Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Detecting Phantasmic Activity in proximity to the Web

OK, I surrender. I'm twittering now. I'm sure it's the kind of thing everyone will find utterly fascinating.

Perhaps less insipid content can be found at Chud, where Thor's Comic Column lives on. (Even though that particular page doesn't list me among the contributors for some reason....) New columns go up every Friday.

I'm working on a couple of big projects, one for an ongoing client, another for a potential client (which will be really cool if it gets off the ground), and a third which is entirely personal, a gift for my sister and her new husband, who just got hitched over the weekend. In case you were wondering what's been occupying my time. It's a pair of nifty-looking Art Nouveau-ish posters, and I'll post 'em as soon as they're finished.

As for strips, as you may have noticed, a new Freak U. went up today, and I'm hopefully back on track from this point on. New Lemuria on April 4th. I'm still trying to get the backlog of strips coloured in, don't know how long that'll be, but I'm trying to get it done soonish. Possibly by the end of April, at which point I plan to unleash a marketing blitz on the web. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134--"The Mountain of Judgment"

Kirby's departure from Marvel was somewhat acrimonious. According to Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones in their comprehensive The Comic Book Heroes, the inevitable "creative differences" between Stan Lee and himself played a part, with Jack feeling that Stan was hogging the credit. After all, Kirby was putting at least as much into the story as Lee, and Lee's major contribution--the dialogue--often seemed to be fighting with the story Kirby was trying to tell. The Fourth World books give us the first real glimpse of Kirby as writer, fully in charge of his own story, and based on this I feel that the guy's been given something of a bum wrap. I don't think Kirby was lacking in any of the basic fundamentals of writing, or at least, he wasn't any more than your average superhero writer of the time; let's face it, superhero comics of the gold, silver and early bronze age have to be judged on their own weird standards in writing, as with so many other things. I'm not saying that they were inherently bad, but they did speak their own rather bizarre language that can't reasonably be compared with, say, Ernest Hemingway, or Jack Kerouac. It wasn't until the Brits invaded in the late 70s and early 80s that comic writing really started to work as prose in the mainstream sense.

So by those standards, I think Kirby was an...OK writer. He certainly had a knack for a turn of phrase, his characters have reasonably distinct voices, and he usually knew enough not to overwhelm a panel with text. His dialogue is often problematic; Kirby just had no sense for the rhythm of natural speech, like, at all, but his voice is undeniably distinctive, and never less than readable.

One thing Kirby was not, however...was Stan Lee.

It's probably inevitable that Kirby would make an attempt to write like the man who'd worked with him on his greatest successes. And Kirby could pull it off to an extent; with writing, as with everything else, he had a terrific understanding of the cosmic and surreal. Stan's Thor and Silver Surfer-style faux Shakespearean dialogue lingers in much of the Fourth World, and it's a fine fit; I'd argue Kirby does it quite a bit better than Stan, partly thanks to his growing comfort with pacing. But man...when Kirby tries to do the beatnik-style wiseass thing, or adopt the manner of a bombastic carnival barker, the results aren't pretty. Here's the opening caption to this issue:

BEWARE! Prepare for events NEW to ALL your past experiences! This is the STRANGE assignment upon which Jimmy Olsen and his young friends of the Newsboy Legion have embarked!"

..."New to all your past experiences?" Yeesh.

The text in this issue also falls prey to a common tendency of Marvel work of Stan & Jack's era: the desperate attempt to explain something away with exposition in a slapped-on speech bubble. The classic example is in Iron Man's first appearance, where the yellow peril-type villain takes down Tony Stark's formidable new ultra-strong battle suit with a filing cabinet tipped down a flight of stairs; Stan, clearly sensing this rendered their hero just a TAD less impressive, added the thought bubble, "UGH! He weighted each of these drawers with rocks!" (Because communist warlords always have filing cabinets full of rocks handy for when they're chased by superheroes.)

This issue of Jimmy Olsen is unfortunately rife with this kind of thing, which is bizarre since Kirby was handling the text AND the pictures. I guess he was still finding his footing, or else he had gathered so much momentum that he could hardly slow down to clear plot holes out of his way.

And there surely is a lot of momentum to this issue. The whole thing is basically one extended car chase, starting with the Outsiders from last issue having a gigantic bike rally on the vast stump that makes up the public square of Habitat. Jimmy, in his mad pursuit of the scoop, is preparing to goad his new squad of Hell's Angels groupies down the "Zoomway" in search of the legendary Mountain of Judgment, apparently the home of the "Hairies" that he's been sent to find. The Outsiders seem excited and strangely philosophical (by which I mean "clearly stoned") about meeting up with this dread apparition, despite it having been described in the last issue as "...a THING! Like Moby Dick! You go out to meet it--and DIE!" "It can turn you chicken...or man!" opines one weirdo, but our freckle-headed protagonist has them under the spell of his vast charisma. Frankly, he's seeming more and more like Charles Manson Jr. by the minute.

A full-blown hippie love-in is on the verge of breaking out, until Superman shows up in his capacity as Official Buzzkill. He gets a few panels into a speech before one of the mental giants of Jimmy's gang decides he's heard enough, and tries to run him over with a motorcycle.

Let me reiterate: he tries to run Superman over with a motorcycle.

This has exactly the result you'd expect. Of course, it does accomplish something, I guess: once Superman realizes the kind of intellect he's dealing with here, he lets his guard down, conducting a casual, exposition-filled chat with a dude who tries to shoot him with a bazooka. Of course he catches and crushes the shell in his hand like it was nothing--but oh noes! The shell was filled with Kryptonite gas! Superman has been downed by a bunch of extremely dumb biker hippies! The Ignominy!

The clash between words and pictures is at its absolute fiercest here--the Outsiders are literally explaining stuff to Superman as they shoot him and try to run him over, and then--hilariously--as Superman passes out, one of the Outsiders pipes up, "Tell him some more about the Hairies, Yango!" And he keeps talking even as the clearly unconscious Superman is carried off!!!

