Sunday, 30 December 2012

On Gail Simone's Secret Six, Oracle, Batgirl & The New 52 (part 2 of 3)

In which the blogger continues the piece begun here. The reader might like to know that what follows was largely written in the period between Gail Simone being sacked and then rehired as the writer of Batgirl. The reader might also like to be warned that there's a limited degree of overlap between this post and yesterday's piece about Simon Baz, the new Green Lantern, given that both were concerned with the New 52; 

Little speaks as badly of DC as does the characters and themes which were abandoned when the New 52 was jerry-rigged into place. This is particularly true where the wiping from the slate of Secret Six and Oracle is concerned. In so conspicuously excluding both properties from the newly minted DCU, the reboot was revealed to be largely - if not exclusively - unconcerned with issues which might fail to play to the presumably conservative values and peculiarly constrained tastes of the targeted bloke-fan audience.

The company's lack of interest in representing the physically disabled, for example, can be noted not just in the reversion of Barbara Gordon to the guise of Batgirl, but from the absence of any new version of Oracle from the line in the 16 months since the New 52 began. There’s been more than enough time, you might imagine, to introduce another take on the concept, and it would hardly have been a difficult business to achieve. Just as a previously-unknown member of the Gordan clan was introduced to fulfil the by-the-numbers stereotype of a yawnsome family psychopath, so too could another sibling have been placed on the board to function as Oracle. Or, as is the way with the superhero book, any number of sub-genre tropes from clones to alt-world look-a-likes might have been put productively to work. But no, DC's concerns have quite transparently been elsewhere.

Indeed, there's an unpleasant irony in how the corporation's post-reboot books have so frequently focused on superheroes suffering extreme examples of body-horror while rarely experiencing any long-term physical or psychological after-effects at all. Writers such as Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone had worked with compassion, intelligence and insight so that Oracle's experiences might reflect both the reality of traumatic injury and the subsequent process of adaption and growth. DC now often appears to be knee-deep in gratuitous scenes of extreme physical anguish largely for the lad-thrilling hell of it. To even begin to list the super-people in the New 52 who've been impaled, stabbed or run right through would require a considerable post of its own. And though I may well have missed books which took the longterm mental and material consequences of such adversity seriously, those I have come across have typically shown few convincing repercussions at all. What mattered, it seems, was the shock and the gore, indulged in for their own sake without reference to any of the more human issues which might have been discussed. No surprise then that DC's output has seen such crass exploitation tactics increasing in number and scale. How else to keep the attention of an audience which has been so often encouraged to dwell on vicious spectacle far more than emotional substance? And where might such a process end up, given how swiftly desensitisation inevitably kicks in?

Secret Six once proved that the audience could be offered the most perverse and challenging of material while also being encouraged to both think and feel. Gail Simone’s purpose on the title was clear. Even as she was keen never to disguise how disordered and dangerous the Six were, and to do so in a form that was thoroughly entertaining, she always emphasised how damaged and tortured her anti-heroes were. In short, their inhumane acts were used to accentuate rather than diminish their humanity, and the worse they behaved, the more their kinship with the reader was emphasised. There but for the grace of God, ran the theme of Simone's tales, and they remain some of the most remarkable in the sub-genre's history.  For at the heart of the Six was a demand that the audience emphasise with characters they'd traditionally been encouraged to disdain, fear and loathe. Instead of simply being faced with the irredeemable, appalling Other, the reader was also made aware of the psychological disorders which stood between the Six and the possibility of their enjoying a more sane and meaningful existence. As such, Simone constantly returned to the debate between free will and determinism, and in doing so, took her stand against reactionary and callously over-simplified attitudes to punishment and control. Where so many superhero books have implied that death is the only possible solution to the well-nigh uncontrollable killing sprees of super-psychopaths, Simone's work on the Secret Six argued that crime is a far more complex and challenging business than that.

Just in case I'm not making myself clear here; Of course, explicit body-horror isn't incompatible with moving, enjoyable, ethical storytelling. Nor should spectacle be considered the opposite quality to substance, as if the two can't work to their mutual advantage. As in Batgirl, fingers can be removed, captives mutilated and abdomens stabbed in such a way as to enhance rather than diminish the emotional and moral content of the work, as we'll discuss in the last part of this post.
In the long months since the Six’s cancellation, the Bat-books alone have played host to a range of deadly, torturing, almost-unrestrainable, often-interchangeable psychopaths. From young mister Gordon himself to numberless Owls, from the Joker to Professor Pyg, Gotham City has been constantly terrorised by cureless, conscienceless maniacs. Though some of the stories have been better than others, the cumulative effect is as enervating as it's distasteful.  Few of these tales have focused on the raising of any ethical issues at all. In their so-often desperate rush to bad-ass the reader into buying the next issue, the image of criminal as well-nigh unstoppable Other has been placed at the centre of events. Where once the superhero helped society keep order, now society is so powerless, incompetent and corrupt that it relies upon costumed crimefighters simply to maintain an nightmarish state of constant insecurity and terror. In this, little has apparently often mattered on the page beyond the piling on of an excesses of fear and violence seasoned with a few laddish sniggers. As such, the sight of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason ending a chapter of the current Joker crossover with Bruce Wayne expressing his love and pride for his son seems far more shocking - and welcome - than have any of the Event's many bleak and grimy headline atrocities.

As if attending to the paranoid fantasies of readers who believe that the world really is out to get them, and that no form of society can either enrich their lives or protect their interests, one thinly-drawn child of Lecter after another has stalked Gotham. Of course, such figures free the tale's heroes from a great deal of the need to reflect anything other than the bloody-handed, self-pitying conventions of frontier justice. Innocents can be wounded and slaughtered, tearful heroes can be punctured and swear righteous vengeance, and heroic punishment can be meted out. But then, that's what the New 52 has so often celebrated, with its Bat-books often seeming to portray a permanently traumatised America, where anything is permissible in order to protect the poor pathetic citizenry against the endless hordes of insane master-killers.

to be concluded;

In Q's Comics Column For January 2013

Just to say, the latest edition of Q should at this very moment be cheering up the shelves of newsagents and supermarkets across the nation. If I were you, I'd start at page 59 with Andrew Perry's splendid piece about Rihanna's recent out-there PR jaunt across the globe in a 777 crowded with 150 media types, and then work around it. And as you do, you may just come across the Q Comics column, where I've the privilege of reviewing Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree, Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's Thor The Mighty, Brecht Evans' The Making Of, Peter Bagge's Reset and The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection, by, amongst others, Alan Grant, John Wagner, and Glenn Fabry. An excellent crop of comics, I think you'll agree, with one of those aforementioned graphic pleasures proving entirely deserving of a 5 star review.


