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Grumpy Old Fan | Retired … or “Doomed?”

Doom Patrol #121

Doom Patrol #121

(This starts out cynical, but it gets better.)

DC’s superhero line is essentially an intellectual-property farm. Every new issue cements the company’s hold on its existing characters and/or introduces new characters for future exploitation. If, by some chance, a particular story turns out to be Art, so much the better. The important thing is to maintain those property rights.

Accordingly, it’s rare that a character is “retired,” a la Jack “Starman” Knight or Tommy “Hitman” Monaghan, when his story has reached a stopping point. A little while back I wrote that maybe the New Teen Titans had reached their own peak at the end of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s original run. Originally I wanted to revisit that, and list a few more titles which perhaps might have benefited from similar retirements.  Let’s do that, at least briefly….

High on my list was DC’s 1986 Captain Atom relaunch, written by Cary Bates and Greg Weisman and pencilled by Pat Broderick. This version boasted a nifty high concept: framed for treason and blasted 18 years into the future, Cap finds his worst enemy has become both his boss and his kids’ beloved stepfather. In fact, most of the world thought Nathaniel Adam had died in disgrace, so he was blackmailed into becoming both Air Force intelligence agent Cameron Scott and the latest all-American superhero. Accordingly, Captain Atom combined spy-flavored superheroics with multiple levels of intrigue, and for fifty issues it was pretty fun stuff.

However, Bates, Weisman, and Broderick’s successor Rafael Kayanan were all gone after issue #50, and the book was canceled with #57. If that’s where Cap’s story had ended, that would have been fine … but as most of you probably know, Captain Atom was supposed to become Monarch, the villain of 1991’s Armageddon 2001 crossover event. I’m glad that didn’t happen, because I like Cap as a character; but this is part of the reason I say DC might have left well enough alone after issue #50.

Following 1991’s Armageddon: The Alien Agenda miniseries, in which Cap fought the “real” Monarch, Cap became a semi-regular Justice Leaguer, splitting off eventually to form the much-mocked Extreme Justice. Several years and a handful of guest appearances later, he sacrificed himself to save the Earth in the first arc of Superman/Batman. Yadda yadda yadda, this blasted him into the WildStorm universe, he learned he was really Monarch all along, he came back, now he’s in Justice League: Generation Lost.

And I still like him as a character. I even bought that WildStorm miniseries. I think that when done right, he is a very smart, down-to-earth guy and a good reader-identification character. Nevertheless, much of what made those fifty issues of Captain Atom interesting has been rendered moot by that mega-story’s resolution. (Indeed, the short-lived Breach series was apparently a stealth revamp of Captain Atom, so much so that Infinite Crisis revealed that Breach himself would have been one of Cap’s multiversal counterparts.) Now Cap is a much more generic superhero, because by and large DC hasn’t found any new hook upon which to hang him. In hindsight, retirement might have suited him better.

That said, I do think that an espionage-oriented writer like Greg Rucka or Ed Brubaker could do wonders with Cap even under his current status quo. Rucka’s recent stint co-writing Cap’s Action Comics co-feature wasn’t really an indication of his fit for the character.

And that, in turn, reveals my own reluctance to let a favorite character fade away. Another title on my list was Doom Patrol, which I first knew as a title which ended with its stars martyred. For most of the 1970s and ‘80s, the original Doom Patrol was defined by its sacrifice, such that a Wolfman/Pérez tribute story in New Teen Titans featured the late Patrollers only as memories. Even after the New Doom Patrol debuted in 1977’s Showcase #94, they only had a few more guest appearances (1978 and 1983 Supergirl stories, a 1982 Superman team-up, 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths) over the next ten years. 1987’s Doom Patrol vol. 2 lasted 18 issues on the newsstand before being “canceled” (again, with the deaths or “forced retirements” of most members) in favor of a switch in both format and marketplace.

Therefore, I was going to make the case that the original Doom Patrol had been satisfactorily retired via their 1968 sacrifice … but I would have had to distinguish the original DP from Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s no-less-entertaining version which started in vol. 2’s issue #19. I would also have had to discount Keith Giffen and Matthew Clark’s work on the current Volume 4. Although I like it a lot, it’s basically the original four Patrollers plus, among others, a couple of Morrison and Case’s characters. Saying that DC shouldn’t have brought back Rita, Larry, and the Chief would have deprived me of some mighty fine comics, past and present.

