Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Variant": No variation

"Variant" is actually a decent title for an internet comic book review show. It plays on the tired and cynically exploitive merchandizing ploy of publishing comics with "variant covers," while at the same time suggesting that the show's point of view will be a little bit different than you expect. Perhaps not so mainstream.

One of Merriam-Webster's definitions of the word is "manifesting variety, deviation, or disagreement." Another is "one that exhibits variation from a type or norm." This is what I had in mind when I decided to give the show a try.

The show does not live up to the possibilities suggested by its title.

The host, Arris Quinones, is likable enough. He talks way too fast and is too apt to poke fun at his own jokes, but one suspects his quirks are very often the result of a desire to please his employers and whatever potential audience he's going for. He's an enthusiastic supporter of mainstream comics, which is fine -- everyone is entitled to his opinion -- but his opinions are so mainstream and the show is so superficial that sitting through each segment feels like 5 to 8 minutes of fanboy parody. Take for instance his "Top Indie Comics Pics" episode. I'm not suggesting you actually watch the episode, but here it is:

Very early in the episode, Mr. Quinones anticipates the criticism this episode would deserve, and so he tries to defuse it with some PoMo rationalization:  

"I know some of you guys might not consider a few of these actual 'indie comics,' but we're calling it that because if you're not a die-hard comic book fan, you probably never would have heard of these graphic novels or comics before, so basically we're bunching actual indie comics and lesser-known comics into this little ball of love. Got it?"

 Yes, I "got it." You're an insecure mainstream fan who reads Marvel and DC and maybe a few Dark Horse comics, and that's about it, but you also kinda want to seem cool.

Three of his selections of "top indie comics" are published by DC Comics, under their "Vertigo" imprint. DC is of course the publisher of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. It is one of the top two comics publishers in America. His other choice is published by Image Comics, and was co-created by Robert Kirkman, author of "The Walking Dead," and frequent contributor to Marvel comics, which is the publisher of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers, etc, and is the other of the top two comics publishers in America, and Todd MacFarlane, creator of Spawn and former Spider-Man wunderkind.

These are not "indie" comics. You know what's an "indie" comic? Mockey Mouse Vs Superiorman is an "indie" comic! Daisy California is an "indie" comic! RottenTomatoBot is an "indie" comic!

Sorry. Got a little off-track there.

The episode also features an in-show ad for Converse DC Comics themed shoes. Perhaps it's not an official ad-- Mr. Quinones presents the information as if he just came across these shoes while browsing the internet and wanted to share. It's very difficult to tell these days. The entertainment corporations have done an outstanding job of using fans to promote their products; the film "Toy Story 3" is all about the importance of exploiting fan product loyalty in spreading traditional corporate entertainment. Why should Converse pay Mr. Quinones to spread the word about their shoes? Why should Marvel or DC pay Mr. Quinones to spread the word about their books?

This show is a metaphor for what's happening in modern mainstream comics fandom. Vertigo titles are "indie," and, hey, Converse has these really wicked canvas shoes with drawings of The Flash on them!

The saddest episode -- I mean, literally sad, I cried while watching it -- was the very next one, in which Mr. Quinones attends a comic book convention in Dallas (he's hoping to one day get to San Diego!), and asks cosplayers...

...If they've ever been to the San Diego Comic Con.

First off, I have nothing against cosplayers. I actually kind of admire their dedication to their favorite characters, and their walking celebration of creativity.  But, this is allegedly an internet show about comic books. Was there no Artist's Alley at the Dallas Comic Con? Mr. Quinones might have discovered some actual "indie" comics worth buying if he'd shown any kind of intellectual curiosity. How much time did he spend talking to the "Catwoman"? Well, she was cute.

The whole "talking to cosplayers" thing is tired. It's what local news shows do when they bother to cover conventions at all. "Look at these people, all dressed up like comic book characters! Ain't that quaint??? These are the kind of people you see at conventions!" One expects more from a show that dares to call itself "Variant."

But if you are going to talk to the cosplayers, and only the cosplayers, why not ask them some insightful questions? "What motivates you to dedicate so much time and energy in creating this elaborate costume?" "Do you ever wear the costume outside of a convention setting?" "Do you identify closely with this particular character? If so, what iteration -- the original Silver Age version? The TV version?" "What do you think of the more negative, hardcore fandom elements-- do you think they're actively driving away more casual comics fans?"

Mr. Quinones asks them if they've ever been to San Diego Comic Con. You know, the really cool comic book convention. Not like the lame one they're stuck at now, which apparently doesn't even have an Artist's Alley.

In the second episode, Mr. Quinones brought in another internet tv host to discuss their (non-varying) opinions of the new "Marvel's The Avengers" film, and both loved it in part because it reminded them of a live action cartoon, sort of like the television series "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes!".

Seriously, the "Avengers" film was so good it actually reminded them of a cartoon television series (full disclosure: after viewing this episode of "Variant," I subjected myself to the first two episodes of the show -- actually, I didn't make it more than a few minutes into the second episode, although its current IMDb rating is 8.6 out of 10, so what do I know?). They also declare, less than a week after seeing it for the first time, that it might be their favorite comic book movie of all time, because "The Dark Knight" is more of a "gangster movie," or more of a "Joker movie."

So there you go. More modern fandom metaphor.

One positive is Mr. Quinones. He seems motivated more by enthusiasm for the characters he grew up with than the bitterness and outright hostility that seems to animate so much of modern comics fandom. Which means, in a way, Mr. Quinones is providing something of a service; I just wish he'd broaden his horizons a bit more as his show continues. Assuming it does.

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