Friday, March 15, 2013

Fourth World Fridays: New Gods #7--"The Pact"


So, I should probably talk about Star Wars at this point.

I’ve been tiptoeing around it for most of this series of articles, but it’s pretty widely acknowledged that the Fourth World Saga was a *huge* influence on George Lucas, and if you’ve been paying attention to my recaps, you’ve probably noticed this yourself. We’ve got a mythological cosmic epic that takes the form of a space opera but conceals more a primal, archetypal sensibility; good and evil in impossibly pure forms, with good represented by verdancy and the rejection of violence, and evil by the totalitarian domination of a chilling but charismatic master manipulator; an elaborate mythology full of strange beings, with a pre-existing backstory; and lots of other details, big and small. More obviously, you’ve got a villain named, phonetically, “Dark Side”, whose ruthless personality and will-to-power are more than a little reminiscent of a certain Sith Lord with whom we’re all familiar; throw in the physical characteristics (mutilated body encased in cloak and armour) of another of Kirby’s classic villains, Dr. Doom, and the connection is even more obvious. You’ve also got heroes worshiping and deriving their powers from something called “The Source” (and one from “The Astro-Force”), a gigantic technological hell-planet with great circular pits, and even Laser Swords make a brief appearance at one point. And there’s another major point of similarity which has been pretty heavily hinted at throughout the series, but which this issue, one of the best of the whole meta-series, will make abundantly plain. (This is gonna be a long one.)

In the Beginning--The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed!!! On each of their two new worlds, their races had sprung from a survivor of the old!! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one!!—and the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!!"

With this opening caption, Kirby comes as close as he ever does to admitting that, yes, the Fourth World is supposed to have emerged literally from the wreckage of his imaginary destruction of the Marvel Universe, or at least the Asgard segment of it. I’m not sure why he even bothered to change the name of “Balder”, since he’s a mythological entity, and thus, not owned by Marvel. Although the way copyright laws are going…

So yeah, to recap, once he split with Stan the Man and the House of Ideas, Kirby basically performed a pretty stunning mental purge, metaphorically destroying the universe he’d worked on for so long and summoning a new work out of the ashes. It’s not hard to see how stuff like Countdown to Infinite Crisis That’s Final For Really Reals This Time and Spider-Man Sells His Continuity To The Devil and all the other status-quo-smashin’, father killin’, nothing-you-know-will-ever-be-the-same-again reinventions of the DC and Marvel Universes over the years were taking their cue from what Kirby did here—but none of them ever did it with the kind of breathtaking commitment Kirby brought to it (even though the world he ‘destroyed’ remained alive and static at the company he left behind).

There are almost too many ramifications to this to sort through, though as I mentioned elsewhere, it lends a surprising amount of logical consistency to the series if you imagine that the New Gods come from a parallel universe—this aforementioned far-future Marvel Universe that’s been destroyed and reborn. It would explain why they talk about Earth like it’s a relic of their own history, why they’re seemingly millions of years old despite the fact that their predecessors are clearly the gods of Earth mythology, and why no one in the DCU ever stumbled across them until Darkseid decided to stop by. 

Of course, there’s still some stuff that doesn’t really make sense, and it starts right on the first page, when we meet Izaya The Inheritor and his wife Avia, reposing in bucolic splendour on New Genesis.

Now, here’s the thing: Izaya is the man who will one day be known as “All-Father”, and I think Kirby meant for this to be a surprise, but I literally never even thought to question that they were the same guy until the end of the story; his beard isn’t grey, but otherwise the resemblance is obvious. Of course, there are some issues raised by this, like, um, New Gods can age? Also, he’s described as a warrior…yet we’re told that this is at a time before New Genesis and Apokolips went to war. So what was he fighting against? Did the New Gods just pull themselves out of the cosmic goop left by the Old Gods and say, “Hey, those guys fought a lot. We oughtta get some warriors, too! They get all the chicks!”

Tragically, Izaya is about to learn the true meaning of being a warrior, as he and his bride are attacked by Steppenwolf.

I’ve been waiting months to do that joke. And it was totally worth it.

No, this is the Steppenwolf we’re talking about:

Steppenwolf is simply German for “wolf of the steppes” (or Coyote), so it’s probably just a coincidence that it’s a band (and a Hermann Hesse novel) as well as a Kirby character. This particular Steppenwolf lives up to his name by being a pack hunter, who hunts the deadliest game of all: MAN. Or actually, NEW GOD. Yes, in what seems like a fairly suicidal move to me, Stepp has decided to hunt and kill a leader of their neighbouring planet for sport. Diplomacy: not an Apokoliptish strong point.

But then, this may be a classic case of a dumb, spoiled rich kid getting in way over his head, for you see, Stepp is the brother of Heggra, the witchly ruler of Apokolips…and mother of Darkseid. Who, we learn in very short order, was the one who suggested this hunting excursion in the first place. And while Izaya gives them a good run for their money at first, he’s rendered spiritless by the sudden death of Avia, who wandered back onto the battlefield to prevent Izzy from killing Stepp and got whacked herself. Izzy then gets taken out by Darkseid’s “Killing-Gloves” and left for dead. Stepp is just barely bright enough to suspect that something’s rotten in Denmark:

STEPPENWOLF: I don’t trust you, nephew! --Or your bizarre companions!
DARKSEID: Would you care to examine the body, noble Steppenwolf??
STEPPENWOLF: There’s no need! I know I’ll find no sign of life!!! Let me add further, Darkseid!! I don’t like you! You’re clever and cunning—and a plotter!!

Yeah, good thing you’re none of those things, Stepp. “I don’t trust you! Let me demonstrate this by falling into your trap with a minimum of goading!”

For of course, Darkseid set this whole thing up to ensnare New Genesis and Apokolips in a war. Izaya wasn’t killed, and when he wakes up, he’s ready to do some serious vengeance-taking against those who killed his wife. Darkseid’s motivations in setting up the war are never really spelled out as such, though obviously focusing Izaya’s wrath on his mother and uncle is going to help him seize power later. Plus, Apokolips seems to have been created as a world of warriors and weapon-makers, so it was inevitable that they would find someone to fight against. It just doesn’t speak very well of Stepp or Heggra that it took Darkseid to figure this out for them. What were they doing for the first few thousand years of their existence? Holding lavish banquets?


The Darkseid family basically sits around rather pathetically in a bunker, squabbling for no particularly good reason except for the fact that they’re eeeee-vil, while the Monitors of New Genesis bomb the surface flat. Heggra castigates Steppenwolf: "You’re brash!! Arrogant! Loud!! You command an army which only produces battles and body counts!” As opposed to what, sensible shoes? Again, for all their sinister, warlike appearance and cackling and basically looking the part of a bunch of ruthless intergalactic warlords, these guys sure need the essence of conflict spelled out for them, don’t they? Fortunately, Darkseid is planning to betray them all and seize power, and it can’t happen soon enough—even though he’s clearly a million times more competent, it’s still kind of goofy to see Darkseid playing the part of someone’s runty nephew. (By the way, Hegg and Stepp and the rest of Darkseid’s immediate family are a bunch of lemon-yellow, red-eyed weirdos, looking like severely stylized versions of Ming the Merciless, but Darkseid is his usual, rocky self. I know, I know, they’re gods, and aren’t constrained to follow the usual laws of genetics. But still, he kinda sticks out.)

Darkseid is showing off a mysterious “X-Element” that he (or Desaad, who he’s apparently already got working for him) have stumbled upon in the labs. Suddenly, the party is interrupted by Metron, uncharacteristically flustered, bursting in and pleading like a little bitch with Darkseid to be given the X-Element.

If you remember, way back when, I mentioned that Metron’s status as a good guy was a little shaky, and that Orion was basically right to distrust him. This scene is a big part of why. Metron is overtly described as being part of New Genesis, yet he completely sells them out here, agreeing to use the X-Element to open the “Matter Threshold” that will allow Apokolips to transport heavy weaponry directly to New Genesis. His reasoning is that he desperately needs the X-Element to build his Mobius Chair.

“You’re a nice boy!!” croons Heggra. “Does it bother you---to create the means for mass slaughter??” “I have no link with the Old Gods—or New!!” rationalizes Metron. “I am something--different! Something that was unforeseen!!--On New Genesis—or here!!” “You’ll betray us all in time, Metron!” Glowers Darkseid. “But this thing—you shall build—for us!!

OK, so, we’re going with a Cat’s Cradle-style “the detatched immorality of science” thing here, apparently; Metron just wants to build and discover, and he doesn’t give a thought to what anyone might do with his inventions. Makes him kind of a dick, though, and you have to wonder how New Genesis ever got around to trusting him ever again. As Metron leaves, Heggra laughs with joy, praising her son, and Darkseid grins for I think the only time in the entire series:


Next thing you know, the Dragon Tanks and canine cavalry of Apokolips are blazing across the serene fields of New Genesis, led by Steppenwolf, who, with his tiny, tiny brain, has gone back to thinking well of Darkseid simply because he let his uncle lead the raid. Of course, the inevitable happens: Izaya the Inheritor appears from between the ranks and gets his revenge on Steppenwolf, driving off the Apokoliptish forces while he’s at it.