Similarly — and speaking of Rucka — at first I wasn’t convinced that his work on Gotham Central flowed that smoothly into making two of its stars into superheroes. Both Reneé Montoya and Crispus Allen are in demonstrably different places today. Still, for the most part Rucka has guided both characters into new roles, and I think that has helped ease my skepticism. I am glad that Rucka and co-writer Eric Trautmann were able to bring their Checkmate characters to a nice stopping point (I didn’t read the Bruce Jones issues), and I’m glad that DC has (mostly) gone back to them when it’s subsequently needed Checkmate.

Thus, part of me wants to establish a hard and fast rule that some books belong to some creators, regardless of work-for-hire or the conventions of a shared superhero universe. I don’t want to say “only Gail Simone should write Birds Of Prey,” because for many years it was written by Chuck Dixon, and it’s now prepping for an arc by John Ostrander [see sheepish comment below]. (Justice Society and Teen Titans do seem to have floundered since Geoff Johns left….)

Again, though, the Doom Patrol shows us that there are ways to bring one era to a close without salting the earth for the next creative team. The Morrison/Case run was successful not just for its unique characters and plots, but because it was able to take a fresh look at the original team’s “freakish” nature. Odds are it is not enough simply to ape a previous creative team’s work. For a revival to be worthwhile, it needs to be justifiably different. There are exceptions — institutions like Checkmate, the GCPD, and the Suicide Squad, are part of the structure of the DC superhero universe, and are defined at least in part by their particular functions — but even those still leave room for new interpretations and new perspectives.

Finally, I cannot help but note the irony that for some of the titles and characters I’ve talked about, including Captain Atom, The Question, and Checkmate, their second incarnations are really my main reference points. The shared superhero universe can abuse its characters, but it can also offer them new opportunities and the chance to honor their pasts by building constructively on them. (Of course DC claims it does this unfailingly.) The question, as always, is one of proper stewardship; and whether DC will choose cultivation or exploitation.

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Comments

38 Comments

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to correct this, but there are no fill-in writers for Birds of Prey planned at all.

I’m sure it’s a simple mis-communication. Love John Ostrander, would love to have him write an Oracle mini or something, but Bop is just me for a long time to come, for good or ill! ;)

Simon DelMonte

July 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I suspect GOF got his Bop and his S6 confused. It can happen to anyone.

As for the column, it is always nice to meet a fellow Captain Atom fan. I agree that he’s been sort of generic so far in JL:GL (which I am really starting to enjoy despite this). I felt that Cap’s book should have ended with issue 50 even back then. I didn’t buy it again after that, feeling that Weisman and friends had wrapped things up perfectly, and that Cap would be best suited to being in JLE. But then came all the messes described above.and they really ruined him.

And do not get me started on what happened to General Eiling.

Ah….he meant Secret Six. This just means that he’s reading both, right? :)

And, also: great article! I think part of the problem with characters needing to “retire” comes from the fact that companies like Marvel and DC have an interest in keeping their trademarked (or copyrighted or whatever) characters in print, regardless of whether or not the creative team on hand has any decent idea with what to do with them at the moment or not.

I also enjoyed the 1980s Captain Atom a lot.

I think it interesting that Cary Bates is basically the ONLY writer ever that could transition from Silver Age to Modern Age while adapting his style completely and competently to each Age.

Shang Chi is another character that has been thankfully semi-retired after the classic run. I wish they had done the same to Adam Warlock, even though Infinity Gauntlet is a guilty pleasure for many.

Excellent article! I have actually just recently started reading Gotham Central as well as the original Doom Patrol series, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of your comments (especially in regards to being reluctant towards the cast of Gotham Central “graduating” to superheroics).

I think your opening paragraphs are spot-on as well, even if they probably do seem cynical to some. It seems like many superhero comic book series these days really are just published to capitalize on readers’ need to get a monthly “fix” of their favorite characters, with the desire to tell a truly great story coming a distant second. Why else publish dozens of tie-in issues for whatever “event” is going on at the moment?