Saturday, 29 December 2012

What's The Point Of Simon Baz, Green Lantern & Car Thief? (Part 2)

Scratch the surface of the Green Lantern issues which feature Simon Baz and all that Johns seems able to offer is a vague and saccharine sympathy for those who lack power. Worse yet, it's only the least threatening of those who've in any way been socially disadvantaged that Johns wants to empathise with. And so, the Arab-American and Muslim citizens he mentions fall into just three distinct categories. First and foremost, there’s supposedly well-meaning and self-pitying petty criminals, as represented of course by Simon Baz. Then there’s the meek and passive good citizens, persecuted on an everyday basis by both the Republic as a whole as well as by their own community;

Mr Baz (senior) to his daughter Sira; "(My wife) won't leave the house. Your mother's friends won't talk to her. The Mosque won't let us in. We're as guilty (in the eyes of our own friends, neighbours and co-religionists) as your brother." 

Finally, there's that clearly cruel, unloving, and ostracising Muslim community itself, of which all we're told is that they're refusing to even talk to, let alone help, the Baz family in any way at all. Beyond this, there's nothing and no-one. The self-obsessed and lawless, the law-abiding and woe begotten, and the uncaring mass are all that Johns refers to. As a result, the writer appears to be suggesting that America should embrace the communities that Simon Baz is intended to represent despite their law-breaking, lack of character, and fundamentally heartless nature.

What's missing is any sense that Arab-American Muslims have any compassion, guts and campaigning smarts of their own. Nobody that's shown or referred to has any political convictions at all, whether framed in the context of Islam or not. Nor do they belong to any organisations of a social, religious or economic nature which might enable them to fight back and define their own lives according to their own principles and desires. On the one hand, suggests Johns, they're victims, deserving of our pity because they’re worn-down after doing their very best despite all the bullying. On the other, those from beyond the Baz's nuclear family seem predominantly dull-headed and hard-hearted, self-interested if not actively anti-social. Neither the mostly virtuous if excessively acquiescent Baz family or their Arab-American fellows appear to have the slightest idea of how to organise and resist. On the page, they exist solely to generate a sense of ill-defined kindliness on the reader's part, and yet what they can't do is inspire our respect. The Baz family is, the wretched Simon apart, clearly a close and loving one. But beyond that, they're rudderless. Everyone is against them, from their neighbours to their nation, and all they can think to do is keep their head down and hope the storm will pass. 

Surely Johns can't be trying to say that these particular Americans deserve respect and protection despite themselves? That they should be tolerated because they're - mostly - no threat at all to anyone except, on occasion, car owners? That even their criminals are essentially lovable klutzes who could be good citizens if the right advantageous circumstances would only arrive? For not only has Johns failed to show anything of the reality of the community that Simon Baz comes from, but he's also repeatedly demeaned it. We are, after all, being expected to respect a group of Americans who are shown being actively cruel to their own, though how that circle might be squared is never explained. In four months worth of stories, there really hasn't been a single pro-active, inspiring individual or organisation to be seen.

Despite that, there's an awful sense that Johns considers his work to be radical and worthwhile simply because he's shown Sira wearing the hijab and working for the government. She's even has  - gosh! - her own office at "the Dearborn Office of The Secretary Of State", from which she's sent home indefinitely because her fellow workers are scared of her. (*1) If that hardly reflects well on the men and women of the Republic in general, they are at least also represented in Johns scripts by noble superheroes and nation-saving secret agents. Of Arab American Muslims, there's no-one but the Disnified Baz family and their tearful, lonely isolation to suggest anything at all of interest, let alone strength. As such, the most positive values which they can be said to represent are a willingness to shut up, do what they're told and stay out of trouble. Beyond Sira's willingness to meet her brother in secret in order to serve as his conscience, there's little sign at all of power ring-less Arab-Americans being anything more admirable than victims, some of which are endearing as individuals while ohers - it's implied - are not.

*1:- Typically, Johns doesn't tell us anything about the nature of the leave, or the legal grounds under which it occurs, or the professional help she was offered or could call upon. We're certainly not shown Sira refusing to go, let alone declaring that she'll fight the decision.

An "incentive" cover variant for the zero issue, focused to an greater degree on that mask and that gun.

As a result, what Johns limply presents is a series of general and exceptionally limited criticisms of America, its state and its people. As if even that might leave his stories seeming all too vulnerable to criticism, he also offers up a collection of similarly ill-defined excuses; post-9/11 Americans were frightened, and outraged, and helpless, and working for the nation's greater good, and so on, all of which led them to lash out at Americans they associated with the Other. Nobody, it seems, is really to blame for anything, although it is the Islamic community which comes out of Johns tales the worst. They alone are shown to have failed to have produced anything other than the meek, or the meekly criminal.

Perhaps Johns simply lacks the courage to express his own beliefs where prejudice and discrimination are concerned. Yet such is the number and degree of howlers in his scripts that it does seem more likely that he neither truly understands either the issues at hand or the way in which fiction can be used to engage with them. Scratch any moment in his scripts and a set of contradictory messages immediately emerges. And so, Johns does at first seem to be excusing Baz's criminal activities with reference to the depression of recent years. But then he decides to present Sira blaming Simon for not seeking her help when times got hard. It's not the economy at all, stupid, but pride and guilt on Baz's part. (It's certainly hard to see why cars had to be stolen to support his sister when she's clearly earning a good living.) Up into the air go a series of possible causes, and up there they stay. What Johns' is offering isn't a sophisticated multi-casual analysis boiled down into the form of a comic-book melodrama. He's not suggesting in any rigorous way that crime has a host of overlapping causes from individual choice to financial destitution. Instead, he’s pushing a suggestion of his own importance - his own magnanimity - mixed with a lack of any considered, or even brave, thinking. It really is as if he was determined to cover his back with every possible constituency rather than offering any kind of forceful, insightful analysis. More than anything else, he seems desperate not to make anything other than the least contentious criticisms of America herself.  
And so, regardless of what Baz has actually been shown doing, nothing is allowed to make us feel that he's anything other than a rather sweet guy who's made just a few mistakes. It's as if Johns is suggesting that, yes, Arab-Americans who are also Muslims aren't always perfect when it comes to the law, but they are rather lovable despite it all. What's more, they can be as good as the rest of us if they're lucky enough to (a) have a fantastic opportunity - like a SF weapon - fall into their hands, and (b) if they're determined to put the problems which they've caused everyone else to rights. As a result, the very real racism that's such a pernicious part of the West's everyday affairs becomes reduced to a quickly-delivered plot-point implying that poor unlucky Simon Baz deserves out unconditional support because he's essentially nice. He's sorry that he caused his brother's coma. He regrets the car stealing. He's been harshly treated. He's a nice guy. He's even shown being willing to try to help society protect itself, or at least, he is once he's been caught, banged up in Guantanamo, and given access to super-powers  "I'm a car thief, not a terrorist!" Baz declares, as if the former choice is a minor and passing accident of fate. (*2)