Fortunately, that bit of unpleasantness behind us, we're about to embark on a much cooler portion of our journey--essentially, the rest of the issue (we're on page 6) is one long, frantic race down the Zoomway. The gist of Yango's little powerpoint presentation is that--shock of shocks--the Outsiders didn't actually build the bikes, weaponry or gigantic tree-mansions they've been using all this time. That was the work of the Hairies, who vanished an indeterminate length of time ago, but are still said to be holed up in the Mountain of Judgment. So, to the Mountain we go! As fast as possible! For no particular reason!

This next passage features our heroes indulging in extreme recklessness, to the point of idiocy, starting with Jimmy Olsen ordering the Whiz Wagon straight at a sheer rockface. Apparently he just "has a feeling" that it's a trick. And sure enough, it is! The Newsboy Legion and its various hangers-on go tearing through the fake promontory like Wile E. Coyote, only to encounter a long highway tunnel with a huge gap. Jimmy loses seemingly half his gang in the jump, but hey, they were just Outsiders! Given the level of intelligence they'd displayed earlier, Jimmy's pretty much doing the world a favour by removing them from the gene pool. (Actually, as Superman awkwardly informs us in another of those pasted-in bits of exposition later on, everyone's OK, it's only the bikes that were trashed. Yep, that's right. Only the bikes. Mmm-hmm. Keep moving.) Next thing you know, the tunnel's filling with water, which means it's time for Flippa Dippa to--

--Oh. Flippa Dippa. OK, I didn't really introduce the Newsboy Legion last time, did I? Well, they're mostly self-explanatory, and honestly pretty bland. There's "Scrapper", who picks fights, "Big Words", who's a genius because he uses words of more than one syllable, "Gabby",, and "Tommy", who has the amazing ability to completely fade into the background. These guys are, as I mentioned before, the supposed sons of the original Newsboy Legion...though that doesn't really explain why they use 40s slang. When I suggested they were clones, I wasn't totally joking...given what we see in future issues, it's actually a pretty reasonable assumption. But anyway, since in 1970 comics were, like the culture at large, struggling to get on the right side of history by paying more sympathetic attention to black people, Kirby's included a new member named "Flippa Dippa". He's African-American, and he's absolutely, dementedly obsessed with scuba diving. How obsessed? Anytime someone mentions fish, or water, Flippa Dippa feels the need to throw in a "Right on!" or "That's my bag!" To remind us that he likes scuba diving. Because the fact that he wears a scuba diving outfit everywhere he goes wasn't enough of a clue. So of course, he's been given an excuse to use his sole useful life skill in both issues so far. It's like how the Justice League was always conveniently encountering water-based threats so that Aquaman had something to do--except that scuba diving is at least a genuinely useful skill in some situations, whereas Tommy and Gabby don't seem to bring anything to the table. Come to think of it, "Big Words" doesn't do much either. And even Scrapper doesn't seem to be any better in a fight than the others. Jimmy's proving very adept at attracting followers with very little in the way of actual talent.

Anyway, Flippa heads out underwater to clear the way with a "shock grenade", which he promptly sets off too soon, "and too heavy", sending himself, the Whiz Wagon and the bikers blindly down the tunnel, ricocheting off the walls. We give you ONE JOB, Flippa...

Finally they touch bottom again...and with scarcely a moment's pause, they keep going. Tenacious, these kids. But they're about to face the worst obstacle of all: DRUGS.

Yes, they've triggered some kind of weird mental defense that makes it impossible to see the road, and sends them "careening madly through a nightmare of Kaleidoscopic form and color!" Kirby gets experimental once again and portrays this via an elaborate collage of photographic images (which are unfortunately in black and white, thus negating the "color" bit). It's a pretty jarring shock to turn the page and see this...I can only imagine a hippie reading this comic in 1970 and FREAKING OUT.

Jimmy's forced to switch to radar in order to keep the Wagon on track. "If we blow it here," pronounces someone from inside the car, "We blow the whole assignment!" Um, that's one way of putting it. I would have gone more with "We're endangering our lives for no particularly good reason", but you've got to admire Jimmy and the Newsboys for their work ethic, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Superman, having been inadequately secured by the brain-addled citizens of Habitat, wakes up and, naturally, catches up with Jimmy and company in about five seconds. But something huge looms out of the tunnels behind...

Excuse me, I need a second.

It's the Mountain of Judgment, and here I must doff my hat to the master. In spite of its flaws, this whole section of the book has been a brilliant build towards the big reveal, and when it comes it's genuinely jaw-dropping. Turns out the Mountain is a gigantic missile carrier--essentially a really, really, REALLY big RV, carved to resemble a gigantic Chinese lion statue made of jade, and at least as big as a good-sized apartment building. We see this thing in a double-page splash, bearing down on the Whiz Wagon as Superman swoops down to catch up with them, and man is it breathtaking. It so terrific you almost forget to wonder, in the intervening issues, WHY the Hairies have bothered to make their headquarters mobile, given that they have a perfectly good and apparently well-protected stationary home base elsewhere, as we'll soon see. But who cares? This is Kirby-land! GO! GO! GO!

Superman picks up the Whiz Wagon from out of the Mountain's path, but is quickly sucked into the "mouth", whereupon the Hairies burst forth to go over the Whiz Wagon with "sensitive indicators". Here's where Kirby's attitudes towards the counterculture seem to do a sudden 180--the Hairies are, as their name implies, a bunch of hippies, albeit high-tech hippies with a bunch of crazy inventions and an oddly casual attitude to working alongside the U.S. Military.

