Sunday, September 21, 2014

If all you have is the past, then everything is shiny

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1901. That was the first year of Fielding Yost's lengthy tenure at Michigan. They finished 11-0, outscoring their opponents 550-0, inaugurating the title "Point-a-minute" that Yost's teams would carry for the next four seasons. They were recognized as national champions by a number of different committees or foundations that took the role of doing that kind of thing both then and in later years. That's all wonderful and glorious, but it's also 113 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1964. They went 9-1 that season, losing only to Purdue, 21-20, and they won the Big 10 title and beat Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, 34-7. They didn't win a national title, but they were the best team of a very fallow period for Michigan football and the best one under Bump Elliott, whom everyone agreed was a very nice guy. That, too, is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 50 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1997. They went 12-0 that season, winning the Big 10 title, the Rose Bowl, and the national title according to everyone but the USA Today Coaches' Poll, who awarded it to Nebraska. That team also had the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, who won the award as the only primarily defensive player in its history. All of that is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 17 years ago when the game was, yes, very different.

Michigan has a wonderful history in the game of football but, in today's Tautology Lesson, that is exactly what it is: history. It has relevance to the modern game only in that people continue to pine for it as an example of how they think things should be if the world were "right", but wishing the world were what you'd like it to be is why they call it "dreaming" and this here's reality.

Sporting News
Brady Hoke, by all accounts, is a very nice guy and clearly loves the program. Brady Hoke is also stuck in the past and all the wonder and glory that comes with it. He was hired with a career sub-.500 record; hardly the record you would expect for a program the adherents of which like to stress is the all-time winningest (based on total wins at the moment, since we surrendered the percentage basis to Notre Dame when we lost to Kansas State in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.) Hoke revels in the history of Michigan, even after appalling losses like last night's 26-10 drubbing by Utah at Michigan Stadium. Watch yesterday's post-game press conference. He mentions telling the team that the 1998 team lost to ND and Syracuse and still rebounded to tie for the conference title (Wisconsin, however, went to the Rose Bowl on tiebreakers and Michigan ended up in the Citrus Bowl.) He also mentions Woody Hankins made a great play in the 1996 OSU game. 16 years ago. 18 years ago. It's all in the past. That's where the glory was. None of it has anything to do with the modern game.

The modern game is one where the spread punt formation actually limits the opponent's ability to gain yardage on punt returns. It's a modern approach and the vast majority of college teams use it because it allows them to send more gunners down the field and contain the return guy. Hoke, OTOH, uses the old pro-style formation, which doesn't. That seems to be a rather galling tactical flaw in the first place but it's compounded by Hoke's preferred offensive approach, which is ball-control, power running... and field position. If you're giving the other team an additional 10-15 yards per return, you're surrendering field position.

Rampaging across Twitter from Utah fans
Of course, if you only have 10 men on the field for the punt that Utah returned for a touchdown yesterday, then you have more problems than formation issues...

In that press conference, Hoke talks about how "all our goals are still out there." Those "goals" he's talking about are the conference title and the Rose Bowl. I don't think I need to remind anyone about how wretched the B1G is as a conference at this point and how unlikely that conference title will matter to anyone, mostly because it hasn't mattered to anyone in a very long time. Everyone has talked national title for the past 25 years, if not longer. The last Michigan team that is heralded as genuinely great is that 1997 group above, because they won a national title. The next most recent team mentioned is the 2006 team, which played in a #1 vs #2 matchup with Ohio State that had implications for the national title. The conference title was a complete afterthought, even to former Hoke superior, Lloyd Carr, who thought that his team deserved a shot at the title game even after the narrow loss to OSU. The conference title hasn't mattered to anyone in a long time but it matters to people living in the past when college football was more regional. Those are the glory days: the Ten-Year War between Bo and Woody for the title to the most prestigious conference in the land and the secondary hope of catching the pollsters' eye and maybe getting the not-as-important, voted-upon national title. That latter thing is now the only thing. We even have a playoff to decide it, which the B1G champion will not have access to and Michigan can't even dream of.

