Thursday, 30 June 2011

On "Fear Itself" # 3, Judge Hamida, & Kate Bush As Wonder Woman:- Smith's Miscellany For June 30th, 2011

       
1. On "Fear Itself" # 3 by Fraction, Immomen, Von Grawbadger & Martin

I don’t know how to care about any of the characters on show in “Fear Itself” # 3, and that’s as true for the story’s headline-gathering superhero sacrifice as it is for the comic's wider cast of psychopathic super-villains, wilfully uncaring super-fathers, and battalions of super-people. I should be shocked by Skadi tearing off Bucky Barnes’s mechanical arm, for example, I should be horrified by her smashing the handle of her ‘mystic hammer’ through his rib-cage, I should feel pity at the sight of his mutilated body, and I should certainly be misty-eyed and mournful when I’m reading his final words. I should have been made to care.

But since neither the script nor the art for this issue have given Barnes a single distinguishing thought or feeling beyond the most generic air of bravery and doughtiness, I find that his apparent death passes with no more a sense of occasion and loss than might the sight of an abandoned car left to rot on the verge of a little-driven road. It’s a shame, there’s no denying it, but there’s little if anything there to move us in Mr Barnes's death, nothing to snare our attention, nothing that suggests that someone individual and distinct and irreplaceable has been lost.

“Fear Itself” is the ultimate expression of Marvel’s “show don’t tell” storytelling philosophy. Characters are constantly doing things, but we’re rarely if ever shown how any of them think or feel about their world beyond the broadest of behaviours. Skadi is very, very angry, Bucky is very, very brave, Steve Rogers is very, very dashing, Loki is very, very cunning, and so on. They all exist in a dulled and by-the-numbers-like world where their motives are incredibly straight-forward, where their actions are obvious and entirely predictable, and where the pleasures of their company are assumed to lie in the business of their rage and their violence and their melodramatic suffering. And so, just showing a celestial hammer being thumped through someone’s rib cage while godly lightning is conducted into their body – “Aaaaaaaa -- !” – is presumed to be compelling and moving and satisfying, as if the spectacle of suffering is fascinating and entertaining in itself.

            
It’s a measure of how beguiled this story assumes we are with the very existence of superheroes that Bucky Barnes isn’t even allowed to die in the act of saving anyone or anything specific. He's simply defeated in yet another assault on Washington by a world-conquering lunatic complete with flying Nazi robots. And when he’s found dying, the grand war around him simply ceases and his be-costumed comrades abandon the fighting against Skadi and those robots in order to cluster round their broken-bodied colleague. None of them thinks to run over to Skadi, who is perhaps 50 yards away and simply walking in the opposite direction, just as none of them thinks to realise that they’re suddenly presenting a phenomenally convenient target for their opponents, who luckily seemed to have forgotten that there was ever a big punch-up going on too. But then, this isn’t a story that’s intended to make sense, or even to present its characters as anything other tha props for a melodramatic indulgence. When the script calls for the superheroes to provide the reader with their dose of jeopardy and costumes and energy beams, the superheroes are there fighting for the survival of the world on the streets of America’s capital. When it’s time for the reader to be shown the traditional scene of mourning, with the fallen hero prone but conscious on the floor, his lover bent beside him, his friends gathered around him, his final words echoing meaningfully out, then the battle inexplicably ceases and super-warriors are transformed into the to-be-expected chorus of grieverss to cluster around the poor and apparently doomed Mr Barnes.

Yet Bucky Barnes has already faced death before and disappeared into the darkness not expecting to ever re-emerge. What thoughts and emotions must have passed through his mind as history appeared to repeat itself? We’re shown only a man warning his comrades of a coming catastrophe and exhorting his lover to ‘save ‘em’, whoever that "‘em" may be. But any heroic figure might have been shown saying those characterless words. What would Bucky Barnes have said and thought and felt that nobody else ever could have, because nobody else ever was, of course, Bucky Barnes?

     
2. This Week Your Blogger Has Enjoyed ....
  • Firstly, your life will be made all the more worth the living should you follow this link and experience Fred Astaire dancing in a sequence from "Yolanda And The Thief". I begin every day with it, just to remind myself what folks are capable of when they're focusing on the worthwhile business of making each other's lives more joyous.
  • Out in the blogosphere, I've thoroughly enjoyed Carol Borden's piece discussing Dexter and Gail Simone's Catman, and Julian Darius's discussion of what well may be lost when DC's new no-superheroes-before-Superman policy comes into play. I'd also recommend that folks hurry over to the site of writer Andy Mangels, where he's placed a link to his quite-literally peerless articles on "Gays in Comics". First published in 1986 in "Amazing Heroes", these essays include material gathered from interviews with the likes of John Ostrander, Howard Crusise, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman, and a host of others. Just follow the link, scroll down to the reference to Amazing Heroes 143/4, and there's your chance to read one of the most inspiring and informed examples of comic book journalism I ever did have the privilege of reading. 
Anyone looking for a starting point for a new take on Wonder Woman might consider beginning with a cache of photographs of Kate Bush. (From Classic Rock # 160, image from Lichfield/Getty Images.)
 