Even then, Baz only reforms when he's nothing to gain by refusing to do so. He makes no sacrifices in turning towards the good. His only hope for freedom and forgiveness is to adopt the role of terrorist-hunting superhero. In short, becoming a superhero works entirely to his advantage, which makes him the supposedly heroic figure who's given up nothing but imprisonment and poverty in order to prove himself a better citizen.

With great power, it seems, comes the ability to sidestep the responsibility for one's own actions.

*2:"I'm a doctor, not a terrorist!", or "I'm an unemployed and law-abiding man who works for the community and not a terrorist!" surely would have been the more appropriate starting point.

Over and over again, what might seem to be a liberal point of view in Johns' scripts is qualified with a right-wing stance, and vice versa. And so, individual Americans are indeed briefly presented persecuting Muslims following 9/11, but then, Baz himself is - as we've discussed - hardly a good American in any typical sense of the term. Indeed, establishing Baz as an admirable individual has never been part of DC's plan for the character where the first month of his adventures is concerned. No doubt his arc leads towards his assuming the mantle of a licensing-friendly, pillar-of-the-nation super-bloke. But DC's despicable decision to initially drum up interest in him through the use of tropes associated with the media stereotype of Islamic terrorism shows how little the company grasps of what is and what isn't appropriate. For no discernible reason other than the shameful use of prejudice in order to shock the audience and scare up a hypeful buzz, publicity material showed Baz (a) carrying a gun while (b) wearing a Green Lantern costume now supplemented by an intimidating, full-faced mask. As an image, it pandered to the media shorthand of the evil, bomb-wielding Other, although the stories themselves went out of their way to state that Baz was anything other than a terrorist.

As if he felt compelled to remove the slightest trace of the very fuss he'd used to sell the book in the first place, Johns had Baz create the mask after his sister advised him to keep his identity secret from the State. It's as if the writer wanted to be able to turn around and declare that there was a dramatic rather than an exploitative reason for the mask, although Baz has tellingly retained it even though the authorities now know that he's the new Green Lantern. The ridiculous presence of a gun has also been back-tracked from. Aside from the promo shots and the cover of the zero issue, Baz has never carried one while he's wearing his superhero togs. Indeed, the only time he's been shown carrying a gun is when he's in his orange Guantanamo Bay overalls and - with some smug irony - defending himself against a fiendish, lone white terrorist. As such, the costume exists only to stir up fan-chat through the brutally unscrupulous use of tropes associated with terror. It's not a design that's been chosen so that the creators can discuss the way in which such images have been used. Instead, it exists solely to create surprise and outrage, and, in combination with the lack of redeeming moral qualities on Baz's part, it serves to reinforce far more than it challenges prejudice.

An outstanding example of this mixture of insulting sloppy storytelling matched with confused ideological messages can be found in "Innocent Lives", in GL#15.  For there, it turns out the theft by Baz of a van packed with explosives didn't just -  luckily! - prevent an atrocity. (Baz drives the van-bomb into a deserted factory building and saves us all, showing how theft can be a vital part of the War On Terror.) It also ultimately leads to Baz tracking down the terrorist responsible, and to the new Green Lantern uncovering a bomb factory too! Good old Simon Baz! Even when he's behaved in a despicable way, the consequences of his actions turn out to have been wonderfully good. That the terrorist himself turns out to be a white, would-be mass murderer with a front room filled with dead animal heads simply adds yet another layer of meaning-diffusing confusion into the mix. For Johns has loaded up these four issues with a host of the social concerns, and yet the real problem all along was a single, convenient lunatic, the existence of whom helps give the sense of a dramatic resolution which doesn't convincingly touch on America's problems with race and colour, power and wealth, at all. It may even be that Johns thinks that having a lone white terrorist as the cause of Baz's arrest and imprisonment and torture is a mark of a brave, ironic reversal of expectation.

It's this unwillingness to take a stand on anything of substance in Johns scripts beyond the perniciousness of not being nice that ultimately labels these books as a timid if not cowardly and insulting business. And so, the suspicion inevitably arises that perhaps Baz is a car thief so that Johns can't be accused by reactionaries of presenting idealised versions of Muslim-Americans. And perhaps Simon Baz makes not a single reference to the Prophet and his works so that the Muslim community won't regard him as an insulting portrayal of a true believer. As a working theory, it makes at least as much sense as believing that Johns is simply a well-meaning idiot.


So why does the character of Simon Baz exist? With a measure of passion and conviction, Johns might have taken this opportunity to make a forceful, principled, and coherent statement about massively important social problems. Whatever political stance it was that he might have adopted is beside the point. Right, left, centrist, out-there extremist; something that was well-thought through and passionately believed in might have helped stimulate debate. If nothing else, he might have demolished rather than reinforcing the idea that there's such a thing as a single community of Arab-American Muslims which carries a few backsliders in its ranks. (A single brief sentence indicating that Simon and his father disagree about the former's tattoos is hardly a convincing marker of diversity.) Instead, Johns gets no further than hinting that we all ought to be just a little nicer to each other, and ends up seeming to suggest that little can actually change because no-one’s really responsible for what’s going on. Not the state, not society, not the economy and those who control it, and certainly not any individuals beyond the odd stray madman with a van full of bombs. Some frightened and a very few vicious citizens, some zealous and impolite state officials, a lonesome terrorist or two; these are America’s problems, and those of much of the West, reduced to the vaguest and least helpful of explanations.

