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Tuesday, June 30, 2015 

Continuity might be a devil, but what about consistency and scripting quality?

The Macleans writer Jaime Weinman recently wrote about mainstream comicdom's use of continuity, and how modern writers with little talent or just plain knee-jerk positions seem to consider it bad, and says that:
[...] With some exceptions, today’s comic writers, readers, and critics tend to prefer a comic that isn’t too bogged down with history and references to other comics.
I think what he's trying to say is that today's writers, readers and critics don't care about history. A better argument would be why there's no stand-alone storytelling today. That may have been the case when the onetime Batman spinoff series, Legends of the Dark Knight, was published during the 90s - stories were self-contained and everybody could decide whether they could be considered canon or not. Today, you have crossovers galore, and that's what readers by and large would rather do without. How come that doesn't matter?

Weinman goes on to cite a few writers like Greg Pak, Matt Fraction and Brian Bendis who've dismissed continuity, and says:
Many writers have said something like this in some form; in fact, more than one writer has used the term “continuity is the devil,” which has almost become a catchphrase. Most of Marvel’s star writers (not all) prefer not to build their stories around history references; Bendis has said that the problem with this approach is that it can lead to “comics about other comics.” At DC, thanks to the reboots, even writers who want to refer to history can’t do it, because it no longer exists. Continuity is not deeply popular right now.
Well duh, that's because they ruined it through truly awful writing. It's funny Bendis is telling everyone it can lead to books about other books, because he's part and parcel of an insular group that's leading to crossovers about other crossovers, and will likely continue churning out crossovers till the bitter end of Marvel/DC's publishing days. Continuity may not be popular now, but what about crossovers? Why should they be any different?

Another detail not mentioned is that specific character traits aren't popular with modern pseudo-writers  - that is, personalities that come with sincerity and altruism, stuff like that. Those kind of characteristics are being thrown out with bath water. In 2008, after the Spider-marriage was erased in One More Day, Peter Parker was suddenly depicted as a slacker, not pulling his own weight and just lazying around. And that's just the beginning.
Was continuity a problem for comic readers? I think that’s unclear. The most popular comic of all time may have been X-Men in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and if you picked up an issue you would have no idea who most of these people were. [...]
It could've been more a problem with stories that're told in too many parts, so you might come in at the second half and not fully grasp what happened in the first. But if introduction is important, wasn't that why both Marvel and DC published special Who's Who guides in the mid-80s with profilings of the superheroes?

If there was any problem during that time, it was the failure to fully take advantage of the potential for trade paperbacks. Until the mid-80s, there were far more reprint titles with older issues of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and not enough paperbacks collecting sums of past issues from various series. And even then, it was initially just what was considered the most popular and famous stories of their times like Iron Man's Demon in a Bottle, and New Teen Titans' Judas Contract. As the late 90s came around, that's when a lot more finally got reprinted, like Golden/Silver Age stories from Marvel/DC. If more effort had been made to archive much of the Golden/Silver Age output, then more recognizability could've been found.
Apart from being an easy scapegoat, continuity has also gotten a bad name for itself because of the attitudes of some comics fans who consider all inconsistencies equally important, and equally bad. These are the people you see writing in to ask why a character acts this way in one book when he acted that way in another, or why the new writer isn’t mentioning something terrible the character did in the last run. The obvious answer — because they’re different writers — never suffices. This is literalist, nit-picky reading, on a par with people who want to know why Batman doesn’t just kill the Joker (and the writers who foolishly try to answer this question).
Okay, here's where a valid concern's come up. What he's pointed to is similar to the mentality I've noticed over time - readers who attack fictional characters rather than criticize the writers - and can't seem to tell the difference between fiction/reality. It's possible Weinman may have at least understood where I'm coming from when I once said I was irked by his weird putdown of Dr. Strange, and raised a legitimate issue about where the customers, whatever their age, made mistakes. If we as the audience aren't willing to let those petty items slide so long as the story remains tasteful enough, no wonder superhero comics have become such a shambles.