  • The briefest of heatwaves saw your blogger spending an exquisitely quiet and skin-sizzingly Sunday afternoon in a deckchair in the gardens of the Splendid Wife's country estate, drinking chilled teeth-destroying diet drinks and reading Alistair Cooke's remarkable "American Journey". A previously-unpublished account of Mr Cooke's journey across the USA in the early months of the Second World War, it offers a portrait of the nation coming to terms with war that I've never seen matched anywhere else. The detail of the everyday lives of American citizens from all across the Republic is fascinating; all of a sudden, 1942 seems as if it were yesterday rather than almost three-quarters of a century ago. And the narrative doesn't shy away from racism and the wartime sexual economy and a whole string of social issues which so much of the journalism of the time chooses to ignore. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
  • In between visits to the early Forties, your blogger thoroughly enjoyed luxuriating inTom Spurgeon's "The Romita Legacy". Page after page of comics art from Sr and Jr Romita, interviews and commentary and the like is, of course, a wonderful thing, babe.
  • The House of the Splendid Wife (c) is in mourning following the last episode of "Game Of Thrones", which the Wife of Splendidness (tm) is refusing to accept, beginning each day with the question "So when's the next episode then?", as if I might have spent the previous night bodging one together from old action figures and sound effects CDs. Your blogger has also been watching old episodes of Gerry Anderson's UFO for a possible chin-wag with the redoubtable A Trout In The Milk blog; if there is a more wonderful and quite bananas TV sci-fi take on the Phony War of 1939/40, I've not seen it. (It's the only such take, mind you, but it's certainly first in that field of one.) And of course, all gentlemen, and quite a few ladies too, of a certain age will be able to imagine the sigh that has inevitably accompanied each new appearance on screen of the highly professional Lieutenant Ellis.
        
                     
3On Judge Hamida from "Judge Dredd: Scream" by Gordon Rennie & Lee Carter

With the disappearance of "Nikolai Dante" from the weekly pages of 2000ad, I've found myself once more allowing my subscription copies to pile up unopened. What a pleasure to come across Mr Rennie and Mr Carter's "Scream" while finally flicking through those poor unattended issues, because I really did need a good reason not to entirely disengage from "The Galaxy's Greatest Comic". Though in some ways a typical if energetically-told Judge Dredd serial, "Scream" is marked by what I take to be the first appearance of Judge Hamida, a Muslim woman of colour openly practising her religion under the special dispensation of the Justice Department. The presence of a partner who, for example, insists on stopping to pray while hunting down Brainbloom bootleggers infuriates Dredd, and helps to kick off something of a loveless screwball comedy between one Godless fascist cop and another of the far-less-common devout wing of the party. Nothing shows up Dredd as the irredeemable Blackshirt that he is as a principled, strong-minded and highly competent partner who's capable of matching him sneer for sneer, though Hamida herself is every bit the dedicated authoritarian Judge too.

In a comic which has been screaming out for a greater measure of diversity, Judge Hamida is a substantial step forward. Of course, had the character been worthy and dull, politically correct and, grud help us, relevant, then I'd not be tipping my hat in the direction of Mr Rennie and Mr Carter. But it's the fact that she's an impressive individual in her own right, as well as an important example of a smart-minded and decent-hearted inclusiveness, that makes me glad to have made her acquaintance. I very much intend to come back and discuss the conflict between Dredd and Hamida at a later time, so for now, I'd just like to recommend the tale, in 2000ad progs 1737 to 1739, and to point you to a far more telling and comprehensive review over at the Everything Returns To 2000ad site.




Tomorrow, it's Friday With The Champions! Well, why not?
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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo's "Wrath Of The Spectre": Into The Valley Of Death Rode Everyone ...

1.

If Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo’s “The Spectre” tales are remembered for anything these days, it’s for the EC-macabre executions carried out by the title character at the close of every story. But there's a great deal more that's beguilingly odd, if not actually worryingly perverse, about Mr Fleisher's Spectre tales, though that's often quite understandably obscured by the flashbulb-memory-inspiring scenes of the likes of melting bank robbers and gorilla-slaughtered museum curators.