Metron appears to be castigated by Izaya—though not nearly enough, it seems to me—and makes a lot of “Ooh, that Darkseid! I hate him so much!” noises which are apparently sufficient to placate Izzy.

Over the next couple of pages, the war and the carnage grow ever greater, as the two forces turn to genetic engineering and bacteriological warfare, call down asteroids to slam into each others’ planets, focus the energy of the sun into gigantic flaming lasers (Kirby literally draws them as huge, flaming gouts cutting across space) and just basically making a mess of the entire universe. Somehow, despite being right next door to each other, the two planets don’t manage to wipe each other out, but New Genesis is transformed into a barren wasteland littered with ruins, over which Izaya looks sorrowfully.

“We are worse than the Old Gods!” He cries, in a bout of typically Kirbian anguish. “They destroyed themselves!! We destroy everything!! This is Darkseid’s way! I am infected by Darkseid!! To save New Genesis—I must find Izaya!!

He proceeds to wander out into the wilderness and do a whole “biblical prophet” thing, ruminating on his past choices, declaring that he rejects the way of war, ripping the armor and war-staff from his body and declaring that he’s rejecting the way of war forever, as the wind whips itself into a frenzy around him. “Darkseid’s game is not mine!!” He howls. “Where is Izaya!!!?? Where is IZAYA!!!??

In the middle of a re-enactment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it turns out, as suddenly a gigantic monolith comes into view across the plain. OK, so this one’s white and has a goofy little pointing-finger icon that writes “THE SOURCE” across it in fiery letters. Hey, I just realized: the Source is a Mac.

Some time elapses. Izaya returns to his throne in new robes, with a new staff; Darkseid, meanwhile, succeeds to the throne of Apokolips following the demise of his mother, and suddenly the war cools off. Darkseid and Izaya make a secret pact which involves their respective, and so-far unseen sons.

Yep, Darkseid’s got a kid: in fact, it seems he’s been married all this time, to this woman:

And as it turns out, the kid takes more after his mom, with the flaming red hair and the violence, than his rocky, pontificating dad. It’s not so surprising, either, since Darkseid never really wanted to raise a family anyway, and his son was raised on the other side of the planet, never knowing his dad. So the terms of the Pact seem fairly agreeable to him: he and Izaya will swap kids, the way ancient rulers were known to do, in order to cement a new truce between the two worlds. Of course, as it pretty much goes without saying, Darkseid just wants to buy some time and re-evaluate his options, so when Izaya’s young son is carried in by Granny Goodness, he immediately hatches a plan to someday break the truce: the kid will be raised in Granny’s Soldier-Orphanage, but he’ll harbour the dream of escape—and if he ever manages to do so, it’ll break the Pact and provide a convenient excuse to resume hostilities. In honour of this day, Granny names the kid “Scott Free”. (You’ve got to feel bad for Scott—it seems like his whole life, including his rebellion against evil, has been planned out by his archnemesis already. So much for being the living embodiment of freedom…)

At the signal, Darkseid’s son is thrust through his own Threshold and finds himself in a warren of tunnels, fighting and kicking the whole way. He’d kept a weapon secreted in his sleeve, and he now turns it on the first figure he comes across: Izaya, now in his white-bearded form of All-Father, offering him friendship and trust for the first time in his life. Orion—for it is he—screams that his father hates him, but Izaya responds with “‘Hate’ is no longer a word in this place!!!” Uh…but you just said…oh, never mind.

The point is that Orion is obviously in desperate need of a daddy, and with All-Father offering to fulfill this role, he decides to symbolically drop the weapon and embrace his new destiny as protector of New Genesis. Fade out.

Once again, I’m impressed by how much more confident Kirby’s storytelling is here than on the other series. The plot comes together much more tightly than I ever would have expected, and while I wish Kirby’s dialogue was smoother and more subtle, the underlying ideas are so powerful that it almost doesn’t matter. These characters’ actions convey who they are beautifully, even if what comes out of their mouth is kind of clunky, and while the forces of evil still seem to be more intellectually engaged (as it often does in these kinds of stories), the good guys actually manage to steal the show this time out. As usual, it’s hard not to think that Kirby was working out some personal issues in the sequence where Izaya rejects violence; perhaps he was coming to see the inherent conflicts in a cosmic war epic that revolved around hippie ideas of peace and brotherhood, and was making an effort to resolve them a little more clearly. As it is, this issue is a crucial peace of mythology that elevates the whole story quite effectively.

Oh, and that whole “hero turns out to be the son of the villain” thing? That’s a great idea. Someone ought to steal that for their own space epic.

Friday, February 15, 2013

When last we left Jimmy O., he’d been genetically regressed into a Caveman by Simyan and Mokkari, the Apokoliptish scientists who run the Evil Factory, or Brigadoom as we recently discovered it to be named. Once again, Kirby shows that he’s willing to play along with the rules of the comic he’s reinventing, since of course Jimmy Olsen was being transformed into something bizarre on a regular basis all throughout the Silver Age. Now he’s broken loose and is trashing S & M’s laboratory as the two watch impassively. “You know, there’s something about his general appearance that resembles—your own!!!” cracks Mokkari to Simyan. Of course, he’s one to talk, since Simyan’s just a relatively hairy, ugly guy, and Mok’s a dopey-looking lemon-flavoured Darth Maul.

In fact, this leads to some bad feeling between the two as Jimmy cuts loose and starts wailing on Mokkari—while Simyan takes his sweet time with the tranq gun. “Experimentors take risks—even with humor, Mokkari!!” says Simyan dryly.

Of course, their dazzling repartee is interrupted by the alarm, so they take off, leaving Jimmy lying, unconscious but unrestrained, in the middle of their lab filled with equipment that a moment ago they were worried he was going to trash. And naturally Scrapper and his Scrapper Trooper walk through the door immediately, bemoaning what the two creeps have done to their pal.

And now it’s time once again to check in on Superman and Dubbilex, whose plotline seems to be moving forward at an absolutely glacial pace. Fortunately, Kirby assures us that “the fates are weaving a master channel for all to meet!” but they’d better hurry the hell up, that’s all I can say. In the meantime, Dubbilex is practicing with his newfound psychokinetic powers on the Hippie Lois Lane, Terry Dean, who doesn’t seem to mind at all that a purple horned dude is tossing and buffeting her around like a rag doll with a mysterious mental ability that he literally just learned about a few minutes ago, and which he still can’t control very well, and just try and tell me he isn’t looking at her cleavage here:

Terry’s ultimate response is a simple, “Mister Dubbilex, you’re weird and wonderful!!!” Oh, for the heady days of the sexual revolution, when a freakish alien dude could manhandle a girl with mental powers and still have her wanting to sleep with him. Let’s hear it for women’s lib.

Superman describes Dub’s power as “E.S.P.--only ten times more potent!” but the Guardian, emerging from the floor, corrects him: “E.P.S. is more like it, Superman! ‘Extra-Physical Status!’ I’ve heard the geneticists at the ‘Project’ discussing it!!” Uh, no doubt. Because that totally doesn’t sound like something you just made up.

The Guardian, it turns out, was investigating the abandoned tunnels beneath the club from which the homicidal musicians attacked the gang in the previous two issues. So, wait, wait—they had Superman and a telekinetic mutant handy, and those two decided to hang around the club while the unpowered Guardian went down and explored a maze of dangerous tunnels? Is he like a Superhero Pledge, who has to do all the dirty and dangerous work for the senior members?

The Guardian pretty much reaffirms what we already knew, that the tunnels lead to the Project. For some reason, Superman then reasons that “The war between New Genesis and Apokolips—now involves the ’Project!’” Which isn’t a huge shock, since Morgan Edge, dupe of Intergang, tried to blow it up, but I guess Superman doesn’t know who Edge is working for…since he’s made absolutely no attempt to find out other than barging into Edge’s office a couple of times, right before heading back out on dodgy assignments that invariably end up turning lethal. So, umm…what was my point again?

Anyway, Superman now decides that, since The Guardian wasn’t attacked by any more low-rent Sgt. Pepper’s wannabes (and I’m talking the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees Sgt. Pepper’s, here), it’s safe for the invulnerable Man of Steel to go down. Man, when did he become such a Super-pussy? Zipping down the tunnels at his usual blinding speed, he encounters… “a light up ahead!! It’s growing brighter!! --Brighter!!” Can your heart take the suspense?!?