And writers/editors shouldn't be answering questions about why Batman's never killed the Joker in a context like he's a real person. On the surface, they might be trying to indulge the readers' imaginations, but in practice, it's only insulting their intellect even more, refusing to take responsibility by just admitting it's company policy that can have the final word on the story outcome. And if they're worried about getting into hot water with the editors/publishers, then just don't answer the questions at all.

Weinman later brings up an approach Roy Thomas used, and what it led to:
One of Thomas’s first acts as editor-in-chief was to ask why Lee and Kirby had done the story of Captain America being frozen after the Second World War, when there were a few Captain America stories in the 1950s. For Lee, who edited those ’50s stories, the answer would have been obvious: they didn’t sell and no one liked them, so he and Kirby ignored them when they revived the character. But for Thomas, all the stories, even the bad ones, had to fit together. So he gave his new Cap writer, Steve Englehart, the assignment to explain who that 1950s Cap really was. And Englehart wrote a fine story: this was really a Captain America admirer who literally turned himself into a duplicate of his hero — but became a warped, crazed, jingoistic Commie-basher, the nightmare version of what Captain America could be.
Not so fast. Here's where Weinman's ultra-liberal politics are showing through. What's the big idea of calling anti-communist positions bad in themselves? Remember, Lee did publish stories that were against communism in the Silver/Bronze Ages. And "jingoism"? That's just a corruption of the word "patriotism". Weiman may think Englehart's tale was "fine", but not everyone's likely to agree. Some might see it as going too far in an effort to find something - anything - to publish.

As appalling as Weinman's politics could be, the part about considering even bad stories canon did get me to thinking. As much as I admire Thomas, and I'm sure his intentions weren't bad, I do think he made a mistake. Granted, there weren't many stories coming out at the time from existing publishers that were offensive on a socio-political level as seen today, so some of these attempts at reconciliation could've been easy enough to accept with a grain of salt. But anyone who's familiar with all the ultra-leftist, Chomskyite storytelling that's come out today using both real life and metaphorical approaches would have to admit that there can come a time when the notion of making each and every tale canon no matter the quality can be extremely embarrassing and alienating, and makes it harder to appreciate even the best output. In a shared universe, it can rub off on other heroes and books too. It's also ridiculous that editors and writers would or should have to go to so much trouble explaining away what some TV series producers quietly drop if they think it's not good. In fact, during the Silver Age, DC published 3 or 4 stories that were ignored later because they just didn't work well, and weren't well received. If they could do that, why couldn't Marvel? And why couldn't later writers at DC?
One model for the more writer-driven, less editor-driven approach was the guy who co-created the ’60s Marvel universe in the first place, Jack Kirby. In the 1970s, his deal at both DC and Marvel was that he would be his own writer and editor. He preferred working on his own new characters, but when he took on an established book, he didn’t show much interest in what other writers had done with them. When he came back to Marvel to write and draw Captain America, a character he co-created, he ignored most of what had happened to the character in the years since he’d been gone.

At the time, this refusal to acknowledge other writers’ work was one of the things that led Kirby to be dismissed by fans as old-fashioned and out-of-touch; his solo work never sold very well, and letters columns were often hostile. And Kirby’s Captain America and Black Panther do seem like diminished characters after all the things the previous writers had put him through. Kirby created them, but they’d become bigger than Kirby.
Did Kirby really ignore what other writers did with Cap and T'Challa? Or, was it wrong? Not necessarily. If Kirby thought Englehart's story about a crazy Cap-clone was ludicrous because it excused communists, should he really be required to acknowledge it? I'd say no. Besides, Kirby did use the Falcon in his cast for Cap's book, proving he was up to date on those kind of additions to the MCU. And Marv Wolfman once took an approach where he neither openly referenced nor denied the early Teen Titans stories with their goofy slapstick style. What if Kirby preceded him? In that case, he should be credited for providing Wolfman and other writers with more grace a good scripting model to go by.
That approach — ’70s Kirby, rather than ’60s Kirby — is the ideal that underlies a lot of today’s independent comics, which are very writer-driven, have little interest in crossing over with other people’s work, and assume that the characters will never be used by anyone except the creator. And in many ways it’s also become the ideal in corporate work-for-hire comics, for two reasons.