What's often overlooked is how very strange the universe, and particularly the afterlife, of these tales is. The frequent and portentous statements concerned with mission and vengeance and judgement which Mr Fleisher used to colour his adventures of the Spectre eventually piled up and coalesced into the most unsettling and yet absurd of comic-book cosmologies. Inspired in part by Jerry Siegel's original and bleakly dislocating Golden Age tales of the Spectre, Fleisher's stories suggested a far less sanitized, familiar and comforting four colour world and afterworld than is even now typical. For example, the Spectre refers several times to the afterlife as "the Valley Of Death", a spiritual realm which he describes as being "... long ... and wide ... so that good men who have perished need not suffer the stench arising from the souls that are evil". And this Valley is partitioned, it appears, so that morally contaminated souls can be sealed away in "Perdition", where an "eternity" of "boredom" awaits them, and where that 'stench' can't reach out from. Given that the Spectre's mission involves the gruesome dispatching of folks in the least humane fashion possible, we might be forgiven for presuming that a particularly daunting version of hell awaits his victims, but, as he declares to the terrorists he's having crushed to death by giant serpents in "Adventure Comics" # 439;

"It is ironic that although your lives are mockeries of the very meaning of humanity ... even you shall enjoy the eternal rest that has been denied to .. the Spectre."
              
A. For my money, the most remarkable of the Spectre murders. What makes it so shocking is the second panel of this page from Adventure Comics # 435, where we can see, although we're not directly shown, the Spectre forcing his victim's now-wooden body through "the saw!". The Spectre, of course, hasn't the slightest need of the rusty old machinery of the "abandoned sawmill', but he's so marked by loathing and rage that he physically forces his prey through those revolving metal teeth with a wonderfully final "Brrzzzzz".
        
Of the less-repellent soul's experience of this afterlife beyond the eternal peace-but-boredom of Perdition, we're told little. Yet disturbing nuggets of information emerge from Mr Fleisher's stories which make the life beyond this one appear to be anything other than entirely Arcadian. The souls of the recently dead, we discover, even have to queue up as part of some quasi-Biblical spectacle in order "to enter the Valley Of Death", and the processing system doesn't appear to be a speedy or welcoming one at all. The Spectre finds the innocent victims of a deliberately-set tenement fire from the day before standing way back in an apparently endless row of spirits, all bent-shouldered and characterless, all clothed in identi-kit grey monk's habits and cowls, all shuffling through a landscape of nothing but lemon-coloured smoke.Whoever's in charge of the afterlife, there's little apparent compassion on show for the newly-passed-over, as we can see from the fact that the most helpful of the victims found by The Spectre can hardly speak for the experience which killed him. "The fire ... was deliberately set. My death ... was murder!" he explains, and it's as if the suffering of his dying is afflicting him still. This clearly isn't a soul liberated from the suffering of the earthly plane. Rather, he's a traumatised  and blameless ghost caught in a featureless "Spectral Netherworld", and one characterised by little evidence of love and mercy. At best, a great celestial indifference appears to be the rule.

Yet there's clear evidence of at least a touch of compassion in the heavenly order of Mr Fleisher's take on the DCU. We catch a glimpse of it, though it is just a glimpse, in "Adventure Comics" # 431, when the Spectre declares the following to the cornered "Fritz", just prior to stripping the armed robber of everything that's wrapped around his skeleton, from the skin inwards;

"I have come for you, villain ... because so long as you remain free, the souls of your victims must writhe in torment."
          

B. From the moment gangster "Ducky" McClaren was introduced in his "sleazy waterfront hideout", that little plastic duck  of his - "quak, quak" - was always going to end up as his very own ten foot tall head-chewing nemesis.

Murdered human beings, it appears, continue to endure the rack for as long as their killers remain Earth-side, and one of the Ghostly Guardian's responsibilities is to limit that period of anguish by violently hurrying a killer's existence to a spectacular and painful close. It's a business which at first seems to speak well of those in charge of both the Earth and the Valley, but a little closer attention to the whole matter soon raises some fundamentally disturbing issues. Given how many tens if not hundreds of thousands of murders there are every year, why is there only one Spectre, and why is he spending time working as a NYPD Detective when he ought to be hewing down killers across the world in football-stadia filling numbers? The Valley Of Death must be packed with agonised spirits, and yet the Spectre's typical judgement-dealing day can only ever release a tiny number of them from their suffering. And then there's the question of quite why those pitiful souls who've ended up murdered through no fault of their own should have to experience such extra measures of misery simply because their murderers are still alive. It's a skin-blistering twist of fate which is never explained, and it's hard to escape a suspicion that Mr Fleisher simply hadn't thought through the consequences of a play-meaningful statement he'd placed into the Spectre's mouth.Yet in doing so, he created yet another aspect of an afterlife that carries something of the weight of myth, because it's both inexplicable and yet strangely consistent and convincing. For it's difficult to believe that any rational mind would care to invent something so patently unfair as an afterlife where victims are in effect punished for their killer's continued survival, let alone a Ghostly Guardian tasked with their relief who works with so little urgency to lift their burdens. Yet if no-one could possibly invent such a ridiculously cruel and inefficient afterlife, then, the suspicion lurks, as with even the silliest of myths, that afterlife's not been invented at all. Something as daft as this carries a token of the real simply because it can't, it just can't, have been imagined. And of course, in large part it wasn't. Mr Fleisher's world here emerges from the contents of a string of scripts often very much designed to work in isolation from each other as superhero-horror tales. It's the unplanned collision of a whole string of phrases designed for plot-convenience and effect over several years that eventually creates the real strangeness of the Spectre's universe.
      
