Monday, October 17, 2016

Superman returns

When it was announced that Superman would actually appear in a recurring guest role on "Supergirl," fans rejoiced. After all, the first season of "Sueprgirl" offered a hopeful and wondrous view of the DC Universe and fans knew that it's move to the CW would elevate the nature of the show. Additionally, throwing the Man of Steel into the mix led to hopes that this version of Superman would be in-line with a more classic depiction of the character. 

Tyler Hoechlin's casting was announced and the first images were revealed. Of course, there was some kind of criticism to the first look of Hoechlin as Superman (which I addressed here: What makes him Super?), but most of the response was positive. I actually really liked the costume and I think it's the best post-red trunks on the outside version. I also think it should be the main outfit of the Superman brand, even with the shoulder things... which I think would make sense to keep and make the cape retractable as some have suggested.

My expectations for Hoechlin were high. After all, the Greg Berlanti-led DC shows have done a great deal of justice to the characters they steward. "Arrow" gives us a very Mike Grell-inspired Green Arrow, "Flash" presents a definitive Scarlett Speedster with plenty of Mark Waid and Geoff Johns inspirations and "Legends of Tomorrow" accurately represents the ensemble portrayed with necessary updates and "fits" for the CW-universe. "Supergirl" is no different, presenting a Girl of Steel drawing heavily from the Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle run. So yes, as someone who is not a fan of the DC Cinematic Universe and pretty much despises that portrayal of Superman, my expectations were astronomical.

About a week before the show aired, the first clip of Superman in action was released. There was Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent, completely OWNING the role. Then he transformed into Superman and joined Supergirl to save the crashing spaceship. After viewing this clip, to say my expectations shot into the next galaxy would be an understatement.

Love it or hate it, "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman" did more to divide DC fandom and overall damage to the Superman brand than anything. That is of course an argument I've had many times and have addressed over and over, so I won't do it here. However, my main point has always been that when Superman divides, it's a gross misrepresentation of the character. I didn't see that division in the early images and clip featuring Hoechlin as Superman.

My feelings on the "Man of Steel" Superman are well-documented on this space and I don't really need to revisit them here. But for the purposes of my point here, "Man of Steel" presented a dour, brooding and cynical view of the world and Superman that's doesn't fall in line with who the character is or what he represents. I also reject the idea that "Man of Steel" presented a "more realistic" vision of Superman in the real-world, and I'll get to that in a minute. 

Now the question ultimately is: "Did Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal of Superman live up to expectations?" I say with great confidence, he exceeded my expectations.

In my previous Superman post, What makes him Super? I noted that when it comes to Superman, it's all about how the actor carries himself, it's all about presence. Hoechlin carried himself the way the Man of Steel should. He was confident, relaxed and optimistic. He also showed a bit of this edgier side through his passive aggressive interactions with J'onn. That's the way I've always known Superman.

I'm going to address what seems to be the main criticism off the bat... because from what I've seen, this depiction of Superman is pretty much beloved by the majority. A counter-point I've seen brought up is this, "In 'Man of Steel' he was literally Superman for a few days, in 'Supergirl' he's been Superman for 12 years." Okay, this is the typical argument that "Man of Steel" fans use to justify the insane destruction and collateral damage of "Man of Steel."

My counter-point to this is simple: It's not just his powers that make him Superman, it was also his upbringing by two good people. Clark Kent was Superman long before he wore the cape, "Man of Steel" portrays that too, but they do it in a way that makes it seem like a burden to Clark. There's also the gross misrepresentation of his parents in "Man of Steel," namely Pa Kent who'd rather let some schoolkids die than have his son reveal his powers.

So how would the world really respond to Superman? Fear? Yes, of course, but how Superman ultimately reveals himself is a completely different story. In "Man of Steel," we're treated to a brooding, secretive Clark Kent who only becomes Superman because he's forced into that situation. In almost every other depiction of a mainstream Superman, he chooses to become the Man of Steel and immediately lets his actions speak for himself. That's the vibe you get from the Hoechlin Superman. He's been around for years, sure, but he's portrayed as someone the world trusts, but let's say his reveal came through very visible actions of doing good and helping others, I do think the world would react positively. Now, based on the trailers for the upcoming episodes of "Supergirl," not everyone takes kindly to the Kryptonian visitors.

The "Supergirl" version of Superman was very quick to separate himself from the movies. Hoechlin's Clark Kent was perfect. He was mild-mannered and more quirky than outright clumsy. Off the bat we're presented with the Clark Kent everyone knows, he's earnest and says things like "lickety-split." He's also a damn good journalist and it's believable he can hold his own with the one and only Lois Lane (with whom he's in a relationship).

