Friday, December 28, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The New Gods #6--"The Glory Boat!!"

That's the Glory Boat, you pervs.

What, you thought I wouldn’t go there? I only have class inasmuch as it stands in the way of my making an obvious joke.

We’re now getting into the run of New Gods issues that Kirby feels was the strongest thing he ever did, and the energy is palpable. As you might recall, the last issue brought us face to face with the horrifying Leviathan the Deep Six (“Mystic Mutators of the Deep”) had unleashed on the world: a gigantic pink warthog-whale thing bigger than an oil tanker. You know how I can tell that? Because in the opening pages of this issue, the thing eats an oil tanker.

Well, it doesn’t “eat” it so much as it gores it with its tusks and that weird phallic ram-thing under its chin.

My favourite moment in this sequence: a sailor, spotting the leviathan, announces, “The closer it gets—the bigger it gets!!” He’s just discovered the magic of perspective! Also, the oil tanker, despite being specifically described as being made of steel, is coloured to look like an old-fashioned wooden sailing ship.

There’s now a montage of the Leviathan trashing ships all across the ocean, ending with a nice panel of a life saver marked “S. S. Aurora” floating empty in the water to segue to the main story. It seems that one of the vessels wrecked was a yacht owned by a wealthy industrialist named Farley Sheridan and his two children, who are now floating in a life raft in the middle of the sea. These three, who we’ll be getting to know better in a few pages, provide our “everyman” perspective on the following events, starting with Orion blasting out of the water a few meters away from them. Farley immediately jumps to the rather odd conclusion that “he’s some kind of new Navy frogman type!” Right, because navy officers are always dressing up in flamboyant, skintight clothing.

…Well, OK, but not while they’re on duty.

Orion, rather dickishly, chooses not to talk to the lost and frightened people on the raft, but first does a sweep of the area while caught up in his own expositional thoughts (basically recapping the last issue). Eventually, he does deign to lend a hand, shooting a tractor beam-ish thing to grab hold of the raft, or as he puts it, “A magnetic force will saturate your craft’s atomic structure!—And bind us as one!!” Kirby sure had a thing for the phrase “atomic structure”, didn’t he? Oh, atomic structures! Is there anything you can’t do?

Orion offers them rescue, but he points out that he’s on a dangerous mission, and that tagging along with him could result in their death. Here we get our introduction to the basic character dilemma of this issue: Farley, a WWII vet, claims that he’ll happily jump into the fray if it’ll get them off the raft, whereas his son Richard, a pacifist, is reluctant, and his daughter Lynn is basically a nonentity. (It’s an unfortunate feature of Kirby’s books that, in a given group, the woman will usually be the one most devoid of personality and least helpful…though there are a couple of major exceptions, like Barda.) Richard, meanwhile, is the one who starts to maybe get a teensy inkling that possibly, perhaps, the helmeted guy on the flying harness with the futuristic technology isn’t a naval officer.

After skimming across the ocean for a while (shown from above in another very nice panel), Orion finds what Mother Box has been leading him towards: a weirdly shaped wooden boat (actually, it’s more like a raft with a a temple-like cabin built on top) and a human-shaped figure bound in some kind of weird wrappings where the mast would be. Mother Box indicates that it’s alive.

“Well, there’s one way to strip those bonds away!-- Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!!” Are you surprised? This is how Orion solves all his problems.

“Locked myself out of the car again! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Melts car with laser blast.)

“My microwave is broken! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Chars bagel to a smoking cinder.)

“America has become crippled by political partisanship! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Starts randomly shooting people.)

Anyway, the bandages—which turn out to be more of that malevolent mutated kelp Orion encountered a while back—come off, revealing none other than Lightray, who, it turns out, broke his promise to Highfather to join the war against Apokolips. Mere panels later, Orion declares that “Your kind brings an undeserved honor to war!” Well, someone’s honor’s undeserved, anyway. With Orion and Lightray now together, the pompous speechifying picks up. “Now—to see what demon’s swill the Deep Six have served up inside this craft!!” declares Orion, marching inside. Meanwhile, the Sheridan family introduces themselves to Lightray, with Farley making clear his sneering contempt for his son’s non-violent ways. “I’m a conscientious objector!” declares Richard, “I don’t like war, violence, or killing!!” “Is that right?” muses Lightray. Well, I know of a place where everybody’s like that!”

Hmmm…so conscientious objectors are like New Genesisians? That’s actually logical in a way, despite the amount of fighting they do—the idea seems to be that they only go to war when it’s absolutely necessary. Of course, that assumes that the magic wall that tells them what to do is always correct and good and just; somehow I think that a real-world conscientious objector would have a hard time falling into line with that.

Orion calls for Lightray, and they enter the hold to find a big, green, icky creature crouching in the corner, which they dub a “Sender” and an “organic director”. “There’s a mountainous sea beast out there, destroying ships!--And this—this is its brain!!” Um…wouldn’t a better place for its brain be, y’know, in its skull?

“It shouldn’t be destroyed!” reasons Lightray. “It should be changed!! Light! Light!--not to glisten on swordblades!—But light at play with atoms--to make them sing in other ways!!” Are you perhaps getting the sense that Orion and Lightray are allegorical characters?

Lightray transforms the critter into a “living basic life form!!” which apparently means a big cube of jell-o. There’s a lot of technobabble here, but basically they’re going to “imprint it with the image of New Genesis” and cause the leviathan to turn around and head back to the ship. Which it does, accompanied by another of the Deep Six, named Jaffar. Yes, Jaffar. Sadly, he does not own a wisecracking parrot voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. He does, however, have the ability to turn invisible and slip past the beams of light Lightray is sending down to the ocean floor in an effort to spot him. You’d think they’d know that about the guy and thus not waste their time, but…

Back on the boat, Richard is succeeding in pounding it into his dad that they may be just a tad over their heads here. By the way, I love how Orion was just casually going to let them go into battle, despite the fact that they’re regular humans, and thus would presumably be creamed by the forces of Apokolips. Well, he did give them a choice, I suppose. Nevertheless, having seen the “life cube” beginning to grow into a gigantic, bleeping machine, and “with Lynn to consider”, Farley is having second thoughts about staying. So, uh, Farley, you knew there was going to be a fight, and you were willing to risk your daughter, but as soon as weird mechanical cubes get involved, suddenly you’re determined to keep her from harm? You’re kind of a douche, Farley. This is driven home by the fact that, despite his admittance that his son is correct, he’s still getting shots in at him as a coward.

Unfortunately, a clean getaway isn’t in the cards, as Jaffar shows up to menace them. Richard starts calling for them to escape, but Farley is paralyzed with fear (as, I guess, is Lynn, but she’s barely in panel for this sequence). Richard suddenly finds himself galvanized into action and leaps forward into battle, threatening to fight Jaffar to the death to protect his family. But despite his newfound courage, this has about the same result you’d expect, i.e., none at all. Jaffar grabs him and uses his mutating touch to kill Richard by, basically, erasing his face. It’s a pretty damn creepy sequence.

Of course, now Orion shows up. Yeesh. If you knew the guy was going to return to the ship, why didn’t you just stay and protect them? Anyway, he blasts Jaffar off the ship with the Astro-Force, but Jaffar is already gloating that he’s impossible to kill in the water. So what does Orion do? He shoots him over and over again, keeping him in the air each time, until he’s exploded. Ouch.

Orion returns to the ship to find Farley babbling, lost in the delusion that his son has “joined his platoon—on the beach!! Yes--that’s it!!” And Lynn, as usual, just standing around crying. Jeez, why is she even in this story? Orion straps her into his harness and sends her up and away, out of the story to safety, even as her father refuses to leave.

Declaring Richard to be “another faceless hero!” Lightray sets him alongside the machinery in the cabin. Then, as the wind rises ominously and fish are seen streaming past, the remaining Deep Six—the Deep Four, I guess—launch their attack. The remaining Deeps are Shaligo, “the flying finback”, Trok, who has a whirling axe on a whip, Gole, who…has no special powers that I can see, and Pyron, who flies the manta ship with its flamethrowers. You wouldn’t think flamethrowers would be a huge benefit underwater, but they turn out to be useful when Orion repels the attack and Pyron sets fire to the boat.

Orion seeks to get away, but Lightray has apparently gone insane. First, he’s tied Farley to the mast (!). Then he draws Orion into the cabin, where Richard’s face has been restored—whatever—and their weapon has taken shape, even as the Leviathan and the manta-ship bear down on them.

From all accounts, Kirby claimed the next two pages to be the best things he ever did. On one side: the Deep Four, zipping alongside the vast pink monster as it rears out of the water. On the other, a bizarre missile formed from the techno-active cube, with Richard’s body lying pread-eagled on top, Lightray standing right at the tip, and Orion clinging onto the side, brandishing his fist at their oncoming foe.

It’s pretty awesome.

The two forces meet and explode, but of course Lightray is able to pull Orion from the point of contact at, y’know, lightspeed. We’re left with the image of Farley—who we’re hastily told was “backlashed far from the flaming area!!” left floating, adrift at sea, alone with his guilt that his supposedly cowardly son was able to fight when he couldn’t. (A tiny ship, visible on the horizon headed towards him, obviously implies that he’ll be rescued.)

As we’ve seen, of course, the Fourth World is full of this kind of tension, between the old and the young, between violence and non-violence, but here we have probably the purest expression of it. Kirby, as we all know, was a WWII vet himself, but he also seemed to have a lot of affection for the hippie types that presumably made up a chunk of his audience…and here we see the two types coming into conflict. The fact that the young pacifist seems to be proven to be in the right--though maybe not in a way that a real pacifist would agree with—is interesting; the point seems to be that, when the chips are down, Fairley, the war vet, is frozen in panic, whereas the pacifist leaps into the fight heroically.

This is a bit confusing. If we're meant to find irony in the fact that the two men act differently from how they behave, that's problematic because it sort of implies negative things about pacifism. That clearly wasn't Kirby's intent, and indeed, Richard is clearly the more likeable character both before AND after the battle begins and his true colours are shown, to the point where it seems like Kirby's almost pandering a little. But then, the point is apparently to praise people who "speak softly and carry a big stick". In fact, there's a fairly subtle and crucial point here being made about pacifism: it's not about cowardice or suicidal nonviolence, it's about keeping violence at a distance unless absolutely necessary, and not using it as a rhetorical club.

One thing's for sure, it's interesting that Kirby is so willing to write off the WWII vet while showing the representative of the younger generation in a more positive light. This is a theme the Fourth World comes back to again and again, a reverent awe for the flower power generation, which carries a lot more weight coming from someone who wasn't actually part of that generation. It's perhaps not hard to see how the Baby Boomers ended up with such high opinions of themselves.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mirror, Mask

There’s a phenomenon I’ve been fascinated with ever since I first had it elucidated for me in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. McCloud calls it “the masking effect”.

