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.)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pop Culture Will Eat Itself

I haven’t been making much use of this blog lately, and it’s not because I don’t want to—just the opposite. I keep coming up with ever more elaborate and baroque ideas for blog essays, many of them part of a putative in-depth series, but my problem is that I never want to launch into them without getting my ideas organized first. Clearly this is leading to literary paralysis, so I’ve decided to just launch into a post, or series of posts, and let it develop as it comes. All of this is to say, if the following seems somewhat on the vague side, you may understand why.


Being a geek on the internet, I can’t help but notice the contentious tone that’s settled into fandoms of various stripes. (Thank you, doctor obvious.) I choose to stay away from the more sordid corners of the net and cleave to the more intelligent and thoughtful writers on pop culture, but that doesn’t mean I’m more likely to avoid contentiousness. Just the opposite, in fact. Some of the smartest and most insightful bloggers in geekdom, or any subdomain thereof, have (often delightfully) acid tongues. But there’s an interesting attitude that’s been forming for a while now among the nerd literati—the desire to inject some much-needed self-awareness into the culture of geekdom through criticism. There’s no getting around the fact that the more ravening segments of fandom have gotten out of control, feeding a sense of entitlement grown ludicrously bloated (see, for example, the petition or whatever it was to change the ending of Mass Effect 3) and bizarre tribalism centered around serving the finances of huge corporations (here see the decision by many geeks to side with Marvel against the Kirby heirs, or, slightly less toxically, the caterwauling over The Dark Knight’s failure to win Best Picture or beat Titanic at the box office.) And of course, it’s become de rigeur for nerds to reject considered criticism of their Favourite Thing as a mortal insult that cannot be allowed to stand, leading to an unfortunate watering down of serious analytical reviews. In the face of all this, an attitude of contempt and disdain towards geekdom is not only understandable but often laudable.

And yet.

A knee-jerk attitude from an intelligent contrarian standing against mindless groupthink is nevertheless a knee-jerk attitude, and I feel like we’re starting to see some negative blowback. Essentially, there’s an ultra-defensive elitist mindset forming that seems to feel they can take it for granted that [pop culture property X] is a waste of time propagated by the dregs of the net, and that anyone who speaks up in its defense is by default an unwashed, unselfaware nerd. This is the “Oh, now a bunch of NERDS are gonna complain that I dissed Arkham Asylum” response, and it seems to tilt perilously close to shutting down debate just as the rabid hordes of fanboyism do. If you post your thoughts on the internet, you’re likely to find people disagreeing with you; that’s sort of the point of the internet.

But I didn’t really want to talk about the Great Nerd Wars in particular, I wanted to investigate a particular aspect of this attitude: namely, the way some pop culture properties are elevated above others, both in the short term and the long term.

Here is a list of things:

--Lord of the Rings.
--Mass Effect.
--Marvel Comics.
--DC Comics.
--Scott Pilgrim.
--Game of Thrones.
--The Wire.
--Star Trek.
--Doctor Who.
--Star Wars.
--The Prisoner.
--My Little Pony.
--Rap music.
--They Might Be Giants.
--The Beatles.
--The Coen Brothers.
--David Cronenberg.
--Joss Whedon.
--Rob Zombie.
--The Boston Red Sox.

I’m guessing that you see that as a pretty varied list—I don’t just mean your personal likes and dislikes, I mean that these all seem to occupy wildly different places in the pop cultural sphere. Some of them are “classics”, part of the canon of the 20th or earlier 21st century, and some of them are trash culture or ephemeral entertainments, and some fall somewhere in between. I bet your mind sorted them out to an almost subconscious degree. And yet, all of these are the subject of passionate pop cultural fandoms—what we’ve collectively decided to refer to as “geekdom”. Some of these aren’t thought of as “geeky” per se, and yet the passion they engender seems very much of the same quality. And to a degree, it’s rather surprising that we separate them in this way.

Please understand, I am NOT trying to make an argument that everything’s subjective, as a springboard to excusing my own taste’s or anyone’s. This might seem like the first step down the path towards the argument that Citizen Kane and The Transformers Movie are both equally valid works of art*, and that isn’t my intention. I’m just saying that these properties all have essentially the same qualities, in the scientific sense; they’re all, fundamentally, the same kind of thing. So why are some easily dismissable and require a burden of proof from anyone trying to argue in their favour, while others demand to be taken seriously, even by their detractors?