Yet another group of our intrepid adventurers are, at that very moment, smashing through the Evil Factory in the Whiz Wagon, causing even more chaos, until they’re hit by a “Repello-beam” that spins them around, knocks them unconscious, and sets them down on the ground. Simyan and Mokkari emerge in a little floating bucket, identify the Newsboys by name—even Tommy, who I don’t think has even had a line of dialogue since this storyline began—and grabs hold of the Wagon with a grappling hook that whisks it over to a conveyor belt, leading to the atomic incinerator. Then, in classic bad guy tradition, they leave the room.

…OK, I can’t judge them too harshly, here—I don’t find myself staring at garbage as it goes down the chute, either—but still, do you really want to give these guys the opening?

But either way, their intelligence level remains in question, given their amazement when they return back to the lab and find Jimmy Olsen missing. Somehow they intuit that Scrapper and his double are behind this, since there’s obviously no way the specimen could have just, I don’t know, gotten up and walked away.

This seems to be a common misconception, since Scrapper and Trooper didn’t bother to tie Jimmy down either, while making their getaway on one of those tiny airport golf carts (included with every mid-sized villain’s lair). Recovering from his tranquilized sleep instantly, Jimmy picks up the golf cart and starts trying to swat Scrapper with it. Because Neanderthals were just that strong, you know.

This is more serious than you might have thought, because as it happens they’re passing the cages containing hordes of bizarre genetic aberrations—the kind that have supposedly been bedeviling the Scottish highlands for the last few months. Sure enough, CaveJimmy manages to smash the power supply, shutting down the electric fence and setting free a saber-toothed tiger. Now, if movies starring Raquel Welsh and Ringo Starr have taught us anything, it’s that cavemen and saber-toothed tigers are mortal enemies, which works to Scrapper and Trooper’s advantage, but the outcome is still surprising: CaveJimmy
Pounds on the tiger and knocks him out with one blow, then beats his chest and wanders off. Man, if all cavemen were like that, it’s no wonder the Smilodon went extinct.

Meanwhile (and I really hope the characters reunite soon, so I don’t have to keep writing “meanwhile”), the intense heat of the furnace has revived the Newsboys, or at least Flippa Dippa, just in time. Given Flip’s orgasmic obsession with water, you’d expect him to freak out at the sight of fire this close to devouring them, but he remains admirably cool and shows he’s not completely useless when not in his element. Realizing the Wagon’s hooked to the track, he drops a concussion bomb right underneath the vehicle, causing some damage but shaking them free. He then proceeds to go all French Connection on Brigadoom’s inner corridors, sideswiping hordes of the Factory’s heretofore-unseen workers. But then, it seems like most of them were running away in a panic anyway. From what? From this:

In the midst of this stampede, the Newsboy Legion is reunited, but CaveJimmy spots Simyan and Mokkari trying to shut the titanium doors to their little bunker, but he leaps in and blocks the door with an iron bar (showing remarkable presence of mind for a rampaging brute). He then proceeds to lay out some serious payback on the dudes who have been tampering with his DNA.

Actually, this whole comic is a brilliant example of Kirby doing what he does best—it’s just non-stop chaos, destruction, and hairbreadth escapes from about the moment the Whiz Wagon bursts in. Things get crazier and more tense, until they climax with Jimmy’s rampage:

Until the second-last page is literally nothing but a series of explosions. Brigadoom is, needless to say, done for—and the Newsboys and Jimmy have to scramble to escape not only the blast that takes out the entire compound, but the potential for being trapped as microscopic beings forever. Remember, Brigadoom is actually really tiny, and to get in you have to pass through a shrink ray—but once Brigadoom goes up, the reverse grow-ray that people pass through to leave goes with it. Needless to say, Jimmy and the Newsboys make it out by a whisker, and the last page shows the aftermath of the destruction: Jimmy passed out in a quiet dale, the Whiz Wagon planted nose-first in the hillside, and a tiny crater where the Evil Factory once resided.

I gotta say—apart from the interesting subtext of his first few issues, this is probably the highlight of Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen, accomplishing much more successfully what he tried to do with “The Big Boom” back in #138. At least part of the reason it works better here is that there actually IS a “Big Boom” at the end, but it’s also the conclusion of the main plot running through the series, which lends it a satisfying finality. After this, Kirby gets to toy with a storyline that he hinted at earlier, and which he wanted to make the focus of his run on the book, which probably would have made everything more interesting. Certainly, given that the book was cancelled a few issues later, you’d think Kirby had a better idea of what he was doing. It’s too bad this couldn’t be the end—it would have let him go out with a bang instead of a whimper.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Here's One For TV Tropes

Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman

So here's an annoying pop culture cliche I've recently become aware of: the Older Woman as Vampire.

Obviously this is something that goes back to Snow White and similar myths, but it's something which I notice modern Hollywood has had no problem embracing recently. Including in the two recent Snow White adaptations. The place where I first noticed it, though, was (God help me) the Halle Berry Catwoman movie. In my defense, I haven't watched this all the way through, because it was pretty much unwatchable. But I saw enough to register that Sharon Stone's villain was apparently drawing some kind of superpower (stone skin? WTF?) from the cosmetic products she was trying to sell, which were also apparently going to mutate everyone who used them, or some such nonsense. It was clearly meant as an oh-so-satirical takedown of the beauty industry and how desperate some women are to hold onto their looks and blah blah blah.

It popped up again in Stardust, with Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil aged witch who wanted to cut out Claire Danes' heart to restore her youth (and her sisters'), and then, of course, in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. There are other, similar examples, and echoes of it that don't follow the trope exactly, but the gist of it is: older woman who resorts to horrific, unnatural means to keep her looks, which puts her at odds with a younger, naturally pretty girl. The former is the villain, the latter is the hero.

Like, for instance, the "Magical Negro", this is a trope that might not actually be so bad if it didn't keep popping up over and over again, to the point of cliche. I mean, vanity is a bad thing, and people have indeed resorted to unpleasant means throughout history to stave off their own mortality. Obviously heart-eating is to be frowned on. But the problem here is where the dart of empathy is aimed: always at the young. The cumulative effect is to value young and "naturally" pretty girls over older women, whose looks are fading and who, thus, have less value in their own eyes...and the people telling the stories don't do much to suggest that they disagree, frankly.

I don't think I'm breaking any radical new ground here; I'm sure any feminists reading this are thinking "Wow, such dazzling insight, Adam! Now do you have any thoughts in re: the wetness of water?" But I do think it's worth commenting on how much Hollywood seems to exaggerate this effect. There's a pretty clear hierarchy at work here: if you're a young, hot starlet, you get to play the heroine; if you've been able to drink for a decade, it's time to start relegating yourself to villainous roles. Yes, yes, I know, twas ever thus, but it seems like there's a renewed meanness to it of late, particularly the Sharon Stone bit. All of these women are still gorgeous, particularly Theron, who isn't even fucking 40 yet, but here they are playing decaying hags, and worse, evil decaying hags who only exist to make life hard for some vapid pretty girl.

"Yes, Adam, and FIRE HOT," chant the feminists.

I know, I know. And I am used to women being valued only for their looks in the movies. But even in this superficial context, can't we at least get some movie producers capable of recognizing female beauty in someone over 30? I mean, it's not rocket science. You don't have to use some kind of formula. Yet it kind of seems like that's what's being used to determine what makes a woman "hot", as opposed to, y'know, looking.

And the end result is that not only are women being treated as if only the young ones matter, but women are written as if they themselves believe it. At the end of the day, I think this is one of the more inherently pernicious concepts in storytelling, far more than simple sexualization. There's no inherent reason a sexualized woman in a movie can't be an interesting, well-fleshed out character (I mean, they usually aren't, but there's no reason they can't be). But relying on the "evil queen" who's jealous of a younger woman--no matter how subtly it's played--automatically reduces women to the status of objects. It'd be nice if more people in the media paid attention to what they're saying with their stories.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #7--"I'll Find You In Yesterday!"

As you recall, the last we saw, the FPs were being menaced by Darkseid’s Really For Reals Ultimate Weapon, the Omega Effect, which he had somehow forgotten he had access to until just now. The Omega Effect, as was loudly trumpeted last issue, “WIPES YOU OUT OF EXISTENCE!!!” Yep, hit by the Omega Beam, and you’re a goner, completely vaporized, eradicated completely from the space-time continuum, demolished utterly and completely, as if you had never existed.


Because, at the last moment, Darkseid seems to have once again remembered a crucial detail: he can use the Omega Effect to do other stuff besides totally annihilating his enemies. So, rather capriciously, he’s decided to do something much, much less evil.

More on this momentarily, for now we must check in with The Council of the Young! As you may remember, there’s been some talk about how the young are revered on New Genesis, but of course Highfather still runs the place. With the first four pages of this issue, we see this in action: apparently there’s a council which the young and goofily-attired of New Genesis can use to petition Highfather for help, and they’re doing so now on behalf of the Forever People.