But now I’m beginning to feel a bit cynical myself. Still, it’s definitely something worth thinking about, no matter what side of the debate you fall on.

Tom Bondurant

July 8, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Can one say “d’oh!” enough? I did mean Secret Six! Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop eating mushrooms….

(Ironically, while I was writing that confused sentence last night, I was also thinking about Roger Stern’s fill-in on All-New Atom. Just lucky I didn’t involve Uncle Rog too, I guess. :-))

So just to be clear, I really, really enjoy both BOP and S6, and I’m not just saying that out of embarrassment or any other face-saving impulse. However, I’ve been a BOP reader since the Manhunt miniseries, and I have to give Chuck Dixon a lot of the credit for getting me hooked in the first place. Today, though, I’m more than happy to read as much Simone-written BOP as I can get.

I really enjoyed that piece, it’s good to see the excellence of the Captain Atom book recognised; it gets forgotten as we focus on the horrors that came later.

Really interesting column. One of my big “books that should have ended” examples is Marvel’s Micronauts. The first 11 issues of that book, by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, were great 70s space opera stuff. The themes were expansive, the situations dire, and the characters were (for the most part) given complete arcs. Sure Mantlo ripped off Star Wars left and right, but he did it interestingly, and in such a way that my ten-year-old brain didn’t even realize he was doing it.

But after that first arc ended… Whoo boy. In spite of some high points along the way, and some very nice art by the likes of Howard Chaykin, Pat Broderick, and Butch Guice, the rest of the run is pretty much a waste. Better for it to have ended on a high note.

The current version of Captain Atom has been totally mishandled since his series ended. Most writers haven’t even used his powers correctly. The whole Monarch thing was so badly handled. In theory having him go bad wasn’t a bad idea but then it leaked and every time they have tried to deal with it they have just made it more confusing. Did they even bother to explain how he went from being Monarch to himself again this time around? Captain Atom is an interesting character with unique powers. It would be nice if some writer would write a reboot of him or something.

Great article. It seems with Capt Atom and Hawk and Dove, DC has finally tried to undo a lot of mess they created 20 years ago. I think Capt Atom is a great character but you can only do anything interesting with him by ignoring the whole Monarch thing. He would still be one of my choices for fulltime JLA membership.

How did Doom Patrol continue after the Morrison run? I just finished reading it and they really just must have thrown that whole run out of continuity right?

Morrison’s DP stuff is still in continuity, as far as I know. Geoff Johns undid the whole Byrne reboot.

Not so sure about Rachel Pollack’s stuff. It would be no great loss. Her stories just weren’t very good.

I really dug the Captain Atom series from the ’80s. I especially liked the fact that they took an existing villain (Plastique, an admittedly C-tier villain) and reformed her to the point where she and Nathaniel got married. It showed (not told) us the effect that true heroes have on the people around them.

Ideally, the characters would only be published when there are good writers around to do so. But, if that were the case, Superman would have been canceled in 1970, X-men in 1991 (or earlier) and Fantastic Four would be on-and-off every 5 years or so. Marvel and DC would never go for that idea.

Marvel has WAY more characters that need to retire than DC. This article, to me, proves that these characters are still having good stories told. Doom Patrol, Question and Captain Atom are all still involved in good stuff. Not sure why they should be retired?

Then we look at Marvel… Ghost Rider, Silver Surfer, even Venom. The list really goes on. Characters that have cool origins, but after an arc or two there has been nothing left in them for decades.

John Ostrander’s The Spectre definitely should be mentioned in this group.

He told an amazing, unified story throughout his run and was allowed to bring both that and the series to a natural conclusion. Not to mention that natural and well deserved ending was also for the 50+ year old character of the Jim Corrigan-Spectre. Unprecedented. Plus the final scene was note-perfect.

I remember how much I liked Blue Devil when it debuted, But it seemed to run out of steam not long after Paris Cullins left the title.

The only thing I would say is Justice Society and Teen Titans both started to “flounder” during the last years of Johns writing. Also, I feel a lot of books flounder after a long run and a switch of teams due to the higher ups and their input. New creative teams seem to start off with a vision but their direction seem to be forced to turn due to “events” and characters that are no longer available to them.