I can't help but wonder what happened here. Kirby claimed that the Fourth World came about because of his desire to tell a personal story "with no bullshit", so what's the significance of this shift in perspective? Was the tweaking of the counterculture in the story so far something he did out of habit (comics, especially DC comics, hadn't been portraying hippies and their ilk in a very positive light up until that point), then decided that he liked these crazy kids after all and shifted the story to match? Or was this all planned from the start? Was the Dropout Society meant to provide balance against the more flattering depictions of the counterculture presented later? Was Kirby trying to say something about the promise of the free love era, going from confusion and anarchy to a Utopian ideal?

Kirby doesn't give us any time to ponder this in this issue, as the Hairies have identified a bomb on board the Whiz Wagon! Yes, it turns out this was all a plot on the part of Morgan Edge, working at the behest of the mysterious Intergang. Jimmy and the Legion were to provide the instruments of their destruction, thus ridding Edge and his masters of a bunch of meddling kids as well as their chosen target, which is why Superman's been putting so much effort into stopping them. See, he's not such a dick after all! Except, um, actually he is, since there was no particular reason he couldn't have warned Jimmy that the Wagon was carrying a bomb before now. Why, it's almost like this plot twist was suddenly inserted in order to make the preceding 40 pages make sense!

You see why I sometimes get a little skeptical about Kirby's grand vision for this series. While going from the anarchy of the Wild Area to the peaceful, Utopian Hairies may carry a major symbolic charge, we're also talking about a story whose plot seems to be made up on the fly at times. Yet, later in the saga, we see stuff that was pretty obviously planned out well in advance...starting with the second-last panel of this issue, as perhaps the Fourth World's most well-known character makes his first appearance ever.

I haven't spoken much about Morgan Edge, the new owner of Galaxy Broadcasting and the Daily Planet, because he hasn't done all that much in the story so far. It's pretty clear that the guy's evil, since he tries to have Clark Kent bumped off early on in issue #133, and he mentions "Intergang" as his bosses. For the past two issues, he's mostly been sitting in his office, thinking evil thoughts, as his plan moves towards fruition. Now that Supes has thwarted it, he's called on the carpet by his boss...and who is this mastermind? No mere gangster, it seems. Not even an agent of some hostile foreign government. No, Morgan Edge is the flunky of a force that transcends the human, or even the alien. He answers to no less than a god! And not just any god, but the embodiment of pure evil, a force that aims to eradicate love, peace, and liberty entirely from the cosmos, simply to serve his own unrelenting drive to power. A being so monstrous that he wishes to transform all life into mere appendages to his dark will.


Look, in a few issues time you're going to be really impressed by this, OK? Just roll with it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Cassidy Conundrum

This is Proinsias Cassidy:

Cassidy (he doesn’t like the given name much) is the Irish vampire sidekick of Jesse Custer, hero of the comic series Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. (Cassidy’s presence is a bit odd, actually, since all the other supernatural aspects of Preacher derive directly from God or the angels. It kinda seems like Ennis wanted to write a vampire character but didn’t have a story for him, so he stuck him in Preacher. But anyway.)

Cassidy’s a good guy. More or less. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call him simply “a lead character”, and he comes into conflict with Jesse later in the book, but he’s a character who we’re at least initially supposed to like and relate to.

This despite the fact that he drinks human blood. Which he kills to attain.

I bring this up because Cassidy is a good example of an aspect that shows up throughout popular fiction, and comics in particular, which has been bugging me lately. I call this archetype The Righteous Asshole.

As an audience, we have certain expectations from a hero. We expect them to have a moral code, to do things for reasons that aren’t motivated by pure selfishness or stupidity, to avoid taking pleasure in killing or raping or doing other horrible things. There are, of course, no hard and fast rules here. Some protagonists behave in an unheroic manner—perhaps they’re cowardly, or foolish, or have some inner conflict. Sometimes you even have outright evil protagonists, a la Patrick Bateman, but of course these are antiheroes, not heroes. Heroes are a distinct breed of main character. We expect to find them in genre fiction, in stories that involve action and life-or-death stakes. On the rare occasions where we encounter them outside of this context, they’re still quickly recognizable: the hero is “the good guy”. There are grey areas here, of course: a hero who is flawlessly competent and morally impeccable can be pretty boring…though not always; Superman, when written well, can be quite compelling, for instance. I’m reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment about his creation Father Brown, who was also created to be a walking exemplar of virtue: “white is also a colour”.

But the idea is that the hero is distinguished by his or her desire to “do right” in the face of an extreme physical or moral challenge. If we get to the climax of a story and we’re uncertain whether the lead is really going to let someone else die to save his or her own skin, it seems fairly safe to say they’re not a hero. That’s not to say a protagonist might not do the right and noble thing, but with a non-heroic protagonist you would have some honest doubt. With a Hero, you know going in that they’re going to do the morally laudable thing (whatever the author thinks that is) in a given situation.

An awful lot of heroes kill people.

This really ought to be a bigger deal than it is usually treated as, to me. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m by no means declaring that Killing is Always Wrong and that Any Protagonist Who Kills Is Evil And A Bad Influence and THINK OF THE CHILDREN. In real life, people kill each other, and sometimes that killing can be said to be justified or even heroic. If some dude comes at you with a knife because you looked at him wrong, and you end up reflexively turning it around on him so he stabs himself…that seems like a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense. Likewise, if the hero is being hunted by a Shady Organization that’s Out To Get Him for reasons beyond his control, and they’re firing 2,000,000 rounds per minute in his direction (never hitting him, of course), I think you could excuse him picking up his own gun and returning fire in order to get them to stop. Witty quip optional.

And of course, if it’s 1943 and the Shady Organization has a swastika on their shoulder…well, nuff said.