Basically, cartoons can achieve a kind of universality that isn’t directly available to any other medium, through their sheer simplicity. We’re visual creatures, and to us the world outside is a rich, textured environment, and the people we deal with every day are distinguished via the details that we slowly become familiar with. Other people are something we observe, and take on an elaborate shape in our minds. But, McCloud says, most of us aren’t nearly as familiar with our own face, because we only see it comparatively rarely. To us, on the other side of the mask, our face exists more as a concept, or a series of non-visual sensations. We imagine the basic placement of eyes, mouth, nose, but we don’t connect it in a concrete way with how we look at any given moment. We don’t picture our freckles or pores or the spot we missed shaving, whereas to anyone encountering us these are prominent features. Everyone else is part of the physical architecture, but we exist to ourselves in an almost Platonic, semi-abstract state.

In other words, a simple, undetailed cartoon rendering of a face is a reasonably close approximation of how we see ourselves, and for this reason, McCloud argues, we’re far more likely to project ourselves onto it. The more details you add, the more potential there becomes for the image to break with how you see yourselves, and the more layers of potential detachment you’ve now added to the character. A smiley face could be literally anyone, of any race, age, gender. A detailed drawing of, say, Wonder Woman is a specific person, one with whom you’re likely to have certain differences.

Obviously that doesn’t mean you can’t relate to, or like, a detailed character; it’s just that that, unless you’re a statuesque Amazon brunette, that lavishly rendered Wonder Woman is someone else. The smiley face is YOU.

Of course books take you even more deeply into the character’s heads, but in the kind of story in which we can actually SEE our protagonist, only cartooning really allows for this “pure” a level of projection. But of course this whole principle exists along a continuum: a character played by an actor, for instance, presents us with a specific person, who, by definition, isn’t “us”. However, if the actor is a white male, it’s statistically more likely (in North America) that we’ll be able to project ourselves onto that character than if the actor is a black woman, for instance.

Yes, this is a ludicrous oversimplification that completely discounts the ability of humans to feel empathy for someone different. This is actually part of what I want to talk about. But for now, as relates to the “masking” effect, the idea is that the more universal the character, the more heightened the ability one has to project yourself onto them. Once you cast an actor to play your character, you’re limiting the ability of some of your audience to literally see themselves in their shoes in this way, but you can still trend towards the most “universal” type of look, be it in terms of race, gender (you’ve instantly got to discount 50% of the population there, no matter which way you go!), age, height, weight, etc. etc. etc.

And yeah, I think you may be getting an inkling of why this is a problem.

This goes beyond visuals; the same principle holds true of basic narrative, too. Consider this guy:

We’ve all heard more than we ever needed to about the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Monomyth” and all of Joseph Campbell’s theories in relation to Star Wars—which has, of course, become the template for much of pop culture. Well, what is “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” but a narrative application of the masking effect? Luke Skywalker’s a bland character—that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. He’s supposed to be a stand-in for the viewer, an empty vessel you can pour yourself into for a purer experience in narrative immersion.

Han Solo? There’s a character. He’s a specific person. Because of that, he works on a different level of narrative immersion—the kind that was more common before Star Wars came along. Because of course we want to be Han Solo. Why wouldn’t you? He’s awesome! He’s a badass smuggler who quips and flies a cool spaceship and gets the girl. Luke may have the awesome laser sword, but I’m guessing more little boys pretended to be Han.

So that blows my “masking” theory to shreds, right?

Not really. It’s just that Han represents a different philosophy of storytelling than Luke does. And here’s where we start getting to the root of an issue I have with modern pop culture wizards (because you knew I was going there eventually, right?)

Movies, in the olden days, strove more for Han-style characters. It’s not that there weren’t bland leads—Lord, were there ever!—but for the most part I don’t think they were trying for that. The idea was generally to produce textured characters who felt like real, which is to say, specific people. I do think there was some understanding of the masking effect, though it may have been rooted more in cultural concerns—of course the hero is going to be a square-jawed white guy—or marketing ones (as with the sudden shift to teenage heroes in the postwar years as they became a lucrative market). The idea of appealing to as broad a part of the population as possible isn’t some revelation, and “viewer insert” characters.

But there was something else at work: movies knew they set the trends for culture, and that people would look up to them to a certain extent. The people who made movies knew that if they could make X look cool, people would flock to X. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t an everyman. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t an everywoman. They were who they were, and people tried to be like them. Not vice versa. The movies, and thus pop culture, were dominated by the Han Solos.

This is one of many things Star Wars changed when everyone decided it was going to be the new bedrock for genre storytelling. The use of the masking effect was one of George Lucas’s triumphs, and it’s probably the single greatest reason that Star Wars was glommed onto as a formula—it (supposedly) provides a quick, easy way to make sure your audience of desirably young and cash-flush nerds can instantly relate to and love your story. Make your lead a bland everyman, and the viewer will fill in the blank themselves—with themselves. This is why, for instance, Harry Potter is such a blank slate, while his friends and teachers and enemies are so much more vivid characters. It’s why so many movies about other cultures are seen through the eyes of a white American, a la “Dances With Wolves”. And it’s why Hollywood is stocked full of blandly pretty leading men and women.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve gone from implicitly praising the masking effect to condemning it. In truth, the masking effect can be employed in far more sophisticated and complex ways. It’s shorthand, a nifty technique that can be laudable in the right hands. There’s nothing wrong with using a viewer insertion character to ease us into a strange world, for instance. But like so many useful artistic techniques, Hollywood has tried to reduce it to a formula, a crutch, or just an excuse to deliver vapid, bland characters. Perhaps more destructively, it’s led to a pop culture where so many protagonists are white heterosexual males in their late teens-early 30s without a distinctive job or any particularly strong beliefs, cultural background, or engagement in the world.

Because the problem is that we still crave Han Solos. Sure, we like being fooled into projecting ourselves into the role of a hero. But we can only be met halfway on this. On some level, when we read or watch stories, we’re looking for role models and aspirational figures. We need someone to admire. The masking effect essentially turns protagonists into mirrors—and thus, we’re constantly being told that we’re the heroes, if just for one day. (Not a coincidence that there are quote marks around that title!) As flattering as that may be, at the end of the day it becomes hollow, a deification of emptiness. If you keep portraying heroes who aren’t fully realized, who stumble through the world without viewpoints or ideas, who are only there to have things happen to them—then that’s the kind of figure people will start emulating.

But then, maybe that’s for the best. Those are exactly the kind of people who are easiest to sell movie tickets to. And everything else.

(I’ll have more to say on this subject after the holidays. Can you stand the suspense?!?)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #6--"The Omega Effect!"

The Forever People is becoming quite the saga at this point—it’s the closest of the Fourth World books to the formula Marvel had evolved at that point, of endless, ongoing plot threads that weave in and out of an interconnected narrative. We’re now on our fourth issue that comes in sequence, and this is only made more explicit by the return of Glorious Godfrey and his Justifiers, who as you may recall were instrumental in the capture of the Forever People at the end of issue #3. The FP’s had left their vehicle, the Super-Cycle, on the cliff’s above Godfrey’s revival tent, and now a swarm of Justifiers in goofy flying shoes come across it and attempt to destroy it .

However, as the captions tell us…“On New Genesis, the creed is “life!” Programmed to ward off “death”, the “Super-cycle” defends itself!!!” Kirby, it seems, enjoyed using “quotation marks” for “no reason”.

The Super-cycle does an Optimus Prime bit and morphs into a high-tech self-defending fortress with, as far as I can make out, a radar dish made out of one of the wheels, and a laser gun formed from the chrome headers:

It incapacitates the patrol and earns the ire of Godfrey, who then sends an entire legion of new recruits to take the thing on (I couldn’t help chuckling—and thinking of Anakin Skywalker—as the recruits scream “YAHOOO!!!” with childlike glee on being sent out as cannon fodder.) “What’s the secret, Godfrey?” Asks his bespectacled sidekick. “The helmet? The uniform? The creed??” “Earthmen are given all those things at birth!!” beams Godfrey. “I merely justify their readiness to use them!!” Hey! I wasn’t issued a helmet and uniform at birth! Ripoff!!

Anyway, back to the FPs themselves. As you may recall, in the last few issues the Forever People were captured by Darkseid and held captive in Desaad’s torture palace/amusement park, Happyland, until their Mother Box escaped and found a warrior named Sonny Sumo who came and rescued them. Sonny also turned out to possess the power of the Anti-Life Equation which, when used in conjunction with the Mother Box, could be used to destroy free will, and Sonny is currently using it over the park’s loudspeaker to get the guards to surrender and release the prisoners.

Last time I mentioned that it was a little creepy to see the good guys wielding such a nasty power, and in this issue there’s at least some brief discussion of the morality of this. Obviously I can’t really blame them for making use of this ability when thrust into such a tight spot, but Beautiful Dreamer still comments on how “horrible” it is. Mark Moonrider says that, “as wielder of the power, Sonny Sumo is even greater than Darkseid himself!!” which seems like something you might not want to advertise. I mean, what if Sonny decides he likes using this power so much that he’s not going to give it up? It’s a lucky thing he’s shown himself to be such a noble warrior with a great moral code and all that. Also, what would happen if Sonny was to encounter Darkseid himself and start ordering *him* around?

It’s hard not to be a little frustrated here, since Kirby was trying to make a profound comic in some ways, that he pretty much ditched all these questions as soon as they come up. I guess that, for Kirby, when the urge to make a comic that “said something” conflicted with the urge to make a crazy explosive punch-up, the latter won out. It pretty much gets to the root of what I was saying earlier, about superhero comics being somewhat limited in their addressing of more subtle or complex topics due to their insistence on good guys and bad guys. Oh well.

Moonrider blasts a few bits of machinery, starting a chain reaction that causes Happyland to destroy itself. The prisoners crawl to safety, and the police arrive to arrest the meekly compliant guards (though, somehow, the Justifiers get away in their boxy shuttlecraft). Or, at least, most of them do—Big Bear manages to grab hold of one of them as he’s leaving and starts clowning around with it, thus providing this issue’s requisite Big Bear is Awesome moment:

JUSTIFIER: Mad-dog hippie!! You’re holding back this tonnage with your bare hands!!...
BIG BEAR: My stars, sir!! Can it be that high density atoms flow through, and reinforce my own atomic structure?
JUSTIFIER: You moving mattress!! You’re from New Genesis!!
(He shoots at Big Bear, grazing his skull. Big Bear makes a goofy face.)
BIG BEAR: Oops!! Well, Big Bear is my name, sir! – and power is my game!! That’s my bag, sir!! I store an excess of free atoms and send them where they’re needed!! Here, perhaps!!!