It's not wrong to dream. It's not wrong to have goals. It is wrong to not have a plan to deal with the modern game and find a way to actually achieve those goals, instead of just stating them as platitudes. Hoke's ideal image of Michigan football is planted firmly somewhere in the 70s which, like the punting scheme, is oddly contradictory, given that Michigan was mostly an option team (i.e. running quarterback) in the 70s and the current offense is predicated on doing anything but that. Despite having a mobile QB, there were no designed quarterback runs yesterday. Despite Utah loading the box with 8 men and daring Michigan to run, Michigan rarely tried to stretch the field. Again, this is borderline solipsism, where attempting to impose one's belief on a reality that won't cooperate seems to be the only way for this coach to function. Certainly he needs more time than most in order to carry through on his beliefs, since Michigan is the second-slowest offense in the nation. In both losses this season, even while down by double digits, Michigan still took 35 seconds to run almost every play. There is no urgency there because the past is always with us and will always be glorious, no matter what happens now. But the facts say that Michigan hasn't even been in the red zone in two games against real competition. The facts say that Michigan is among the leaders in the nation in turnovers and tackles for loss, just like last year. Facts get in the way of dreams and belief. If you squint really hard, you can imagine there were 100,000 fans in the stadium yesterday, too.
I was talking with Brian Cook of MGOBLOG yesterday and we were mulling over Hoke's almost-inevitable replacement at the end of this year. He suggested Scott Frost, the offensive coordinator for Pac-12 powerhouse, Oregon. As some of you may know, Oregon's offense frequently keeps it in the conversation as a candidate for a national title (i.e. relevant to the modern game.) As some of you may remember, Scott Frost was the quarterback for that aforementioned Nebraska team who campaigned long and loud to get Nebraska a share of that national title. When I brought his name up on the board today, there was one immediate visceral response rejecting the idea because of college football "tribalism" and the actions of not just Frost but his apparently voluble mother, who wrote to Michigan magazines after the Nebraska win in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.

But that stuff is in the past, just like the glory, and it deserves as much credence as that glory does right now. The attachment to "tribalism", notably the "Michigan Man" misnomer, is an enormous part of why Michigan is in the trouble that it is. I loved Bo, too. But Bo is dead and most of his direct descendants in the coaching world have long since left it. Michigan doesn't need a link to the past. It needs one to the future. I don't know if Frost is the right coach. I just know that Hoke isn't and neither is anyone who thinks like him at this point. If all we rely upon to move forward is what we had before, we're not Michigan any longer. We're Minnesota, last relevant to the college game in 1960 and that was 54 years ago, when the game was very different.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What it meant

One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic. We were at one of those highly-regulated and organized suburban vacation spots called Camp Dearborn. It's actually owned by the city of Dearborn, MI but is 35 miles away in Milford, MI. I have no idea why. They had canvas-roofed cabins that you could rent, a small lake, a swimming pool, a golf course, hayrides, and the whole nine yards. Very Midwest; very "get away for a weekend"-type thing, and that's exactly what I remember us doing. I was four years old and I was sitting in one of the cabins reading an issue of Man-Thing, Marvel's answer to DC's Swamp Thing (in fact, the same writer had worked on both as many of them drifted back and forth between the Big Two in those years) and another example of Marvel's return to horror comics after its neutering of the Comics Code a couple years earlier. We had been sharing a couple of the cabins with another family we knew and I was in the "boys' cabin" and had a small pile of comics with me. My vague memory says that most of them were mine, but I knew that one of the older boys had a few with him, as well. They had decided to leave before us at that point or were perhaps just running home for a while (the camp at the time was only about an hour from our home) and he burst into the cabin, grabbed a bunch of the comics, including the one in my hand, and ran out. I don't remember which issue it was and I don't remember being particularly outraged that I'd been interrupted and perhaps even had something stolen from me. I just remember that the images of that comic stayed with me and turned into an almost lifelong obsession.