And yet, if there’s nothing really wrong with America where matters of race and state-sponsored terrorism are concerned, and if all we need is to just be a little more understanding of car thieves and torturers alike, then it’s hard to wonder why anyone should make a fuss about publishing Simon Baz’s adventures at all. If there’s no real social problems at work in 21st century America beyond irresponsibility and callousness, then why is it important that Baz exists in the pages of Green Lantern at all? Why has this comicbook been published, when its sole achievement is to succeed in being both cowardly and offensive at the very same time?


Friday, 28 December 2012

Mystic Combat, Sorcerer's Codes, & The Highest Councils Of The Universe; On Steve Ditko & Stan Lee's Doctor Strange (Part 3)

Just to say, the next part of my discussion of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Doctor Strange can now be found here over at Sequart Publishing. And should you not have come across them, the first two posts in the series can be found here and here.

Coming next on TooBusyThinking; tomorrow will see the concluding part of the post on the new Green Lantern Simon Baz, and Sunday a celebration of Gail Simone's Batgirl.


Monday, 24 December 2012

On Simon Baz, Green Lantern (Part 1 of 2)

Inspiring polemics aren't typically fuelled by an excess of timidity. There may be exceptions to the rule, but I'm struggling to think of any. Passion, yes. Conviction. Daring. Scorn. Desperation. Loathing. Learning. Wit. Smart-mindedness. But not a deliberate and bloodless timidity. Sadly, that's exactly what the defining characteristic is of Geoff Johns' scripts for the Green Lantern issues which have featured his new creation, the Arab-American, Muslim protagonist Simon Baz.

It's easy to be baffled as well as underwhelmed by the title's past few issues, filled as they are with what at first seems to be persistently contradictory messages. On the one hand, Johns and his fellow hypesters at DC have made a fuss about the company introducing its first major-franchise Muslim hero. Yet having huckstered up the media's attention where Baz's religious and ethnic background is concerned, Johns has then managed to produce a protagonist who doesn't appear to be anything of a Muslim at all. Never once in all four appearances to date has Baz referred in any way to his religious principles, let alone undertaken a ritual or displayed a habit that we might associate with his beliefs. In fact, he's the Muslim who never once thinks of Islam, which, given how desperate and challenging his circumstances are, is a perplexing business. I've never met a believer who didn't frame their decisions according to one aspect or another of their faith, but that's not ever true here. You might imagine that a man of even passing religious conviction would refer to it when thrown into a world of alien super-cops and monsters, super-heroes and government-sanctioned waterboarders, and so on. But not Baz, who - the occasional appearance of his hijib-wearing sister aside - seems to have nothing of any distinct American sub-culture about him at all. (A brief, single sentence reference to a disagreement with his father over the propriety of his tattoo is the very closest we come to any culturally specific detail, and even that's hardly a conflict that's unique to any one aspect of American society.) Why would DC publicly drum up their introduction of a Muslim, Arab-American character and then make him so conspicuously lacking in anything but the very broadest markers of religiosity and ethnicity?

But then, why would DC announce Simon Baz as the next Green Lantern while intending to portray him as a car-thief? And if Baz is to be a criminal, then why constantly downplay the importance of his choice to be one? What's the point if Johns is going to represent the man as someone who only took cars which "no-one would miss", and who only did so because he was laid off in the economic slump and couldn’t provide for his hospitalised brother-in-law's child? Is Baz a symbol of an uncaring America or of its self-pitying underclass? For if it's important that we know that Baz is a Muslim and an Arab-American, then what are being told about the citizens of the Republic with those attributes who face equally hard times? And if all this business about criminality and cultural identity doesn’t really mean anything much at all, then why are we being told about it in the first place? What is Johns' purpose? For as Baz admits to his sister, he's made "thousands" of dollars through his thievery. That's no passing career, and yet here, it’s presented as a minor issue, as a mark of the burden borne by the soon-to-be-originised superhero. Even Baz's road-racing - which led to his brother-in-law ending up in a permanent coma - is used to solicit our sympathy for his hard done-by victimhood. That that aspect of his past actually shows, once again, that Baz is a bloke with a lack of impulse control matched an absence of common sense is just ignored

There may be, its seems, someone who bears some responsibility for the state of the economy, and for the acts that it influences some of the poor to commit. There may be groups and institutions who might be blamed for the way that American Muslims have so often been labelled and harshly treated. But Johns has no interest in suggesting who that might be. Where prejudice and economic disadvantage comes from seems irrelevant. In the absence of that key information, it’s impossible to grasp why Johns seems to believe that we should be so fond of Baz in spite of his habit of pilfering other people’s property. Johns hints and then hints again at some greater meaning, but he never defines himself. Underneath all these passing references to headline issues, all he does is give the impression that repeatedly indulging in substantial property crime during a depression is no big deal at all. In fact, Baz has only been laid off for four months, and yet he's well into his career as a thief by the time we meet him. We're shown no sign of poverty on either his part or that of his family, and yet a lack of funds is used to excuse his thieving. Could it be that Johns is suggesting that his brother's health-care is ruinously expensive, or that there's a lack of fair pay in the Federal bureaucracy that employs his sister? Why is Baz has been driven to these crimes, and to what degree is he responsible for his own actions? Sadly,  there's no clear explanation in Johns' scripts, and that means that the reader's quite lost as to why its so important that this Muslim, Arab-American hero should be a thief . The sense that we should pity him saturates every page, but sense itself is absent.


But then, what did Johns think might be read from the fact that the Green Lantern ring which chose Baz as its wearer was clearly faulty? For a comic which seems to have been designed to accentuate the undeniable fact that Muslim, Arab-Americans are the equal of any others, Johns certainly loads up his scripts with examples of how Baz really isn't anything of the kind. He's the Green Lantern who got lucky despite rather than because of his history, and who'll have to establish that he deserves to belong despite the evidence that he doesn't. The well-meaning outsider who, full of potential and yet marked by his difference and a heavy burden of sins, has to prove that he's one of us and on the right side. With hard work, with a change of heart, with a public display of his willingness to sacrifice for the general good, with an end to the car-stealing, he can be as good as any other hero, just as good as the rest of us.