Speaking of which, part of the brilliance of Inglourious Basterds was the way Tarantino went out of his way to make the Nazis, apart from Landa, as sympathetic as possible—even Hitler was mostly portrayed as a human being—while painting the Basterds as sadistic douchebags at every turn. This makes us confront our feelings about the rightness or wrongness of killing, specifically killing on screen. The Nazis were about as close to pure evil as the real world ever got; does that make it OK to root for the violent slaughtering of specific, human individuals?

I don’t know. But the far more puzzling thing is the way certain authors seem to go beyond the idea of a hero who’s required to get his hands dirty, and turn heroism into an excuse to do awful stuff.

I started writing this blog post a while back, and I’ve been chewing it over on and off for a few weeks now. What inspired me to come back to it was a post on Andrew Breitbart’s infamous Big Hollywood site by a fellow named Leo Grin, posted about a month ago. Grin is apparently involved with a Robert E. Howard fan club in an official capacity, and the post was about how far downhill “secondary world” fantasy has fallen in the years since Howard and Tolkien. Specifically, he was bemoaning the supposed lack of virtuous true heroes, and the fact that fantasy had apparently given way to subversive narratives in which the protagonists weren’t all that heroic.

Again: the guy was using Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, as an exemplar of virtuous, heroic fiction.

I really, really don’t want to link to Big Hollywood—it’s a site devoted to cultural conservative breast-beating and cherry-picking all the supposed ways that the values of “secular humanism”, transmitted via Hollywood and the eeeeeeevil liberal media, are destroying society just for the hell of it, or something—so I’ll instead link to a couple of people who take Grin’s argument apart pretty effectively. If you really must, the link to the original article is included in both those pieces, but really, if you’ve read one Big Hollywood essay, you’ve read them all.

What interests me is that I’m saying things that seem to overlap with what Grin is saying, and yet, even taking things out of the political context, we clearly see the world very differently. Because to me, Conan is a perfect example of a character whose status as a “hero”—something that even his own author had trouble proclaiming—is simply not backed up by his behaviour.

Conan drinks, whores around, steals, and, you may perhaps have heard, has been known to kill people on occasion. Also beasts. And monsters. And Elder Gods from the dark backwards and abysm of time. Generally speaking I’m not going to complain much about the killing elder demons thing, so, y’know, yay Conan, but the context for the stories isn’t what I would call “heroic”. Conan’s status as a hero is predicated entirely on the fact that his author tends to remove moral obstacles from his path.

What I mean is, Conan will kill an elder god because it’s threatening his life; he’ll destroy an evil sorcerer because he’s hoarding a precious gem that Conan wants to sell on the black market; he’ll rescue a princess because he wants to fuck her. Occasionally he’s compelled to go on a heroic mission via money or threats, but the point is that he doesn’t do heroic things for the sake of being heroic; he occasionally saves the life of someone he likes (or wants to fuck) but he doesn’t act to save lives in the abstract. He acts to serve his own interests first and foremost. (Well, that’s not quite true—later, King Conan acts a number of times to save his own kingdom. But even there, you get the sense that he’s doing it not because he actually cares about his people’s welfare, but because fighting off threats is the kind of thing a king does if he wants to keep his kingdom. And even then, we’re pretty clearly shown how kingship has beaten Conan down and interfered with his life as a “natural man” and free spirit.) Conan does what he wants, and the universe—the one crafted by Howard and Farnsworth Wright and, later, divers other hands—obliges by making sure his interests coincide with the greater good.

I haven’t read any of the later, non-Howard Conan stories, but I’d be really interested to know if there are any examples of, for instance, Conan robbing and killing a good sorcerer, or letting an elder demon run amok because he’s not personally affected by it, or in any other way confronted with a moral choice that pits his self-interest against other people’s welfare. But somehow I doubt it. Conan is the archetypal Righteous Asshole. He’s righteous because his author wants him to be.

That brings us back to Cassidy. (Some minor SPOILERS for Preacher follow.) I chose to focus on Cassidy as opposed to his friend and protagonist, Jesse Custer, because Jesse is essentially Conan—he’s always in the right, always awesome and admirable, and he always wins, because that’s how Garth Ennis wants it to be. And while that’s what we expect from an action hero, he falls once more into the Conan trap of having the universe provide a constant string of moral excuses—those guys in the bar whose faces he mutilated, they picked a fight with him! That cop he beat up, he was an asshole to his horse! Those cars he stole—well, actually, there’s no real excuse given for Jesse’s life as a car thief aside from “car theft is awesome”. (And even the mere fact that Jesse’s up against some truly vile villains who want to wreck the world could be seen as a moral out for him to do whatever he wants—the Inglourious Basterds effect again, but without the moral reflection.) But this is par for the course.

What’s interesting about Cassidy is that he’s not, ultimately, given the same moral free pass that Jesse is, even as he seems to make use of it more in the short term. The people whose blood he drinks tend to be (sometimes rather hastily) established as douchebags. If Cassidy’s in desperate need of a blood fix, you can always count on some cartoonish jerk staggering along in the next few pages, probably picking a fight with Cassidy, to provide a convenient excuse.

But Ennis does acknowledge some of the problems with Cassidy within the narrative. As soon as Jesse discovers that Cassidy is “a fuckin’ abomination” In the first book, the two part ways, reunited via the typical Han Solo-style last-minute reunion that saves everyone’s hide. At which point…Jesse and Cassidy become fast friends. Wait, what?

Jesse, dude, you’re hanging around with an undead, blood-drinking monster. I mean, it’d be one thing if it was Angel, and he was raiding blood banks or butcher’s shops for his fix, but the guy murders people to drink their blood, numerous times, in Jesse’s presence. Again, they’re usually the same people who are busily trying to kill Jesse and Tulip (Jesse’s girlfriend), but come on—wouldn’t that raise a few flags? The suggestion is that Jesse had a knee-jerk, negative reaction to Jesse being one of the undead, but got over it. And while I applaud the idea of getting over false preconceptions about people, when you’re presented with evidence that your best friend kills people and drinks their blood, I think we’re on somewhat firmer moral ground here.