What’s more, it seems that the adults of New Genesis have been unaware, until now, that the Forev Peeps had actually skipped town (Supertown, that is) and headed to Earth to take on Darkseid. So their young friends are essentially coming to Highfather and admitting, “Geez, we screwed up bad, pops, can you fix everything for us?” Well, OK, the FPs have been awfully brave and done some serious damage to Darkseid so far, and they did come to Earth in the first place to rescue their friend Beautiful Dreamer, so their heart was in the right place, but still, for all the praise directed to the young generation in these comics, it’s pretty clear who holds the Wonder-Staff in New Genesis: the old, white, male, Abrahamic authority figures. Speaking of which, you can kind of read this whole sequence as a Deus Ex Machina, with the children basically praying to a godlike leader out in a cosmic dimension to bail out the heroes.

The conversation between High-Father, the kids, and Metron (who’s also present, having apparently been the one who figured out that the FPs were in trouble and reported it to High-Father) goes back in forth in Kirby’s usual expository way, until Esak comes forward. Esak, you may recall, is the cherubic little kid in hotpants that Metron was showing around the universe back in New Gods #4. “Is one of the youngest of New Genesis to add his voice against my edicts!?” asks Highfather. “Not against your edicts, High-Father!!” Replies Snot-nose, “But for our friends!! Is this not a world of friends!? Save our friends, Highfather! Save Them!” Then he breaks down weeping. And when that’s not enough, he resorts to really incomprehensible ass-kissing:

So basically, policy on New Genesis is formulated by six-year-olds.

But now we check in with the Forever People, or at least Mark and Beauty, who we now learn, have not been eliminated at all. No, Darkseid has instead given tickets.

I’m not kidding. The theater in question is Ford’s, and the year is 1865. Darkseid has sent them back into Earth’s past. As you can see, this comic is in full compliance with the rule that time travelers in comic books never wind up someplace where nothing of note is occurring. They’re always within a few days, and usually a few moments, of some momentous occasion.

Beautiful Dreamer declares them to be “marooned” in the past, but I’d say this is a pretty good alternative to being completely wiped out of existence. Indeed, within moments the two young ones seem to be enjoying themselves, using BD’s powers of illusion to conjure up period-appropriate costumes and trying to remember what they know about the time period. We learn Big Bear is the team’s historian (though apparently he couldn’t be bothered to read up on local traffic laws) but Mark is savvy enough to recognize the time period as post-civil war. However, he fails to recognize Lincoln when he walks in, at least at first.

Lincoln is of course a staple of superhero books; if you’re a silver age character, and you’re sent back in time, chances are excellent you’re going to run into one of a) Lincoln, b) King Arthur, c) Robin Hood or d) Julius Caesar. I always wonder if the DC and Marvel Universe versions of these historical personages don’t start to get annoyed by being constantly pestered by time travelers. But I like Kirby’s rendition of Lincoln, who he describes as “seem[ing] scarred by grave tragedy in his time!!” “He looks wise—and old—and tired—“ says Beauty. Lincoln has no lines in this comic, but he’s still more interesting than any other comic book Lincoln I can think of.

Ah. And only in comics would I have to expend so much thought distinguishing between multiple Lincolns. Moving on.

Mark finally twigs to the significance of their current circumstances (Beautiful Dreamer apparently knows nothing about history, ‘cuz she’s a girl and stuff) and rushes backstage to try and prevent the impending assassination. No thoughts of preserving history here, it would seem. But the two are met by a squad of policemen backstage, demanding identification.

Meanwhile, Vykin the Black finds himself in Florida circa the early 1500s, just in time for an encounter with, you guessed it, Ponce De Leon’s men. Wait, no, apparently they’re not with Ponce but instead are…deserters? Or even rivals? It’s never made clear. Nevertheless, they’re nasty, racist folks who are out for gold, so I guess Kirby didn’t want to demonize Ponce (who I’m sure thought all races were equal and had no interest in gold whatsoever). Their first move is to try and grab Vykin. “Who are you cats?” Asks Vykin. “Why are you behaving this way??” When this diplomacy fails, he proceeds to pound the living crap out of them. This doesn’t do much to change their attitude towards “the black”, as they refer to Vykin every two seconds. “Being a language major, I should be able to deal with them!” thinks Vykin. Um, yeah, these guys seem naturally receptive. Realizing that they’re only interested in one thing, Vykin declares that he’s “equipped to ferret out hidden minerals” and agrees to lead them to a cache of it nearby. But, you’ll be shocked to learn, the pirates plan to betray him once they get there.

And now it’s Big Bear’s turn. He comes flopping out of the timestream and right into a nearby band of warriors. “Medieval dawn man!” declares BB, delightedly. “Celtic or Saxon emergence!” Sure enough, he’s in Roman-controlled Britain, surrounded by Celts who declare him to be, alternately, a warlock, a druid, and a bear spirit (well, they’re not too far off there.) BB picks up their speech with a universal translator in his ear-circuits-making me wonder why Vykin had to be a “language major” to understand the Spaniards—and figures out that they’re preparing to attack the Romans as they pull out from Britain for the last time. This makes no sense, because a) they seem to want the Romans to leave anyway, and b) there’s like five guys against an immense Roman army.

Again, we can see the shift in sensibilities that society had been undergoing starting to take hold in Kirby’s comics—most pre-1970 comics would have cast the Romans solidly in the “good guy” camp, and comparing them to Darkseid, which seems fairly acute, nevertheless represents a pretty major about-face. Of course, the dirty, disorganized Celtic rabble doesn’t seem particularly heroic either, which may be why Big Bear says he “would like to avoid any partisan feelings at this moment” and just observe this key moment in history. Because, as we just learned two pages ago, he’s a history buff.

He’s actually so determined to sit back and enjoy that he grabs all the Celt’s weapons and drives them into a nearby tree with the force of his throw. You can see where this is going, right?

That leaves Serifan, who you may recall was left by himself in the present, due to Darkseid’s apparent laziness. Of course, if my only remaining enemy was Serifan, I don’t think I’d be too worried either. As you may recall from the previous installment, he had just gotten back to the Super-Cycle when a wave of Glorious Godfrey’s Justifiers swept down on him. Or, um, up at him, since they were climbing a cliff. Godfrey, by his own admission, “wastes” his zealots for a while by throwing them into the heavy laser fire produced by the Super-Cycle, before finally producing an “Induction Ray” and bringing the mountain down on top of him. “Serifan is transfixed by the terrifying fall of rock,” narrates Kirby, “--and, so, misses seeing the alpha bullet streaking toward him!!” The what now?

Alpha bullets!! Never seen before on Earth—originate from a different hand!! The hand which governs New Genesis!!” Turns out that the cure for the Omega Effect is an Alpha bullet, produced by Highfather. Highfather’s the Alpha, and Darkseid’s the Omega. Do you get it? Huh? Huh? Do ya?!?

Anyway, Highfather is indeed sending Alpha Bullets through time to rescue the FPs, having responded to Esak’s whining—so now we get the other halves of the various vignettes. In 1865, Mark and Beauty have managed to get past the cops with illusory identification, and have made it down the hall to confront John Wilkes Booth, again, with no apparent mind to what effect this might have on history. But this seems to be one of those deals where the future’s already set, and everything’s predestined, because just then the Alpha Bullet catches them and sends them back to their own time. Booth dismisses them, a little too casually, as hallucinations…though Kirby seems to be suggesting that Booth was just nuts. Admittedly, the Kennedy assassination was only a few years in the past at that point, so equating presidential killers with lone nuts was probably pretty natural, but I thought it was always pretty clear Booth’s actions were politically motivated.

I just bring this up because the Big Bear segment, which we cut to next, displays a decent grasp of history. It’s been suggested that, during his famous sojourn at Marvel, Kirby became a voracious reader, and this informed his work. You can definitely see fairly literate ideas popping up in Kirby’s work from time to time, but then there’s weird misapprehensions like the Booth thing. Anyway, Big Bear brings up the very good question of what the Celts are so angry about if the Romans are leaving, but their anger now seems to be turned towards the Romanized Celts they left in charge, like a certain Arta the Sentry. In fact, they’d gladly kill the guy, if their weapons weren’t still embedded in that tree. Big Bear, trying to mollify them, suggests that Arta is probably a decent guy, and the knowledge he learned from the Romans could be useful now that, y’know, the entire country’s infrastructure has packed up and gone south. To cement the deal, he lets Arta, and only Arta, pull a sword out of the tree, which wins him the love of the other Celts, who have names like Gwane and Lanslac. This is actually pretty subtle, by Kirby’s standards, though as awesome as Big Bear is I’m not sure he squares up properly with the Merlin of legend.