This Superman is also removed from "Man of Steel" by directly referencing moments from "Superman: The Movie" as part of his past. It's definitely not intended to say "this is the Ricard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman," but like Cat Grant's new assistant, Miss Tessmacher, it's mostly just a playful nod. However, by the time the episode was finished, we had seen the best live-action Superman since Christopher Reeve.

Hoechlin was fantastic. This Superman was not a brooding god-like person unsure of his place in the world. This was a humble, confident man who can do incredible things and used those abilities for the good of humanity without the need to take credit. This was evident after Superman and Supergirl save the spaceship and greet the onlooking family (with a smile) and then at the DEO headquarters. Superman flies into the DEO headquarters, looking almost nervous and instead of acting like he's a god above everyone, he works the crowd, shakes hands and thanks the DEO agents for all their work. That was it for me. I was head over heels for this Superman.

It was more than that though, too. Grant Morrison had this great epiphany about Superman: "The most powerful man alive wouldn't be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw."

That's exactly who Superman is. That's exactly the character Hoechlin (and Reeve before him) portrays.

There's also some intrigue. He and Martian Manhunter are at odds because of the DEO's insistence of stockpiling Kryptonite. We get to see a bit of Superman's temper and the tension between he and J'onn provides a subplot with darker undertones. There's an edge to this depiction, but he doesn't let it cloud his judgement. Of course, the two find common ground and resolve their differences and no mention of "Martha" was needed!

There was worry Superman would overshadow Supergirl, but he doesn't. And his presence in the show plays into the exact premise of it: Supergirl is trying to find her place in the world out of Superman's shadow and discover her own family, while balancing the needs of her real family. This is where Superman fits into Supergirl's story, but hot damn I want a 13-episode Superman series starring Hoechlin.

But truth be told, the moment that secured this depiction of Superman as being near-perfect (as near perfect as 45 minutes can get you) was after he saves a family from of one the killer drones. He turns to the boy in the family he saved and winks. This is a nod to almost every depiction of Superman since the beginning of time. There was also a moment where Superman holds a building up and prevents it from toppling over, to me this moment was a pretty direct nod to the Fleischer cartoons.

The classic Superman returned to live-action on the season 2 premiere of "Supergirl." For the most part, he's been praised and accepted, not deeply dividing the way "Man of Steel" has been. IGN pointed out that this is the first time since "Lois & Clark" that the classic Superman has been depicted in live-action. I have to agree with that. Brandon Routh played a Superman that was kind of depressing at points and Tom Welling never really played Superman.

It's also important to note that WB and DC Entertainment are indeed in the midst of resetting the Superman brand. Regardless of how you feel, the brand was damaged by both "Man of Steel" and the New 52 by presenting darker and sulking Man of Steel. DC Comics has re-introduced the classic Superman (completely killing off the New 52 version) and Superman's involvement and how he is presented following his resurrection in the "Justice League" film remains to be seen.

Still, the fact remains that WB and DC are returning to a classic Superman. Trying to reshape the character to something he wasn't just hasn't paid dividends.

Superman can be altruistic, he can be earnest, optimistic and kind. He's supposed to be. "Man of Steel" made him the product of a dark and cynical world, but that's one of the many places they got the character wrong. Superman is who brings light to the darker, cynical world with a wink, a smile and using his abilities to help everyone he can, no questions asked. Given today's social and political climate... this is exactly what we need in one of the biggest pop culture icons in history.

Quick story to share. My twins (boy and girl) are almost 4. My youngest boy is 2. They know superheroes and what not and the day after the show aired, I showed them that scene of Superman and Supergirl saving the spaceship. We started with Clark, all three asking who he was. My answer was "oh I don't know!" My boy twin (a die hard Batman fan as far as 4 year olds go) lit up with a smile and yelled "That's Superman!" When Clark ripped off his shirt, revealed the "S" and took off. My girl twin (who loves Wonder Woman and Supergirl) cheered as Supergirl flew out the window. My youngest let out an amazed "Where they going, Daddy?"

When they cut to the spaceship, the twins were wrought wondering how they would land. "Maybe Supergirl will catch it" my daughter said... moments later "She caught it!" When Superman flew in, all three yelled "There's Superman!"

We watched the whole scene, all three watching with wonder and amazement. My daughter then went to my wife to recount what she just witnessed and my boy twin looked at me and said "I like Superman" before saying "I like Batman too."