What an odd and disturbing set of choices these are on Johns' part. Yes, he's briefly presented us with scenes symbolizing how post-9/11 America persecuted its fellow Muslim citizens. Or it least, two panels are given over to (1) the sight of racist slogans on walls following the attack on the Twin Towers and (2) the adult Baz facing what seems a remarkably polite measure of police harassment. It's a shockingly mild, passing and misleading indictment which seems to be designed to explain much of why Baz ended up repeatedly breaking the law. But because Johns only sketches in the briefest and thinnest of details, it's impossible to grasp how Baz was affected. As quickly as he can, Johns moves on, and in doing so, leaves Baz as one of only two people breaking the law from that point onwards. Johns may have intended to be fiercely critical of the racism that's been leveled at the groups which are his subject, and yet his script keeps focusing on Baz's anti-social past instead. Accordingly, Johns doesn't so much defend Muslim Arab-Americans as sentimentalise a polite and facile version of their plight. Empathy, he seems to believe, will win over the unconvinced where facts never will. That the communities he's trying to speak well of are being primarily represented in his tale by a repentant petty criminal inevitably suggests that they have fallen short and need to reform and prove themselves. In that sense, he's not saying that Muslim Arab-Americans are the equal of their fellow citizens, but rather, that they can be good citizens if they make the effort to put right their wrongs. Though Johns undoubtedly didn't mean that, a crass polemic unavoidably generates crass readings.

Even when locked away by the state and faced with torture, Baz surprisingly expresses no political criticism of the Republic at all, and neither does anyone else. Strangely enough, the prejudice and persecution which he's faced since 9/11 hasn't led to any kind of political and/or religious radicalisation at all on Baz's part. Circumstances have helped drive him beyond the law despite his generous heart, but not beyond apathy. Beyond knowing something of what goes on in Guantanamo Bay, he appears remarkably apolitical. Some mixture of the economy and bigotry and the police and whatever else has made a felon of Baz, but it hasn't inspired any awareness of such influences. Johns seems to have wanted to make sure that there's nothing too contentious about his tale, and so he's left us with a character without the brain or heart to engage ideologically with the world  that's supposedly been so cruel to him.

A Simon Baz who has behaved as he has because of a conscious loathing for a racist, capitalist system would be a 21st century version of the social reformer that was the O'Neill/Adams take on John Stewart. But Baz's life-story just suggests he's had it pretty tough and isn't it a shame? Because of the lack of specifics, just about anyone from any disadvantaged American community could be substituted for him in the narrative and nothing essential would change. This is not, beyond a few obvious signifiers, a story about Islam or Arab-Americans at all. All such details have been as stripped out from the story as they possibly could be. As such, Baz is nothing more than yet another one of Johns' entitlement heroes, who are admirable not because of what they do or say or think, but because they're wearing a superhero's uniform, performing the flashy stunts and representing the corporate brand. They're heroes because Johns says they're heroes, and that's that.

Johns' typical - and superficially elegant - strategies for sketching in backstory work very well when he's reminding readers of the origin of the likes of Starro The Giant Starfish. But they're shamefully inadequate when it comes to a story which carries with it a company-serving suggestion of political and social importance.

It may even be possible that we're not supposed to look to Simon Baz at all for the meaning of Johns' tale. Could it be that it's his law-abiding, loving sister Sira that's supposed to be expressing what Johns wants us to believe? She is admirably calm and sensible, loving, forgiving and clearly competent, though she's only appeared twice to function as Baz's conscience rather than a protagonist in her own right. (*1) If that's so, then why didn't Johns chose to lend her the costume and power ring? But no, the writer, as is par for the course, just doesn't seem too interested in how his work might be read in anything but the most general way.  For this isn't a subtle depiction of America that sidesteps both politically correct and incorrect over-simplications, that offers a smart-minded mix of left and right wing points of view. Rather, it's a confused mish-mash which succeeds only in generating both PC and PIC values all at the same time. It means that Baz does appear to have been given a free pass for his protracted anti-social behaviour because of a trying degree of racist unpleasantness and economic woe. (Right wingers rise up in protest!) And yet Baz also appears to be representing a community while being characterised as catastrophic irresponsibility and persistently criminal. (Everyone to the left of the reactionary right wonders how that decision could possibly have been made.) In not making sure that he's true to one particular view, Johns has only succeeded in simultaneously pushing some of the least attractive aspects of several opposing ideologies.

*1:- She's even working for the Government, although she's asked not to come into work because other workers are frightened, it seems, of her association with her "terrorist" brother. Aren't there laws about that? Was there not a single workmate or organisation that she could turn to beyond the boss who, for all her pleasantness, told her to go away until the poor scarified people became less so?


But there is another way of looking at the overwhelming absence of coherence and sense here, and that’s to suggest that Johns is actually struggling to fulfil a very specific agenda. It might be argued that he isn't being unconsciously insensitive and frustratingly imprecise at all. For it often seems that Johns is trying as hard as he can to simply avoid taking a potentially contentious stance on anything at all that he can possibly avoid. So, America is shown to be running a savage regime of torture, which seems like a principled and daring matter to discuss. And yet the strong suggestion is that those who are running it at all levels are responding to an overwhelming danger and ought to be granted our sympathy too. Baz did, after all, drive a van full of explosives into a factory, though only through a mixture of light-fingeredness and ill-fortune. Indeed, only once are the soldiers and suits who imprison and torture Baz given to express anything other than an efficient if generally cold-hearted concern for the truth, and that's when a guard insultingly refers to him as "Muhammad". (Again, it's a moment that made as little play as possible of, as if - gosh - someone might actually notice that it's been said.) Torture's undeniably horrid, Johns and artist Doug Mahnke appear to argue, and innocent though highly suspicious folks have been subject to it. Yet they're also suggesting that the torturing has to be done, and that those who’ve been tortured have given every reason to make the authorities suspicious. There are more and less well-meaning government torturers on show. But that's not the same thing as a criticism of anything other than the procedural matters of how the tortured should be spoken to and when they ought to be made to suffer. The idea that torture should not be happening under any circumstances, and that those indulging in it are behaving as monsters, is quite absent. For all the sympathy that's shown to Baz, this is a comic that argues that torture can be considered necessary even if it's undoubtedly unpleasant.