Later in the story, Jesse stumbles across evidence of some of the scummier things Cassidy’s done over his unnaturally extended life, and even before that, Tulip ends up being exploited by him during a vulnerable time—and all I could think of was, “Dude. Blood. Drinking. Monster.” Not only did I see Cassidy’s eventual heel turn coming, it made Jesse seem kind of hapless, even as Ennis paints him as an ultracompetent manly hero. It seems like Ennis honestly, truly didn’t see anything wrong with the idea that one of his protagonists kills people to suck their blood—or rather, that he anticipated Jesse thinking the blood-drinking thing was gross and wrong, but the “kills people” aspect doesn’t seem to have bothered him at all.

I guess the point of all this is that here we have a story that’s quite blatantly undermined by its author’s failure to consider the morality of the universe they’ve created. I don’t mean this to sound hectoring—people may have different ideas of what constitutes morality, and what’s “realistic” in this context—but simply to note that this is a matter of practicality. When you make friends with a bloodsucking murderer, you don’t have much of a right to act surprised and hurt when he stabs you in the back.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133--"Kirby's Here!"


So it was, in August 1970, after months of hype and buildup, that Jack Kirby finally made his debut at DC, beginning the epic saga of the Fourth World and the New Gods that would forever leave its mark on the comics industry; the auspicious debut of Kirby's most heartfelt work, and one of the greatest stories ever attempted in comics.

In Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133.

That's comics for you. The sublime and the ridiculous don't just rub up against each other, they're frequently indistinguishable.

The famous (untrue) story is that Kirby had bragged that he could turn DC's lowest-selling book into its highest-selling one. Mark Evanier, in the afterword, says that it was actually a case of Kirby not wanting to boot any existing artist off a book they'd been attached to, and Jimmy Olsen was one that had no permanent creative team. So it was here that Kirby started to plant the seeds for the Fourth World epic.

This is pretty ironic, since Kirby was well known for rarely wanting to tackle other people's characters, or even return to his own once he was through with them. The story gets even weirder when you learn that the DC editors, unhappy with his version of Superman in an age when they were still desperately trying to stay "on model" with their characters, had some of the more traditional artists redraw his Superman and Jimmy Olsen drawings!

...Did I say this was an "auspicious" debut?

Still, when you understand what Kirby had to work with, the results grow a lot more impressive. Kirby immediately made two smart moves that revitalized Jimmy Olsen's book. One was to bring in his own Golden Age characters, the Newsboy Legion, and have them team up with Jimmy, which of course makes a certain amount of sense, being kid reporters and all. For the first time in this issue, but not the last, Olsen suddenly becomes the de facto leader of a group of misfits.

The second move was to reinterpret Olsen, and the book as a whole, as a stand-in for the countercultural youth movement that even the squarest of Americans were beginning to accept. Now, desperate attempts to make a character "hip" by dressing him differently and having him use modern slang is a long, ignoble tradition in comics, and in some ways, SPJO #133 is no different. But Kirby had a strange and sincere affection for the counterculture of his time--possibly due to the fact that they embraced his comics so warmly--and, interestingly enough, he seemed to understand them on more than a superficial level. What makes this issue immediately interesting is the way Kirby zips back and forth between celebrating the free love era and parodizing it.

Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion (who are actually the children...or possibly clones...of the original WWII-era Legion) hop into their Whiz Wagon at the behest of the shifty Morgan Edge, the new owner of the Daily Planet, to seek out the mysterious "Wild Area", home of "weird motorcycle gangs" and a "dropout society". This inexplicable (even by comic standards) lost land is apparently located...somewhere on the other side of an ocean, yet, as we later see, part of it is under Metropolis. Given the bizarre adventures Jimmy's had over the last three decades, I suppose being saddled with an amphibious, flying car and a gang of 40s-era street urchins and being told to find a lost civilization of biker gangs shouldn't be *that* disorienting, but it's still pretty obvious we're deep in Kirby-land.

Edge's reasoning for sending this gang of minors is that the inhabitants of the Wild Area, to coin a phrase, don't trust anyone over 30. Superman, of course, follows along to look after Jimmy--at least that hasn't changed with Kirby's taking the reins. (I have a theory that Silver Age Superman and his Justice League cohorts were so powerful, and so good at their jobs, that virtually all regular crime vanished from the face of the Earth in the DC Universe of the 50s and 60s, leaving only the crazy supervillains, aliens and mad scientists to cause trouble. The relative scarcity of these types explains why Superman had so much free time to play pranks on people, save Jimmy's butt every time he went charging off into danger, and try to kill Lois Lane. But anyway.)

On arriving in the Wild Area, Jimmy and co. immediately run afoul of a couple of low-rent Doctor Doom lookalikes on motorbikes, named Iron Mask and Vudu. "GO! GO! GO! Vudu! Death is fast! Death is loud! Death is Final!" screams Iron Mask as they charge into battle; the phrase "GO! GO! GO!" makes for perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of Kirby's philosophy one could ask for. Despite apparently being seriously outmatched, Jimmy and his charges make short work of the bikers, and are promptly proclaimed to be the new leaders of their gang, in accordance with the Stereotypical Savages Act of 1932. (Seriously, I love how nakedly Kirby transposes the "lost civilization" tropes onto a story about biker hippies. And the hilarious thing is that it works so perfectly.)

So when Superman arrives, he finds himself facing one hell of a generation gap. The "dropout society" of the Wild Area is one modelled on true anarchy, and here comes Supes, the very symbol of order and patrician authority. "The Establishment", if you will. There's no WAY this is unintentional, even though Kirby, admirably, doesn't belabour the point. Even more interestingly, considering what comes later, Kirby takes Superman's side in this sequence, pitting him against a bloodthirsty gang of militia-types who, believably enough, have used the Wild Area's lawlessness as an excuse to pull a Most Dangerous Game on whoever they can track. ("We dig only our own vigilante group! So--it's like you're doomed!") Superman, of course, makes short work of them, deadpanning, "Sorry, but I CAN'T play your scene!...[That's] something you should dig--but FAST!" Apparently his powers also include super-sarcasm.