Look at Lord of the Rings, which is the one thing on this list that could potentially escape this little Pop Culture Ghetto I’ve devised. (And I think “ghetto” is precisely the wrong word for it, but let’s leave it for now.) LOTR was written as a sideline, a hobby of sorts, by a literary professor with a day job. It was his life’s work, and it was produced as an artistic statement rather than an attempt to make money or win an audience**, and it’s had a significant literary impact; it wouldn’t be unreasonable to elevate it to the position of “literature”. But it’s a work of pop culture, too, one whose fanbase and impact are very much in the same mode as all the others on this list, if perhaps more literate and thoughtful than the average Rob Zombie fan.

…And see, there I go—knee, jerking away. The fact that I personally find Tolkien’s work to be more deserving of merit than Mr. Zombie’s oeuvre doesn’t mean that I somehow “outrank” them. Or that LOTR doesn’t occupy the same nerdosphere. I know for a fact there are supremely intelligent horror fans out there who have elegant arguments in favour of The Devil’s Rejects, and I know just as surely that there are some awful dimwits out there who love LOTR and think that that alone makes them discriminating and classy.

“Classy”. That might be a useful word for this discussion.

I actually don’t want to dwell too much on Tolkien, because he’s something I’ve been wanting to blog about in depth and I’ll probably have lots to say in another series of posts, but for now my question is this: If Tolkien had come along a decade or two later, would we be as quick to elevate him above stuff like Star Trek? That’s not a knock on Tolkien so much as it is an elevation of everything else; after all, Star Trek was an intelligent, ambitious show. But it also shares with Tolkien, and the rest of my little canon there, a world of arcane details to which the fans have developed an attachment beyond mere entertainment. They even share made-up languages that have spawned real-world speakers.

Let’s move on to something closer to the other end of the scale, or rather two things: Doctor Who and old Superhero comics. These are two properties to which my exposure was limited as a kid, but in which I began to take an interest as an adult partly because they have so many intelligent defenders, particularly on the web. Neither of them escapes being seen as a “nerdy” pursuit by the mainstream, or as silly or inaccessible to outsiders, and yet, within geekdom, both are taken relatively seriously. There’s an underlying belief that there are fundamentally interesting and intelligent stories to be told by these properties, and the people who blog passionately about them are able to articulate these arguments more than most fandoms. They are, to return to the word, “classy”, in a way that 80s cartoons and video games aren’t. And yet, it’s often hard to argue for the merits of a given Silver Age comic or an early-80s episode of Who, which are not only frequently threadbare or slapdash, they’re often outright nonsensical. Even stupid. And it’s not like the defenders of these two properties will argue otherwise. So what makes these particular pop cultural emanations “classier” than others?

To be continued….

*Well, I’m not going to refuse to entertain such an argument if it’s well-reasoned enough, but that would have to be one hell of an argument. “They both have Orson Welles in them” might not be the place to start.

**Probably a drastic oversimplification, but it’s surely not unfair to say that Tolkien wasn’t really dreaming of tearing up the paperback bestsellers list, right?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Game of Thrones Day

Having now seen the whole first season three times...(SPOILERS, obviously. If you haven't seen it yet, what the hell are you waiting for?)