Then he hits the bottom of the shuttle and sends the Justifier flying, cartoon-like, out of frame.

(If they ever make a movie of the Fourth World, Big Bear will have to be played by a young version of Brian Blessed. Or possibly Jonathan Rhys-Davies.)

More Justifiers streak in and start firing before being put to sleep by Sonny’s voice power. “I’m glad you stopped this, Sonny!” proclaims Beautiful Dreamer. “Big Bear could have hurt these men!!” Sonny expresses confusion: “But I thought I was saving him!!” Like Big Bear ever needs saving, Sonny. He’s mostly just ticked off about “getting involved in all kinds of violence!!”

Off in the corner, Darkseid and Desaad are having a petty and slightly pathetic blame-fest of a conversation, in which Desaad whinges and Darkseid verbally lambastes him. “Don’t think I shall overlook your cowardice!! Then, all tormentors are notorious for this trait!!” As Desaad points out that there’s not much he can do against the Anti-Life Equation, Darkseid responds with, “Boldness, Desaad! Risk!! The raw meat of existence!!! I shall strike with these!!...And the Omega Effect!!!” Yeah, that’s right, Darkseid, castigate him for not taking risks, then whip out this heretofore-unseen superpower of yours that will let you destroy them all by remote control, without even leaving the room. That’s risk for you. Douchebag.

Darkseid proceeds to generate “finder beams” that shoot out of his eyes and start swooping around in vast curlicues. They don’t have far to look at first: Vykin the Black, hotheaded as always, has decided to barge in and confront Darkseid alone. This is really, really stupid, as, in traditional horror-movie fashion, the black guy dies first. Or gets eradicated from existence first. Yes, the Omega Effect is “The end—the total wipe-out!”, and now it’s streaking around, seeking the FPs.

Mark yells at Sonny to use the Mother Box to protect them, but Sonny and Mother Box are the next ones to go. One by one the FPs are annhiliated by the beams—Moonrider tells the remaining FPs to split up, but oddly, Beautiful Dreamer declares that she won’t leave him, and they go “foom” together. (That’s a little strange—there’d been a vague assumption on my part that Mark and Dreamer are lovers, but this is the closest thing we get to confirmation. And even this is a little vague, to say the least.)

The only one left is Serifan, who immediately breaks down sobbing and attempts to move into the path of the beam to end it all. What a wuss. Unfortunately for him (?) Darkseid turns off the finder beams, having lost interest in killing them all now that “the threat to us—has passed!!” Desaaad screams at him “You would leave such a dramatic experience incomplete? No, sire, no!” But Darkseid slaps him away. The kicker is that I would have bought it much more easily if he’d simply said that he wanted to keep Serifan alive and tormented by the knowledge that he’d failed—I mean, I agree Serifan doesn’t seem like much of a threat—but Darkseid explicitly says that he “doesn’t have the stomach” for Desaad’s sadism. So he’s decided to act like an idiot instead?

It gets even worse: Darkseid suddenly confesses that he didn’t actually destroy the Forever People: he just removed them from existence…in the present. OK, this makes no sense. It’s the height of convenient “villain leaves the room” behaviour that assures these guys will always be defeated. And besides, he just teleported the guy with the Anti-Life Equation—you know, the thing he’s utterly fixated on finding?—completely beyond his own reach. Smooth, Darkseid!

Serifan pulls himself together for the nonce, piles into the Justifier’s shuttle which Big Bear captured and uses it to head back to the super-cycle. Unfortunately, he manages to arrive just as the Justifiers from before launch their attack on it. (Wait—it took them all day to climb the cliffs?) Anyway, we’re now To Be Continued once more…

But wait! There’s a double-dose of Big Bear awesomeness in this issue, with a short back-up feature about he and Serifan fighting off an Apokoliptish patrol back in the days before the two planets openly went to war. Well, actually, it’s about Big Bear fighting them off, and Serifan whining and almost getting killed. My favourite moment is when Serifan glimpses the gigantic cannon the intruders plan to use to bring down Supertown: “It’s a horribly ugly pollutant!” Um, and it’s also about to wreck your home, Serifan. I’m concerned about the environment too, but geez. Meanwhile, Big Bear shows up carrying a huge log, gets shot at, declares “You’ve destroyed my exercise!” and proceeds to trash the invaders. Both of these guys are delusional and self-absorbed, but only one of them is AWESOME. Guess which.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Comics Quickies: Saga

I'm strangely conflicted about Brian K. Vaughn as a writer. It's not that I don't like his comics; indeed, his work is usually a must-buy for me. But as much as I enjoy his stuff while I'm reading it, in the days afterwards there's always a cascade of "refrigerator moments" where the narrative logic starts to fray, or I start to find some of his narrative cutesiness and SHOCKING TWISTS annoying or cheap in retrospect. But the biggest criticism I have of him is that he's one of these guys who feels like he'd rather be writing for TV or movies--indeed, Vaughn wrote multiple episodes of LOST--and this sensibility mars his comics somewhat. As propulsive and page-turning as they are, the pacing and structure is pure TV, with little attempt to make use of the medium of comics. Even the visuals in his comics tend to be pretty low-key and mundane, relying heavily on naturalism, real-world reference, and the "acting" of his characters. To his credit, he almost always pulls this off, which is a testament to the quality of the artists he's worked with as much as his writing, but it's disappointing to see his focus lie so far from the kind of stuff comics can achieve.

Which is what's refreshing about Saga. This new epic SF/fantasy hybrid comic sees Vaughn stepping well outside his comfort zone, tackling more grandiose and comic-y subject matter, and even starting to take advantage of the visual possibilities of the medium in a way he generally doesn't. Some of the credit here must surely go to his artist, Fiona Staples, whose style is looser and more expressionistic than Y: The Last Man's Pia Guerra or Ex Machina's Tony Harris, but there's an overall feeling that Vaughn is stretching himself, too, creating narrative captions that are scrawled diagrammatically across the panels, robots who communicate their inner thoughts by flashing pictures on their TV-screen heads, and an unrelentingly fantastical universe full of weird imagery.

Though set against the backdrop of an intergalactic war and filled with pulp SF tropes like spaceships, robots, bounty hunters and pleasure planets, Saga is really a fantasy story in the sprawling, multi-book mode we're all familiar with. It opens with the narrator's birth, which makes it safe to assume that events will be playing out over an extensive period of time, and possibly spanning multiple generations, as the title would suggest. For now, the focus is on Marko, a horned magic-user, and Alana, a winged high-tech warrior, whose planets are at brutal, unending war. The two have defied their respective governments by falling in love, marrying, and producing a child, and now they're on the run across the planet, and eventually the galaxy, pursued by bounty hunters and a member of a strange, as-yet-unexplained robot royal family. The world Vaughn creates is rich and detailed and full of imagination, setting a grand stage for years of adventures to come, and his characterizations are more heartfelt than usual (though Alana can sometimes fall into the reflexive, hipper-than-thou posturing a lot of Vaughn's characters are guilty of). Vaughn has, ironically, stretched himself by embracing what could be considered a more traditional "comic book world", and the results are quite appealling. While the cynic in me is positive Saga will eventually fall prey to the slightly rushed and credibility-straining plotting that dogged Y and Ex Machina (though admittedly it never completely derailed either of those series), for now, Saga is another typically strong start for Vaughn, and an interesting promise of something different than what he usually offers.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Treklife: This Is Not The Kirk I Was Promised

I only watched the classic Trek for the first time in its entirety a few years ago. As a TNG-loving teen I'd made a few attempts over the years, most notably dipping into a Trek marathon that aired on Canada's Space Station over...the holidays, I think? Or possibly while I was out of school, sick? I honestly don't remember, though being sick might explain my inability to engage with it. Or maybe that's just because I was, y'know, a teenager. Camp is the bane of teenagers, and TOS was campy even at the time it was made. I was outgrowing the kinds of clunky TV shows I'd uncritically consumed as a kid and embracing a whole new set of supposedly cooler shows, ones that offered more superficial appeal and engaged with my adolescent reptile thrill-seeking brain. You know the drill. You went through it yourself.

This dorky, extremely low-budget series with its hammy acting was too ripe for my newly minted sense of reflexive irony. I've actually always been a little more open towards older movies and TV shows than many, even as a kid, but Trek just didn't click. I think it might have been the fact that it was nominally connected to The Next Generation--instead of being free to be its own thing, I could only view it through the lens of the new show. I ended up sitting there and nitpicking how ridiculous the Klassic Klingons looked and trying to concoct reasons for why the Cardassians or the Ferengi weren't on anyone's radar back then.

As an older, "wiser" specimen, I've actually found my tastes becoming broader and my willingness to engage with art on its own terms expanding, and thus, with J. J. Abrams' reboot was threatening to hit the screens, I borrowed the box sets from a friend and delved in.

(My thoughts on Abrams' remake have cooled quite a bit, but I enjoyed it at the time, and in fact wrote this snotty review of Trek in general that ticked a lot of people off. I did mean it tongue-in-cheek, but yeah, that was kind of dickish of me. You should probably read that before continuing.)

I think one of the things that caused me to write that review--that caused me to fall away from Trek in the first place--was my reading about the backstage travails of how it came to the screen. You see, I really *believed* in the ideals of Trek. I still do. Exploration, rationality, communication and compromise, striving towards a better future. These have become a major part of my moral makeup, and Trek is a big part of why. And I was naive enough to believe that the show's creators shared these ideals.

But of course, it's just a fucking TV show.

It's not even some story of Hollywood backbiting that drove me off (though it became clear later that Rick Berman was quite a tool.) It was the underlying cynicism and laziness that was beginning to seep into the show, the way the writers didn't seem to care much about exploring the issues they raised anymore, the way continuity was shredded and characters treated callously. Basically, all the stuff I wrote about in my last post on the subject. But it was exacerbated by my growing awareness of the way TV shows were made.

Look, I'm aware that art isn't some perfect, pure process in which the muses flit down on wings of saffron and caress the artist's brow to provide inspiration, and even if it were the process of getting it to the screen would require change and compromise. I know that the ethereal, platonic magic that stirs your soul has to go through a mundane process of realization, which can be reduced to charts and graphs and scripts and outlines and formulas. All artists have a physical process. I know that now.

But at the time I felt deeply, deeply betrayed by uncovering Trek's relationship to showbiz, and combined with the way that, in the latter seasons of TNG, no one involved seemed to care all that much, it provoked a hostililty that lingered all the way to 2009, when I wrote that review.

So there's that.

Really, though, what I was still reeling from--and what I now find fascinating--is just to what degree classic Trek isn't the thing everyone seems to think it is.