One, there’s a sense that the editor-driven, character-first approach produces bland work that doesn’t ultimately serve the characters very well. This was a problem with the X-Men in the 1990s: writers rotated in and out, the editors controlled the direction of the franchise, and everyone had to write the way everyone else had always written. When Marvel changed its editorial direction in 2001, one of the most important steps was giving an X-Men book to Grant Morrison to more or less write as he wanted, no crossovers, minimal nostalgia, and a very personal and idiosyncratic take on the franchise. In the ’90s, kids who bought X-Men couldn’t tell you who was writing any particular book. Since the ’00s, it is often a selling point to give you a particular writer’s take on a franchise.
I'm afraid Weinman's fumbled the ball here. Says who that any kid buying X-Men in the 90s couldn't tell you who the writers were? It was usually written around the start of the book with the rest of the staff credits! The main writers on the two flagship series after Claremont left were Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza. And man, did they ever bring the line down to rock bottom. Of course, there weren't that many "kids" reading X-Men - or any Marvel books, for that matter - by that time, unless we're talking about mental adolescents addicted out of inertia to buying worthless wastes of trees. Not given clear mention here are the crossovers that bogged down the X-Men just like many other titles at the time. That's why Peter David left X-Factor in the mid-90s; the editors were making it impossible to realize the stories he wanted to tell without being saddled with those kind of mandates.

I don't mind if some writers are given autonomy, but they should still have a modicum of good taste. And Morrison was one of the worst things that could happen to X-Men since Lobdell/Nicieza were on board. His stories were gruesome and alienating, and surely the most telling problem was that his tales were as dark and possibly darker than what the 90s churned out. Towards the end of his run, he even reestablished Magneto as a villain, more vicious than before. And how can a book whose editors required that the heroes wear costumes drawn to resemble what was seen in the 2000 movie be considered autonomous?
Two, much like Kirby, many writers today are more interested in using superhero characters in an explicitly personal way. Jonathan Hickman, the writer of Secret Wars and the writer of Avengers since 2012, isn’t particularly interested in Marvel history in the sense of referring back to other writers’ stories. (His Avengers run, for better or for worse, has less to do with the history of the team than any other run; he has said it’s about “aggressively going forward,” not backward, so all you really need to know is that the Avengers are a big super team and Iron Man is kind of a jerk.) But he’s very interested in referring back to his own stories, and his years at Marvel add up to one long, ambitious cosmic epic running through all the books he’s written, dealing with big questions about science, power, hard choices, and whether to accept the inevitability of change and destruction. His approach is suspicious of nostalgia, always questioning the need to look back.
I wouldn't mind using established superhero casts in personal ways so long as it's respectable of established character traits; that's even more important than continuity as a whole. And if Tony Stark's depicted in the bad manner that became commonplace with Civil War, then that's not the kind of Iron Man or Avenger I find appealing. If a certain character has a poorly written personality, it's okay to change it to something more likable. But it's not okay to take a well written character and make their personalities awful.