But then, the America of the New 52 is one that's constantly under threat by apparently unstoppable and fearsomely predatory Others. Even in these four issues, packs of murdering aliens are running wild across the USA, murdering innocents in a disgusting fashion, and - oh no! - there's no-one to stop them. It's a context which can seem indistinguishable from a reactionary vision of America as the virtuous and yet largely defenceless victim of an entirely hostile, vicious world. The state is helpless in these stories when its not incompetent and corrupt! The forces of good are few and constrained by law and convention! The enemy has few if any virtues, and terrible things are happening to our people every day! Ammonia in the eyes of Alfred! Superheroes regularly stabbed right through and then stabbed again! In such a paranoid context, in which the conventions of the superbook are so often - if not exclusively - taken to bleak-hearted extremes, it becomes hard to suggest that even the most vile measures to protect the nation and the world aren't necessary. In the New 52, the reactionary are nearly always objectively correct; the world really has gone to hell, and only the most severe and immoral behaviour on our own part will save us.

Of course, Johns is no stranger to exploitation for exploitation's sake. So many of his tales rely on all typical ways of maintaining everyday life turning out to be entirely useless. Only the super-vigilantes can save us, and they can only do so by pushing everything but their own will to one side. It's a reduction to absurdity that brings with it ever darker shadows. For if society can't protect its members under any circumstances, then society's values and laws aren't just inadequate, but entirely counter-productive. Trying to load even a mild liberal concern into such a context is an incredibly trying business. When Johns suggests that torture really isn't a very nice thing at all while implying that it's a sadly necessary business, he contributes nothing to the debate beyond an entirely useless sense of regret and pity for those who've been tortured despite their innocence. The very worst that Baz is given to say about Guantanamo Bay is that submitting to its lack of lawyers and due process would get in the way of his being a good and successful superhero. And yet, that's the most radical gesture that Johns feels able to make. The New 52 is so often a comicbook far-right fantasy taken to a bloke-thrilling, ultra-violent extreme. Social criticism of anything other than an uber-rightist kind will always struggle in that framework.

to be concluded, when we'll try to make sense of that gun and that mask, of the fact that whole local Islamic community ostracized the Baz family because of the crimes Simon was accused of, and so on ..

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On The New 52, And - Eventually - Gail Simone's Batgirl

All the covers scanned in here are, of course, by Adam Hughes.

I still have an experience-defying, logic-distorting fondness for the idea of the densely-populated, more-or-less internally-consistent superhero universe. There were all too many childhood days spent marinating my soft, slow brain in the minutiae of Marvel and DC's fantastical, immersive meta-narratives for anything else to be true. How many different versions were there of Atlantis or Asgard, and how could they all be reconciled one with the other? How could it be that a series of quite different 30th centuries had been shown to exist? Why did the almost-end of the world in one comic appear to have had no influence at all upon all of the others issued in the same month? The superhero book offered all the pleasures of academic study without anything of a student's responsibilities. All that was required was to read more comics, and to think about comics more.

As such, it was the very lack of close-focused precision and absolute clarity which helped make the Big Two’s comics so involving. Much of what made these stories compelling was the fact that - for all their other intense virtues - they didn't always make sense. As time passed and more and more tales were lobbed into the common pot, a host of different influences combined to suggest radically different takes on what was supposedly the same basic, all-encompassing story. Not just stray details, but the fundamental principles soon appeared up for grabs. Was Uncle Ben actually working with the burglar who killed him? Were the Legion Of Super-Heroes nothing but a pack of uber-privileged snobs? What did the Amazons do at night if they found themselves in need of a cuddle or even a kiss? The undeniable presence of ill-defined and openly contentious threads in the broader tapestry opened up the space for the reader to become creatively involved. The energy of the comics drew the reader in, while the shared universe and all its various strengths and weaknesses anchored that entertainment in a host of enigmas. Instead of passively consuming each tale as it came, the superhero fan learned to interrogate and even condemn what they read in terms of the greater context. What was being shown on the page, it seemed, was not necessarily the truth and nothing but. The real facts about a superheroic world could lie somewhere behind the texts which claimed to describe it, and it was the fan's job to come as close as they could to the most convincing version of events.

Yet there’s long been a desire on the part of some fannish professionals and spreadsheet-minded managers alike to do away with the possibility of depth and variety and confusion in the shared-universe superbook. The very mass of material which allowed them to work out their own preferences has somehow become seen as barriers to anyone else seeking to find their own way in the cape'n'chest-insignia worlds. To long for difference and discrepancy to be definitively excised is to destroy much of the corporate-owned superhero's appeal. For in all that historical jumble of different styles and values and genres lies the friction which keeps pulpish fiction firing off against itself in unexpected, reader-enticing ways. Like all the very best of pop culture, the superhero comic has flourished when it’s been most open to the widest range of influences and the most intense degree of debate. It’s at its best when it’s at its least pure, its least banally sensible and directed and over-simplified. But when its inspirations and content alike are dramatically constrained to a literal-minded core of what’s considered editorially acceptable, its quality and – ultimately – its reach beyond the hardcore fan becomes seriously impaired. Even if perfectly adapted to the demands of a specific niche in today’s market-place, such a conceptually unambitious, neurotic conceit is unlikely to prove flexible enough to prosper in anything but the most constrained sense.

As such, it's notable that every attempt to kick off a superhero world from scratch has soon run out of steam. From the Ultraverse to the Ultimate Universe, attempts to create rigorously well-wrought, tightly-policed backdrops for costumed crimefighters to fight in front of have traditionally lacked the magic to capture the reader’s imagination over the longrun. The capacity for endless renewal within an apparently unchanging context is all too often absent, which leaves the question of why - beyond the potential profits - they exist at all. They have their bright moments, of course, but they all too often lack the critical mass of combustible discrepancies, stylistic influences and complex continuity necessary to constantly generate forward momentum. Though we're always being told in the 21st century that the superhero is a commodity designed to be constantly rebooted, it's notable how rarely the effort actually works when the shared universe it belonged to is left behind. To abandon a rich backstory is a very dangerous thing to do, for a superhero is often simply the most blandly generic of figures when isolated from the context of a long-lived fictional environment. To remove that intricate shared-universe with all its detail and possibilities is to run the risk of liberating a costume and a set of super-powers from one of the key ingredients which made it interesting in the first place.