We all know the litany: a post-scarcity future with prosperity and enlightenment for all. The Vulcan reverence for Logic. The Prime Directive. The emphasis on communication and co-operation. The glimpse of a better future for mankind. These are things that have a powerful appeal.

Which is why it's so astounding that the classic series was so conflicted about all this stuff.

Decades later, Roddenberry and the fans codified the above ideas as the core of Trek, and it's been that way since the movies. But the thing is, Roddenberry wasn't that great a writer, and he left a lot of the work to a talented team that seemed to have different ideas about what Trek would be. This clash of ideologies made it into everyone's Platonic ideal of the show to a degree, but Roddenberry's vision has been the one that prevailed.

Roddenberry clearly was a socialist democrat who believed in military adventurism (I’d argue he was more mainstream in the 60s, some of the more offbeat stuff that crept into his thinking–a slightly creepy collectivism, for instance–having come later) but the show had libertarian and counterculture writers as well. Likewise there are episodes like “The Way to Eden” which is pretty contemptuous of the youth culture of the time, yet a lot of other Trek stories seem to embrace it in more subtle ways, particularly the idea that there’s something ridiculous about authority and that love, peace and harmony can triumph over evil (and “Way of the Gun” sees the crew using passive resistance and an oddly Buddhist mindset to overcome violence.) There are episodes that can be read as both for and against the Vietnam war (which is really what the Prime Directive was about in the first place) and episodes that are both for and against organized religion.

As for Spock, he definitely seems to have been created as a straw man--someone to show the value of humanity and the perils of relying on logic entirely. And yet it doesn’t take too long before the writers seem to start siding with Spock on a lot of things–in fact, he almost seems to be the representative for the counterculture at times, his spirituality being almost as big a point as his logic. In “Space Seed” Spock is appalled to hear everyone else speaking well of Khan, and I can’t imagine we aren’t supposed to, at the very least, sympathize, if not completely agree. (And it’s interesting to me that the supposedly detached, logical character is the one taking the firm moral stance while the more emotional humans can admire the historical monster, if somewhat back-handedly; conventional storytelling would have flipped that to criticize Spock's logic, but here it seems like humanity is the one that’s in danger of falling under the sway of a charismatic figure.) Of course there are plenty of “silly Spock, there’s more to life than logic” episodes as well, but the character was no Agent Scully, there just to voice the “wrong” opinions. (Actually I’d argue even Agent Scully wasn’t an Agent Scully, but I’m drifting from the point here.)

Likewise, there's the idea of a post-scarcity society without money, which looms so large over discussions of Trek, but which barely seems present on the original series. It’s implied by the replicators and so on, but the way everyone’s needs seem to be taken care of could be chalked up just as much to the fact that this is a pseudo-military organization as to anything else. Isn’t there discussion of mercantile arrangements in the early episodes? Isn’t Harry Mudd basically a con artist? What’s he swindling people out of if not their money? And I could have sworn Scotty or someone mentioned getting paid, though of course he could have been speaking figuratively.

Finally, there's the Prime Directive. The fact that Kirk violated the Directive practically every week is, by now, a cliche, but what's even more interesting is that, looking at the original series in isolation I honestly couldn’t tell you if the writers meant for it to be seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It often seems more like a dramatic obstacle than a philosophy, something that was just there so that Kirk could show off what a badass renegade he was--the Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules transposed into the 23rd century. And indeed, Starfleet in general seems to be heavily populated with stiff bureaucrats who exist only to make Kirk's life miserable.

Utopian future? I don't think so.

It's a fascinating series precisely because of these contradictions, and it's ironic that the show's own creator asserting his creative vision arguably produced something less interesting. It's certainly a handy riposte to people who think Trek's vision of a relentlessly positive future is naive or unworkable: that vision never really existed...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #5--"Murder Machine!"

I love that cover. I love that Vundabar wasn’t quite certain enough of the flamethrower and the gun and the A-bomb, so he added a dagger. To kill a guy fully encased in a metal casket.

Proving that shamelessly gratuitous cheesecake pinups are just as much a part of Kirby’s ouevre as any other adventure artist’s, this issue opens with a full-page splash of Barda in her red bikini mode, doing calisthenics. He even provides audience surrogates, in the form of a bunch of deliverymen who have come to deliver a civil war cannon Scott’s ordered, but get an eyeful of Barda and make construction-worker noises at her. She of course puts them in their place by picking up the 20-ton cannon (with one hand!) and carting it off, leading to the traditional “This ‘women’s lib’ thing is getting more serious than I thought!” reaction.

A word, please? If you don’t mind? Thank you. I’m 100% on the side of feminist superhero fans who find the subculture creepy and weird and misogynist at times, but I don’t think stuff like gratuitous shots of a muscular, bikini-clad woman exercising is what bothers them. I think the real sticking point is when female characters are badly or thinly written AND they’re constantly being offered up for oglement by the artist. The female character serves no point and is in no way memorable or interesting except as a sex object—hence “objectification”.

There’s a certain trope comics frequently use to try and spackle over this kind of exploitation, namely, the “Generic Kickass Female” argument. The character is superficially heroic, strong, can fight off an army of ninjas with one hand behind her back, etc. So, argue the writers and artists, she’s a positive female role model! That’s all well and good, but just making her “kickass” doesn’t totally mitigate the sexism. Turning a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot into a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot who punches people a lot is not exactly a great blow for women’s rights; it’s just a knee-jerk bit of ass-covering. And honestly, it’s become such a cliché that it always bothers me when it shows up.

So why don’t I think the brazenly cheescakey Barda sequences in Mister Miracle count against this? Well, the answer is more or less implied by the above. Barda is not only a memorable character, she often comes close to overshadowing the hero of the book by force of her personality alone. Furthermore, she’s not really a traditional image of beauty (maybe less so now than in 1971, but still). If anything, this whole sequence is a pretty solid example of being sexy without being exploitative. Still, I had to admit I was rolling my eyes a bit at the deliverymen’s “Bu-WHA?!?” reaction.

But on to the actual story, which, fortuitously for my purposes, involves one of those villains that only Kirby could have thought up. Okay, maybe he’s not the only one who could have thought him up, but he’s the only one who would have done so and then actually had the guts to build a comic book around him.

His name is Doctor Virman Vundabar.

And yes, he’s basically a cartoonish, 19th century Prussian dictator.

For the record, I’m pretty sure that Kirby was somewhat aware of the camp value of this comic and even saw it as a selling point; witness Big Bear’s comments about their décor in The Forever People #2. And this is a comic book, which at that time still benefited from being cheap, disposable entertainment for kids, and could thus get away with stuff most other media couldn’t.

Still, Vundabar is pushing it. And yet, Kirby manages to add another, interesting level to all this later on, as we’ll see.

At the moment, one of Vundabar’s lackeys, name of Hydrik, is displaying his prototype deathtrap which Vundabar, natch, intends to use on Mr. Miracle. The trap—in which a dummy is shackled to a hydraulic spinner—is a pretty spectacular failure; not only does it self-destruct, but the Mister Miracle dummy is thrown clear! The point being to demonstrate that Miracle would have escaped, but honestly, the fact that a lifeless mannekin was able to escape shows that Hydrik’s competence at building deathtraps is roughly akin to that of a Narwhal’s. To top it all off, Hydrik’s machine “severely impairs” him when it explodes, and a sneering Vundabar puts a bullet in his head as he lies there helplessly. You know, I know it’s standard M.O. for supervillains to cack a henchman or two to prove their evilness, but this one bordered on a mercy killing.

Meanwhile, Scott is setting up his new civil war cannon (where’d he get the money to afford that, again?) while Oberon complains that Scott’s got him dressed up in a Confederate outfit. Or maybe it’s a Union. Whichever one is blue. (Hey, I’m a Canadian. We didn’t learn this stuff in school.) Of course, Oberon’s complaints that Scott is robbing him of his dignity are entirely justified, but he continues to go along with it after Scott gives him an extremely perfunctory “Hey, you’re as important to the act as I am!” speech.

At least Oberon manages to wheedle some more information out of Scott and his backstory while he’s about it. Scott explains about Granny’s Orphanage between his escape from being strapped to the cannon while it’s lit (a pretty perfunctory escape, actually, though Oberon naturally does a lot of squealing about it). We get the basic idea that we’ve pretty much already figured out: that there’s a weird, never-fully-explained code of honour restricting the Apokoliptians from just tromping over and killing Scott…despite the fact that they fight dirty on several occasions.

Perhaps more interesting is that extra layer to the inherent campiness of the comic that I was talking about earlier. Vundabar, like Scott himself, is an alumnus of the orphanage, where, it’s now made clear, the orphans were given silly names in Kirby’s homage to Oliver Twist. But more than that, they were given ridiculous identities, themes, and traits by Granny, and by extension, Darkseid. Vundabar took his to extremes, but all the orphans of Apokalips have had their personalities, basically, assigned to them—which makes their goofiness kind of tragic, when you think about it. It’s a very nice fit with the themes of the comic, and the Fourth World as a whole: the various ridiculous personalities of the Apokaliptians are a cruel joke on the part of Darkseid, and a measure of just how determined he is to control everyone and everything. He’s essentially condemning his soldiers to lifelong humiliation, and getting them to play along with the joke. Scott’s escaped from this humiliation just as he’s escaped from his homeworld, by building his own personality.

(Though there’s a bit of an irony here, in that Granny named him “Scott Free”….so by rebelling and escaping, he’s still fulfilling the destiny Darkseid handed down to him. Which adds yet another level of complexity to Darkseid’s motivations, which I’ll discuss in a later entry.)

Anyway, while Scott and Oberon are rehearsing, Barda’s completing her cheesecake quota for the issue by splashing around in a nearby pond. She reflects on how much pleasant it is here than on Apokalips, though interestingly when she name-drops Darkseid, even negatively, she can’t help but add “great” to the beginning of his name, a nice, subtle way of reinforcing just how much brainwashing she’s undergone. Meanwhile, a bunch of Granny’s pointy-headed troops have snuck up behind her, but of course Barda’s too good to be taken by surprise like that; she activates her armour, which materializes around her, and begins laying waste. So naturally the pointy-heads have a secret weapon up their sleeve to conveniently neutralize her so they can carry her off. Even though she put in a good showing, I still say she went down a little too easily for the kick-assiest warrior babe of the Fourth World, but never mind.