Marvel actually does retire many of its characters. They may not immediately see the need for it, but it happens and the characters go away for a few years, only to get trotted out again. Cage, for instance, was virtually non-existent between the end of his 90’s series and Bendis’s decision to bring him back in Alias (although he did have a brief stint in the Heroes for Hire reboot). Iron Fist had a similar experience. He “died” for many years, was brought back in the 90’s in a Namor arc, then for the most part disappeared until the Heroes for Hire reboot, then appeared (IIRC) in the bizarre New Warriors/Wolverine/Iron Fist storyline that wrapped up the second series.

The Thunderbolts wrapped up as a team in about 2002, only get replaced by the Fightbolts era storyline and the group wasn’t heard from again for about 2 years until Busiek/Niceiza returned to the team. The concept’s been handed off a few times since then, but generally well received.

Ghost Rider disappeared for about 3 years after his 90’s series folded, appearing in a Spider-Man story as a wrap-up, and had a mini-series about 3 years later. That didn’t take, so the character was shunted off to Ennis in 2005 and had his recent resurgence.

Marc Spector:Moon Knight wrapped up in 1994 or so, appeared in the Marvel Knights un-team and two mini-series, but other than that, didn’t have a major or semi-major appearance until his recent book in 2006.

I can’t really speak for Venom because they’ve really gone off on some different directions. Are you talking about Brock (now Anti-Venom) or the Symbiote? The Thunderbolts Venom has been interesting, and that series where the symbiote was on its own like something out of a horror movie was at least a novel approach to the character.

Since Silver Surfer’s 90’s series wrapped up its 10 year run, he appeared in the forgettable 12 issue series around 2004, a couple mini-series (Requiem, In Thy Name) and as part of a few big events (a glorified cameo in Planet Hulk, and a bigger and generally well received appearance in Annihilation.

Eternals pre-Gaiman. Eternals post-Gaiman.

In the almost 20 years or so since Cloak and Dagger last had an ongoing, they’ve had relatively few appearances (part of Marvel Knights, briefly in two bigger New Warriors stories), a guest appearance in Runaways (which I think was well loved), a handful of panels in Civil War and House of M (although honestly, both were just attempts to use Cloak as a convenient plot device), and most recently during the Dark X-Men storyline and their one-shot. I think it boils down to less than one appearance per year, less if you take out the cameos and glorified cameos.

Marvel seems more likely to put the characters on a shelf and sit on them until what looks like a good opportunity (ie, placing them into a big crossover) or testing the market with a mini-series or two where nothing really happens. That Wolverine/Iron Fist mini-series, the Cloak and Dagger one-shot, those Moon Knight minis, Grayson’s Ghost Rider, Surfer Requiem and In Thy Name… those are all just testing the waters. They put the piece back on the board, see if there’s any interest, and then if there isn’t, they go back to semi-retirement.

Yes, these characters are not AS retired as Sandman, Hitman, and Starman, but they still take naps until there’s either a good chance to test the market or a new hook (like the Immortal Iron Fist series… well loved, fairly enjoyable.) Most people would prefer having new, good, stories with these characters than just letting them sleep, and if Marvel had retired Ghost Rider forever after his 90’s series and the Grayson mini, there would never have been the mostly enjoyable early part of his most recent series. Retiring Surfer would taken him out of the overall good Annihilation story. Retiring the symbiote would have taken him out of the popular Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers arcs.

I’m just saying that their states of psuedo-retirement are probably preferable (at least for many) than going through a decades long disappearance of the character because XYZ creator has something else in his or her pipeline.

Hey Kids Comics

July 10, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I read an article once where Arnold Drake, the creator of the Doom Patrol, stated that the Grant Morrison run was the only subsequent run to reflect his intent of the original series.

The 80s DC Captain Atom was the comic book I cut my comic book collecting teeth on. It was always fun to read and I liked that he was an outsider forced into the superhero world. The 50th issue ended almost all the story beats that had been left around from the series and would have been a nice ending though it did also tease new plots (probably as some hooks for any new writers to try). Sadly they then handed it over to a congo line of people that probably did not want to write, had no ideas to use and probably had little time to actually write something. Ostrander then was brought it to give it a ending before Armageddon but should have been left at 50. I’m sure the editors could see there was no one to take over and could have pulled the plug then.