And I don't mind if Hickman doesn't want to do nods to nostalgia, but it's silly to always think he should say it within the story proper. Weinman proceeds to defend history by saying:
What I think we sometimes miss is that continuity, in the sense of building on other people’s stories, has some artistic merit of its own. For one thing, it’s something most independent comics can’t duplicate. Really, no other medium can duplicate it, the sense of taking other people’s work, rewriting and adding to it, and having it all count as part of one big story. Wicked is not part of the story of The Wizard of Oz, and anyone who thinks it is is misunderstanding the author’s intention; it’s a commentary on the original story, not an extension of it. But if a writer at Marvel or DC gets the go-ahead to tell us what was really happening during a famous story of the past, then that interpretation becomes “real.” At its worst, it can detract from the enjoyment of the original (though I think we, as readers, have a duty not to let that happen; again, it’s up to us not to nit-pick). At its best, it’s an amazing pile-up of different perspectives and ideas, giving the characters a richness that no one writer could ever give them.
But if the older story was badly written, it won't always change that fact. And if the newer story is the badly written one, then it's a poor followup and companion to the old. It pays to judge everything by its own merits if the past or present tale is worthy of canon, and not be held captive to what could be a disaster.
Avengers Forever, the Kurt Busiek/Carlos Pacheco limited series of 1998-99, devoted one of its 12 issues to, basically, explaining away all the bad stories that the Avengers had been through in the 1990s. A comic book about other comic books that no one liked and few people read; that seems like the height of what people complain about when they complain about continuity, and some readers didn’t and don’t like that issue.
Whatever merits Forever had as a story on its own, again, publishers shouldn't be forced to go out of their way to explain away terrible stories as if they were "real", just because they presumably don't want to admit this or that past writer did an awful job. What they could've done was just quietly drop the subjects and not mention them again. Busiek may have had talent for writing Avengers, but that doesn't mean they had to go to so much trouble to explain away what should be obvious to anyone with intelligence - that the 90s duds were just results of bad writing efforts - and could've saved money on one issue of the mini too. Sometimes, bad stories really are best left in the real world's past.
...If the ’50s Captain America story had just been about making sense of continuity, it would have been terrible; it had to have a theme, a point. But as a way of conveying the theme — the question of whether Captain America is a racist or jingoistic concept — the comics-history aspect makes the story work much better than if the writer had simply invented a completely new story, and for that matter, better than Mark Millar’s portrayal of a jingoistic Cap in The Ultimates. It just feels more “real” when it’s about stories the writer didn’t invent.
What is this? I find that suggestion Kirby and Simon's creation could be a racist/jingoistic idea disgusting. If that's what he's saying, no, I must firmly disagree. That only disrespects the hard work of famous vets so much more, and that was not what the original staffs in the Golden Age set out to create. What they wanted to create was a character whose role was meant to represent freedom and liberty for innocent people. And he has the gall to suggest otherwise?
In 2003, Busiek (known for incoporating a lot of history into his work-for-hire projects, which is why he comes up twice in this essay), wrote the long-awaited Justice League/Avengers crossover, and the best part dealt with, basically, the danger of throwing out continuity and starting afresh. At the beginning of the third issue, both teams’ realities have been changed and their memories along with them. When they find out the truth (yes, Marvel and DC have done this plot a lot), the heroes also find out about all the pain and misery they’ve been through in their history: they are actually shown, on a screen, all the terrible stories writers have written for them. The Vision is particularly annoyed that in the “real” reality, he had children who were wiped from existence (I know he’s an android; don’t ask, okay?) They have to fight to restore the awful, confusing stories that make continuity such a mess.