Scott catches sight of the “Magna-lift” as it departs over the treetops, and somehow intuits that Barda’s been kidnapped, which means of course that it’s time to summon his aero-discs and follow after. Scott somehow further intuits that Barda’s been taken to the remote Barclay Canyon, and even more astonishingly, figures out that it’s Virman Vundabar who took her. Man, Scott’s become a psychic. Sure enough, he finds a bright orange complex waiting for him with Vundabar’s image greeting him on an image=screen at one end. “It probably also serves as a door to your trap! Very efficient, Virman!!!” Um, that’s how you prove Virman’s love of efficiency? What about the fact that he went to all the trouble of kidnapping Barda, even though Bedlam was able to sucker him in just by offering a challenge?

Vundabar starts ordering Scott to enter the compound. “What if I tell you to go blow your nose!?!” spits Scott, master of the snappy comeback. (As you’ll recall from the end of issue #2.) But of course, Vundabar’s offering Barda’s life in exchange for Scott’s compliance, so he steps onto the track and is immediately encased in the conveyor belt o’ doom pictured on the cover. On the next page, he’s battered by giant metal hammers and electrocuted by what Vundabar’s new henchman Klepp calls "a controlled atom blast”. Vundabar refuses to gloat until he knows for certain Scott is dead, but lest you gain any respect for him at this point, he then turns his attention away to provoke Barda. There’s an interesting exchange here:

BARDA: That’s why I deserted Apokolips! I can no longer soldier in the company of twisted fiends like yourself-who worship their power--more than Darkseid!
VUNDABAR: Silence! I want no further blasphemy! Great Darkseid rules Apokolips like a colossus!! His is the creed of destruction! --Not fair play! I accommodate my whims--but I also know that my opponent must be destroyed!

OK, that’s pretty confusing. Shouldn’t Vundabar be saying, “Darkseid accommodates my whims”? How do you accommodate your own whims? But the general idea here seems to be that Barda is accusing Vundabar of being disloyal to Darkseid, in a purely intellectual sense at least. What’s more, she seems to be admitting that she still feels loyalty to Darkseid! Or rather, that she’s still committed to the idea of Darkseid. This seems to be a case of being so faithful to the image of someone that you have to rebel against them when they fail to live up to their own standards. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the two of them meet…

Anyway, the Murder Machine passes through flamethrowers and then an acid pit at the end that melts it into nothingness. The toadying Klepp proceeds to ask “If I cannot laugh now, please allow me to applaud!!” To which Vundabar replies, “Laugh away, Klepp! Here -! I’ll join you! AHAHAHAHAHA!!” That’s pretty funny—Vundabar apparently doesn’t allow himself to laugh very often.

And need I point out that Mr. Miracle is standing right behind him in this panel, looking smug?

Yet again, the villains are horrified to find that Scott escaped from a locked cabinet which they couldn’t see inside of. “A mother-box!” Screams Vundabar. “With the aid of a Mother-box, you thinned your atomic structure and transferred yourself out of that coffer!” “Not so!” replies Scott. “Even in the ‘crunch’ I play it fair—and you know it!!! You thought of everything, Vundabar--except the soles of my shoes!! You couldn’t see the laser-jets activate!! The jets burned through my foot clamps but not those that held the coffer fast to the moving track! Then, with a short by powerful laser beam, I blasted downward!!” And crawled out through the hole, digging downwards and coming up behind Vundabar.

So, um. Using the Mother Box is cheating…but using foot-rockets isn’t? This is what keeps bothering me about this comic. Most of the time, Scott escapes simply by using whatever gadgets he happens to have brought with him, even if we’ve never heard of them up ‘til now. Scott rarely uses actual escape skill or even his wits to get away. Sometimes it’s worse than others—the “Paranoid Pill” business was actually pretty clever—but this falls under the discussion of whether Superman is a lousy hero because he can save lives and do what’s right without much exertion on his part.

Anyway, Vundabar immediately proceeds to try and cheat by blasting Scott at point-blank range, whereupon the floor collapses underneath them—Scott had dug it away, after all. He then lifts Barda in the classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” pose and carries her off.

Wow, condescending much, Scott? So much for powerful female role models…

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Praise of Mediocrity

So Star Wars.

Someone tweeted recently (sorry, I can't remember who or I'd attribute it) that there was no better exemplar of the human capacity for optimism than the speed at which "New Star Wars" went from a punchline to a prayer. It's particularly bizarre when you consider that this is inspired by the series creator very deliberately bowing out of being directly creatively involved and handing over control to a massive multinational corporation. Seriously, that sentence I just wrote, divorced from context, makes me want to jump off the nearest balcony.

But blow me if the recent proceedings haven't been filling me with a thrill of hope. In spite of everything, Star Wars is still something I care about--not the merchandising and spinoffs and gubbery per se, but the original three films. I still think they're an incredible feat of filmmaking and resonate with me on a primal level that I'll never be able to put aside entirely, for all the intellectual arguments (many of which I accept) for how lame and culturally reactionary they are, how they damaged film as an artform and turned SF and Fantasy from the genres of imagination and ideas to a bunch of formulaic whizz-bangery. They still work, goddammit. And the chance of getting more that might work on the level that the classic films do is something that can legitimately get me excited.

To be clear here, I'm not the kind of nerd who wants everything they love on endless replay forever. I was honestly kind of "blah" in the lead-up to The Avengers (which may be why I was able to walk in with reasonable expectations and legitimately enjoy it), I thought the Chris Nolan Batman films probably should have ended with The Dark Knight, and I honestly was not feeling any particular excitement about The Hobbit even before they announced that it was going to be split pointlessly into three films. I can get very excited by the upcoming work of a particular filmmaker, but "franchises" do little or nothing for me.

What's more, I 100% agree with what a number of people are saying, that some of the directors that the nerderati* are excitedly suggesting to helm the new movies are inappropriate because they're too interesting and creative and they don't deserve to be shackled to a massive franchise that will limit their creativity. It's true that Sam Raimi and Chris Nolan were able to bring their talents to bear on major comic-book superhero movies and leverage them into other great movies, but other cinematic talents haven't fared nearly as well. I thought Brian Singer was a legitimately promising director who did a great job with his X-Men films, but somehow jumped the shark in a major way starting with Superman Returns. Peter Jackson was a favourite of mine in the 90s, but Lord of the Rings seems to have sucked him dry of his reckless imagination and ballsiness. Jon Favreau's career suffered major diminishing returns after Iron Man. And I'm honestly kinda worried about Joss Whedon now**.

*Is that a new word? Did I just create that? Patent pending!

**Yeah, I still like Joss Whedon. Fuck you.

Favreau's name has been floated as a likely candidate to direct Star Wars episode VII, though, and I actually think he'd be perfect. This is yet another of the bizarrely paradoxical aspects of how interested I am in this whole announcement. I want certain filmmakers to keep away from new Star Wars for their own sakes, but oddly, I kind of want it for the sake of Star Wars, too.

Because what works about Star Wars is something very simple and pure. It's become a cliche, but Star Wars really does tap into some of the primal urge for myth-making that we've felt since we were hairy grunting jerks huddled around a campfire, and it weds it both to the old-Hollywood desire to entertain and the geeky proclivity for world-building. It's not about re-inventing cinema, it's about stripping it down to its essence and then encrusting it with a lot of entertaining bric-a-brac. The elegance with which the OT captures this "mythical modern" feel--something that the Prequels quite spectacularly failed to do, of course, and for all that people tear apart the Prequels, that particular shortcoming is rarely mentioned--requires a certain kind of talent to capture. It's very definitely not the province of visionary artists; it's more like the sphere of extra-competent journeymen who somehow capture lightning in a bottle.

Take, for example, Michael Arndt, who's apparently been hired as head writer for the new trilogy. (Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was recently announced as probably writing Episode VIII, along with Simon Kinberg, but they're likely to be working from Arndt's outline.) Arndt wrote Little Miss Sunshine, which is a movie I really don't care for. The performances slightly elevate it, but the script is an incredibly cynical and rather formulaic attempt to imitate a "quirkie indie comedy". And yet, somehow, it's these qualities that make me think Arndt's going to be just right for new Star Wars movies. You don't need to have authenticity to write Star Wars. If anything, I feel like that would just get in the way. What you need is a rock-solid understanding of the basics of storytelling, and how to get past your audiences' defenses and give them what they want. To pander, if you will.

Arndt's apparently taught screenwriting classes using Star Wars as a model for great story structure. He's not wrong. I don't really want this guy within twelve miles of a movie that has a shot at challenging the audience or subverting the rules of drama, but from what little I know about the guy, handing him the keys to Star Wars feels like destiny.

Which brings me to Favreau. A number of similar journeyman directors have been suggested for this--Joe Johnston, Brad Bird (who's already begged off), Matthew Vaughn. Those are all pretty suitable choices, filmmakers with solid storytelling skills who've mostly been content to stay within the realm of crowd-pleasing spectacle, but who do so very well. Favreau has a couple of extra points in his favour, though: for one thing, he's the first director in a decade to get an actual performance out of Harrison Ford (who I'm really hoping will make one last visit to the Star Wars universe, if only to give Han Solo the send-off he deserves). He also has a great philosophy of special effects, having stated on multiple occasions that it's important not to rely on CGI alone, and that stuff like puppetry and stop-motion can still have a place in modern movies, as demonstrated by his rather charming SF kid's movie Zathura. That sounds like an ideal fit with Star Wars, which showcased some of the wondrous things that can be done with practical effects, before ironically sinking into a quagmire of halfassed CGI with the prequels. Since the visuals and effects are an important part of Star Wars, having Favreau in charge would be genuinely exciting to me. Imagine, this series that set the tone for special effects becoming a celebration of the retro.

Mostly, though, I like Favreau for this because, even at his worst, he's always understood the need to bring humanity to the biggest blockbusters--and humanity is something that Star Wars has lost rather badly over the decades.

So essentially, with the new Star Wars movies, we have a weird situation where a ton of individual elements that I don't like very much seem weirdly likely to come together to produce something great.

Or it could end up sucking really, really badly.

I have to admit that the latter is every bit as likely as the former. But hey. It's been an increasingly depressing decade for nerd culture. If something like this stirs the embers of optimism in me, no matter how inexplicably, I think it deserves credit for that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #143--"The Genocide Spray!"

So to recap: the guy who everyone thought was Dracula is actually a microscopic resident of a horned planet that’s hovering in the basement of a mausoleum, surrounded by fog and camera-like objects. And he’s embiggened (OK, I believe the technical term is ‘re-biggulated’) himself in order to discover the date that his creator had planned for the tiny world’s destruction, which for some reason was coded onto the individual Photostat dots of a photograph in the mad scientist’s lab.

Now, this being Kirby, most aspects of this bizarre situation are not explained in any way, shape or form, but interestingly enough, one of them is. And the explanation is so bizarre that you’ll be sorry you asked.