A properly retired story doesn’t happen often in the main superhero worlds. Very few writers are given the chance to stick with a series until their planned end for it. Happens more in creator owned since they keep at it themselves and lines like Vertigo. Also if an author is able to end a series on their terms their usually isn’t a huge call to keep at the book from the fans since they had the proper closure to move on.

I don’t think any character should be retired. I think storytelling is always about working with characters and archetypes and being able to look back on classic versions while also acclimating them to modern storytelling. As a reader, you can choose when you want him to retire in your mind — by just picking a stopping point.

I think a good story could bring back any character that’s been retired. Think about Sandman — although he retired in some respects with the end of the series, those characters have been brought back multiple times for new stories that have been good — from the ENDLESS book, to the stories Jill Thompson has done.

Regarding Doom Patrol, the current incarnation has treated all prior ones as having existed, including the Byrne one that poster John above mentions.

In the current series, the seemingly lame characters introduced during the Byrne run were apparently killed in issue one, and the corporate run which launched with Robotman and four new characters has been mentioned and their corporate sponsor is a main antagonist (of sorts).

I love the Captain Atom series!!!

Actually Jack has made a couple non-speaking cameos since the last issue of Starman.

While I greatly miss Starman, the original Question and Hitman…in all cases I am glad that they wrapped.

As was mentioned at the start of the article, most comics’ purpose is to farm ideas for adaptations elsewhere and maintain copyrights. That does NOT mean you also cannot tell good stories while you’re at it. However, we have to keep in mind the three forces involved here:
-The company people (Editors, publishers etc.);
-The writers, who, let’s face it, are in it mostly for the thrill of writing a certain character (Comics writing isn’t secure regular work)
-and the fans (it is our buying the comics that keeps them going after all.)

Every one of those groups tends to have different ideas of what should happen to a character. Looked at it that way it’s AMAZING that anything good gets done for any period of time. We should be thankful when it does happen.

Also, I want to point that the inverse DOES happen- sometimes a series is stretched far longer than it deserves. I’m sorry but DC’s female Manhunter series just wasn’t very good, the basic concept was terrible, it had poor sales and only lasted as long as it did because it was the darling of some people in power at DC. Why couldn’t they do the same for more deserving titles, like Blue Beetle (who was about to get a boost in popularity thanks to The Brave and The Bold cartoon?)

Also, there are times in which you can tell a publisher is just being mean for the Hell of it. “Humorous heroes? Not in MY DC universe! Kill, twist, or turn evil every one of them! That’s what sells today!!” See: The Bwa-Ha-Ha JLA. And don’t tell that was just a huge coincidence.

But the situation is not so simple, seeing as how two major characters from the Bwa-Ha-Ha days – Booster Gold and Guy Gardner – have rarely been so “major” in the DC Universe as they are now.

If the character is not one of the publishers top characters (Superman, Wolverine, Batman, etc.) than it would be a good idea to place the character in limbo for a time. However, to bring them back, Comic companies need to really look at what the next writer wants to do and how it may negaitvely or positively affect their characters.

I’m a fan of Captain Atom. I thought Extreme Justice started out good with the first 3 issues than it really became a joke after that. It made me wonder if DC really looked into the writer’s year long plan for the book or if it looked like the writer would jumb ship half way into the year.

I’d love to see a new Captain Atom series, but would rather wait until the right set of circumstances comes along. I’m not in favor a completely retiring a character.