Vykin’s subplot ends rather abruptly when he leads the pirates to a crumbling mine, which he claims was constructed by “the ancients who passed here on their way further south” (again, spackling over the small issue of the fact that Kirby’s designed the mine to look Mayan). The pirates, of course, are getting ready to literally stab Vykin in the back, when we get a double Deus Ex Machina: first Vykin’s hit by the Alpha Bullet, then the ground beneath the conquistadores collapses, and they all plummet into the Earth to be with their beloved gold. Way to wrap things up in two panels, Kirby!

The four time travelers are reunited in the present by the mound of rocks, from which the Super-Cycle then extracts itself. The group is reunited, except for the strangely-absent Serifan. “He must be alive!” Declares Beautiful Dreamer. “If Darkseid spared us, he couldn’t have harmed Serifan!!” Yeah, mm-hmm, that’s some logic there, sweetie. Surely the embodiment of pure evil couldn’t have capriciously killed anyone if he spared someone else!

But of course he is alive, and in Honshu, Japan. “Of course!!” says Mark, “Where else would Darkseid have sent Sonny Sumo?” Right, because he was careful to send all the other characters to times and places in which they would feel comfortable and could integrate easily.

Sure enough, Serifan’s in a temple in Honshu, where a group of monks have a gift for him: the Mother Box that Sonny had with him. It seems that Sonny had lived a rich and full life full of good works in ancient Japan, and bequeathed the Box to the monks with instructions to keep it until the FPs came for it many centuries later. In other words, he got what he always wanted: to live in a simpler time when straightforward honour and heroism were still possible. From one perspective, it’s a very nice conclusion to his character arc.

From another, it makes no sense whatsoever. I mean…Darkseid granted his greatest wish?!? More crucially, he sent away the one guy he’d supposedly been searching for for years, the holder of the Anti-Life Equation?!? Is Darkseid easily distracted by shiny objects?

I’ll give Highfather a pass for not rescuing Sonny from history, since he probably knew somehow that he was happier there, but it’s still kind of annoying that Kirby created this Japanese superhero with great fanfare and then proceeded to get rid of him in three issues. Of course, if he hadn’t, Sonny would probably have kicked around the DC Universe for a few years, being badly written by a series of hacks, and then been horribly killed off in some stupid crossover event. So perhaps it’s for the best. [Future Edit: Of course, Grant Morrison proceeded to use Sonny Sumo in the pages of "Final Crisis", so it's possible the guy might suffer some ignominious fate after all. Morrison seems to appreciate Sonny's awesomeness, however.]

The final two pages are another Lonar story. Basically, Lonar and his battle-horse, now named Thunderer, run across Orion, who’s moping around in a loincloth on the surface of New Genesis. Yup, two dudes in panties, just hangin’ out together. Orion admires Lonar’s battle-horse and tries to pet it, but it rears up in fright and takes off. There is no subtext to this story whatsoever.

Next time: the further adventures of Caveman Jimmy.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #145--"Brigadoom!"

It’s time yet again to visit with our friend and Superman’s, Jimmy Olsen, as he gets to the bottom of the Loch N…Loch Trevor Monster and yet another attempt on his bosses’ part to murder him with really hot platinum-haired Scottish chicks.

As you may recall, said assassin-chick and her fake dad were helping the Newsboy Legion find a monster in Loch Trevor, one which had apparently grabbed the headlines around the world, but which only Jimmy Olsen had been willing to follow up. Oh, as if the media would over-report a story like that, and then completely fail to follow it up! As if their attention spans are that short! So unrealistic, Kirby.

Anyway, the MacGregors ended up trying to kill them at Intergang’s behest, but were foiled by the monster. You might think this would lead to one of those traditional scenes where a dubious-looking authority-figure laughed them out of the police station once they tried to explain what had happened—Jimmy even seems to expect it—but no, the Scotland Yard regional chief (that would be the Scottish branch of Scotland Yard) is quite accepting, and on the next page we see why. It turns out that Scotland has been plagued lately with bizarre, mythical creatures, which the cops have dutifully rounded up and stuck in their “special custody” room. So, basically, vague rumours of a big monster in a Scottish Lake is worldwide news, but freakin’ Basilisks and Chimeras that are actually being held in police custody have gone unmentioned up ‘til now. Boy, I’ve heard of police stonewalling, but this is ridiculous.

The monsters in the lockup include a Griffin, a Unicorn (in a nice touch, it looks a lot like a Rhino, medieval reports of which are what inspired the myth of the Unicorn in the first place) and the aforementioned Chimera and Basilisks, neither of which bear any resemblance to their mythical forebears. The Chimera is basically a huge chameleon, and the Basilisks are tiny little hairballs that resemble Ewoks crossed with pug dogs. Flippa Dippa, for once not wearing his scuba suit, looks on in amazement, and Jimmy Olsen proclaims “Jumping Jars of Jellied Jaguars!!!”. And “Big Words” is reduced to responding “Yeah! Wow!!!

But the biggest surprise is being kept at the end of the hall in a special, titanium-coated cell. ANGRY CHARLIE.

Charlie leaps forward and tries to grab them, and the cops rush in to tranquilize him, as Chief Inspector McQuarrie rolls his R’s at random (“Alar-r-rms” and “tranquilizer-r gun” bear the brunt of his verbalizations). He claims these strange animals are all somehow coming from “Brigadaoom”—“A Scottish fairy tale city—that becomes the object of a real hunt the next day!” (It’s “Brigadoon”, of course—Kirby apparently got so caught up in his little pun that he forgot the real name.) Of course, we cut to the Olsen crew hunting for it so fast that we don’t get a chance to find out how the heck the Inspector knows that that’s where the monsters are coming from. Maybe this is a technique we should adopt in North America. “My deduction—the killer is from Shangri-La!”

We immediately cut to the Whiz Wagon in aquatic mode, plumbing the depths of Loch Trevor. Wha--?!? They couldn’t have done that back when they were looking for the monster the other day?!? Of course, if they had, MacGregor would have just killed them, since it was the monster wrecking their boat that enabled them to escape. So yay for short attention spans.

Also shaky logic. Jimmy and Scrapper have been sent to look for an “overland route”, so they’re not on board the Wagon; instead they’re traipsing mindlessly through a field of brambles and overgrowth and, after a few panels of effort, immediately falling asleep. Who knew Scrapper and Jimmy were so damn lazy?

The Scrapper Trooper is left to stand guard, “But nothing can guard against the compressor wave! It comes out of nowhere—and does its strange work!” Scrapper one wakes up to find the Trooper staring him in the face—on his level.

SCRAPPER: Hey! You ain’t little any more!—Or is it—that I ain’t big any more!!??
TROOPER: I told you that I saw something weird happen to you!! In short—you’ve been shortened!!

Naturally, you can’t really faze residents of the DC Universe with this kind of stuff, but Scrapper does get a little concerned about “Big boids!!”, so the Trooper leads them under a rock—then keeps going, driven by some instinct “like all graduates of the D.N.A. Project”. This is significant, and ties back into that stuff about parts of the Guardian’s brain being active that they didn’t understand, though unfortunately this plotline never gets totally resolved. However, there’ll be more on it in this issue.

Beneath the rock, the Trooper finds Brigadoom.

Yes, Brigadoom is a microscopic fortress hidden under a small rock. That’s why no one’s been able to find it. And what’s more, this isn’t just some random mythical city; it’s a place that the Scrapper Trooper inherently recognizes, and which Jimmy Olsen, using his journalistic know-how, deduces to be the source of not just he mythical animals back on the surface but all the bizarre monsters that have been plaguing them lately. Yep, it’s the Evil Factory itself.

What makes this a neat reveal is that you’re half-convinced Kirby had totally forgotten about that plot thread, and that even if he hadn’t he’d have just pulled something out of his butt. The fact that he manages to weave it into an ongoing story, and one where its presence makes perfect sense (well, by comic book standards) is pretty impressive, considering how random this has been so far.

Anyway, confirming their suspicions, Simyan and Mokkari suddenly arrive, Mokkari dressed in a goofy-looking suit of armour that protects him from Jimmy’s fire, and knocks them out with “well-placed paralysis beams.” “Luckily, in dealing with Earthmen, our Apokolips clothing fabric is resistant to their weapons!” Cackles Mokkari. Um, yes, I think the “fabric” of a suit of armour tends to work that way on Earth, too.

We now suddenly cut to Superman’s far more interesting plotline—he and NotLois had gone to a disco where they had discovered a secret passage, run into Superman’s horned, purple-skinned mutant friend Dubbilex, and then the evil hippie house band brought the house down—as in, literally. How will Superman and everyone else survive? Well, Superman will survive because he’s Superman. Everyone else…um…I have no way of knowing, because we suddenly cut to the tunnel under the disco, where Superman, Dubbilex and NotLois are all safe and sound. I guess the other Disco patrons were crushed to death, but hey, they were into disco. No big loss.