The argument for doing so? Partly it’s that without continuity, without history, the characters aren’t anything; they can just change randomly from moment to moment
Good grief. If that's what Busiek was up to, that too is absurd. There have been both good and bad stories in the Avengers/JLA histories. Obviously, opinions can vary on many, but if it really is a bad story, the whole notion it must remain intact no matter what is incredibly stupid. Especially when you look at the mess left behind since the 90s. The bad stories I would rather not be kept in continuity are usually those told from an awful social-political leaning, like any of the sexist-riddled garbage DC and Marvel published in 2004. Why must those be considered canon, for example? There are also bad stories that are relatively harmless if they haven't been weighed down with repellent politics, and I probably wouldn't mind if those were kept intact. But what we've seen this century is definitely not healthy regardless.
It’s not an argument writers should feel bound by if they don’t find it convincing, but as a reader, I buy it. The continuity-light approach of Ultimate Marvel and the New 52, where writers pick the best aspects of the character and ignore the rest, often feels like a mere gloss on the “real” thing. It’s like a movie adaptation, but without the compensating presence of a real, live actor to relate to.
But from what angle does he buy it? One that believes the Big Two universes and their casts of characters are "real"? Or one that realizes bad stories are the fault of poor writing efforts? And the current writers at DC haven't picked very good aspects at all. Certainly not when there's a mandate forbidding a pairing of Lois Lane with Clark Kent, among other ridiculous things. Weinman goes on to recommend some stories he thinks are worthwhile, but not all of which I would recommend:
– JSA (1999-2006). A mix of old Golden Age characters from the DC universe and younger characters who had taken on their costumes, this series’ mantra was “legacy,” and it was known for its attempts to try and work out the incredibly convoluted histories of DC’s Golden Age heroes (made more complicated by a couple of previous reboots). The young writers who did most of the series, Geoff Johns and David Goyer, even took it upon themselves to fix the backstory of Hawkman, a character whose whole shtick is constantly getting reincarnated as different people. The result was an entertaining and sometimes touching look at the meaning of legacy and history, treating the DC universe almost like an extended family.
After all these years, I don't think they fixed Hawkman's history at all. Besides, look at the newer mess Rob Liefeld made when he was given the assignment post-Flashpoint. And unlike Busiek's run on Avengers, the JSA run's reliance on nostalgia was actually more forced and contrived. I figure another problem was how quite a few stories were padded out, which has since become a major drawback for many mainstream comics. Much like a couple of chapters in James Robinson's Starman run, this too saw a number of characters being killed off just for death's sake. That's no way to build a crowd-pleaser.
– She-Hulk (2004) by Dan Slott. Written during one of those periods when continuity was out of fashion, Slott came up with a lighter take on continuity, making it something you could literally enter as evidence in a court case (in-universe, Marvel comics are considered true stories, so anything that’s published is admissible evidence). A series that turned Slott into one of Marvel’s top writers and She-Hulk into their best female lead.
Oh, look at that, he's sugarcoating Slott! As it so happens, there were a few stories in his run on She-Hulk that were maddening (like the one with Starfox), and his run on Spider-Man's proven he was never worth hiring to begin with. Anybody who ignores that has to be out of their minds.

In the end, I think it should be left up to the reader to decide whether some mainstream superhero stories should be regarded as canon or not. As mentioned, that was the case when Denny O'Neil launched the Legends of the Dark Knight series in 1989, so why couldn't the same approach be used with various other mainstream superhero comics? It could also be tried out with some creator-owned books from smaller publishers. For now, it's already apparent that the Big Two have wrecked the chances of trying out what LOTDK may have managed early in its run, and it's still quite likely that they'll continue to foist company wide crossovers on the audience.

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"In 2008, after the Spider-marriage was erased in One More Day, Peter Parker was suddenly depicted as a slacker, not pulling his own weight and just lazying around."
More like regressed and brain-dead if you ask me, then again: like brain-dead creation, like brain-dead creator I suppose...

"And Englehart wrote a fine story: this was really a Captain America admirer who literally turned himself into a duplicate of his hero — but became a warped, crazed, jingoistic Commie-basher, the nightmare version of what Captain America could be."
I'd like to point out he and his partner started out okay and was good at his job of foiling communist plots, but they didn't use Vita-Rays to stabilize the Super-Solider serum they had used, and eventually turned ax-crazy and punch happy against the very citizens they were supposed to be protecting before being frozen in an effort to study the serum they used.

"The main writers on the two flagship series after Claremont left were Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza. And man, did they ever bring the line down to rock bottom."
"Towards the end of his run, he even reestablished Magneto as a villain, more vicious than before."
...so long as "consistency" and "quality scripting" are in place, you're the type of guy who scoffs at characterization aren't you? Also, they should've retired Prof. X and Magneto long ago in favor of some of the other hero vs. villain conflicts in the X-Men section.

"Sometimes, bad stories really are best left in the real world's past."
The way you've worded it, it sounds like you approve of leaving disturbing blank spots in the historic narritive, not to mention it forces others to explain what really happened instead of what was shown on the printed page. Besides, haven't you heard of this saying, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"?

