On Making and Taking Bows

Last week was a bit of a bummer insofar as news about quirky comics I like. First, Jason Aaron announced the end of Wolverine and the X-Men:

The original plan was for me to write both WatXM and AMAZING X-MEN as sister titles. One dealing with the school, the other with the X-Men from that school going on adventures out in the world. But unfortunately my schedule just didn’t allow that. So I’ve been writing the post-Battle of the Atom arc of WatXM as my goodbye to that series and to the Jean Grey School.

I’ve never been a big X follower. Peter David’s X-Factor is probably the only other book in the line I’ve had any real long-term reader investment in. Wolverine and…, though, really just seemed to revel in exactly how much weird was running about in the X mythology. And, by extension, just how craze-tastic a school would be that had to survive in that kind of world. I mean, sentient grounds, an infestation of both the chibi-Nightcrawler Bamfs and microscopic Brood, an Imperial Shi’ar warrior teaching art class, a lovestruck janitor who used to be a super-villain, gambling in space. Oh, and Frankenstein turning the X-Men into circus acts.

Seriously, the eager way in which the book just seemed to embrace and celebrate the crazy was a lot of fun. I won’t miss the giant speed bumps which inevitably occurred during crossover season, but otherwise it was a very fun ride.

So, there’s one. And then, the very next day, I ran across Kieron Gillen announcing that Young Avengers is going buh-bye:

Jamie and my plan was always to do a season telling a contained story, leaving room to continue it if we felt we had something else to say. When the time came around and Marvel asked if we wanted to do more issues, Jamie and I decided we’d actually made our statement, and should leave the stage.

Young Avengers was similarly unafraid to embrace the strange. I don’t think the two books are companion pieces in any way, but I do sort of feel on one level that YA is almost a “cool kids in college” variant on the WatX experience. The latter has a bunch of kids kind of really encountering the full scope of the craze-athon for the first time. The Young Avengers, on the other hand, have been here. Or, rather, they think they have.

Instead of that seemingly-endless expanse of weird that is high school, Young Avengers lives in that middle ground, where you’re still young, and you still enjoy everything, but you’re not quite so naive as you used to be. The embrace of the insanity of youth is no longer something you’re caught up in, but something you’re choosing. Literally in a few cases, as avoiding the primary protagonist pretty much hinges on an “I don’t wanna grow up” philosophy.

Meanwhile, fight scenes take place on “you are here” style room maps, characters get trapped in panel borders, villains literally chew the scenery while heroes just as literally kick their way through the walls of reality.

I’m doing a fairly crap job of explaining it, but it’s a lot of slightly-off-center fun and I’ll miss it.

There is some good news to both announcements, at least. In both cases, the powers that be are ending the series rather than just tossing new creative teams at them. There’s an implicit statement, here, that values the creators as essential elements of the title, rather than hot-swappable add-ons to The Property.

Far too many times, books I loved died far longer, slower deaths in hands which weren’t as capable with them as the team which woo’d me in the first place. If it has to be good-bye, then, I suppose I’d much rather the clean break than the messy, extended growing apart.

Archive: Powerblog: Gift Exchange

(Images from Power Pack #1 and #50.
Art by June Brigman / Bob Wiacek and Jon Bodganove / Hilary Barta, respectively).

Probably one of the better twists in Simonson’s run on Power Pack was the infamous Power Switch. Sure, super-heroes had swapped bodies before, and people with external powers like armors or rings had passed those on, but this was, I think, the first time an entire team swapped abilities, and not just for a single storyline, but for an extended stretch. It was something of a coup by super-hero standards. I mean, could you see DC swapping the entire JLA’s powers for over three years? How about Marvel doing that with the Fantastic Four? When the end of Power Pack #24 announced that things were about to change forever, then, it wasn’t just overblown hype.

One of the most important factors of children’s literature is that children grow. Probably moreso than their adult counterparts, we expect children to change. They grow up, and in doing so both their bodies and their personalities evolve. Simonson understood that, and the power switch was one of the ways in which she explored those changes in a super-hero context.