I met someone recently and dropped a Stan Lee reference. We'd been texting about being enchanted and it turned into an exchange of synonyms: beguiled, befuddled, bamboozled, bemused. She mentioned that she liked the alliteration and I said I couldn't help it. I'd read too many Stan Lee comics as a kid. Lee frequently titled his columns "Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan's Soapbox" or was fond of referring to the readers in ways like "the fightin', ferocious, fantabulous fans of fun!!" Any quick look at many of his early characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker) demonstrates that this was a regular habit of his. My new friend mentioned that she wasn't really a fan (fightin' or otherwise) but she was fascinated(!) by people that were and what they got out of comics or why they enjoyed them. That, of course, got me to thinkin'...

Alliteration fer reals. No one has ever really determined why he has to wear pants, either.

I think most kids are into superheroes to one degree or another. One only has to look at Marvel's film success over the past decade to see some of that. I don't remember what my particular attachment became early on and what led me to collect over 30,000 of them in the intervening years. I do remember that I was far more interested in the stories themselves than the accompanying artwork. I wanted to know why Cyclone had kidnapped J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #143 and why Mary Jane Watson seemed to be having a really hard time in her relationship with Peter Parker (my own parents were getting divorced around this same time.) Furthermore, I really wanted to know why Mary Jane ended that issue by uttering the phrase "Far freakin' out." which was the same exclamation that Green Arrow used at the end of an issue of Justice League of America! (Drifting writers again.) That's not to say that I wasn't interested in the accompanying art. I remember picking up my first copy of magazines like Heavy Metal (the American version of the French Métal Hurlant) or Marvel's own Epic Illustrated and being engrossed in the painting of artists like Mœbius, Richard Corben, and Jim Starlin. Both Marvel and DC would also later venture into more daring artistic approaches with people like Dave McKean and I would remain a fan of the moody approach of Matt Wagner and many, many others. But it was really always the stories that hooked me and what had led people to create them...

Beta Ray Bill, FTW!

... which is kind of funny in one respect because I'm a ferocious critic of story and when you look back at many of the comics that I loved at the time they were produced, like the above issue of Thor, produced by Walt Simonson who has long been considered the best writer/artist to ever helm the book, the pace and dialogue are awful. There are long stretches of clunky exposition or explanations of what's going on in the establishment shot (which can be a regular cityscape) or re-statements of who Thor is and why he is. Editor-in-chief of the time, Jim Shooter, always said that you have to have a continuing story to retain regular readers but that every issue is always someone's first read, so the story couldn't be so dense that they wouldn't be able to get into it. That philosophy is blatantly obvious in reading those old series and makes them kind of painful to get through. That approach was standard in TV for much of its history, as well, and it's only comparatively recently that it has changed such that trying to drop into the middle of things like Breaking Bad would have been difficult for new viewers and it's by far the better experience to watch from the beginning. The way to tell good stories is to let characters grow and develop, especially if they're character-driven stories like almost all superhero comics. You can't have that growth or development if you have to keep explaining what's going on to the new readers. Thankfully, the emergence of limited series in the 80s enabled many writers to escape that Minosian circuit and other series developed with that principle firmly in mind, such as Sandman.

Not a Sandman cover, but one of my favorite McKean images

But the mention of Sandman is important here because it led to the most significant shift in comics since the Code destroyed EC. While the book has always been written by Neil Gaiman and he had a definite path in mind for it, since it was in the DC Universe he had to play along with the superheroes in his backyard for the first year of its publication, although he tried hard to skirt them as much as possible. Once Karen Berger finally convinced DC to let her take books like Sandman and Swamp Thing into their own imprint, Vertigo, they were finally free from the thing that has held back comics in many ways for the past half-century: superheroes.