I was a just hitting my teens and really getting into comics, but was a die hard fan of Booster Gold, Blue Beetle and Captain Atom when the 80’s series were being published. This is likely why these are 3 of my all time favorite characters. I just hate that DC never realized their true potential. Sure they seem to be giving Booster and the Blue Beetle (in name only as Jaime’s BB is ok, but not a fav of mine), some love in recent years, they’ve treated Capt. Atom like a red-headed step child.
Cap is one of, if not the most powerful of the DCU heroes, he’s military trained so they either show him as this strict military semi-tyrant, incompetent, or bland. Cap should be up at the head of the pack with Superman, Wonder Woman, Capt. Marvel(who also gets no love), Firestorm, Green Lantern and (even though I can’t stand him) Martian Manhunter in terms of power and leadership abilities. I don’t want to see him retired, I’d like to see his potential realized. Now that it seems that DC is starting to realize that characters, besides Superman and Batman, have potential on the big screen and since Cap and Booster both had some decent exposure in the JLU cartoon, maybe we’ll see them realize they have more than 12 characters in their universe.
I think a Capt. Atom, Booster Gold, Atom and given how aware everyone is regarding the environment, an Animal Man movie could be hits if done properly. Personally I think that Capt. Atom (fighting Major Force) and Booster Gold are two of DC’s properties that seem tailor made for the big screen. Personally I’d like to see DC/WB get a bunch of no-name actors to play some of the lesser known characters, create an universe like Marvel is doing and to a team movie.

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“…Morrison’s DP stuff is still in continuity, as far as I know. Geoff Johns undid the whole Byrne reboot.”

THIS is what is wrong with ALL of us.

“Still in”. Sickening. “Undid”. Worthless. “Reboot”. Pointless.

This incessant picking on what is “in” and “out” of “continuity”. Continuity, the idea that Roy Thomas pushed on us through his position as EIC of Marvel, is the thing that over thirty years hase KILLLED the “hobby” of READING comic books.

The Geohns is a destroyer. He kills to entertain. He breaks things for you to watch them being broken. Stan Lee never did that. Schwartz never did that. The currrent “creators” revel in destruction.

All I want are Adventure stories and aliens. Fist fights and last minute resues, Boy, I’M lame, aren’t I?

The return of Wonder Dog was the last straw for me. And NO, I didn’t think it was funny. Or cute. Or edgy. AND, most importantly, that whole interlude with Wonder Dog and The Wonder Twins did NOTHING to advance the STORY.

The Story. We still are interested int The Story, right?

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I really believe that it takes an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude to truly say “goodnight and good luck” to something you have created an introduced into a shared world. I can’t fault a company or writer for wanting to come back to something they have made. That said, the article state some properties belong to some writers, and I couldn’t agree more vigorously.

I read an article once where Arnold Drake, the creator of the Doom Patrol, stated that the Grant Morrison run was the only subsequent run to reflect his intent of the original series.

I was fortunate enough to meet Arnold Drake at a couple of convention in NYC before he died, and he told me pretty much the same thing. I think he may have said that Grant Morrison’s run on the Doom Patrol was the only other writer’s work with the characters that he liked, or words to that effect. But, yeah, he thought highly of Morrison’s DP stories.

“…companies like Marvel and DC have an interest in keeping their trademarked (or copyrighted or whatever) characters in print, regardless of whether or not the creative team on hand has any decent idea with what to do with them at the moment or not.”

Which was one of the reasons why books like Marvel Team-Up and The Brave and the Bold were kept around, so little-used characters could be shown in print every couple of years (if they hadn’t popped up as a guest-star somewhere else), and their trademarks maintained.

I have great affection for Captain Atom. I love his Charlton background and the Bates’ reboot was tremendous. I want him to be relevant and not a Superman clone. His military background, which I have a personal interest in, along with the spycraft, covertness, time displacement, and other unique qualities all mixed up with a powerhouse body can, and should, keep him a frontline character. Hopefully JL:GL can elevate him to that status.

I was hoping, in a small way, that the Watchmen movie might have brought some much needed attention to those great (their analogs) Charlton characters.

I’m sorry but Gail Simone can not write. I read a sentence of her books and I vomit. Nicola Scott can not draw, an arm from a nose on -CAtman- and I’m supposed to care about DC comics again? Birds of prey; garbage like Brightest day; and any titles that have anything to do with birds should be as dead as Hawkman.
As for Captain Atom/Ant man/Giant man; like the invisible man, the fly and the incredible shrinking man the stories have been told. There is nothing wrong with a retelling of any of the above (yes even birds of prey), with the right talent of a Julie Bell / Alex Ross or a Wendy Pini like talent; but come on. It’s good to give our legends a rest for a while instead of letting them become welfare work programs for bad writers and artists who refuse to improve; and just feed off “popularity” that they are rare in this medium.
JMO

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Last word:

Scooby.

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