See, the “cameras” are actually movie projectors…and they’ve been projecting horror movies into the skies of Transilvane for “generations”, causing the sentient inhabitants to mold their entire culture on them. I’m going to assume that time moves faster on Transilvane, since its creator Dabney Donovan (described as “A never-seen, brilliant, wild, wild scientist!”) hasn’t been at this for very long. As for how the Transilvanids actually came to look like vampires and wolfmen, well, we’re told at the very end that “Those people are natural “copiers!” They have a fluid atomic base! After generations of watching sky movies—they became what they saw!!!

MmmmmMMMM, that’s good technobabble.

The only explanation the narration gives us for this demented arrangement is that “Scientists are human beings!! And it’s when they play “God”--that human beings make their worst mistakes!!” So I guess Donovan gave into the weak, all-too-human urge to create a miniaturized planet filled with horror movie monsters. You know you’d do the same, in his shoes.

Anyway, Superman finds a hidden chamber by moving the arm of a nearby statue, and moving “forward into the strange, dark and goose-bumpy caverns”, he and Jimmy come across Count Dragorin and Lupek resting in their coffins. Except, as Superman theorizes, they aren’t coffins at all, but decompression chambers, necessary for restoring the Transilvanids after their molecular expansion from microscopic to human-sized.

My God, I must be reading too many of these comics, because that actually sort of made sense to me.

Of course, apparently decompression isn’t enough to stop Lupek from leaping from his coffin behind Superman and leaping on them. Then, while the two of them are distracted, a third Transilvanid, this one looking like Frankenstein’s monster, goes after Jimmy. “Superman!! It’s a triple feature!!” Superman’s elegantly logical solution is to throw the wolfman at the Frankenstein. It’s just basic math, people.

Unfortunately, not only are a horde of Transilvanids emerging, but Count Dragorin is now up and active, using “the sign of the Mystican” to…explode Superman and Jimmy. No really. It’s a glowing occult type-sigil that appears on the floor, tracks the heroes like a laser sight, and then goes “WAHAAMMMM” and goes up in a gout of pink smoke (and Kirby Crackle, natch). This puts out Jim and Superman (supposedly, at least).

Now it’s back to the Newsboy Legion, who, when last we left them, had found themselves, via a ludicrously unlikely series of coincidences, in the same room with the man who shot their dear friend, the original Manhattan Guardian, just as he was announcing that fact loudly into the telephone. “You heard me! I said that you couldn’t have seen the Guardian! Because, detective Jim Harper was the Guardian—and I shot Harper!! I’ll say it again, see! I shot and killed Jim Harper!” I swear, he’s about two panels away from just painting a big bull’s eye on his back. And again I ask, how did this low-level crook know the Guardian’s secret identity?

Naturally, the Newsboys try to subdue him, and also naturally, they somehow manage to screw it up. Fortunately, the Intergang types on the other line overhear that our nameless thug has been caught, and send a giant, floating bomb—with a TV monitor on it!—to explode him up real nice. (I love the idea of a bomb with a monitor on it. Intergang clearly has money to burn.) The Newsboys, a few pages later, stumble across his body and decide that justice has been served. Yeah, I’ll say. First this guy practically falls in your lap, then he gets blown up for you, keeping your hands blood-free. Luck favours the obnoxious 30s style street urchin, or so they say.

Meanwhile, the Transilvanids have Superman strapped to a torture device: a gigantic crushing press covered in spikes (which is curiously referred to as “the rack”). “Well, I’ve played along with the visiting firemen from Transilvane long enough,” thinks Superman. (Firemen?) He casually frees himself, and the monsters start to freak out that “the hour of the demon dog” is approaching. “The ‘picture-prophecy’ in our skies--cannot be altered!!” moans Dragorin, but Superman implores him to “stay calm and think logically!!” Yes, of course. You’re a microscopic lifeform evolved to look like Dracula, trying to prevent the horror movies that you’ve been watching in the sky for generations from coming true. If you’d only think logically, I’m sure you could find the solution to your problems.

A bell tolls for the Transilvanids—literally—and they pretty much dissolve into helpless wailing. Superman, being a more proactive sort, digs away at the wall and finds a secret passage to Donovan’s hidden lair—just in time to miss the Demon Dog as it zooms past. Predictably, the Demon Dog is a robot, programmed to fly out and sweep Transilvane clean of biological life with a blast of industrial-strength pesticide.

Perhaps this is a good time to note the odd fact that we never meet Dabney Donovan, and thus, we never get any answers as to what the hell was going through his mind when he created this whole bizarre situation. The fact that he’s forever off-screen, and that even his personal secretary never met him face to face, seems to suggest that he was an agent of Apokalips—maybe even Darkseid himself? But then, why go to all the trouble of creating an entire planet full of Universal Horror monsters—which does seem like the kind of thing Darkseid’s minions would do—if you’re just going to wipe them out at around the same time the whole New Genesis/Apokalips war is getting started?!? Alternatively, if there was some other reveal in mind further down the road for Donovan--he was actually Flippa Dippa all along!!!--it’s tragically aborted by the cancellation of the Jimmy Olsen comic in five issues’ time…

Anyway, there’s some extremely mild suspense as we wonder if Superman can possibly catch the Demon Dog before it destroys Transilvane (hint: he can. Because he is Superman. Also, the Demon Dog is a procrastinator.) Jimmy wakes up, having spent the climax of, again, his own comic lying passed out on the floor, just in time to look through a micro-telescope thingie and see a fleet of coffins flying/shrinking back down to Transilvane. Superman pontificates a bit on the Demon Dog—“The symbol of their destruction! – As our own is forecast in the prophecies we’ve inherited!!” I’m sorry, exactly what movie was that, again? If there’s a lost Hammer or International horror movie about a flying demon dog that destroys the world, I’d kind of like to track that down.

The hilarious ending shows Superman and Jimmy sitting down to watch the new movie Superman’s chosen to broadcast to the people of Transilvane, in hopes of changing their culture. A little movie called “Oklahoma!”

Oh man, as wonderfully demented as the whole Transilvane idea is to begin with, that ending just makes it that much more awesome. You just KNOW Kirby was going to do a follow-up storyline further down the line, where Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singin’, dancin’, vampire cowboys. Forget Kirby, someone needs to do a follow up to this story right now. I mean, who wouldn’t pay to see that? “Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singing, dancing, vampire cowboys.” Just throw that description in the next issue of Previews and watch the comic book industry recover instantly. Warner Brothers would adapt it into movie form and beat Titanic’s box office gross. You could build an entire “Final Crisis”-style event around it.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Life In Trek

Hi! Miss me?

It’s been a tumultuous six months or so for me, encompassing a move, a new job and a whackload of freelance projects, and this blog has seemed like something that’s easy enough to shrug off. But I’m finding myself wasting so much time on Twitter and various message boards that I might as well post my thoughts on stuff here instead. Plus, I’m trying to get more serious as a writer and attempting regular blog posts is a good way to discipline myself.

So anyway, let’s talk about Star Trek.


Star Trek: The Next Generation was the pop cultural equivalent of my first adolescent crush. I’d loved TV shows before that, in much the same way that you love people as a small child, largely because they are present and bringing you food. TNG was the first show that was “mine” properly speaking—the first pop cultural artifact that I actively sought out and became properly obsessed over.

And I do mean obsessed. I think my interest in the show coincided with it becoming syndicated for the first time, though I was too young to be sure about that. I think I started out somewhere in the second season, because I specifically remember seeing the first season for the first time and thinking how cheesy it looked and how much the show had evolved. I watched those first three seasons on a freaking loop—I taped them and rewatched them every day, and I absolutely had to be home to watch the syndicated rerun no matter how many times I’d seen the episode before. I bought all the spinoff novels (fortunately there weren’t too many of those to blow my money on) and most of the technical manuals, alien race guides, and eventually the TNG Companion became one of my proudest possessions. I wrote up elaborate encyclopedia-style listings of the various alien races, planets, and technology (thank God the internet wasn’t really a thing back then…though, wait, is the fact that I wrote these for my own amusement more or less sad than creating a Wiki?) It got so I could identify an episode by watching the first couple of seconds and…sigh, yes...hearing Picard recite the Stardate.

So yeah, pretty damn nerdy.

What’s weird about this is that I never really felt compelled to check out the original series. Part of that was that I don’t think it was airing in syndication on any of the channels I received at the time, or at least, nowhere that was convenient for me. My ten-year-old brain was wired kind of weirdly. I’d religiously plunk myself down in front of the TV right after school and watch cartoons, old sitcoms, and TNG, but I rarely felt compelled to watch in the evening.

Until, of course, I twigged to the fact that there were actual NEW EPISODES of TNG airing later in the evening (along with some other shows, like that “Simpsons” thing my VCR-obsessed family friend used to show me whenever I came over). I had discovered…Prime Time.

(Look, I’ve lived a very boring life, OK? Without exaggerated pomposity my autobiography’s going to be basically unreadable.)

Friday nights at 10, the night that TNG aired, became appointment television for me and my family—because I of course sucked them into it too. I’m always a little amazed at how my sisters, especially, picked up my pop cultural obsessions, for all that they acted like I was annoying them at the time; one of them can still remember albums worth of Weird Al lyrics, and the other owns an enormous prestige hardcover collection of Sandman and V For Vendetta. I’m contagious!

As for my parents, my dad likes anything tech-heavy, and my mom (a British ex-pat) likes watching theatrically trained Brit actors go at it. Of course my dad especially couldn’t help making snarky remarks through some of the show’s worst excesses, particularly the often stiff acting, but hey, family bonding is family bonding.

Oddly, it was around the time that Deep Space Nine spun off that I started to sour on Trek. Believe it or not, DS9 is the reason I’m delving into this whole subject, which is going to take up several blog posts—I’ve been working my way through it recently—but at the time, I found myself developing an aversion to it pretty fast, despite the slick production values. Part of it might be that I couldn’t interest the rest of my family in it, so I was watching it alone for season two. But another part of it was that that obsessive childhood brain of mine—man, this is really making me sound like I have OCD or something, isn’t it?—had fixated on what I thought were the “rules” of Trek, and DS9 was starting to break those rules. You can’t really blame me; this obsession with Trek was partly about me discovering how stories were told, visually and textually, and of course there’s no-one who gloms onto formulas like a student adrift in the vast, scary sea of creativity. But at the time it seemed like a betrayal. More on that anon.