C. Though rarely mentioned in the blog-lists of the Fleischer era's most memorable kills, the dismemberment of Gwen's "body" by a flying meat cleaver shows us as nothing else how merciless the Spectre is. Good job it was only a mannequin after all!
            
But in the end, we're assured, when the murderous likes of Zeke Borosovitch and Field Marshall Offal are dispatched by the Spectre, their dead victims will be waiting for their killer's souls to arrive in the Valley. But what happens then? Since hurting others is "evil", and since being "evil" results in a soul being sentenced to "Perdition", we can only assume that the slain meet their murderers, experience a measure of closure and a freedom from that writhing, before, perhaps, escorting their noxiously evil fellow spirits civilly down to an eternal damnation of endless boredom. Again, it's a picture of an afterlife which is utterly unlike that which anyone might be expected to devise, and it's one that's absolutely riddled with unanswered questions, and so, it's one which seems oddly convincing.  

Of course, any version of an afterlife which did consist of little but white picket fences and an eternal comfortable reward would be of little use to the scripter of a comic such as the Spectre. Mr Fleisher needed his dead folks to behave according to rules which were, for all of their familiarity, strange and even somewhat challenging. In essence, there's little point to a tale of a dead superhero if the superhero and his fellows behave just as they would on the sunnier side of the great divide. One of the most interesting of Fleisher's innovations here is a repeated sense that the Spectre is physically sickened and repulsed by the presence of those he ought to be slaughtering. For it seems that to the souls of the dead who've avoided 'evil', and that includes of course the serial killer that is the Spectre, anyone tainted with ill-deeds quite literally stinks. (We've already touched upon how the Valley Of Death itself has been constructed so that the stink of the sinner can't be perceived by the more just of the spirits there.) And the Spectre does often refers to the "stench" of his opponents, which brings in a sense of taboo, of a moral contamination so fundamental that it overwhelms the physical as well as the ethical order. "Even the spirits of the long dead could not tolerate the stench of his evil." he explains of Smiley, a brute of a henchman buried alive by the ancient ghosts summoned up by the Spectre. When somehow given dispensation to spend time over here in the land of the living, the virtuous dead can't help themselves, it seems, but kill the worst of the folks they encounter. 

It's an utter inability on the part of these uncontaminated spirits to control themselves which can be most tellingly witnessed when the Spectre is seemingly attacked by Gwen Sterling, a young and breath-takingly airheaded young woman who he seems to have fallen in love with. The fact of a supposedly fundamental if thwarted romantic attachment between the two of them doesn't cause The Spectre to hesitate for a necro-second once a pathetically unsuccessful attack upon him is began, even though, given the circumstances of his existence, there's surely every possibility that "Gwen" is under another's control as she attacks him. (She is at other times used against her will as a weapon of one kind or another.) Yet it's only after he's caused a meat cleaver to come "miraculously to life, whirling through the air with mighty blows, hacking off Gwen's arms, severing her legs from her body, smashing her skull in two ... until finally ... only a shattered corpse remains" that the Spectre discovers that "Gwen" is an 'ingenious' likeness of the young and profoundly dense multi-millionairess.

He just couldn't help himself, you see. It was that stench.
          

D. The introduction to the collected "Wrath Of The Spectre" stories discusses how uncomfortable several of Fleischer's bosses at DC were with the violence and horror on display in his stories. This surely has to be one of the most challenging of any such sequences. Even today, it's impossible to avoid empathising with the vile Eric as he tries to avoid being sliced in two. Still, when he's cut in twain, there will at least be souls in the Valley released from their writhing.
       
These are the rules of the Fleisher-verse, and it makes perfect sense that the creature which appears to rule over it, and who certainly commands the Spectre, is as ignorant and obtuse as his worlds are physically and morally nonsensical. For the godly but formless creature that the Spectre can find "heavenward ... in the most awesome destination of all", in a "domain of golden clouds and radiant light", is a wonderfully ignorant phenomena, unable to grasp that "evil" isn't so much an intrinsic personal quality rather than a judgement of another's action. Poor Jim Corrigan, a mob-executed Policeman raised by this celestial superpower of an idiot to eradicate all "evil" from the Earth. Compelled by his ghostly instincts, as we've seen, to pick off the monsters of the world one by one, the Spectre longs for the completion of his task so that he might enjoy the desperately longed-for "warmth of the grave". Yet to do away with "evil", the Spectre would have to be equipped not to transmute boats into man-eating giant Krakens, but to remove free will from human consciousness, so that no-one could ever again consider breaking those rules which divide "evil" from "good". Otherwise, even a Spectre who could murder tens of millions of sinners in a single day could pass another dawn and discover that "evil" had returned. In short, the Spectre's been ordered to fulfill a duty which can't ever be completed, although neither he nor even his woeful-minded creator appear to grasp the fact. 