Eventually Supes meets up with Jimmy, and here Kirby does something fairly brilliant. We all know that Jimmy attempting to kill Superman, or vice versa, is de rigeur in these things, and indeed, the cover features yet another depiction of Supe and Jimmy's unhealthily abusive relationship. But would it shock you to know that the events depicted on the cover--Jimmy, gleefully commanding his gang to take down Superman--actually happen in the book? And it's not the usual, convoluted explanation of Jimmy being mind-controlled or having amnesia or it being a shapeshifting witch from the future taking his form (that happened, what, every other thursday?) No, while Jimmy apologizes for this particular bit of the ol' ultraviolence a few pages later, the attack was motivated by Jimmy himself, in sound mind and with no real extenuating circumstances--and in fact, Jimmy's latent hostility towards Superman erupts several times throughout the rest of Kirby's run! The King isn't just following the standard tropes of the comic here: he's recasting the antagonism between Superman and Jimmy as the generation gap, the struggle between the counterculture and the establishment, writ large.

Heavy, man.

Superman is knocked out thanks to a convenient Kryptonite gun and wakes up in "Habitat", a jaw-dropping tree-city as only Kirby could render it, whereupon it becomes clear that there's more going on here than a few random biker savages and crazy hippies. No, some advanced force built this place, and Jimmy is determined to get to the bottom of it. But that's for next time...

Friday, March 11, 2011


A couple of years ago, I began a little project called Fourth World Fridays, on an earlier (and, to my eternal shame, Livejournal) version of this blog. I wanted to review and analyze the entirety of Jack Kirby's Fourth World books, issue by issue, one a week. Why the Fourth World? Well, up until that point, I had been rather dubious about the supposed talents of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It's not that I didn't think they were talented, and I wasn't denying their massive influence on superhero comics, but as a guy who's always felt that superheroes sometimes get too much of the spotlight in analyses of comics history, I always thought that the monument to Lee and Kirby had been erected overtop of Eisner, Barks, and any number of deserving foreign comics artists and newspaper strip creators. It seemed like the main think L&K get credited with is bringing a new sophistication to superheroes, which they undeniably did, but considering that the other creators I just listed were all so much more sophisticated anyway (in my view), this wasn't the massive achievement that people made it out to be. It seemed like their elevation to godhood had come about due to their domination of a single genre, one which had been unfairly elevated above the others.

Wasn't I such an awesomely rebellious contrarian?

In all seriousness, I do still have some of these reservations about the superhero genre, but I realize I had a pretty superficial understanding of Kirby's work. (I'm still a little skeptical of Stan Lee, who never really produced anything of merit apart from Kirby or the other Marvel artists, but I wouldn't deny he had some good ideas, and was an extremely talented editor and promoter. Anyway, more on Stan in the entries to come.) The work that changed my mind about Kirby was, naturally, The Fourth World, which was indeed one of the most ambitious and visionary works produced in the medium of comics. At a time when superhero comics were beginning to struggle with being "serious" and "deep", and mostly doing a hilariously bad job of it, Kirby launched the first superhero series that had a real thematic depth to it. The characters, in particular, were refreshingly complex, while still being big, bombastic, larger-than-life types (as suited a series about literal gods), and the series had some surprisingly sophisticated things to say about power and authority, self-actualization, the creative process, and the then-current generation (of which Kirby was, obviously, not a part).

Also, it was completely bugfuck insane, in the most delightful way imaginable.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's far from flawless. Very, very far. The plotting is often haphazard, the dialogue is famously clunky--sometimes it seems to go out of its way to be as hilariously awkward as possible--and the whole enterprise is often utterly, majestically silly, from the ridiculous costumes to the general sense of unhipness that was inevitable in a work produced by a middle-aged comics artist attempting to pay tribute to the youth culture of the late 60s and early 70s. But the thing is, the things that often make it silly are the same things that make it great--the sense of complete earnestness, open-heartedness, and commitment to every premise, no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, coupled with the willingness to let imagination lead the way. The result is a series that's an acquired taste, to say the least, and requires a bit of work to really appreciate--but it's also instantly compelling. Even if your first impulse is to make fun of it (I have to admit, mine certainly was) you'll never be bored reading it.

Or, hopefully, reading about it.

I admit right up front, this is a pretty blatant attempt to recycle content for this blog. Fourth World Fridays originally had their own blog, which you can read right here if you're so inclined. I'm doing this again partly because I don't really see the point of having a separate blog and want to amalgamate everything, and partly because I'm quite proud of this series, but I think with a little editing it could be really, really good. Plus, my attitudes have changed--I feel I might have been a little too snarky in the original series, and I want to rewrite them to reflect my renewed respect for Kirby. Sure, you could just click on over there and read the whole thing in rough draft form, but...that...would be...uh...mean?

Anyhow. From now on, Fridays are FOURTH WORLD FRIDAYS here on Phantasmic Blog. GO! GO! GO!!!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some Adjustment Required


The Adjustment Bureau is a pretty darn good film that could have been a great one. It is, unapologetically, a romance, which is interesting in and of itself; a lot of genre movies have love stories, but they’re usually of the “Here’s where Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese fall in love to move the plot forward” style, a subplot used to provide motivation. Actually, even in The Terminator, the love story is both crucial and affecting, but it’s not what the story is about. The Adjustment Bureau is a love story first and foremost, and the supernatural trappings are secondary to that. It’s still an intelligent movie that addresses existential and religious issues, but it doesn’t do this in the context of an action-thriller, which is how we’ve been conditioned to expect all of our more thoughtful genre movies these days (and a lot of less thoughtful ones, as well).