Consider the original powers with their owners. Alex was a straight-laced analytical thinker; he got the straightforward on-or-off gravity power. Julie was the dreamer; as I’ve said before, flying is the purview of the dreamer. Jack was a stubborn blowhard of a child; shifting between a physically ineffective cloud and a super-dense miniature seems perfectly matched. And Katie? Well, she was a little spoiled and prone to throwing tantrums; a power as volatile as the energy power was tailor-made for her.

In the course of two years and a tick, however, Simonson had done her work in character development. Of course, while the new powers helped point to changes in the children, the changes in the children similarly influenced their use of their new gifts: Alex’s volatile pubescence made the energy power all the more explosive, Julie’s malleable sense of self lead to even more permutations for the density power, Jack’s natural showmanship made gravity dynamic instead of binary, and the kinetic child that was a growing Katie made for an even more frenetic application of flight.

The great thing about the power switch, then, was that it was both a surprising, unexpected hook and the most natural thing in the world. It’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to arise from the unique mesh of super-hero and children’s lit that was Power Pack at its best.

Original version published at Trickle of Consciousness

Archive: Powerblog: When I grow up …

(From Power Pack #1. Words Louise Simonson, pencils June Brigman, inks Bob Wiacek, colors Glynis Oliver.)

It’s one of the things kids do most often. It’s essential role playing, really. Whatever it is you’re interested in that week, that’s what you’ll be when you grow up. Having fun with football? You’re going to the NFL. Something of a dolphin in the water? Swimmer. Recital go well? Ballet dancer, of course. Anything and everything is fair game, as long as it holds your attention.

There are, of course, those rare children who show exceptional potential: the Olympic hopefuls, the child prodigies. Kids whose early ability is more than a moment’s wish, it’s an achievable goal. If they recognize that (or, more often, if an expert like a teacher or a coach does), they wind up exploring their careers earlier than most of us manage to encounter algebra.

And in the Marvel Universe, it only makes sense to add to that list “super-hero.” For most kids, this would be a passing dream, but what about the kids who actually have the potential? How young is too young when you’re clearly possessed of the ability?

(From Power Pack #2. Words Louise Simonson, pencils June Brigman,
inks Bob Wiacek, colors Glynis Oliver)

Power Pack, then, on this level, takes a look at what the Marvel version of child prodigies might look like. Just like with the real thing, initial excitement is often marred by all the actual work involved in a career. The kids time and again face the fact that this isn’t like the games and fantasies they had before gaining powers (of course, there are any number of times when it is like that, or better, generally when meeting their own super-hero idols).

It’s work. You have to stay up late, you wind up missing classes (and teachers aren’t all of the understanding sort), and, well, as Jack discovers early on, you’re not always going to love the uniforms.1

In a lot of ways, this is one of the elements that works really well at making Power Pack a truly all-ages book. Children (and not a small number of adults) can watch the fantasy of “I wanna be” fulfilled, but the more … grown-up reader can also watch as the Power children (and later Franklin Richards and Kofi Whitemane) learn that you don’t, actually, get to do everything you want when you’re a grown-up. I think one of the more important elements of good children’s lit is that it’s not just a recreation of some timeless “childhood,” but rather that it’s about children growing up, about the fact that childhood (like much of life) is one long transition.

1. The “Power Pack as star athletes” comparison seems to break down when you consider their parents don’t know about their gifts. But then, super-hero convention teaches us that one of the primary skills of the field is the ability to fool your loved ones. As such, the Power parents–with the later added benefit of the mindfix–are actually the prototypical “stage parents” for a budding super-hero, no?

Original version published at Trickle of Consciousness

New Ways to Fly: Stop Touching Me!

As usual, once my brain latches onto something, it tends to go into mental pitbull mode. Peter Pan is no better at escaping those steely obsessive jaws, it seems.

How obsessive? How about turning a gag line into a mission statement?

There’s a bit right after Peter meets Wendy, when he says “You mustn’t touch me! No one must ever touch me!”

“Why not?” asks Wendy.

“I don’t know,” Peter finishes, getting the laugh.

But I think there’s more to all that than an admittedly-funny bit, though not in the literal sense. Peter’s eternal youth, I’d contend, is inextricably tied to not being touched emotionally, to never making lasting connections, as that way lies responsibility, and thus mortality.