Don't get me wrong: I love superheroes. I grew up with them. I've read tens of thousands of stories about them. The nostalgic pull is strong whenever someone brings up stuff like Iron Man under David Michelinie or Amazing Spider-Man under Roger Stern in the 80s. I think the Wild Cards series of anthologies, edited and contributed to by George R. R. Martin, are brilliant. But, as with any genre, there are limits to what can be done with them. Despite my history, I haven't read a superhero comic with any regularity since the early 90s. I can't. The stuff bores me to tears because in many ways it's still following the Jim Shooter model. My friend, Curtis, who is the owner of the local shop in Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight, tried to sell me on a new version of Iron Fist a few years ago and I devoured the first six-issue collection which was about the character coming to grips with his past and the spirituality surrounding the strange city of K'un Lun and what it meant for him to hold the power that he acquired. I was like: "Yeah. This is the shit!" It was thoughtful, but retained enough touches to Chinese mythology and 60s-era kung fu films to have just a bit of camp to lighten it at the right points. Plus, having practiced martial arts for many years, I was on the same page with the concept of trying to express oneself physically and conform to the art as laid down by those before you. I was totally geeked. And then I picked up issue #7... and it was Villain-of-the-month again. Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! Lovely parting gifts, etc.

Gothic #1 by me and Kevin Leen, cover by Guy Davis

When we started the studio in the early 90s, it was with the same idea that so many other comics companies have begun: do it differently and better than the big guys. Almost by default, that meant no superheroes. If you wanted superheroes, you knew where to go. Dark Horse didn't do them (except for one brief excursion around that time that I actually kind of enjoyed) because they wanted to avoid competing directly with Marvel and DC and they frequently stated that they thought the concept was more than played out. Image started around that time with the very brash and public announcement that they were going to do things differently from the Big Two. What they produced at the time was utterly similar and essentially the same stuff that all of them had been doing for Marvel with different names. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had shown what superheroes could be taken to in the mid-80s and that limit had pretty much been set. Trying to keep going after that wasn't interesting to me nor was it to many readers who really wanted to read good stories. Fifth Panel Comics produced creator-owned material, though, so amongst our early producers were people that did their hero-of-the-moment stuff but they soon gave up and left. The small core that remained continued with the idea that the medium could only really be advanced with good stories that had little to do with bright costumes and stopping bank robbers or alien invasions.

I read very few comics these days and the closest I come to superheroes is Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which is essentially Busiek using the world he'd created as a kid to convey stories about the human condition. The facade is "superhero" but the stories are very human. Otherwise, ironically, I actually read a lot of Image output as they decided somewhere along the way that most of their stuff was played out, as well. Most of the original creators had moved on and they've attracted a stable of artists and writers that produce good stuff from many different genres, like Greg Rucka's Lazarus. But I still have a deep attachment to the medium as I tend to think of stories in a cinematic fashion (comics being far closer to film than prose.) When I pitched the idea of Coding Time to Ghostwoods, I did so with the idea of a film called The Machinist firmly in mind and I wrote it in that fashion. I could see the panel transitions in my head. I still have a ton of stories for Fifth Panel that never saw the light of day (or the black of night) and I'd still like to see them published somewhere. My friend, Margot, suggested to me a few years back that I try to convert them to prose. It's something I considered a few times but always abandoned because, again, of the chasm between the two media. There are tricks that you can perform with comics that are very difficult, if not impossible, with prose. When you can let the artwork tell one half of the story and can tell a conjoined but disparate story at the same time via captions, that's a technique that's not feasible in prose and that wouldn't be easy to do in film, either. But comics can make it happen because your reader proceeds at his pace, not the film's which gives more time for reflection and understanding. If you have eye-catching art to go with it, so much the better.

So, yeah. That (and so many, many more details) is what I get from comics/what they mean to me/why they still hang over me even though my connection to them is fairly tenuous these days. My creative outlook is shaped by them and always will be. I analyze plot and story of films through the glass of comics in many ways (noting that Snowpiercer worked well as a comic but not very well as a film, for example.) I think it's a powerful medium that doesn't get a lot of the respect that it deserves because it's tied to the shadow of the cape and cowl, despite the billions earned by Marvel's increasingly Bay-like films, which are still regularly trivialized as "summer blockbusters" from an artistic standpoint and deservedly so in most cases. But there are still gems to find. I'd like to think that one or two of them are still in my head.