But then, the fact is that the Spectre really isn't actually making any substantial attempt to eradicate "all evil from the face of the Earth", although his "heavenward" boss seems not to have noticed the distance that exists between the Spectre's relatively few achievements and the impossible task before him. In truth, the Spectre rarely ever even operates beyond New York City.  Worse yet, from what we're shown, he hardly ever pursues miscreants who've not first become his responsibility while working for the NYPD, meaning that he's not even making an effort to broaden his responsibilities beyond the problems which he runs into during his working day. But given that the "stench of evil" is something the Spectre can detect whenever he's close to a corrupted soul, his job would seem remarkably easy. There's alot of evil out there, so all he needs to do is to get traveling and sniffing. Even if the Spectre's working definition of "evil" is nothing more sophisticated than "murderer", which would be a remarkably narrow definition, he's still going to have to be killing off his prey at a ferocious rate. There were, after all, more than 18 000 recorded murders in the USA alone last year. 

But nothing of any determined effort to complete his mission is on display in the Fleisher Spectre stories. The great Godly boss is a fool, the Spectre is patently if most probably unconsciously shirking his duties, and the Valley beyond just keeps filling up with more and more innocent souls.

D. But if the page above was brutal, then the first panel of this following sequence surely caps it. I wonder if there's been a more chillingly suggestive image in a Comics Code Authority book?
              
There's something that's almost touching in the profound and yet oddly compassionate stupidity displayed by the Spectre's not-quite-all-powerful Maker. "Perhaps the mission I gave (The Spectre) ... is indeed beyond the fulfillment of any one man!", it wonders aloud in the absence of any witnesses beyond the reader, before adding "Perhaps being alive again will bring (The Spectre) happiness! I hope so!".  For it's that guileless "Perhaps" matched with that pathetic "I hope so!", which suggests some great dumb but well-meaning godly fool, grasping for a better understanding of how (1) being dead, while (2) being tasked with ridding the Earth of evil might somehow cause the Spectre to feel a touch disconcerted. 

Poor, pitiful Spectre. In the end, he's reduced to both pleading with and raging against his creator. "What do I care about vengeance? It's eternal rest I want! Can't you understand that? Haven't I earned it? Haven't I?" he declaims, but his God can only declare that he's not actually responsible for the situation. "Destiny", it seems, which apparently "no man can escape", is the force to blame for both the Spectre's endless mission and his constant torment. Even God isn't responsible for the mess of the world, but the Spectre's still going to be compelled to try to right it.

But in the world which the Spectre is apparently fated to haunt, where there undoubtedly is a God of sorts, and a God who can raise the dead and turn them into impossibly powerful super-zombies too, all complete with green booties and matching green pants and cape and hood too, what does He need a Spectre for? Why can't "God" sort out the whole rotten foul-up in the first place? 

Ah, that question again ...
 

E. The sadism of the Spectre extends to some quite deliberate and protracted acts of torture. Here Zeke is punished for his murderous sins by being transmuted in a mannequin, and then, after the Spectre has taken the time to phone for removal men to come and destroy his creations, thrown into a fire. That's alot of work for a relatively insignificant measure of vengeance, especially given that there's folks whose writhing won't end until Zeke's murder arrives.
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Monday, 27 June 2011

On The Covers Of Flashpoint No 1; "Kid Flash Lost" # 1 & "Reverse Flash"


1.

What is it that’s going on in Francis Manapul’s cover for “Kid Flash Lost”? Neither a generic could-be-on-any-cover poster shot nor an effective slice-of-narrative snare, Mr Manapul’s work seems so purposeless and ill-judged that it could almost be a submission for a competitiondesigned to find the most apparently accomplished and yet ultimately ennui-inspiring of covers. For there’s no doubt that that big frightened head catches the eye, and the technical business of the foreshortening of Kid Flash’s body is impressive, but the design as a whole offers little else to turn such promising elements into an absolutely compelling, you-must-buy-me front cover.