Which seems to be bothering some critics, who complain about “lowered stakes” (despite the fact that the protagonist faces complete mental erasure) and the lack of a slam-bang action climax. But the movie chooses the structure and story beats of a romantic drama, and I don’t see any particular reason why this is a less valid way of addressing these ideas. In fact, I think that being able to frame Big Ideas in the context of a romance is one of the very best ways of grappling with them, cinematically, and even if the movie pulled this off intellectually it would be laudable. But it also manages to be a genuinely charming romance, thanks due to the terrific performances of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Again, this is the kind of story where more idea-focused screenwriters and directors might touch on “romance” as an abstract idea only inasmuch as it serves the story (the Wachowski brothers spring to mind) so kudos to writer-director George Nolfi for giving us a screen couple who are a joy to watch, thereby letting us believe that a real love affair is at stake.

So why does it fall short? Simply put, Nolfi bobbles the themes a bit, and he does it in a way that’s endemic to a lot of Hollywood movies right now. When Damon’s character finally gets the full purpose and M.O. of the Bureau spelled out for him, by Terrence Stamp as the very creepy Senior Adjuster “Thompson”, it turns out to revolve around changing not just random events but people’s minds as well. The Adjusters “can’t alter people’s personality or their emotions”, but they can “change the way you make decisions.” This is their primary tool in keeping human history in order and making sure events unfold in a way that will be broadly beneficial to the human race.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being: aren’t people’s emotions exactly the kind of thing that would be easiest to meddle with? Understand that the Adjusters don’t *just* tweak fate and probability, they actually get right inside people’s heads when they need to (in a creepy scene that, in retrospect, doesn’t really make sense). You’re telling me that these folks can physically alter people’s decision-making neurons, but can’t make them a little grouchier or more euphoric? There are humans who can do that with relative ease, for Pete’s sake, just by using the right phrasing or exposing people to certain imagery or smells. Also, pharmaceuticals.

Furthermore, we’re told that the Adjusters have been messing with Damon’s personality his whole life, by exposing him to traumas like the death of his family. And then there’s the central event that kicks off the story, Damon’s meeting with Blunt, which inspires him to give an off-the-cuff speech which in turn reignites his political career. We’re later told that Damon’s impulsiveness has been a continuing problem for the Adjuster’s Plan, but here we them using that impulsiveness to get him exactly where they want him.

The real issue, of course, is that Damon’s only meant to encounter Blunt once, then never see her again, but his love for her—combined with a screw-up on the part of the Adjuster assigned specifically to him (Anthony Mackie)—throws the Plan into disarray and puts Damon into conflict with the Bureau. So this is a Love Triumphs Over All story, and given the framework here, Nolfi clearly thought it was most logical to have the Adjusters represent the triumph of cold rationality and intellect, and for Damon’s struggle to represent the counteracting force of emotion.

But that doesn’t really work, thematically. Because Damon’s love for Blunt is just as clearly shown to be the product of chance, and to have been manipulated by the Adjusters. They even say, later on, that the reason the two of them feel so strongly about each other is that an earlier version of the Plan DID mean for the two of them to be together. So their love is just as inspired by the machinations of the Adjustors as anything else.

More than that, though, I don’t think Nolfi has defined “love” properly. I’m of the firm belief—in case it wasn’t obvious—that intellect runs deeper than emotion, and that, forced to choose, it would be better to make a decision based on rational judgment than on emotion. But I also think that’s kind of a false dichotomy, because emotion is a complex thing. Your moods and whims are ephemeral, transient, but there are other emotions, emotions that form the core of your being, and which arise out of your rational judgment (as well as other thought processes that are mysterious to most of us…which is probably a good thing). I may be in a bad mood today because it’s gloomy out or because I have a headache, but listening to some music or taking Aspirin will probably help with that. But when I think about, for instance, the Tea Party, I’m always going to get depressed and angry. When I think about the moon landing, I feel a sense of pride and inspiration. When I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I feel a sense of comfort and familiarity. These “emotions” are consistent, and go to the core of my being. As such, I don’t think you can describe them separately from my rational thought processes. And I like to think that the love I feel for the woman I saw this movie with is fundamental in exactly the same way.

I’m a little leery here, in that I come close to agreeing with a number of borderline sociopaths on this point (most notable the horrible, horrible Objectivists). My larger point is that you need this kind of “emotion” in your life, and it’s foolish to deny that they make up a core part of your being. If the Adjusters can meddle with your rational thought processes, they have the potential to violate your ability to love someone—it’s not about reason vs. emotion, it’s about how the external vagaries of chance affect your fundamental being—your soul, if you like. What would remain of you if everything in your life was different? If the people you’d learned from, the environment you’d grown up in, the events that had happened to you, were different? It’s a fascinating question, and one the movie doesn’t really address satisfactorily, opting ultimately to go for the comforting bromides we’re used to from Hollywood.

But it is sweet, and romantic, and it does raise these issues in the first place. So that’s something.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Winter Isn't Coming Fast Enough For Some People

I’ve been planning a big—you might even say epic—series of posts about fantasy books (rejected title: Suck on This, J. R. R.) and the “Song of Ice and Fire”/”Game of Thrones” books were and are going to be a central part of it, since that’s the one that rekindled my interest in the genre. But I’m realizing now I had some minor points relating to the ASoIaF fandom and the upcoming TV series that didn’t really fit. Fortunately, the news this week that George R. R. Martin (um, what’s with all the RR’s in fantasy authors’ names? I just noticed that) has finally finished the next book, A Dance With Dragons, provides an excellent pretense to make them apart from those.