"...better than Mark Millar’s portrayal of a jingoistic Cap in The Ultimates. "
The Ultimate Universe was a dumb idea all around and never should've left the drawing board to begin with.

"Obviously, opinions can vary on many, but if it really is a bad story, the whole notion it must remain intact no matter what is incredibly stupid. "
Are you trying to recreate the suppression effects of Robespierre's Reign of Terror on comics in an attempt to leave no traces or evidence of their existance, or are you the kind of person who can't stand flaws in things you like and either try to cover over them or destroy them completely so that you can say honestly, "Now that's a flawless piece of work".

"It’s like a movie adaptation, but without the compensating presence of a real, live actor to relate to."
How people can enjoy live-action versions of comic book characters I'll never know. To me they range from fairly good/so-so to worst of the bunch, and I include both movies and television shows in this statement.

"JSA (1999-2006). A mix of old Golden Age characters from the DC universe and younger characters who had taken on their costumes, this series’ mantra was “legacy,” and it was known for its attempts to try and work out the incredibly convoluted histories of DC’s Golden Age heroes (made more complicated by a couple of previous reboots). "
Again, another so-so piece of entertainment. Not to mention that it seems like they can't handle the idea of two sets of Hawkmen/Hawkwomen flying about or even having the two pairs being active on different planets!

"She-Hulk (2004) by Dan Slott. Written during one of those periods when continuity was out of fashion, Slott came up with a lighter take on continuity, making it something you could literally enter as evidence in a court case (in-universe, Marvel comics are considered true stories, so anything that’s published is admissible evidence)."
Isn't there a She-Hulk story/series that doesn't rely on meta-commentary or fourth-wall breaking?

P.S. I don't acknowledge either Marvel Now or DC's New 52 so why should I get upset over stuff I don't care to read about. Also, I have no problems with you taking cracks against the majority of post-2000 comics, it's the pre-2000 stuff that you mock that tends to get my goat. Finnally, I prefer actually liking and enjoying something instead of going by misplaced nostalgia that distorts your own memories.

Actually, the original Captain America Comics ran from 1941 until 1949, when it was cancelled. Then it was revived briefly in 1953. It may have been partly that the post-WWII Captain America comics were a failure, so Stan Lee figured no one would object to the retcon. For that matter, Stan may have simply forgotten about the post-1945 Cap stories himself.

But, also, there was an assumption in the Silver Age and earlier that the readership turned over every 5-7 years. So an eight year-old kid (or even an adolescent) reading Avengers #4 in the early 1960's would not remember the previous Cap stories anyway.

Similarly, World's Finest #94 (1958) had a flashback that supposedly revealed how Superman and Batman first met. It contradicted a story from Superman #76 (1952). Again, a kid reading comics in 1958 would be too young to remember the earlier story, and a kid who read the earlier story would presumably have outgrown comics six years later.

Then the readership shifted to long-term fans, and new writers and editors were former fans. Both groups wanted continuity. Hence, the retcons and explanations. Superman #76 and World's Finest #94 were both reprinted in WF #79 in 1968, and the foreword of the earlier story was edited from "these two heroes have never met" to "these heroes don't know each other's secret identities." It became canon that WF #94 was their first meeting, and Superman #76 was when they learned each other's ID's.

The same with the idea that the commie-bashing 1950's Captain America was an impostor. Although Marvel seemed to conveniently forget that even the "real" Captain America was openly anti-communist in the Silver Age, as was Iron Man. Both were politically incorrect by the standards of the 1970's and later.

Some DC stories were just swept under the rug and forgotten, with no attempt to explain them (afaik, anyway). Like the one where Black Zero blew up Krypton, or the one where Clark Kent's glasses contained radiation that hypnotized everyone and made them see Clark as looking different from Superman. (BTW, that contradicted previous stories in which some people did notice a resemblance.)

I lost interest in All-Star Squadron when every issue became a retcon to explain some inconsistency, or to retell Golden Age stories with more sensitivity toward contemporary PC attitudes.


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