Eventually the fascination for the conceit of the shared superbook fades, or so it does for most of us. Even if the fondness itself for the idea, and the flicker of hope it persistently inspires, remains, the comics themselves rarely focus on the world behind the fisti-cuffs. Yet there have been periods in the sub-genre’s history when the strengths of a common fictional backdrop have been played to, and the memories of those brief highpoints are sweet enough to keep a certain degree of curiosity alive. (*1) But there's been all too few editors and writers who've proven capable over the years of putting all that complexity and absurdity to work in service of a compelling story rather than a hypeful sales gimmick. Eventually the lesson gets learned: there's no point in buying into these wonderlands as a whole when their fundamental virtues are so little attended too. Substance is all too often sacrificed for cheap effect, while coherence is repeatedly waved away for the inconvenience it might cause the poor editors and writers concerned. As such, the superhero universe is typically - if not exclusively - revealed to be a threadbare, unconvincingly stage-set against which supposedly shocking plot twists and empty-headed spectacle are projected.

*1:- For example,; The Marvel Revolution of 1961 to mid-1966; Marvel in the period from 1974 to 1977; DC from 1983 to 1988; Marvel from 2000 to 2004. Of course, there have been individual books, and crossovers too, which have been excellent through the past half-century. To suggest anything else would be ludicrous.

There are undoubtedly a few notable professionals who possess both the ambition and the skill to make a world of superheroes - rather than a world of superheroes fighting one each other - convincing and enthralling. But the relatively small number of them merely emphasises how little the industry as a whole has cared for anything much beyond than the big explosions and the melodramatic reversals in recent times.For all the laudable exceptions, and for all the undeniably good work, the sub-genre hasn't prospered as it might have since the middle of the last decade beyond the sales ledgers. The key question of what it would like to live in an absurd and yet alluring universe packed to the gills with super-folks is largely pushed aside in anything but the most facile manner. (*2) So too is the light that such a conceit might throw on real-world issues. What’s left is all too often a narrative with less depth and charm than a 1970's Saturday afternoon TV wrestling bout, with a similar degree of desperate attention being paid to the business of spicing up a great deal of nothing with supposedly shocking violent excess.

*2:- "Largely" isn't meant to be read as "Solely". We can all list books which have done this job in a splendid manner. From JIM to Secret Six, from Demon Knights to 2011's Daredevil, the exceptions exist even as they are very much exceptions.

Yet that nostalgia for stories which use a shared universe for something other than brawling never quite looses its power. After all, a line of comics which really did try to exploit the scenario of a planet constantly convulsed by a class of superheroes would be something to experience. And just for a moment in the summer of 2011, the announcement of the New 52 suggested that this time, a reboot on DC's part might actually prove to be an enticing prospect. Soon, the reader was assured, inventive storytelling, diverse subjects and ethical substance would all arrive grounded in a carefully-shaped, inspirationally-informed example of world-building. A year and more, we were informed, had been spent ensuring that this new version of the DCU would be coherent, compassionate and thrilling. Perhaps this time - the vestige of a childhood fascination suggested - something wonderful might be created from all that potential. Perhaps the previous high-points of the superhero book’s existence had been studied and learned from. After all, the sub-genre had been in existence for almost three quarters of a century, and a series of nascent shared universes had first appeared in the first few years of its history. From the Marvel Family to the Justice Society and onwards, the idea that everyone in a costume undertook their adventuring and off-duty hours alike in the same world was long-established. Surely DC wouldn't have announced how brilliantly well-worked and exciting its new line was going to be if it hadn't been investing an impressive degree of corporate-funded hours into learning from the past? The constant reiteration that the New 52 would feature an impressive range of diverse content and style seemed to suggest that such had been so.

Sadly, of course, DC's line-wide audience-grab seemed to reflect little of history's lessons. Beyond the hucksterish series of announcements from the project’s anointed ringmasters, the whole process turned out to be mostly nothing more than stuff and nonsense. If this was a shared universe, then the material that was being commonly used was characteristically cliched and thinly-thought through. Indeed, there was little evidence in most books that much beyond a few obvious common props had been developed. No risk there, then, of too many intriguing ideas striking the reader beyond the question of who's going to stab who next. Even mildly-intriguing contradictions require a degree of coherence and depth to generate them, and for those not entranced by the likes of devilish psychopaths and Image-esque teen heroes, the pickings have been slim.

Despite the efforts of some particularly able and inspired editors and creators, the New 52 was - by unlikely chance or most likely purposeful design - predominantly aimed at a market of boy-minded fans. The presumption seemed to be that they'd on the whole prefer thin and undemanding storytelling, content that was focused on blokeish-noir superheroics, and little in the way of subtext beyond the ethics associated with the rightly-vengeful indomitable hero. With the dramatic conventions of this fresh start proving so repeatably threadbare and predictable in practise, the fact that the supposedly carefully-constructed universe didn't actually make a great deal of sense simply became all the more obvious. For all the talk of how meticulously it had all been worked out, it was clear that things were often either being made-up out of dirt'n'spit as the days progressed, or messed up when some bright spark had a brainwave and caught the eye of power with it. In several of those books where the foundations had been admirably laid, ad-hoc changes based on editorial whim seemed to become more and more common. In those comics where the creators were effectively winging it anyway, ad-hoc changes were still arriving to muddy up things further. With little of depth in the shared universe which most creators could tap into, the snaring of the reader relied more and more upon the likes of very sharp and pointy objects being thrust right through our heroes' bodies, or the pouring of ammonia into the eyes of elderly supporting characters.

Of course, it's all very well to make up a universe as you go if you've only a few books to play with and a team of geniuses to churn out the work. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their various colleagues were quite literally inventing the modern idea of the immersive superbook in the early-to-mid Sixties, they were putting prodigious skills and decades of experience to work in an environment which by necessity encouraged initiative and imagination. To attempt to do the same with a line of 52 monthly comics in the absence of the requisite number of workhorse geniuses in both the creative and editorial departments is a very different thing indeed. (*3)

*3:- It's worth mentioning that the first 16 months of the New 52 has seen many of its best storytellers either leaving the company or being sacked by it. As such, the overall quality of the line for anyone not into the body-horror of it all has actually diminished as well as coarsened over the period.