Anyway, this was actually pretty small potatoes, if interesting in retrospect; the real issue was that the cracks were starting to show in TNG for me. The laziness of their treatment of aliens was a huge factor, for a start. I’m not just talking about the lameness of those infamous “bumpy forehead” designs (which were partly a budget issue, after all—even as a kid I understood these guys didn’t have George Lucas’s budget). It was the way the word “alien” never seemed to mean anything to the Trek writers. Aside from Klingons, Borg, and a handful of others, every alien species on this show spoke, acted, and emoted like a human being, and that’s just lame writing. It didn’t help that most of them appeared for a single episode and then vanished, never to be heard from again, which didn’t exactly help build a rich and detailed world. Likewise, the show’s continuity started to seem slapdash; I was interested in the “nodular” nature of TV storytelling at the time, but even then I thought it was a bit of a ripoff that so many major ideas could get sidelined and even abandoned. I mean are Trill people with weird foreheads or with dots down their necks I ASK YOU TREK PRODUCERS.

Ahem. I did mention that I was a nerd, right?

My list of problems with the show started to pile up until it was at least as large as the stuff I liked about it—something that’s become part of my makeup as a fan, unfortunately—but I kept watching all the way through to the finale, “All Good Things…” which I remember being really very good. And then that was that.

I think part of me knew it was in my best interests to make a clean break from Trek, and I even recall a vague sense of relief. Take this geeky burden from off me, Lord! Not that I hadn’t found new geek interests—I think The X-Files had grabbed most of my attention at the time, concurrent with Batman: The Animated Series--and those distracted me long enough to keep me from re-visiting TNG.

When I finally decided to start catching up on Trek a few years back, I made a conscious decision NOT to watch TNG, and in fact I don’t plan to ever revisit the show. I’m not the kind to wallow in nostalgia (ask me about Transformers sometime, and how my childhood love for them quickly became bemusement, leading into seething hatred thanks to the likes of Michael Bay) but Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to be the embodiment, for me, of a memory that the real thing will never be able to match.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142--"The Man From Transilvane"

As I’ve suggested in previous installments, the first few issues of The New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People seem to show Kirby’s confidence and enthusiasm for the project growing at a remarkable rate, and by the time Mike Royer jumped on board as inker, Kirby really seemed to be pushing himself to a new level. However, this new seriousness with which he approached the core three books seems to contrast with his work on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. I already mentioned that the fact that Colletta remained as inker on that book made it seem as though Kirby was treating it like a red-headed stepchild (so to speak), and this is reinforced by the fact that the Fourth World elements mostly seemed to vanish from the comic around this point, except for one major issue near the end of the run, and a series of expository backup features, which Kirby used to flesh out his world.

If I was *really* cynical, I would say that Kirby completely stopped giving a damn about SPJO altogether—but that’s not really fair, as there are still some neat story beats to come, even in this issue. Besides, Kirby not giving a damn still means plenty of crazy, stream-of-consciousness crap for us all to enjoy and mock! And the coming two-part storyline is a doozy as far as that goes…

For starters, the opening caption of Jimmy Olsen #142 features another howler of a sentence:

“Amid the strange sounds at midnight, this classic horror figure never fails to emerge and haunt our dreams with terrifying effectiveness!”

Yes. He NEVER FAILS to emerge. Every time you hear sounds at midnight, it’s immediately followed by a vampire emerging, and proceeding to haunt your dreams with terrifying effectiveness. By the way, does that description make anyone else think of Monsters, Inc.? “Sully, you’ve haunted another child’s dreams with terrifying effectiveness. You win Employee of the Month yet again.” “Thanks, chief, but I bet I can make my effectiveness at least 20% more terrifying if I work at it!”


The comics code was still in effect at this point, though it was getting a bit creaky—the very next year would see the famous Spider-man issue that ran without the Code, effectively dealing it a death-blow—so vampirism was a bit of a dodgy subject. This is why vampires are treated in such an odd, convoluted fashion in the silver and early bronze age, usually relying on some kind of pseudoscience to explain them away—but of course, no one could come up with a more convoluted or pseudoscientific explanation than Kirby!

We kick this off by witnessing a vampire emerging from the forest with a werewolf companion to menace a sleeping woman. But again, because of that pesky code, he can’t do anything as scandalous as biting her. Instead, he shoots out eyebeams that fly through the air and hit her neck, creating vampire-like puncture marks (!) Thank you, Comics Code, for protecting our nations’ youth from the sight of neck-biting, and necessitating this kind of crap.

“What has been done—is now done!! The results of it will rival the most awesome events ever recorded!” The first sentence fulfills this issue’s redundancy quotient; the second, the hyperbole quotient. Also, the first sentence fulfills this issue’s redundancy quotient.

The woman, by the way, is Morgan Edge’s secretary, Miss Conway, and the next morning, we see that Clark and Jimmy, WORLD’S MOST PATHETIC REPORTERS, are still arguing with the goddamn secretary about getting in to see Morgan Edge. That’s Clark Kent, the man who can throw planets around, stymied by a chica in a miniskirt at a desk. He can’t be bothered to take stronger action against the man who tried to kill him and blow up a secret research facility full of his friends. But to give him credit, he’ll wait in that waiting room as long as he has to! Provided the magazines aren’t too old!

Of course, Miss Conway makes for a bit of a distraction, with her increasingly chalk-white skin and the fangs she reveals when she talks. Then she faints, prompting Jimmy to lean in and Clark to swat him back with the baffling comment, “One side, diplomat!” He quickly notices the “bitemarks” and the fact that Miss Conway is suddenly no longer visible in the mirror. The caption declares that “A pattern is followed—a complete and total pattern!” A pattern terrifying in its effectiveness! And completeness! And totality!

Throughout the next few panels, Miss Conway takes on a really unnatural chalk-white complexion that seems to move over her like colour on an inkjet printer. “The total pattern must remain fixed!!” continue the captions, growing more and more incoherent as the sequence grows on. Basically, what Kirby’s trying to say is that he knows what a bunch of horror movie clichés all these story beats are, but just stick with him, there’s an explanation. (And there is, and man…you’re going to have to see it to believe that the human mind could come up with something so insane.)

Anyway, in keeping with the total pattern, a bat flies in and transforms himself into a pale, cape-wrapped figure who introduces himself as “Count Dragorin of Transilvane”. (At this point, I’m wondering if the makers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show derived some inspiration from this comic.) “I regret the intrusion upon your many activities in this place,” sneers the Count. I love how sarcastic that sounds, like he doesn’t quite believe Clark and Jimmy actually do anything at the Planet. That’s very perceptive of you, Count.

This recap is going to balloon to Russian novel-length if I quote and deconstruct all the bizarre, nonsensical dialogue, so I’ll just say that Dragorin insists he’s in a hurry, and continues to do so while making no move to do anything. Meanwhile, Jimmy spouts a lot of random phrases like “I second Clark’s motion!” and Clark tries asking him politely if he wouldn’t mind restoring Miss Conway from her cursed eternal unrest. Dragorin responds by zapping him with the Evil Eye, which literally sends them flying back in a burst of light.

Jimmy is knocked unconscious, but as Clark thinks to himself, “I have more effective protection! It’s called Superman!” As the colouring takes on an eerie greenish hue, Dragorin causes Miss Conway to rise and begin delivering details about her former employer, Dabney Donovan. Her only real bit of advice is to check Nasa’s Science Research Center, where, it seems, Dabney was Researching Science. Clark takes advantage of the Count’s moment of distraction to leap on him, but he vanishes in the classic puff of smoke. As Jimmy and Miss Conway come round (Conway suddenly cured of her vampirism), Clark assures them he “got a lead on” the Count “before he bugged out.” I guess that’s how Clark gets all his leads: by feigning unconsciousness until a vampire soliloquizes about something. No wonder he’s such an ace reporter.

After bundling Miss Conway off to “the clinic” off-panel—gee, that doesn’t sound creepy at all—Clark and Jimmy head out to the Science Research Center, where Science is Researched. There they find a door ajar, and inside, waiting for them, is Dragorin’s briefly-seen henchman Lupek, a werewolf. Ish. Thing. He attacks Clark and puts him down for the count, or at least he does as far as Jimmy knows. Credit where credit is due: our red-headed, freckle-faced pal shows he’s got courage by pulling up a steel fence post and using it to keep the lycanthrope away from his supine friend. Lupek chases him away down the corridor, giving Clark time to change into Superman and come to his rescue. “Superman, I’m your fan for life!” declares Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy, that is the role you play in the series. You don’t need to spell it out for us at random intervals.

Dragorin suddenly materializes, blasts Jimmy and Supes again with his Evil Eye, and disappears with his henchman. Handy, that. But while Superman and Jimmy ransack the abandoned Science Research Center and all of its Science Research for clues, Superman comes up with an odd theory to explain Dragorin’s disappearances: “Suppose they became smaller!! Too small to see!” Yes, um, that makes more sense than him being an actual supernatural entity, alright.

Superman also explains away Clark’s absence by saying he sent him back to town for medical help. Dabney Donovan, meanwhile, he describes as “the closest thing to a mad scientist we have! Well, I guess wild would be a better word!” He seems to be vaguely connected with the Project in some way, though he doesn’t explain how. He and Jimmy then proceed to make a series of rather, um, creative logical leaps: first, that the picture of a green orb with horns on the wall is a picture of planet Transilvane; then that there’s a message implanted on the picture that Supes can read with his microvision, which turns out to be correct. The message reads “Bloodmoor destruct date 1971”, which points them towards, you guessed it, an old cemetery of that name.

Meanwhile! We pick up with the Newsboy Legion, who as you may recall had snuck out of The Project and were boating down an underground river. Predictably, this has Flippa Dippa practically orgasming in delight. Because he enjoys water, don’t you know. Reaching the end of their underground tunnel, Flippa dives in and discovers an exit with an elevator at the end. By an absolutely astounding coincidence, this just happens to lead them to a secret room being used by an operative of Intergang—and not just any operative. This particular guy just happens to be yelling into the phone at the exact moment the Newsboys emerge behind him, identifying himself as the man who killed Jim Harper.

That’s the original Jim Harper, of course—the one who would have been an old man by now. His death was, you’ll recall, mentioned passingly several issues back. Apparently the presence of the new Guardian has both taken the heat off this guy and made his Intergang masters displeased, since they now assume he failed to kill Harper. (Somehow, these guys know Harper was the Guardian. Bang-up job protecting your secret identity, Jim…) Anyway, the last panel of this sequence shows the Newsboys roiling with anger as they realize they’re confronting the man who killed their…parent’s guardian. Who I’m sure they felt a great deal of affection for, and all, but honestly it seems like Kirby forgot these aren’t the original Newsboys, and thus, probably weren’t as emotionally attached as their dads would have been…

Nevertheless, “The drama of life begins to mount in many quarters!!” as the endlessly hilarious captions inform us. We transition to Superman and Jimmy landing in Bloodmoor, as Superman continues to opine that they’re not facing real monsters. “I wish we’d waited for Clark!” Mutters Jimmy. “He’d get facts!--Not opinions!” Yes, solid facts like “I somehow got a lead on that vampire in the three milliseconds before he evaporated! Don’t question me, just go!”