It’s impossible not to feel that something’s definitely going on here, but what it is and, most importantly, why the reader should care is impossible to deduce. A quick first glance is, I suspect, therefore often swiftly followed by a speedy turning away. And so, although Bart Allen’s expression is undoubtedly one of a boy who’s been catapulted from a speeding bike towards a profoundly unyielding wall, the design gives us no sense of wherever it is that Kid Flash is crashing towards or of the situation that he’s racing away from. Because of that, “Kid Flash Lost” appears to be being sold off of the audience’s presumed interest in a teen superhero’s contextless panic. If you’re the sort of the person who can imagine finding a disembodied head fronted by pouting and kissable lips erotic, or a weeping face of itself tragically compelling, then no doubt the simple sight of a Bart Allen being fear-stricken by something – something – which is before him may well interest you. To many of the rest of us, I suspect, the sight of an event that’s a great deal more beguiling than a single boy’s scared face would be required to transform our browsing into buying.

       
Still, terror is something of a hook upon which to try to snare the reader’s attention, but Mr Manapul’s composition seems almost purposefully designed to confound itself, to deny the reader any extra information that might turn that fearful youth into a scenario which demands investigation. Yes, having Bart’s head effectively cropped by the logo does create a sense that the action we’re seeing is so urgent, his forward motion so extreme, that it can’t even be represented in the frame of the cover without Kid Flash roaring through the top of it. Yet Bart’s body is placed precisely in the centre of the cover, equidistant from each of the vertical sides, leaving it feeling suspended between then rather than dynamically racing through them. In truth, he seems far more a ship in a bottle that a cork being forced out from it. And Kid Flash’s body is, if you cover up his face, patently not that of a superhero who’s out of control. With his hands balled into fists and his legs apparently running forward in an everyday speedster-superheroic fashion, what we have here is a relatively calm body that clearly doesn’t belong to its own panicking head. Certainly what we’re not seeing is a body that’s out of control, that’s desperately trying to brace itself or even avoid a collision of whatever cataclysmic sort awaits. Worse yet, the one part of the composition that is redolent of urgency and excitement, namely Bart’s head, plays second fiddle to the complex and confusing set of logos at the head of the design. In fact, so finicky is the double logo, and particularly the three-part “kid-FLASH-lost” design, that it creates the sense that the drama at hand is one of Bart suddenly realising that he can’t get his haircut under that ugly mass of lettering, which, had it been intended as a gag, might at least have had the virtue of a smidgen of fanboy half-humour.
        
           
Yet the design might still have worked to a degree if it had been accompanied by information explaining to us whatever it is that Kid Flash is so frightened of. Even a clue about how he'd come to this predicament might have turned a generic shot of shock into something of a narrative. But instead, the cover’s been crowded up with elements which quite derail the figure’s sense of forward motion without offering any clarity of purpose to the action at all. And so, the futuristic city that’s been placed behind Bart is one seen from high above ground level, meaning that Bart appears at second glance to be levitating upwards, or even flying,  rather than running forwards. If that was the intention, then a great deal more context needed delivering, as well as more work being done to establish that Bart’s not in control of his movement at all. (Flashes, after all, can't fly.) Finally, and catastrophically, the design motif of a Shazam-esque lightning bolt has been added to the composition, meaning that the reader’s few remaining hopes of avoiding utter confusion are totally short-circuited. Are we supposed to believe that Bart is fearful of running into a cartoon krackle jagging across his path straight above him? And if so, how can any reader grasp that what appears to be the crudest of design affectations is actually the vital jeopardy in the scene?

What? It’s not intended to be any such thing? Sometimes a lightning bolt is just a lightning bolt? Well what’s it doing there in the first place then? First rule of design; if part of the composition isn’t absolutely necessary, then it should be ruthlessly cut, because if it isn’t helping, then it’s inevitably cluttering up the situation. Yet worse than not contributing to the effect of the whole is the element so placed that it inevitably confuses. With the background here presenting the reader with a vanishing point somewhere behind Bart’s chest insignia, and with that lightning bolt instead drawing the readers gaze down and away from there for no good reason at all, we end up with a design that’s simultaneously focusing our eye at one place while purposelessly dragging our gaze away from it too. Both over-busy and strangely static, teasingly dynamic and yet compositionally stymieing, the cover to “Flashpoint: Kid Flash Lost” looks like nothing other than one of a number of artist’s rough ideas waiting for an Art Director’s feedback. What happened, I wonder, to the real cover?




2.