For every book that showed heart and craft in the New 52, half-a-dozen more revealed nothing more worthwhile than deconstructed storytelling and a smug measure of pseudo-sophistication comparable to that present in a first-wave Image title from the early Nineties. Even the promise that stories would be largely self-contained and cross-company Events rare was soon proven to be something of a considerable fib. To those who dearly wanted more than the New 52 ever intended to deliver, the whole business was a considerable disappointment. This was, after all, an all-or-nothing gambit, and even a partial success would leave neither the resources or the will to try for another approach. That the New 52 raised sales substantially was hardly a significant achievement. Any team of managers who'd been given that unprecedented degree of resources ought to have been able to do so. That nothing that's been creatively accomplished couldn't have been attained with just a little thought in the old DCU merely intensifies the sense that a great deal's been thrown away has been thrown away for very little return.

Yet the very fact that a shared universe has been sloppily constructed can, with no little irony, throw up the kind of reader-intriguing contradictions and confusions that we've been discussing. The chances of that happening in the New 52 as a whole remains sadly limited, because the comics themselves are so threadbare in the world they describe and the cliches they obsess upon. But there were undeniably a few titles where the presence of an inspiringly different kind of storytelling yielded fascinating results when it came into contact with the norms of the new order. The most fascinating of these has proven to be Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

to be continued;

Friday, 14 December 2012

12 Strips, Comics & Graphic Novels Featuring Compelling Female Protagonists: The Best Of 2012 Part 3

According to Comiclist, there were more than 100 individual comics released in North America this week. Of these, only 11 had titles which clearly indicated that the comic had either a single female lead or a woman co-star. Remove from that number the books which promised "bad girls" and "saucy steampunk sweethearts" and there's a shamefully small number of comics left which openly advertise the presence of female protagonists as their central concern. Out of 19 comics from DC, for example, only two were marketed with a female lead, while Marvel's 18 different titles starred not a single woman who got to carry the name of the book on her shoulders. (*1) Though the act of counting up the ratio of female-headlined comics to those which aren't is an obviously crude and unsatisfactory way to measure the persistence of a male-centred bias, it does, in its own qualified way, tell a disturbing and yet all-too-familiar truth.

*1:- The figures are approximate. Being a bear of little brain, the difference between new comics being released and old ones with variant covers is somewhat obscure. Mea culpa. 
Yes, the presence of a book with a woman's name as its title is no guarantee at all that its contents will be anything other than tawdry. Yes, there are plenty of ensemble properties which - to a greater or lesser degree - laudably succeed in representing women as individuals rather than types. Yes, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Captain Marvel, from Rachel Rising to Batwoman, there's a undeniable core of today's comics which are far more femalecentric than has historically been typical. As such, there's ground for hoping that some vital transformation in the presentation of women is glacially occurring, but that shouldn't obscure how relatively little change is actually going on. No matter how things are seemingly evolving in a positive direction, the pace of evolution is obviously not an inspiringly swift one where the action/adventure comicbook is concerned.
Thankfully, the situation is far more inspiring where the graphic novel is concerned. And if the reader cares to wade through the wearisome mass of patronising, hypersexualised pap which still clogs the arteries of both the broader market and the monthly comic too, then 2012 has seen an inspiring range of works published which neither push female characters to the margins or present uber-bloke-minded stereotypes of them.
The list which follows isn't in order of any preference, and it doesn't discriminate between the more literary endeavour and the tights-on, fight-crime pamphlet. There's certainly no attempt been made to suggest that these titles constitute anything other than a reflection of my own personal taste and experience over the past twelve months. As such, these examples certainly doesn't constitute a manifesto, but they are a selection of a dozen strips, comics and graphic novels from this year which feature fascinating female protagonists right at the centre of events.

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M Talbot & Bryan Talbot, Jonathan Cape

Bandette, by Paul Tobin & Colleen Cover, Monkeybrain Comics 

Love And Rockets New Stories no 5, by Gilbert & Jamie Hernandez, Fantagraphics

Zara's Crown, by John & Patrice Aggs, serialised in The Phoenix
Rachel Rising, by Terry Moore, Abstract Studios

But I Really Wanted To Be An Anthropologist, by Margaux Motin, SelfMadeHero 

Jennifer Blood, by Al Ewing, Kewber Baal, et al, Dynamite 

Saucer Country, by Paul Cornell, Ryan Kelly, Jimmy Broxton, et al, Vertigo Comics

Courtney Crumnin, by Ted Naifeh, Oni Press

Batgirl, by Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf, et al, DC Comics

August Moon, by Diana Thung, Top Shelf

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, by Andrew Chambliss, Scott Allie, Cliff Richards, Georges Jeanty et al, Dark Horse

The Nao Of Brown, by Glyn Dillon, SelfMadeHero

And finally, a shot of Paul Harrison-Davies' Paintgirl, a character which, he promises, will eventually become the star of her own comicbook. The picture was never intended to work as anything as manipulative as a teaser image, but at the moment, I'm looking forward to a Paintgirl adventure as much as I am any other feature. In the strange way that beguiling images work, Paintgirl's been a small but a significant part of my comics life this year. If I needed to smile, this picture was often where I headed;


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

On New Statesman, 2000AD, Al Ewing, Henry Flint & British Comics Week

From Al Ewing & Henry Flint's "Judge Dredd: The Cold Deck: Part II, from 2000AD 1807, 2012.
Over at, you can find an interview I did with writer Al Ewing and artist Henry Flint about their almost-lifelong relationships with 2000AD as both fans and professionals. Of course, a considerable part of that involves their estimable collaborations on Zombo and Judge Dredd. If you'd care to visit the interview - and I hope you might - then you can reach it here.

Both creators were magnanimous with their time. I can't thank them enough for being so. Similarly, Alex Hern at the New Statesman was both kind to ask me to contribute to British Comics Week and generous with his help.

I hope you'll consider checking out the other posts in the week-long series. Alex has sought out pieces on a broad range of topics, and kicked off things with this fine discussion of the comics journalism of Karrie Fransman and Tom Humberstone. Since every day sees new additions, you might like to keep popping in to the introductory page here to read what's there and to see what else has been added. At the time of writing, there's also this smart-minded piece on The Rise And Fall Of The Great British Football Comic by Seb Patrick.

From Ewing & Flint's "Zombo:Can I Eat You, Please" collection, originally published in 2000AD 2009/10
Why not pop over to the and check out how that cornerstone of British cultural life is continuing to recognise and celebrate the medium? To see that "British Comics Week" is one of the "hot topics" at the top of its homepage is to realise how much has changed where attitudes to the form are concerned.

Good times.