Thursday, March 31, 2005

Demand more from your noir-ish, wrong-side-of-the-law-but-actually-heroic, fighting-against-our-government comics!

I just read the second trade paperback of Sleeper, "All False Moves," and the first trade of The Losers, "Ante Up." They are almost universally praised on the Comics Blogiverse, and I was intrigued by the first Sleeper trade and Point Blank, so I thought I'd cave. As you can tell by the title of this post, I was a bit disappointed.

It's not that they're bad comics - they're entertaining, they have some decent art, the stories are fine - it's that they are overrated for what they are. What they are, essentially, are Robert Ludlum novels. Now, I enjoy Robert Ludlum novels, but no one ever accused them of being great literature. Why do we think Sleeper and The Losers are great examples of literature (in the comics realm, that is)?

The problem with the books is that they're pretty much exactly the same. The ONLY difference is Sleeper takes place in a world where super-powered individuals exist, and The Losers doesn't. Here's what we have: rogue agents fighting to clear themselves - in Sleeper, it's one guy, in The Losers, it's a group. The circumstances of their rogue status are a little different, but not much. Holden Carver has infiltrated a vast criminal conspiracy that wants to tear down the social structure of the world. The Losers are fighting to tear down the social structure of the military-industrial complex (yes, they're trying to get of the "death list," but to do that, they need to tear down the social structure of the military-industrial complex). There's a femme fatale who is hot and kicks much ass (naturally) - Miss Misery (Sleeper) and Aisha (The Losers). The art looks EXACTLY the same, even though it's two different people (unless "Jock" is Sean Phillips' alias?). Sigh.

What bugs me about them is that they are both pretty good. They're both published by DC, though (Wildstorm for Sleeper, Vertigo for The Losers). Didn't someone at DC say, when Brubaker and Diggle pitched these, "Uh, I hate to tell you guys, but we're not going to publish two titles that are essentially the same, and whoops! we're already freakin' publishing 100 Bullets!" Although, considering the editorial "direction" at DC these days, I guess it's astonishing two decent titles like this got green-lit in the first place. Sleeper is coming to an end, and I don't know how The Losers sells, but might it not be that the audience for these kinds of titles is fractured because there are such similar titles out there?

I'm also sick of the vast government conspiracy thing in comics. What a cliche. In a world where the government openly sells military equipment to Pakistan, we're supposed to believe they're keeping other arms sales a secret? Who's going to make a fuss? In a world where our president can't even get adequate intelligence about Iraq, we're supposed to believe the CIA is really running the country? I don't mind a good "vast, super-secret conspiracy" occasionally, but it's getting ridiculous. I don't like it on television (who does Sidney Bristow work for, anyway? - I don't watch the show) and I don't like it in comics. In our world, the government is mostly incompetent. Why are they so good at what they do in the comic-book world?

(An aside about that DC Countdown book - we can't stop talking about it! The government is concerned about what the superheroes might do to upset the status quo? Am I right about that particular plot line? If Superman was going to make the world better, he would have done it. Hasn't the government figured out that the superheroes are all about preserving the status quo? I know critics in our world know it, but shouldn't the DC Universe government have figured it out?)

Anyway, these two titles are praised for their grittiness, their art, their "real-world" politics, their plot twists, and their strong characters. Isn't that right? Well, the grittiness is fine. The art: I don't know, I've never been a huge fan of Phillips - he's okay, but nothing spectacular. That's just my opinion. In Sleeper, especially, he seems to cram a lot onto a page, shrinking some panels to teeny-tiny little squares, and it makes my old eyes angry! Jock - I'm telling you, it's Sean Phillips! The "real-world" politics: I love how "real-world" politics means multinationals ruling everything. I'm not saying that's not how it is, but there are other angles in politics, gentlemen! I want, just once, for a seemingly left-leaning organization to be the bad guys. Not because I'm a raving conservative - I'm as liberal as Al Franken! But wouldn't it be cool if the DC Universe's version of PETA was really a front for some evil organization? Or the DC Universe ACLU? That would shake things up - The Losers could blow away hippies who are really assassins! The plot twists: please. Is Aisha the bad guy? I don't think so. Holden goes back with TAO? Where the hell else is he going to go? The plot twists aren't bad, and they're somewhat organic to the story, but they're not drop-out-of-your-chair-and-smack-your-head-on-the-coffee-table unbelievable. The strong characters: well, they're really all stereotypes to one degree or another, aren't they? The girl who only likes to feel pain, but not in a vague, realistic kind of way, but in an overt, only-in-comics kind of way. The crazed mass murderer who is really a great guy, just pushed over the edge by the coldness of the world. The ladies man who is really just a pathetic loser when confronted by a strong woman. I could go on, but I won't (although I love Cougar - I wish he never said a word, but the few words he does say are fabulous - he's like Silent Bob!).