I was beaming with tears flooding my eyes, the look of pure joy on my kids' faces. This is why the portrayal of these characters and what they stand for is incredibly important. They are America's mythos.

Tyler Hoechlin portrayed the classic Superman we all know and love. His portrayal of the Man of Steel is in the same league as Christopher Reeve. Sure, it's only been two episodes, but every chord was struck perfectly. This is the Superman we aren't supposed to relate to, it's the Big Blue Boy Scout that makes us roll our eyes, but is the embodiment of the ideal to strive towards.

Hey there! If you enjoy my posts and my take on Superman and other superheroes, please consider supporting my latest comics project on Kickstarter where I'm reviving a golden age one-hit wonder: The Atomic Thunderbolt.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Nature of the Pop Culture Convention

There’s been some discussion regarding an article in The Hollywood Reporter about the amount of money TV stars can and have been making at conventions. At first glance, you might read it and say “wow, what a racket!,” but as a comic creator who’s been doing cons for the better half of a decade, this kind of story isn’t news to me. In fact, most comic creators will tell you that we already knew that celebrities make a decent amount of money at cons. It's really not that big a deal.

Still a lot of creators and commentators have been debating the article, so I thought I'd add a little perspective from the standpoint of a small press/independent creator. With that said, I felt compelled to do this post for a couple of reasons.

I've previously detailed the reality of my status of an independent creator here: The Reality of Indie Comics,  so I'll try not to rehash too much.

There are a couple of things about that article that I felt were lacking - one of them being the state of the con business in general. There are a lot of conventions. I mean, it's at the point where it's almost over-saturated. It's still lucrative for many, but I've always felt when you get the point where cosplayers are considered guests, we've got a real problem.

To really understand conventions and the abundance of comic conventions, you first have to break them down into categories. I'll do my best to run down the way many of my creator friends classify them.

There are the big pop-culture cons: San Diego and New York, and to a lesser extent, WonderCon, Emerald City and MegaCon. There are big comic-centric shows/traditional comic cons: Baltimore, HeroesCon, Long Beach and Boston, among others. Regional shows are moderate sized: East Coast Comic Con, Vermont, GraniteCon (these examples are primarily to give you a size idea). And small shows are the one run at the library or local gym.

Comic creators will attend and sell their wares at a variety of these shows throughout any given year. Sometimes they do well, sometimes not so much.

The big pop-culture shows are huge gambles for people like me and we will likely not recoup costs... but they are a hell of a lot of fun and that experience is worth it.

Creators will frequent the other types of shows, but as I mentioned in my previous post, it can be tough to cover table cost, hotel, food and transport when you are just an independent creator and not a “guest." A "guest" is typically someone with more of a reputation or history in comics (or media) and will often have a table or accommodations comp-ed.

What shows do creators typically shy away from?

What some have colorfully adopted as "star fucker" shows. These are typically conventions that have "Wizard World" in front of them. Now, this is not to disparage any celebrities, creators or fans who attend these cons, not at all. But comics and creators - especially independent and small press - are an afterthought at these shows. There are some exceptions for sure, but Wizard World is more focused on the celebrity and PR stunt market that I’m not going to spend $250 on a table to compete with the cast of The Walking Dead or Ryan Lochte for a sale. 

Don't get me wrong, kudos to Wizard for cornering that market. They’ve also made it much easier for fans to get an autograph, photo or both from their favorite stars. If fans are willing to pay for a little facetime with their favorite star and the celebrities pocket some good change while doing it — good for them. Additionally, if it does help subsidize their earnings because of any residual cuts as THR suggests, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t try to take advantage.

Also consider this for a second. These celebrities are human. Often times, they are working insane schedules during the week, especially on TV shows, and the weekends may be their only reprieve. They also may not be paid as much as you think on their shows or movies. A common misconception about Hollywood jobs is that everyone is just raking in millions of dollars. That's far from the truth. So at the very least, you've got to give them credit for making themselves accessible.

It's interesting to see the article make mention of some of the Wizard shows and other conventions struggling to make a profit, while having potentially lucrative results for celebrities. As I mentioned, there are an over-abundance of these conventions. Between overhead, trying to get artists/vendors/creators to gamble on high table costs multiple times throughout the year and trying to draw in attendees who possibly just attended a show is tough. I'm not surprised some of these shows struggle. On top of that, a lot of celebrities and other guests will likely get a guarantee and will have travel, lodging and other expenses covered (that's normal for these things). So yeah, it should surprise no one that the results are less profitable for organizers, more so for guests.