Dubbilex has, between issues, captured the homicidal rock band (they’re called The San Diego Five String Mob) with what Superman calls “Kinetic powers”. They’re hovering in a clump in the middle of the tunnel, to NotLois’s consternation. “Terry [NotLois] doesn’t know Dubbilex is a D.N.Alien!” Thinks Superman, slyly. Yes, I guess she’ll have to continue labouring under the assumption that he’s one of those telekinetic, horned purple guys you see thronging the streets of Metropolis. “Mister Dubbilex!! You’re weird!!” is her response.

Of course, Dubbilex’s powers are still developing, and thus, he’s not able to hold them long. As soon as they drop to the floor, they conjure up a Boom Tube and make their getaway (“The San Diego Five String Mob is now a road show!!”). “Don’t go near it!” Warns Superman. “Let these kids go!! And don’t ask questions!” What are you hiding all of a sudden, Superman? Oh, right. Secret identity.

Back at Loch Trevor. The Whiz Wagon actually came upon the monster about three seconds after submerging in the last segment and drove it off with some concussion charges. Following behind, the Newsboys suddenly see the monster vanish after heading into the same compression-wave effect we saw earlier. “There’s no sign of him!!” Declares Big Words. “All I get is a tiny blip on my scope!” Yes, no sign whatsoever.

Flippa Dippa, of course, sees an excuse to make himself useful and pops out the airlock, at which point he is not only sucked in, but somehow pulls the Whiz Wagon in after him. Smooth!

Meanwhile, Scrapper and his Trooper are locked up while Simyan and Mokkari have Jimmy strapped down to an operating table.

MOKKARI: And now the new “bombardment” method!! Millions of gene nuclei shot through his open pores!!
SIMYAN: They develop like wildfire! Olsen will change rapidly!! Becoming what the Gene dictates!! Sad to say—these are regressive and powerful!!

Am I the only one who pictures Kirby writing this stuff by flipping through medical textbooks and pulling out words at random? Of course, maybe he does the same with thesauruses every time he writes. Long story short, they have a ray that reverses the process of evolution and devolves organisms. They’ve done this on a “monitor lizard” to produce a T-Rex, which they immediately sic on Scrapper and Trooper.

Meanwhile meanwhile, the Whiz Wagon pops up in the underwater pens used to keep Trevor the monster when he’s at home. Which means we get two scenes with giant lizards—the Whiz Wagon leaps out of the pens and tears down a nearby hallway, while the Scrapper Trooper manages to sedate the dino with “chemical ‘mace’” he had secreted in his helmet. And I don’t mean he had it tucked away, I mean his helmet squirts mace from out the inside. Must be a pain in the ass to avoid macing yourself on a near-constant basis.

Scrapper and the Trooper escape, but too late to help Jimmy, who’s been regressed into caveman form!

Huh…I guess Jimmy wasn’t that evolved to begin with.

And on that exciting cliffhanger, we reach the end of the second Fourth World Archive volume, and the halfway point of the saga! Next week: Part 3 begins, including the end for Olsen and friends…

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Dredd (2012) Poster
2012 was a somewhat odd year for movies for a number of reasons, but one of the oddest was the fact that it featured a great number of enjoyable summer blockbusters...almost none of which actually opened in the summer.

I'm not so jaded that I can't enjoy a big fireworks display of a movie, as long as it's done with a certain level of inventiveness and panache, and Chronicle, The Hunger Games, The Cabin In the Woods, Looper, 21 Jump Street, Rise of the Guardians, John Carter, and The Pirates! all scratched that itch rather better than a lot of Hollywood's recent offerings in this arena. A couple of them are downright great, and even the ones that were merely passable diversions were loads more fun than the movies that opened during the actual summer season*, the soggy likes of Battleship and Prometheus and that Snow White movie (no, not that one, the other one). Even Pixar and Christopher Nolan let me down this year. Oh yeah, there was The Avengers, which was almost the platonic ideal of a popcorn movie, but that opened on May 1st, which, sorry, ain't summer where I come from. (I come from Canada.)

And then there was Dredd. (Spoilers follow.)

Dredd didn't do very well in theatres, though I'm told that it's the best-selling DVD of the admittedly young year. This fact has awakened some hope of a sequel amongst the film's nascent cult, and it's this fact that made me consider some issues about this film...which I'm not entirely comfortable with.

To get the obvious out of the way, Judge Dredd was created in 1977 by John Wagner (writer) and Carlos Esquerra (artist), first appearing in only the second-ever issue of the evergreen British comics anthology 2000 AD. The character is part of the wave of punk-rock comics of the time, created as a satire of the American fetish for rogue law enforcement officers who act as "judge, jury and executioner", and inhabiting a berzerk cyberpunk world that played a major role in defining "cyberpunk" in the first place. As with rock 'n' roll, Americans may have invented comics, but the British were the ones who really saw the art forms' potential, and a level of tongue-in-cheek irony of a kind foreign to contemporary American superhero stories pervaded the strip. Dredd became, and remains, a wildly popular character in the UK, but Americans mostly know him from the awful 1996 Sylvester Stallone movie. The fact that Dredd removed his helmet was the least of the movie's problems; more than anything else, it seemed like adapting Dredd into an actual big-budget American action movie had robbed the movie of its ironic, subversive charge. (Robocop was heavily inspired by Judge Dredd, and I'd argue it captures the strip better than ether of the nominal adaptations. Perhaps not coincidentally, director Paul Verhoeven is European.)

Dredd is a fun, quite well-made movie, and I enjoyed it tremendously. But it falls prey to a tendency that's become overwhelming in geeky adaptations: they labour under a weird, creeping sense of obligation that sometimes overwhelms the need to make the best movie possible, or even the best adaptation possible.

With this movie, director Pete Travis set out to make a movie that would be much truer to the character--which actually seems to boil down to the fact that they wanted a Dredd movie where he never took his helmet off.

Look, I get that this is a big deal in the comic, but this is a movie, people. In much the same way that geeks moan endlessly when an actress of the wrong hair colour is cast for a comic-book role, this seems like a weird fixation on a superficial detail. I'm not saying that it's not nice that Karl Urban's Dredd keeps his helmet on; I'm just saying that making that the lynchpin of the movie resulted in a rather underwhelming story.

Because if you switch out the character of Dredd, you'd be left with a relatively generic, though well-made, action story (as everyone keeps saying, the similarities to The Raid: Redemption are inescapable), and that seems like a missed opportunity. Travis and company were quite open about the fact that they were going to make a small-scale story due to budget issues, and while that's fine as far as it goes, the problem is that the script thinks too small. The vast, sprawling, nightmare world of Mega-City One is basically ignored (and what little we see of it just looks like a generic, modern metropolis) and the bulk of the action reduced to a single, admittedly huge, apartment building. Fair enough, but there's no sense of the personality of the city surrounding it either. Indeed, there's little trace of the tonal subversiveness or snotty nose-thumbing that makes the comic so memorable either. Even Dredd himself is given very little to play off of; sure, he's the authoritarian hard-ass we expect, but this isn't really explored by the story in any serious way. Dredd never, for instance, has to make a choice between following the rules and basic humanity, and the ramifications of this borderline-fascist legal system don't play a role in the plot at all, other than the shock of a cadre of corrupt Judges who pop up at the halfway point.

And therein lies the rub: this movie seems to have been made solely to validate the character after the Stallone debacle, to give fans of the character something to point to to show that he's actually good. In that way, it plays directly into the modern idea that movies are somehow "better" than other media, and that no matter how much you love that comic or novel or TV show, it hasn't arrived until it's been turned into a big-budget CGI-fest. Even this wouldn't be so bad if the resulting movies didn't end up feeling like they were made using a checklist, afraid to take too many chances, providing as direct a transcription as possible for the sake of the fans. We're a long way from the era when Jaws and the Godfather ended up being a vast improvement on the original pulp novels.

Which brings us to the possibility of a sequel. Again, the filmmakers are on record as saying that, should the first film do well, we'd be getting a sequel featuring some of the more unique elements of the comic. Again, I get the necessity inherent here, but this seems to be the standard approach for far too many comic-book and other "geek" properties--a small-scale, unambitious movie that sets up a potentially better sequel. This doesn't have to be bad, of course, but too often it seems like the filmmakers are shirking their responsibility by doling out the property in bite-sized chunks rather than straining themselves to deliver the best movie they possibly can. It's like if the first Star Wars movie had only hinted at the big Death Star battle, with Lucas promising we'd get to see it if the first movie made enough money.