Anyway, both these titles could be better. It's a shame that there's probably a specialized market for stuff like this, and DC even oversaturates that. I bought Casey's run on Wildcats, because it was in this vein, but he did something fresh and interesting with the concept. I doubt if I'll be buying any more trades of these two titles. They could have been great, but they're simply retreads.


Anonymous Brad Curran said...

I don't like either of these books because of their "real world politics." I like Sleeper because it is, for lack of a better phrase, a good HBO drama on paper. I also find the dilemma Holden's in (being manipulated by Tao and Lynch, and the fact that he genuinely cares about the people he works with) compelling. It's a well paced serial with good art (yeah, I am a Phillips fan). I wouldn't call it literature, but it's good comics, I'd say.

I like Losers (and Adam Strange) because Diggle knows how to move a plot and write big, splashy action sequences, which certainly sets him apart from the pack these days. Again, I'm not sure who's calling it great literature (even by comics' diminished standards), but I do think it's a well done action serial.

That said, good job, Greg. Now that you have declared that these comics are overrated, and Chad debuted by saying the same about We3, I need to find a blogspheriverse favorite and declare that I think it's not as good as people think it is. Maybe I should do a U-Decide thread about it. "Find me an overrated comic and I'll review it!" Might get too many takers, though...

3/31/2005 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are some similarities, but cmon, these are 2 very different books. One is a pretty much straight up "real world" action book about disenfranchised agents getting revenge; the other is about a superpowered spy infiltrating a massive superhuman criminal organisation and all the lines he has to cross to do his job... if he is even still doing that job and hasn't become a criminal himself. Whether you like the books or not is your opinion of course, but to say these things are covering the same ground is pretty inaccurate.


4/01/2005 03:14:00 AM  
Blogger Steve Pheley said...

I haven't seen anybody claiming they're great literature...most people I've read just feel they're good solid action-thriller type books.

And the idea of someone at DC saying "...we're not going to publish two titles that are essentially the same" cracks me up. Ha!

4/01/2005 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Everyone makes good points, and that's, I suppose, part of the problem. I like these books - I guess they're not as praised as I thought they were, but lots of people seem to be gnashing their teeth about Sleeper failing in the marketplace. The interactions between the characters in both books is what attracts me to them - Holden and Miss Misery (I forget her real name) genuinely care about each other, and The Losers obviously know each others' strengths very well. I think you could do a lot worse than spend your money on either title, but there's just something missing from the titles for me. I wouldn't miss them like I miss, say Aztek or The Minx (hey - Sean Phillips art!) or even Wildcats. Like I said, they're Robert Ludlum books - someone's always coming along to write another Robert Ludlum book, so it's not that big a deal if these go away.

And Brad - it's back to the old "art is subjective" thing. Anyone with a forum can find something overrated. You can do it!

4/01/2005 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

You want to see an all-ages comic story that's good for kids AND adults where a left-leaning organization is the villain?

Watch The Incredibles in all it's Ayn Rand-ish glory.

4/01/2005 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Loren said...

I want, just once, for a seemingly left-leaning organization to be the bad guys.

I've thought of this before too. Comics seem to have no shortage of right-wing extremist or right-win terrorist groups, but virtually no left-wing extremists or terrorists (unless Ra's al Ghul counts).

I can think of two exceptions. One was in a Waid Flash arc, where a Presidential candidate had an assassination attempt by an organization calling itself "The Left Wing of Justice." By the end of the arc, though, it turned out the organization didn't exist, and the assassination attempt was actually a ruse masterminded by the VP candidate (who was actually the Top).

The other example was in "Astronauts in Trouble: Live From the Moon." The shuttle launch was interrupted by a left-wing terrorist group. By the end of the story, it turned out that that organization was a fake too, manufactured by the businessman to help his company.

So two examples of identified left-wing terrorists, both of which turned out to be made-up organizations.

4/03/2005 03:15:00 PM  
Blogger Pól Rua said...

Don't see Len Deighton. For one thing, I read Sleeper and really dig it, but I'm not that keen on Losers.
Sleeper to me has more of a Dashiel Hammett feel, and seems more about what it means to be a 'good guy' or a 'bad guy', and what profit a man if he gain the world but lose his soul kind of gear...
It seems very introspective to me.
Wheras Losers strikes me as a kind of balls-to-the-wall high-octane action/caper thing like 'The French Connection' with lots of big explosions and terse dialogue.

And when did 'good comics' have to be 'great literature'.

Frankly, you have 'good pulp' and you have 'bad literature'. Anthony Trollope or Thomas Hardy f'rinstance, are great literary figures, but their work is bollocks. Overblown soaps and weepies with all the depth and feeling of an episode of (pick your favourite godawful soap where everyone cries all the time). Don't get me started on bloody TS Eliot.
Raymond Chandler on the other hand, wrote pulp. But it was DAMN FINE PULP. Good characterisation, settings which leap out of the page at you and dialogue that crackles with wit, verve and energy.

Yes, I think that comics should be good. But does that mean that they need to be 'high art' to do so?

I think not.

4/06/2005 05:40:00 AM  

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