Now, with my description of Wizard World shows, you might think I’d put Heroes & Villains in that category too. I don't.

I remember the first advertisements for Heroes & Villains. They made it very clear that it wasn't a "comic convention," it was more of a meet and greet show. They actually did something kind of brilliant. They took Wizard's formula, cut the pork and made it celebrity-centric. There are of course vendors and what have you, but the attraction isn't pop culture, it's the stars. That colorful term used for Wizard World doesn't apply because Heroes & Villains doesn't try to pretend to be something it's ultimately not.

I actually feel that the article did a disservice to Heroes & Villains - and while this is speculation - I think that might be why Stephen Amell was less than thrilled about the article.

Oddly enough, I've yet to attend a Heroes & Villains show mostly because a giant blizzard and a scheduling conflict, respectively, kept me from the two that have been held in New Jersey. But I know enough about them to be able to confidently describe what sets them apart. Back to that blizzard in a minute.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've met Amell a few times. It's also no secret if Patriot-1 ever got optioned for a movie, he'd be my first choice. He's a nice guy and he's really driven to - basically - do cool stuff. Whether its business ventures, charity T-shirt campaigns, his impressive social media presence or wrestling in a match at SummerSlam – Amell has built a solid brand that breaks from the mold of many of the pre-conceived norms of a television star.

So judging by his reaction to the article – he did a Facebook Live video wearing one of his charity T-shirts – it was easy to tell that he was bothered by the idea that he and other TV stars had taken over the celebrity con-circuit purely for monetary gain.

The reason I would counter that notion has everything to do with that blizzard in 2015 that canceled one day of the first New Jersey Heroes & Villains Fan Fest. I was supposed to go for a work thing, but the blizzard was coming in hard and I would have absolutely been stranded an hour from home in New Jersey for at least a day. Much to my wife's relief, the cancellation of the first day left me snowed in at home with the kids.

However, I followed the event on social media throughout the blizzard day. Amell, John Barrowman, Katrina Law and the other stars attending the show not only made themselves accessible to the fans that were also stranded, but they provided live updates on the show's status as well as interacted with fans making the best of their situation.

It was an interesting situation to see unfold. When you look at coverage of these Heroes & Villains events, they have all sorts of activities to go along with the signings and photo ops. Even though I've admittedly been unable to attend, I get the sense that there is less a convention feel and more of a community-like feel to the show and that's something unique. Baltimore and Boston comic-cons often have that feel.

This is important because The Hollywood Reporter article doesn't make mention of this. It doesn't mention how accessible these celebrities are willing to be at a show like Heroes & Villains. Instead it focuses heavily on the profit margins as opposed the brand-building and genuine appreciation for fans. With that in mind, it's easy to see how the "inside baseball" rundown in THR could upset someone like Amell, who is actively working to build Heroes & Villains as a more friendly, accessible and welcoming show that feels more like a big fandom family than a typical Wizard World.

I can’t speak to the idea that Amell is irking traditional booking agents by wanting to control his part of his operations, but as a guy who decided to just go ahead and start my own comic publisher to make my comics, it makes business sense. If it makes financial sense for someone to take control of their own business ventures and destiny – while at the same time building a viable brand – why the hell wouldn’t you? That’s just simple, smart business and it allows him to manage his own brand which is something I admire.

The article also makes mention of stars like Mark Hamill who support a California law requiring a certificate of authenticity for autographs. This too is nothing new to comic creators and fans. At most comic cons, if a fan wants to get a certain key issue signed and graded, often times there will be a CGC (comics grading service) witness to verify the certificate of authenticity. I’ve also seen artists charge a small autograph fee for issues they have done that could end up on eBay or CGC’ed. It’s an understandable practice if an autograph-seeker intends to turn a profit.

Next year, Heroes & Villains: New Jersey will most likely run against New York Comic Con. On the surface, this may be a fool’s errand and a few years ago, it would be. But the con landscape has changed, and I’m actually really interested to see how Heroes & Villains does across the river from the biggest comic con in the country. I personally think they will do fine, and perhaps perform even better than normal with NYCC in town.

As a comic creator, it's easier to determine Heroes & Villains isn't a space for what I do right now, but they don't pretend that it is as opposed to Wizard.

If nothing else, that article in The Hollywood Reporter just leaves out a lot of details about fandom, the con business and the accessibility of the celebrities in favor of trying to shock people with the amount of money they make. If a person is willing to pay a few bucks for an autograph, photo and some facetime with a celebrity and the celebrity is willing to meet that demand in a manageable way, that’s their prerogative, after all, that’s supply and demand economics.