawkeye’s wife and kids? Holy shit!) and waiting the painful eleven or so months for that final issue. When 2 ended I re-read it all and found myself slathering for more. But a couple years would pass until…
Ultimates 3: who killed the scarlet witch?
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch were gone and instead enter Jeph Loeb and Joe Madureira. I’d seen a few advance images of the art and didn’t really care for it. Mad is great at what he does but it’s a little too cartoon-ish and this is The Ultimates. The whole damn idea, or so I thought, was supposed to be realism. Oh well, what about the story?
Well, as the subtitle suggests gone was the subtlety of Millar’s masterfully crafted story. Instead, all nuance disappeared and what I found last night when I finally read the entire run in begrudging preparation for Millar’s new Ultimate Avengers book was the same over-the-top style I’d seen from Loeb before. Nothing is left to interpretation or for that matter the reader’s ability to draw the correct conclusions from the set-up. Case in point, Millar hinted at Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s incestuous romance, Loeb throws it in our face within the first five pages by having one of the other characters actually say, ‘They are in love with each other’.
Thanks Mr. Loeb, I needed that spelled out for me.
To me the most obvious sign that a book is being geared for a bigger, younger audience is when the writer puts all of the exposition in the mouths of the characters. Loeb’s stories tend to read badly because this appears to be his overriding M.O., making me suspect that he is apparently unable to trust his artists to advance the story with their art. To be fair perhaps this is not entirely his fault. Superhero comics are notorious for what I call the Liefeld-Effect, where the art is really nothing more than a series of poses and battles, leaving the word bubbles and narration boxes to be the sole source of direction. This was how it was since the early days and it culminated in the 90’s with Liefeld and Image comics. However, it is now 2009 and we should be past this. As comics have grown with their readers Writer/Artist teams like Morrison&Quitely, Millar&Hitch, Ellis&J.H. Williams, Alan Moore&Williams or Eddie Campbell (among many, many others) have elevated the masses’ tastes to the point that we really shouldn’t need the Liefeld-Effect to exist at all anymore. However, in some cases perhaps creators and even readers let nostalgia or a resistance to change stunt their growth***. This is a shame but it does indeed seem to be the case with Ultimates 3, where several times throughout scenes begin with unnecessary splash pages (in the middle of the book) with caption boxes identifying each character there within.
Another sure fire hint that a book is being marketed to young’uns is gratuitous parading of the female form. This is also the case in Ultimates 3. From the opening pages what we have is a hyper-sexualized approach that begs to have someone slap the creators in the mouth and scream, “STOP TRYING SO HARD!!!” Everybody’s super fucking ripped and all the ladies are as naked as possible as often as possible. Sure, there was a bit of this in the original two series, but this is just gratuitous as hell. Loeb tries to Deus Ex Machina this at one point by having Cap chastise the Scartlet Witch about her dress but I’m having any of these under-handed, phony attempts at cred. When you streamline a book that is in essence a realistic, almost Vertigo approach to superheroes into exactly the kind of cheap, capes-and-tits book it was designed specifically NOT TO BE you don’t get to occasionally reverse the streams and pull a wink wink nudge nudge at the people who were there for the original reason while whoring it out to the thirteen year olds.
Ultimates 3 is the perfect antithesis to the previous two volumes. Loeb mistakes Millar’s edgy take as over-the-top obviousness, like the kid who sees his friends sharing a beer stolen from dad and promptly downs a fifth of V.O. only to fall over and pass out in his own vomit. Or perhaps more appropriately in metaphor I’ll say like Walter Hill and New Line Cinema believing all they needed was Bruce Willis, a big ass cast of character actors with a ridiculous amounts of guns and a guitar legend to provide some music in order to capture and follow Quentin Tarantino’s zeitgeist-setting Pulp Fiction with something as mediocre as Last Man Standing.
Fortunately for the fans Millar is coming back to the Ultimates soon (it might even be out now) with Ultimate Avengers. Unfortunately for me I still need to read Loeb’s Ultimatum to catch up on the state of the Ultimate Universe as it is being handed back to it’s father.
I guess I’ll just pour myself a mason jar of Seagram’s and warm up by reading a couple of the old Liefeld issues of New Mutants I’ve kept around for nostalgia’s sake. Oi Vey.
* In particular the run on Captain America where he quits the US government and they replace him with what’shisname that would eventually become the USAGent or whatever. The issues leading up to this were particularly strange with a collection of villains in the sewers that included a guy who had some kind of thing with eggs and a werewolf. Roughly #’s 330 maybe? ’87? ’88? perhaps? Good stuff that probably would need my nostalgia to hold up now.
** Thanks again Mike!!!
*** Yes, I fully realize what a pompous jack ass I sound like. However, I AM RIGHT!!! I can only imagine the people who would disagree with me were either raised by or actually are the ones who still jam Night Ranger’s Sister Christian and talk shit about any rock n roll post Kurt Cobain.