What I really object to about this is that it puts a burden on the movie-consuming public--give lots of money to the corporation, and maybe you'll get a treat! Obviously this attitude popped up organically among film nerds over the years, but Hollywood has been quick to exploit it. Essentially they're trying to be rewarded for stretching the property as thin as they possibly can, and it smacks of a con job.

Don't get me wrong: if a Dredd sequel gets made, I'll be first in line. But it would be nice to get the sense that the filmmakers had given it their all the first time, that they weren't selling a promise as much as a movie.

*And then, just to compound the weirdness, the two best movies of the summer were Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild, both ultra-precious indie movies of the kind that usually haunts arthouses in the early fall. And they did well!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #6--"Funky Flashman!"

Funky Flashman, as we will learn on the first page, is a con artist, swindler, and all-round self-interested douchebag. As the caption informs us, he “preys on all things like a cannibal!! –Including you!!!” Well, by definition a cannibal would have to. Anyway, Funky, who bears an odd resemblance to Bob Hope in a couple of panels, lives in the crumbling antebellum mansion known as Mockingbird Estates. Somehow, he managed to get himself named Colonel Mockingbird’s heir apparent, but the deal came with strings attached: rather than gaining immediate access to a fat trust fund, Funky gets a weekly allowance, doled out in a very strange manner: every week, the hideous bust of the Colonel makes a loud “BAAAAW!” sound and the mouth flips open to reveal a small wad of bills.

Kirby, rather insanely, refers to this process as “waiting for Godot”. Yes, seriously. OK, listen, Stan Lee obviously had great success writing hip, Beat-influenced, pop-culture-referencing heroes, and, as I’ve mentioned, it’s natural enough that Kirby would want to try and imitate his most well-known collaborator. But Kirby really, really wasn’t suited to this, and the results aren’t just clunky, they actively make you fear for the man’s sanity. If Lee sometimes seemed hilariously square in his attempts to write “with-it” dialogue, Kirby comes off as borderline senile. I mean, “Waiting for Godot”? How pathetic is that name-drop, even in 1972?

OK, OK. Moving on. Funky and his fawning manservant Houseroy—yes, Houseroy--have an exposition-laden conversation about his plans to pull another con in order to shore up their measly funds. Their mark, of course, is Mister Miracle, who they’ve learned about from the performance he gave at an orphanage fundraiser.

…Wait, wait, wait. Mister Miracle? Performing his act in public, for an audience? And this happened off-panel?!? Surely this momentous occasion could have warranted a panel or two! But then, the whole thrust of this story seems to suggest that Kirby realized that the logistics of Mr. M’s act may have been a bit lacking. More on that in a moment. Although I am interested to know, given the nature of Mr. M’s stunts, how many orphans were killed during that performance.

Anyway, Funky slaps on a fake hairpiece and beard, all the while engaging in extremely, um, flamboyant dialogue. Houseroy says that he thinks Scott Free will prove “quite edible!!” and Funky calls him “Sweetie”. I have to wonder if Kirby wasn’t slipping in a whole other subtext on top of making him, you know, a two-faced conniver.

Meanwhile, it’s time for our standard Mr. Miracle opening splash—Mr. M in the clutches of some ludicrously awesome mechanical deathtrap that he’ll escape from once, let it destroy itself, and then never use again! This time he’s shackled into a crazy-looking rocket sled—it even says “NASA proving ground” on it—on a track that ends on a sheer cliff. The sled takes off in a blast of Kirby Krackle, and, with nanoseconds to spare, Scott…


Huh. The rocket sled had an ejector seat, complete with parachutes. I don’t know whether that’s shrewd or cowardly on Scott’s part. Oh, sure, he had to get out of the shackles in time to hit the eject button, but still. Do real super escape artists need parachutes?

Anyway, after the standard, “Oh God, he’s dead, those crazy contraptions finally killed him! Buh—WHA?!? You’re alive!” reaction from Oberon, Scott mentions that he thinks the crowds will enjoy this stunt…which broaches that taboo subject of money. “You’ve been hinting about going on tour!!” needles Obie. “Well!! –Why not!! It’s time this act began making money!”

Really, Oberon? Are you sure? We don’t want to rush into this, after all. Maybe Scott should wreck a few more NASA rocket sleds before he makes a rash move like trying to make any money out of his antics. Maybe he ought to purchase a few more antique civil war cannons, too. I mean, these things do grow on trees, after all. And risking your life in radical, foolhardy ways just isn’t the same if there are people watching. People who might inadvertently be entertained. It cheapens the whole act, man.

Whew. Well, while that bit of thudding obviousity is being taken care of, interesting events are unfolding back at Casa Del Free: Flashman has made the pilgrimage to see Scott, only to be met with Big Barda. I mentioned a while back that Barda was basically Kirby’s wife Roz in personality, and this scene is a variation on something that apparently happened a lot in the Kirby household: some shyster or corporate shark comes to the door while the King is trying to work, and his missus gently discourages him by, um, crushing a gun in her bare fist. Funky is apparently a hard one to dissuade, however, and Barda gives up and goes to take a bath (?) just as Scott walks in. Apparently splashing around in the water is one of her default reactions when she gets sick of hitting things.

Funky announces his presence and introduces himself to Oberon—“mentioned briefly in your letter,” as Funky puts it. And yes, that’s supposed to be a short joke. Can someone explain to me why it’s been OK to make little-person jokes long after we stopped making fun of people’s other disabilities? I mean, if you mocked a guy in a wheelchair by calling him “Hell on wheels” no one would think you were clever. They’d think you were a huge jerk. Of course, Funky’s a huge jerk anyway, pinching Oberon’s cheek and then suddenly attempting to drop kick him as soon as Scott’s back is turned. Charming.

As soon as Oberon’s departed to make some coffee, Funky launches into his spiel, declaring it a “tingly, wingly thrill!!—To actally be in the very setting where the hallowed Thaddeus Brown, like a warlock of ancient yore—conjured up his majestic manipulations!!” He proceeds to lay it on thick with flowery verbiage. More than a few people have commented that Funky seems to be channeling Stan Lee in this sequence, beard included. By the way, if he’s using his real name, why did he bother with a fake beard? That would seem to clinch the idea that Kirby wanted to evoke Lee. I mean, a pompous con artist with a grandiose way of talking---what else were we supposed to think?

We cut to Barda in the bath. This page was apparently scripted by Mark Evanier to fill space when Kirby accidentally came up short in the page count, and he claims it doesn’t add to the story at all, but I don’t know if that’s quite true—it includes a panel where her “warning circuits” detect a “carrier beam” from Apokolips, without which the next page would seem to pretty much come out of nowhere. She gets dressed (in her bikini-thing rather than her full battle armour) and goes downstairs to meet…MAD HARRIET!

Harriet’s one of the Female Furies, the Charlie’s Angels of Apokolips to which Barda formerly belonged. Her weapons are her freaky appearance, disturbing giggle, and a row of razor-tipped brass knuckles, and ruthless efficiency, and nice red uniforms…OK, sorry, I’ll come in again. She’s a homicidal maniac in a Geisha costume, is my point, and she’s here to take out Barda for her betrayal of Apokolips. As is her partner Stompa, who joins her a few panels later, and as of now is merely a disembodied boot. After trashing some furniture, they phase out, just as Scott comes barging in. Boy, that guy is missing most of the action in this issue, isn’t he.

In fact, it turns out he’s been closing a deal with Funky to manage their coming tour. “He’s a transparent second-rater—but he’ll have to do!!” Um, really? You aren’t going to bother looking around for a better option, Scott? Obviously this arrangement parallels Kirby’s partnership with Stan the Man, but that just makes it seem like he should have tried for something better himself…

Oddly, we now cut to a day later. Wow, the Female Furies sure like to take their time in toying with their prey. Funky’s apparently rented out a rehearsal studio (complete with…klieg lights?) and dressed himself up in what he calls his “Uneasy Rider outfit” which apparently has him under the delusion that he’s John Huston. Scott proceeds to strap himself to a wooden platform that feeds into a gigantic sawblade, prompting this reaction:

Yeah, thanks, Oberon, that’s much more helpful.

Scott immediately follows this with a second escape: he crawls inside a gigantic, clear-plastic fishbowl, tightens the hatch, and lets a concussion bomb drop into the bowl. This one he escapes, somehow, by curling up in “the proper position.” Funky, duly impressed, lathers on the praise, leading Scott to melt a little and reveal one of his secrets: namely, the Mother Box. “But no one can build her!!” Admonishes Scott. “She must be earned!!” I have to admit, I don’t really get what Mother Boxes are supposed to represent. They seem to be a symbol of immense power that’s bestowed only on the worthy, but, I mean, they are basically just a piece of technology. How does one “earn” a Mother Box, exactly? At any rate, it’s clear Funky isn’t worthy, and it’s just as clear that he’s suddenly eager to get his hands on it.