--Dany's relationship with Khal Drogo. For all the nice bits of characterization that the showrunners lent to many of the characters, this business in the first couple of episodes felt like they were going down a plot checklist, and of course there was the dubious wedding night scene that makes Dany seem like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. They also missed a nice chance at a reversal--I feel like we should have been watching Viserys and expecting HIM to be the important character, so it's more of a shock when he gets kacked.
--The Dothraki in general were treated a bit too much as Noble Savages, except without the "noble" part. We sort of came around to them by the end of the season, but for large stretches in the early going, you half expected them to pop Dany into a cartoonish cast-iron pot and try to eat her, the racial stereotyping was so unsubtle.
--The lack or mishandling of the dream sequences, and magic and supernatural in general. I realize part of the appeal of this show is that it's "grounded" and doesn't have people tossing fireballs at each other or fighting krakens all the time, but it's still a fantasy show, and in the books, when magic DOES show up, Martin handles it amazingly. Here, with one exception, everything remotely supernatural is stripped of its poetry or impact--it's back to the aforementioned checklist. Particularly disappointing is Mirri Maaz Duur's healing of Khal Drogo, which for some reason takes place in broad daylight, without the awesome visual of horrific shadows dancing on the tent wall (how much would that effect have cost? Seriously!) and with everyone just treating her use of magic with a shrug or, at worst, mild disdain. Dany's sudden "oh, can you do some magic?" was a particularly huge gaffe, because she's never supposed to have seen anything like that in her life. Ditto the White Walkers' attack on Commander Mormont late in the season--that at least had a nice horror-movie vibe, but it was too perfunctory, and the Night's Watch in general seems too comfortable with the idea of the supernatural. Even if they are on the bleeding edge of Westeros, they really ought to be as surprised as anyone that the dead might suddenly spring back to life. There's too much Harry Potter syndrome here, where magic is something you can take for granted. That can be powerful in other fantasy stories, but here it's supposed to be something wild and terrifying.
--Aiden Gillen, the one cast member I find unconvincing. His performance is mannered and kind of bizarre; not for a second would I trust him, making his heel turn kind of a "well, DUH" moment. It reminded me of Zack Snyder's moronic Watchmen adaptation, where he all but holds up a sign pointing at Adrian Veidt screaming "THIS DUDE'S EVIL!!!" which kind of makes the whole mystery aspect pointless. GoT wasn't as bad as all that, but why waste an opportunity to keep the audience guessing?


--Ned the chowderhead. Obviously he's not supposed to be the sharpest tool in the drawer, but D&D really make him seem like a complete cretin at a few points, and Bean's slack-jawed performance doesn't help. Not saying I didn't like Bean in general, but there's a few scenes where he comes off as borderline stoned. Particularly dodgy is the first part of the scene where he strips The Mountain of his titles, where Littlefinger exposits at him like a developmently disabled child, and the bit where he twigs to Joffrey's parentage.
--Everybody Hates Theon. There's obviously a need for Theon to feel a bit resentful towards the Starks, since he's a more sympathetic character in the show than the book (I'll say no more for people who haven't read them). But they do it by having basically everyone treat Theon like a dick for no reason, including and particularly his adopted brother Robb.
--The underpopulated Dothraki horde and tournament, plus battles that egregiously take place offscreen. This is obviously a budget thing (and yes, the battles were mostly offstage in the books, too), so I give it a bit of a pass, but it's still a bit ridiculous to see Tyrion conveniently knocked unconscious right as the fight starts.
--The direwolves. I give this a pass because I know there was a lot of behind-the-scenes turmoil with the dogs, and budget issues. Still, it's a shame we didn't see more of them.
--Ros. Nuff said.


--That amazing cold open (literally cold, in this case), the one exception to the whole "mishandling the supernatural" thing. Set up too high a set of expectations for the later White Walkers to live up to, though I'm sure they'll correct this in the coming seasons.
--Turning minor characters into awesome supporting players. Bronn is the all-star superpro here--he was a complete cypher in the books, part of the scenery, but I'm guessing he's a lot of people's favourite character in the show. Slightly more important in the book but still elevated hugely by the actors: Shae, Varys, Barristan, Renly, Yoren, Gendry, and Viserys.
--The entire cast, really, aside from Gillen. Just an entire world of awesome characters here--someone said in a forum that this is one of the few shows with lots of sprawling storylines where you're never disappointed when they cut back to a particular set of characters, and I agree.
--With special props to Peter Dinklage, of course.
--And Maisie Williams. Obviously Arya's an important character in the books, but Williams leaps out of the screen and demands attention. Even more so than Dinklage, who was handed a great character to begin with, Williams makes Arya one of the stars of the show in a way I'd argue she wasn't in the books.
--Making the Lannisters more sympathetic out of the gate. Except Joffrey, who they've delightfully cranked up to eleven on the Douchebag Scale.
--New scenes with King Robert. Mark Addy knocked them out of the park, and made his otherwise somewhat abrupt death seem like a sad inevitability.
--Pretty much everything I haven't mentioned yet.

On the whole, a somewhat uneven first season that shows signs of being rushed...and yet still a compulsively addicting piece of television, with every sign that it's going to improve vastly from here.