If you’re not familiar with the flap around these books: basically, the series is a tremendously fun, compelling fantasy series, one that refreshingly relies on character over world-building, and features a plot that’s a lot more satisfying and twisty than “heroes walk from point a to point b to retrieve object”. In fact, this is one of the only “high fantasy” series I can think of that I would classify as a genuine page-turner, with a lot of wicked cliffhangers that guarantee you’ll be wanting to snatch up subsequent volumes once you’ve started. The last book, A Feast For Crows, ended that way, and here’s where the controversy begins. Each book is structured around a number of viewpoint characters, and this last book ended up running so long that Martin eventually declared that he was chopping it in two, putting off a lot of the most popular characters to the next book, the aforementioned “A Dance With Dragons”. Martin announced that ADwD was basically done and would be arriving shortly. That was over five years ago.

In that time, frustration has built up among the series’ fans, to the point where it’s curdled into…well…this kind of thing.

I don’t blame the readers for being frustrated. It was absolutely silly of Martin to claim that the book was done when there was so much work left—although any creative person, myself included, can vouch for exactly how hard it can be to judge exactly how long it’ll take to revise something. Martin HAS strung his fans along to an extent, though, announcing repeated release dates and then forfeiting on them. But I’m certainly not in a position to criticize there.

What I don’t get, and what bothers me, is the slavering hatred this has engendered in “fans” of the book. You can’t read that blog I linked to above without thinking, “Wait, if you love the books enough that you feel the delay is worth devoting an entire blog to, why are you spending every post putting down the books, their author, the upcoming show, and everyone Martin’s ever met?” (Especially ironic: they failed to blog for almost two months, during which they missed a lot of important news, causing their readers to turn on them. Reap what you sow, dude.) It’s more than a little reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s lament in the episode where he runs for sanitation commissioner: "My campaign is a disaster! I hate the voting public so much! Why won't they vote for me? I'd make 'em pay!"

The guy took six years to finish a 1000+ page book. That's neither unreasonable nor unheard of. Yes, Martin handled it badly, but the people obsessing about this seem to believe that he’d done all this specifically to hurt them somehow, because he feeds on the tears of fanboys, or something. The common lament is that Martin had made so much money that he no longer cared about the series and was simply rolling in hundred dollar bills when he should be writing. Now that this has pretty much been definitively proved wrong, the conspiracy theories are coming out (“he finished it years ago and waited for the show to come out to cash in”—seriously, that’s the argument some people are making) and the muttering has shifted to “Well, I’m sure it’ll suck.” (A Feast For Crows has some problems compared to the first three, so this of course makes it TEH WORST BOOK EVAR and PROOF THAT MARTIN HAS LOST IT)

Of course, the people screaming the loudest seem to care the least about getting, y’know, a good book. Neil Gaiman wrote this and John Scalzi wrote that, which both hit the nail on the head, but there’s another issue here that bugs me beyond defending Martin. I mean, I like the books, but they’re not classics of western literature that are beyond criticism, and as I hope I’ve made clear, Martin certainly isn’t for his handling of the situation. But the arguments employed by some of these faux-fans make it sound like they have no taste, no discrimination, no sense of how literature is supposed to work. It’s not a factory, churning out product to keep you fed or clothed. I thought most people understood that it’s worth waiting for a good story—all of which are different.

One of the constant complaints compares Martin to Steven Erickson, who writes about one of his “Malazan” books a year. “If Erickson, who’s a GILLION SPILLION TIMES BETTER THAN MARTIN, can do it, why can’t he?” I wasn’t hugely impressed with the one-and-a-half books in Erickson’s series I read, but even if it was the greatest fantasy series of all time, and Martin wasn’t in his 60s compared to the relatively young Erickson, it’s still apples and oranges. Different writers work differently. I’m a lifelong fan of Douglas Adams, who famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whizzing sound they make as they fly past.” Some people work more slowly. And again—“Dance” is apparently longer than the entirety of Lord of the Rings. Which took Tolkien at least a decade to write. Objectively speaking, Martin’s still working at a pretty brisk pace here. I wonder how these people would handle being fans of Thomas Pynchon or Stanley Kubrick.

But, you protest, “Dance” is part of a series! It’s continuing an ongoing narrative! Martin’s entered into an unwritten contract with the reader by starting it! No, you, the reader, have entered into the same unwritten contract you enter into whenever you engage with an unfinished piece of serial fiction. If you’d picked up the first book as soon as it hit shelves, you’d have been taking a number of risks. The book could have been such a bomb that the publisher decided not to continue the series, just as a TV show or a comic book can be cancelled before it reaches a conclusion. Martin could have been in a plane crash. The common fear that Martin might have simply lost interest in the series isn’t entirely invalid—that would indeed have been shabby—but what’s dismaying about that assumption is the way people grabbed onto it as the obvious conclusion, when “writer’s block” seems like a more obvious, and charitable conclusion.

Speaking of Martin dying, this is a particularly noxious example of how self-absorbed and entitled these people are. As mentioned, Martin’s in his 60s, and not precisely a specimen of health. So the refrain has been, “Martin has to finish the series before he dies!” (And that’s the more mature phrasing. A common variation is “Hurry up and finish the book so you can die already, you fat fuck!”) The basis for comparison here is Robert Jordan, whose “Wheel of Time” books hadn’t concluded when he died. Putting aside the fact that I found the one Wheel of Time book I read to be insufferable, I’m fairly certain that Jordan didn’t die to personally inconvenience anyone, and that whining about a man’s death depriving you of entertainment is borderline-sociopathic behaviour. If I were George R. R. Martin, I don’t think I’d be particularly motivated to service a fanbase that’s ghoulishly speculating about my death, let alone one that seemed to wish it on me.

The long and the short of it is, this is an ideal example of just how obnoxiously entitled the world of genre fanboyism has become. It’d be nice if, now that the book has come into being, they had a moment of self-reflectiveness and realized how silly they look in retrospect. But somehow I doubt that’ll happen.