The very worst of sincerly-meant work, to bowdlerise Gore Vidal, has its own integrity, and it's undoubtedly true. For example, you couldn't fake a truly juvenile piece of work such as that which fronts “Flashpoint: Reverse Flash”, because the exhausting excesses of cynicism and thwarted craftmanship that that would demand would inevitably show through as a contempt for the reader. Despite the fact that Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes’s work is as irredeemably awful an example of comic book art as has ever been seen on a DC Comic's cover, it's still suffused with an enthusiasm and a glee which quite subverts any attempt to evaluate it on any level beyond that of Fanboy-Majeure. If this had been presented to the reader as a doodle which had been sketched out painstakingly by a 13 year old sitting at the back of a Civics lesson, a certain degree of admiration might have been merited simply by the fact that so little knowledge and so much devout fanboyness had been combined to produce an entirely obsessive piece of work. Lost in their apparent adoration of the very idea of the post-Image superhero, Mr Syaf and Mr Cifuentes have moved beyond all non-class of '91 artistic influences into the word of the almost-pure fanboy ideal, where little beyond the devotee’s enthusiasm and a vague sense of both Lee and Leifeld powers their achievements. And so, what we have here is a vision of what a super-villain would look like if matters of conventional anatomy and design were irrelevant, and if the sincerity of fan-affection were all. It's a cover that's irradiated with an intense emotional sense of how important and how frightening a hyper-fast super-villain really must be, and, just as an unkissed youth can summon up what a naked lover might just conceivably look like, they've conjured up an image which is, although neither anatomically accurate or conventionally attractive, most certainly fit for the purposes required. It's impossible not to marvel as well as shudder at those excitingly jutting elbows of Zooms, for example, as if meat cleavers had been surgically inserted into his arm joints just to make him even more pointily-impressive. And there's surely a temptation to revel in the analism of the lattice work which appears to be describing this Flash-fiend’s neck. Is that scar tissue? Is it perhaps an alien parasite under Zoom's costume? Or is this how an artist largely unconcerned with the greater tradition of comic book art suggests the flowing of blood through a super-runner’s veins? No matter, it's superhero porn, and, as Lincoln once said of a book he enjoyed not a whit, those who enjoy this kind of thing will enjoy this, though there's not a hope in hell that anyone beyond a sub-section of the obsessional ever will.. 

       
No conventionally conscientious and competent artist could produce work such as this, because it’d be obvious that they were mocking the audience, that they were deliberately moronisising their work in a desperate attempt to attract a rump of readers with the most incestuously-peculiar of tastes. But Mr Syaf ‘s work seems almost to suggest that of a man who draws like this all the time, even when he’s not managing to convince DC to pay him for covers such as these. On the back of bus tickets found in his jacket pockets, we might imagine, should our entirely-imaginary Mr Syaf ever actually leave the house, are drawings of tiny little bundles of lycra-covered muscles lovingly detailed with hatching, cross-hatching and yet unnamed species of hyper-hatching operating down to the quantum level.

And it’s the way that the art here combines an absolute incompetence with an utter disinterest in the fundamentals of design and figurework that most fascinates. For example, you can trace your way through the past 50 and more years of Flash covers, as I did this morning, and find quite literally less than a handful of them where an energetically racing speedster has been shown cut off at the knee in the manner that the Reverse-Flash has been here. It is of course a cardinal rule of composition that a body is never shown cut off at the knee unless there’s an incredibly specific purpose matched with an unarguably good reason for doing so. Crop at the knee and at the very best, a body looks plain awkward. Crop a running man at the knee without a compelling reason to do so and all that’s created is the sense that the artist can’t draw the human leg, which the strange conglomeration of pseudo-muscles shown on Zoom’s thighs here would seem to confirm. With the incorruptibility of the most truly appalling but sincerely meant superheroic piffle, the figure of Zoom here undoubtedly carries a sense of swagger and pace, but the more the eye rests on the facts of the art rather than that which it adolescently evokes, the more repellently absurd it becomes. Like an innocent shopper faced with an incredibly fast and yet utterly out-of-tune guitar solo being played by a talentless but entirely sincere would-be axe-spanker in a guitar shop, the reader feels surely torn between howling with derision and applauding with a pity and even awe most commonly elicited by outsider art.


Extra marks should be awarded, of course, for the detail scattered across the cover without reference to any compositional principles whatsoever. Negative space is randomly filled up here with what upon weary-eyed inspection reveals itself to be part of Batman’s costume, and here by tokens of other superheroes too. There’s comicbook lightning crackles and spears and lots of squirrely lines! There’s things doing things everywhere!

And in that, this cover undoubtedly has integrity. It’s not rushed, it’s not cynical, it’s not manipulative, it’s not characterised by weariness, it’s not going through the motions, it’s not marked by a longing to be off producing storyboards and film posters. It’s the product of a sensibility that's entirely in love with the most crack-concentrated view of the super-person that’s it possible to hold. We should applaud both the good-hearted naivety and the intensely-focused endeavour of the artists, while wondering exactly how it is again that DC intends to sell its books to anyone beyond the most rabidly obsessed and ill-discerning of fanboy audiences.