As they approach the mausoleum, Jimmy is hung up on the idea that they’ve found the vampire’s coffin, and Superman continues to be skeptical, theorizing that the huge slab blocking the door could be circumvented by growing very small. “Think small!” He says to Jimmy. “Like Dabney Donovan—who undertook to simulate cosmic matter in small terms! Small continents! Oceans! Life! In short--a small planet! Welcome to Transilvane, Jimmy! and at that moment, they descend the stairs and witness…

Well, words can’t do it justice.

Yes. Transilvane is a tiny planet, hovering in fog, surrounded by holographic projections, in the basement of a mausoleum, in a graveyard.

And believe it or not, that’s not the craziest thing about this scenario, as we’ll discover in the next chapter…

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The New Gods #5--"Spawn!"

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this issue of “New Gods” is monumental. And that’s being quite literal—we both begin and end the issue with gigantic splash shots of titanic creatures, and in between there’s as much Kirby Bigness as you could ask for. But perhaps the most monumental aspect of this comic is the change in the art. This issue introduces a new inker, Mike Royer, who replaced Vince Colletta on most of the Fourth World books at this time.

Colletta’s a bit of a flashpoint for comics afficianados. He inked a sizable chunk of Kirby’s stuff during his glory years at Marvel in the 60s—possibly more than anyone else. I can’t verify that, but it’s clear he did several of the crucial issues of Fantastic Four (including the legendary Galactus trilogy and the wedding of Reed and Sue) and most of his run on Thor, and as such, is inextricably associated with that classic Marvel work. Which makes it a shame that he wasn’t actually very good.

Now I readily admit to not being the greatest artist in the world, and the question has been debated ad nauseum amongst the leading lights of the industry. Some feel that Colletta’s work, which was undeniably competent, has gotten far too much of a bad rap over the years. But speaking personally, I find Royer’s work to be far more pleasing to the eye—there’s more line variance, energy, and detail. The latter is hardly surprising, since Colletta was apparently notorious for erasing details of the pencils that he was in too much of a hurry to ink (like Kirby, Colletta was ludicrously productive). Exactly to what degree Kirby wanted Colletta on board the Fourth World is up for debate; clearly he valued loyalty and was happy to keep the team together, but at the same time, Royer was apparently Kirby’s first choice for purely geographic reasons (he was in California, like Jack, and Colletta was in New York). The details of why Colletta was replaced (he stayed on Jimmy Olsen, which it’s now safe to say was the Fourth World book Kirby cared the least about) are a muddle—some say it was a falling out, others say his assistants encouraged the notoriously nonconfrontational Kirby to take charge of his own work—but when the dust had settled, Royer was in. And it most certainly made a difference.

At any rate, this issue of The New Gods begins, like so many others, with Metron, roaming the cut-and-paste montage galaxy in his Mobius Chair, because, as the narrative captions inform us, “this point in the saga of the great Celestialscan’t be told--outside the context of the larger tapestry—the universe!” Well, that certainly is a large tapestry, alright. I’m glad not every story requires an epic, cosmic prologue like this. “Call me Ishmael. I am the product of billions of years of evolution on a tiny speck of a planet in a galaxy called the milky way…” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, notwithstanding the Big Bang, a cosmic maelstrom that gave birth to the universe…” Man, I’m already exhausted.

Today’s installment of Metron Presents: Our Crazy Universe takes place in “The Promethean Galaxy”, where a gigantic green dude, “larger than a star cluster”, floats bound to a gigantic slab. Apparently he and his pals tried to penetrate the Final Barrier at the edge of the Universe, beyond which is The Source; their strategy was to enlarge their atomic structure to such a size that they would…um…outgrow the Universe? Yikes. Kirby’s Kosmology has a way of making my head hurt. Anyway, they ended up slowing down their own subjective time and now float nearly motionless, taking “a billion Earth years to feel one heartbeat!!” It’s not really clear, but Kirby seems to imply that Metron had been planning on risking the final barrier himself, but seeing the fate of the Prometheans changes his mind and heads back to New Genesis, to the place where the Source makes contact with the New Gods through High-Father’s Staff.

Hey…is that an allegory for religion vs. science? You know, I think it might be!

Anyway, time to go back to Earth and catch up on the fallout from the previous issue. As you may recall, Orion had attained a bunch of Earthly disciples who he quickly transformed into a street gang. None of that namby-pamby healing the sick or preaching the eternal love of the divine for Orion, no sir! They helped Orion infiltrate Intergang, only to see him take off into the ocean for a confrontation with Darkseid’s aquatic troops, the Deep Six. Now, apparently, the police have rounded up the remaining Intergang thugs and dragged P.I. Dave Lincoln off for questioning. The sergeant is a burly bulldog of a man named Terrible Turpin, who will be stealing the show in a few issue’s time; for now, he lets Lincoln know something fishy’s going on and turns him loose. Meanwhile, after a brief burst of competence last issue, the rest of the O’Ryan Mob has been sitting around uselessly in Lincoln’s apartment, cleaning out his refrigerator, tracking dirt all over the place, and watching movies on pay-per-view. Lincoln shows up, and they all clear out…except Claudia Shane, who pointedly sticks around. She and Lincoln are doubtless swapping spit the instant we cut away.

And cut away we do, to Orion…who’s rather ignominiously managed to get his foot stuck in a clam.


OK, OK, it’s a mutant clam. What happened is, see, the leader of the Deep Six, an amphibian-like fellow name of Slig, used his touch to mutate it into a monster killer clam, and it’s now entrapped Orion in his underground, cavernous lair. Yes, Slig can mutate stuff just by touching it with his right hand, as he demonstrates by turning a nearby crustacean into a weird kind of dragon-thing:

Then he kills it with his other hand, which can explode things.

Orion watches all this in shock, even though you’d think he’d know all this already, if he knew who Slig was. Slig, in classic comic book villain fashion, is enough of an egotist that seeing Orion humbled is enough to get him to leave the room without killing him. Jackass.

Naturally, Orion has a way out—he can channel the Astro-Force into an emergency blast through his wristband. The clam lets him go and, in a sequence that really shows off the energy Royer brings to Kirby’s work, rears up, revealing an elongated trunk that “draws energy deep in the bowels of the Earth”, to do battle with Orion. Orion blasts the thing to Clam Heaven, then takes out a sentient shark-man standing guard and stumbles into a huge cavern, where a vast harness lies empty. This is some nice foreshadowing—Orion remembers glimpsing something huge, something monstrous, in that harness before the lights went out last issue, and Slig verifies that they have indeed unleashed something horrifying on the seas of Earth. That would be the titular Spawn.

Man, I can’t stop making that joke. Seriously though, there are times when I feel like everything in comics for the last 30 years has come from people just flipping through Kirby’s work, picking out random elements, and expanding on them.

Back on the surface, Terrible Turpin has indeed twigged to what’s going on by interrogating an officer of his, bandaged from head to foot after an apparent encounter with the forces of Apokalips. I have no idea who this guy is, and I don’t think we’ve seen him before. Apparently the idea is just that the war of the New Gods is raging all over the place now, and regular folks are getting caught up in it as well. But it comes off as the ravings of a guy who just went through severe physical and mental trauma, being taken with utmost seriousness by his dour police chief. “A gang war!!--between super-spooks!!” Turpin muses, thoughtfully. When another officer puts down the guy’s testimony as “sounding like a UFO sighting”, Turpin employs his impeccable logic:


Anyway, we cut back to Claudia and Dave, lying in bed, smoking cigarettes—

Ha ha! Just kidding. This is the era of the comics code. They’re fully dressed and staring at the window. But to anyone who doubts these two are going at it hot and heavy, I’d like you to please explain what they’ve they been doing all this time? Playing Pachinko? It’s not like they actually have anything to contribute to Orion’s efforts other than to sit around worrying.

At least it’s well-founded worrying, as we soon see. The thunder outside roils and crackles and transforms into the shape of a Boom Tube, which spews forth an old buddy of ours: Kalibak the Cruel, now dressed to the nines in a spiffy green centurion suit. His first act, of course, is to start smashing stuff. Again, Royer really takes Kirby’s work to a new level in this sequence, which is also enhanced by Kirby’s strong storytelling. I love how we glimpsed most of these characters knocking around in the first issue, and now they’re showing up on Earth one by one. “The New Gods” really is the most coherent, narratively tight comic Kirby ever did.

Meanwhile, back in the actual plot, Slig has discovered the trail of incapacitated (dead?) guards leading from the cavern where Orion had been. I didn’t mention it before, but there was a couple of panels on a previous page where Orion was running through the tunnels, homing in on his equipment, and you see him carrying on an inner monologue, checking his wrist monitor, and looking pensive while casually putting the beat-down on an amphibian-monster with one hand. Orion is hardcore. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens next.

Slig bursts in just as Orion is strapping on his Astro-Force equipment. “Allowing you to live was a mistake, Orion!!!” Growls Slig. Um, yes, I would say so. Orion takes the opportunity to blast Slig from point blank range, and then, when that doesn’t finish him off, we get one of the greatest sequences in the history of comics. And no, that’s not my usual sarcasm.

Slig weakly protests his defiance, and Orion starts laughing like a madman, drops his equipment, and runs forward to start pounding Slig to death with his bare hands. “Talk, Slig, talk!! You seemed so fondof it when I seemed to be at your mercy!!!...You dogs of Apokalips are eloquent when destiny favors you!!!” With that, he rips off Slig’s headdress, revealing his Mother Box, and crushes it until it self-destructs to stop the pain.

Slig still stirs, weakly insisting “I’ll kill you for the sham you are!!--” (What?) In the heat of the fight, Orion’s face has gone from his pretty-boy visage to the ugly mug we glimpsed in the second issue, which the dying Slig sneers at—“HAHAHA!! ORION IS HIS VERY OWN MONSTER!! HAHAHA!!”—and prophecies that, even if he can’t kill Orion, his penchant for destruction will catch up with him eventually. Orion pretty much shrugs and says “Yeah, OK,” and then pitches Slig off a cliff to his death.

So after several issues of telling us how Orion was an out-of-control violent maniac who rejoiced in battle, we actually get to see it. Kirby’s development as a storyteller in a mere few issues is pretty astounding. Also, that was the awesomest thing ever.

And with a mere two pages to go, Kirby and Royer still keep the awesomeness coming, ending with that final shot of a Leviathan I mentioned earlier. Orion rockets out into the ocean to confront the monster Slig turned loose on the world, and here we finally see it in the final splash page: A GIANT PINK WHALE!!! WITH TUSKS!!!!

(Seriously, it looks cool when Kirby draws it.)