His lust for power is interrupted by the belated arrival of Lashina, another one of the Furies. (Barda mentioned that there were only four, but as we’ll see later, that’s completely inaccurate.) Lashina’s another neat character design:

But before her lash (capable of cutting through solid metal) can land on Scott, Barda swoops out of the shadows and engages her in a page-long fight. Barda STILL hasn’t bothered to put on her armour, by the way. I guess Kirby knew which side his bread was buttered on. Barda manages to subdue her, and she teleports away just as—you guessed it—Scott and Oberon come running in. Barda once again describes her battle and speaks warily of the fourth Fury, Burnadeth, who happens to be Desaad’s sister. They’ve been able to find Scott by tracking his Mother Box, but suddenly it’s gone missing—Scott left in such a hurry that he didn’t notice that Funky ran off with it.

I think you can see what’s coming, can’t you? Funky’s back at Mockingbird Estate, practicing his public speaking, when the Furies come for him and decide to kill him out of spite. Burnadeth fires a “fahren-knife” that will “penetrate dimensionally—and barbecue him from the inside!!!” Funky apparently avoids it, andthrows his faithful butler Houseroy into the fray in order to hold them off for a few minutes while he makes his escape from the house, which explodes behind him. After mourning the loss of his family (?) estate (which Kirby takes a moment to remind us was founded on slave labour) Funky, his hair and beard blown off, walks off down the road to new schemes, apparently unconcerned by all that’s transpired.

We get a brief epilogue here where we reveal that Mr. Miracle and Barda arrived on the scene to pull Houseroy from the flames (oh, comics code) and engage the Furies, driving them off with explosives. This all happened off-panel, of course. The issue ends with Scott and Barda finally making a decision: instead of waiting on Earth and taking on their Apokoliptish adversaries one by one in easily defeatable permutations, they’re going to head back to the planet itself and take on Darkseid, Granny, and the hordes of Apokolips on their own turf.

Gee. Good thinking.

Monday, January 21, 2013


The last two reviews I’ve done for Thor’s Comics Column (The End Times of Bram and Ben and Todd, the Ugliest Kid in the World ) have inadvertently been thematically linked. Both of these books are deliberately, gleefully offensive, something that’s become a time-honoured tradition in the medium of comics since at least the era of “Tales From the Crypt”…and really, it goes back to at least the days of 18th-century political cartoons. Or hell, dirty paintings on cave walls. Comics seem more inclined to this kind of assault on good taste than most other media, something I accredit partly to how few overseers the standard comic has in the production phase, and partly to how far beneath the radar the average indie comic is able to fly. But even without those aspects I feel like there’s something in the medium itself that lends itself to assaulting people’s delicate social mores—a certain underlying anarchy implicit in portraying reality in stylized form. (Animation has something similar going on, from the classic Loony Tunes to the modern slew of R-rated cartoon shows.)

As you might be able to tell, I’m generally in favour of pushing boundaries, but that doesn’t mean I automatically salute comics creators who publish whatever juvenile, offensive nonsense they can get away with. As I said in the reviews linked above, I think taking a scattergun to good taste can be a positive thing…if done in an intelligent context. The more over-the-top your shock value, the more carefully it has to be deployed, and there’s no quicker way to get on my bad side than being shocking for the sake of being shocking. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re going to talk the talk, I expect you to walk the walk.

I’ve been to the San Diego Comic-Con a few times, thanks largely to friend and collaborator Chuck Whelon. My first time there, in 2004, was juuuuust before the huge crowds of non-nerds caught on that this was a chance to catch a glimpse of big movies and their stars and directors before they were released, and it was still possible to get in to see them without spending most of the convention waiting in line. In later visits I tended to skip the madness of Hall H and focus on the actual comics, but that first trip was spent planted in the big lecture halls watching advance clips of The Incredibles and listening to the creators of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (it was a pretty good year for neat geek projects, in retrospect).

One of the presentations I saw that year was for Team America: World Police. I knew Trey Parker and Matt Stone were working on an all-puppet action movie that would lampoon the war on terror in the style of the Thunderbirds, and while I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of the duo, I thought the combination of the uniqueness of the medium and the subject matter made it sound like an exciting flick. What I saw on the stage, though, turned me against Parker and Stone for life. I understand that they were in the late stages of finishing the movie and were rather exhausted, but the hour-long presentation consisted of nothing but whining from the duo—whining about how much they hated actors, whining about how much harder it was to work with puppets, whining about how much hard work this all had been. When you factor in the incredibly simplistic, half-assed animation of South Park, it became clear to me that these were a pair of over-privileged jerks who thought it was the height of hilarity to mock everyone else but whose own inconvenience warranted a jeremiad. This was emphasized when the movie came out and large chunks of it were devoted to repetitive, tiresome “takedowns” of everyone in Hollywood Parker and Stone personally disliked, including a nonsensical plotline springing from their personal vendetta against Michael Moore.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “He’s only saying that because his political beliefs are being tweaked.” But actually it’s just the opposite. I’m a hardcore leftie, but I’d LOVE it if someone delivered a smart, incisive takedown of Michael Moore. That’s not what Parker and Stone did, though. The Michael Moore segments of the movie are simply Parker and Stone taking revenge on a guy who done them wrong (Parker and Stone were featured in Bowling for Columbine but refused to make an animated segment for the movie; Moore proceeded to make one in the style of South Park and place it right after the Parker and Stone segment, which the duo felt mislead people into thinking they’d been active participants in the movie rather than interview subjects). There’s no real criticism of Moore’s beliefs other than linking him to the movie’s half-baked “liberals are terrorists” theme, which isn’t any more well-thought-out than the kinds of idiocies that right-wing talking heads were spewing during the Bush years. What’s almost worse is that Parker and Stone present this whole thing as surrounded by ironic quote marks, dramatizing right-wing talking points with a veneer of ridiculousness so that if called on it they can say they’re satirizing it. It’s the ultimate in having their cake and eating it too.

For the record, I have enjoyed South Park in the past, and I’m not trying to argue that Parker and Stone are are right-wing lunatics. Actually that’s almost the problem: I don’t think they actually believe in anything, and are simply taking an aggressively contrarian stand to get noticed. Which wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but combined with the aforementioned sense of privilege and whininess, it becomes excruciating. (A gay acquaintance of mine was extremely angry at the episode that called for people to ease off on criticism of “the f word”: “So, these privileged heterosexual Republican-voters are going to lecture me on being offended by a slur aimed specifically at people like me?” was the thrust of his complaint.) Apparently a recent South Park episode featured metacommentary on Parker and Stone’s growing displeasure at their need to be relentlessly cynical and negative towards everything, to which I can only quote Porky Pig: “You b-b-b-b-buttered your bread, now you can lie in it.”

Another guy about whom I have similarly mixed feelings is Garth Ennis. Unlike Parker and Stone, I don’t think Ennis is a nihilist, and in fact, I think he can be a really excellent writer. But as anyone who’s read a lot of his work knows, he can very definitely fall into the same adolescent contrarian stance. There’s his incredibly, often pointlessly graphic violence, his depiction of superheroes as out-of-control, amoral hedonists in The Boys, and his juvenile mockery of religion in Preacher. I’ve actually read Preacher multiple times and own the entire series; it’s unquestionably an engaging, entertaining story, but I’m consistently disappointed by how Ennis keeps trying to pretend he has something to say, about religion or America or anything else, when it’s pretty clear he doesn’t. Christianity only exists in Preacher as something he can bring up for a cheap, shocking gag once in a while; the only people who are going to be offended by it are the kind of fundamentalists who wouldn’t be reading the comic in the first place. It’s a nonstop parade of “Hey, you hold this stuff sacred? Well, fuck you, I’mma smear shit all over it! Ha ha!” Ennis never even really gets around to explaining WHY religion is bad; he just takes it as self-evident. He’s shooting fish in a barrel. (And no, I’m not religious. If I’m offended by any of this jive it’s not the subject matter but how much contempt Ennis has for his readers.) 

After all that, I probably come off as a hopeless prude, but I reiterate my original point: I’m a strong supporter of thinkers and storytellers who attempt to push boundaries. My issue is with people who take “causing offense” as a starting point. To stay on the religion thing, Charles Darwin didn’t sit down and attempt to destroy the bible by writing The Origin of Species (regardless of what certain fundamentalists seem to think); he simply followed his thoughts to their rational conclusion, and came back with a book that shocked half the world. The same is true of Alfred Kinsey or Friedrich Nietzsche. This may seem like a somewhat lopsided argument, that I’m holding up an impossible standard to pop culture storytellers, but you see my point—nothing is ever more shocking than ideas. An obvious provocation can garner attention in the short term, but all you’re doing is shoving something into the muck. Muck washes off. Exposing an existing rot within your chosen subject—that’s far more dangerous, and it’s what art should be doing.