You might object that Peter’s got the gathered Lost Boys, but remember, he’s willing to kill one of those boys when he hurts Wendy accidentally. I’m not sure Peter has what you’d call familial ties to the boys, so much as he has a group of playmates.

Indeed, when Peter finally does make a deeper connection, that’s the only point in the show where there’s any genuine threat to Peter’s safety. When Wendy first tries to take the Lost Boys back to the real world, despite lying to her about it, Peter’s devastated by her departure. He cares for her, in a way deeper than the frivolity of a playmate. It’s a new and overwhelming experience, and he cries himself to sleep.

That, of course, is when Hook finally has his chance, sneaking into the boys’ home to plant the poison from which only fairy intervention and a round of applause can save him.

It’s a bittersweet revelation which the end of the show underscores again, that eternal youth, while full of fun and frolic, takes its own toll. No, Peter won’t grow old. He won’t die. But only so long as he can manage to retain his distance from others. Only so long as he fails to be touched.

New Ways to Fly: Wonderful Thoughts Are Less Racist

My fiancée is in the preparatory research stage of costume designing a local production of Peter Pan, which means there’s a lot of Pan talk around the homestead. And, honestly, there’s a lot to talk about.

We’ve nattered about discussing the “Indians” quite a bit, as that section of the show is especially … delicate. When their first scene consists of permutations on the phrase “Ugg A Wugga Wigwam,” you know you’re skirting Song of the South territory, children’s classic or no.

I can sort of make it work, if I decide that the adults in Neverland aren’t real people. The end of the show makes it clear that “grown ups” can’t get to Neverland, after all. If we assume the rules for Wendy apply across the board, then it’s hard to understand how Hook’s men or the Neverland tribe could exist there. And why else have the same actor play both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook if not to help clarify that the villains of the piece are twisted distortions of the nightmare of adulthood?

“Indian,” then, is a thorny stand-in term for that wilderness out there that industrialized Mommy and Daddy warn us not to wander into alone. The Neverland tribe consists not of anyone meant to be an accurate portrayal of a non-industrial culture, but rather a poorly-named and poorly-defined twisting of such ideas through the filter of “if I had to live without modern conveniences” or “if I were cast into the wide, cruel world.” If I decide Neverland is populated by the stranded cast-offs of childhood understandings about the world, of oversimplified constructs shaped as caricature, does this do anything useful to the racism?

I don’t know. The Lost Boys do strike an accord with the Neverland tribe, at least. The same can’t be said for the far more colonial pirate crew, at least a few of whom don’t even make it out alive. If I twist the lens a bit, I think it’s possible to work things such that there’s a far more positive outcome to be learned, as the children face down their ill-informed ideas about “savages,” and ultimately banish the demons of Western conquest.

I can’t pretend that the imagery isn’t a product of a far less multiculturally-sensitive time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t co-opt it to do something more than play to stereotypes, does it? Barrie himself re-wrote Peter’s story more than once, so in that sense, at least, I’m following the leader.

Goodness, but that’s a lot of intersection

Via Comics Worth Reading comes a link to Raina Telgemeier giving the ins and outs of her latest book, Drama, a post which hits on a bunch of interesting bits for my money, beyond my general interest in process posts.

I suspect at least a few of the steps involved are exclusive to established cartoonists, since this particular breakdown, at least, doesn’t see much of the artwork involved (other than initial character designs) until somewhere in the middle of the process. And even then, the first pass is modified stick-figure thumbnails. While some significant re-writing at that stage delayed the book for several months, I can only imagine how much more painfully difficult it might have been if full pencils had been necessary. Ouch.

I wasn’t particularly interested in the Baby-Sitter’s Club adaptations, because, well, Baby-Sitter’s Club. So I hadn’t payed much attention to Telgemeier’s followups. That there’s been a story out for a year about theatre geeks and I missed it? Shame on me. That the main character isn’t an aspiring actor, but a set designer, makes this a unique perspective, to boot.

Special bonus synergy’s to be had in seeing that Gurihiru are coloring the book. I’ve had a soft spot for them since they did such fun work on the contemporary Power Pack relaunch. Their visuals always brought a lot of fun energy to the party, so huzzah for the team-up.