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Saturday, 25 June 2011

From OMAC To Iron Fist To The Spectre: 1974's Desert Island Discs & Stereophonic Recordings too

In which the blogger chooses his 8 favourite comics from 1974, and picks 8 tracks too from that year which seem to compliment the “ comics somehow, in tone or content or both”. Your suggestions, disagreements and all-round chit-chat would be, as always, very much welcomed;
              
          
Batman: "What if our wolf-like prowler is not wearing a mask?"

from: "Moon Of The Wolf" by Len Wein, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano (Batman # 255)

"The sun is going down, the streets are still as bright as day.
See the shiny cars driving round detecting crime.
Hear the sirens wail; the cops are only killing time.
I've been searching all through the city."

from: "All Through The City" - Dr Feelgood (BBC session version)

There's a terrible melancholy which comes from feeling able to identify the precise point at which a favourite creator's style ceases to become entirely compelling. From the time of "Moon Of The Wolf" onwards, the art of Neal Adams would become gradually more and more characterised by a sense of the monumental, by ever-broader and more exaggerated cartoon gestures which at times quite seemed to overwhelm that part of his art which had previously been marked by restraint and delicacy. It's a development which worked to the considerable advantage of  1978's "Superman v Muhammad Ali", but then what else but a great monumental shift up in gears would have suited the grand sweeping spectacularisms of that tale? But "Moon Of The Wolf" is the product of a somewhat different Neal Adams, struggling with the challenges of Len Wein's serviceable script and the constraints of just 20 page of story. Every page strains with invention, as if he were an artist furiously attempting to express so much more than the page-count might ordinarily permit. Innovative and yet always story-serving layouts abound. There's a mass of panel-heavy sides suggesting a far more complex story than really is at hand, and yet those somewhat-crowded pages are brilliantly structured to compel the reader to drive faster and faster into the narrative. Having struggled one last time against the limitations of another's script combined with the standard format of the comics of the time, his work having been enhanced by Dick Giordano's gorgeously rich and atmospheric inks, Neal Adams abandoned regular work for the Big Two, and in doing so left behind something of that vital pearl-stimulating grit too.
       
         
"It has been necessary to shatter the globular light fixture - - - - to attain a position from which you may - - - - shatter their faces ... with a forearm smash and a knee smash, respectively."

from: "Citadel On The Edge Of Vengeance" by Doug Moench, Larry Hama & Dick Giordano (Marvel Premiere featuring Iron Fist # 17)

"Do the Wall Street Shuffle,
Let your money hustle,
Bet you'd sell your mother.
You could buy another."

from: "The Wall Street Shuffle" by 10cc

The first four of Iron Fist's tales are, for stories placed in a monthly book whose covers carried the Comics Code Authority seal, often notably brutal. It's a level of deliberately-inflicted and precisely-directed violence which, in juxtaposition with the setting of sterile corridors and strip-lit offices, creates an almost psychedelic sense of the everyday and the extraordinary colliding. Relentless, bleak, hopeless, this Iron Fist feels like every capitalist's most terrifying nightmare, the indomitable embodiment of the most savage retribution owed to all of those whose lives were squandered in the name of whatever it was that avarice had wanted to extort from the powerless. 

            
Henry: "By golly, Emma ... Today's convinced me! You're right! Mosques ... Cathedrals ... after a while, they all look alike!"
Nico: "But, Dad ... !"

from: "Cathedral Perilous: Chapter 5" - Archie Goodwin & Walt Simonson (Detective Comics # 441)

"Here I stand. Look around. You won't see me.
Now I'm here. Now I'm there.
I'm just a new man. Yes, you made me live again ... "

from: "Now I'm Here" - Queen

If there's a more perfectly judged homage to Will Eisner's Spirit stories in the canon of superhero tales than "Cathedral Perilous", I've yet to read it. Goodwin and Simonson established just how secret the Manhunter's world, and indeed the Manhunter's war, was by showing how it just occasionally peaked out into plain view before the eyes of a young bored tourist desperate for a more exciting holiday. In the background, cloned assassins grown from the DNA of the Golden Age Manhunter are picked off by the resurrected Paul Kirk himself, while in the foreground, everyday life rolls on dully under an ice-cream-melting sun. Enchanting, exciting, heart-breakingly suggestive of a lost future in which comic-book modernism and traditionalism might combine to create a new way of telling even the back-up stories in "Detective Comics", "Manhunter" still stands as the road which ought to have been more travelled.

         
Nameless Old Man: "I have head tales of your coming ... on a horse, it was said ... I rode a horse once ... as did my two brothers. We rode with the one you seek, Dr Strange! Aye, we rode with Death, Dr Strange! My name is Famine!"

from: "... Where Boundaries Decay" by Steve Engelhart, Frank Brunner and Dick Giordano (Dr Strange # 4) 

"As I walk through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery"

from; "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding" by Brinsley Schwarz

Engelhart and Brunner's solution in the "Silver Dagger" stories to the problems of how to portray a terrifying comicbook world of magik drew upon the late Medieval traditions associated with the wake of the Black Death. Trapped in a realm of the most hopeless poverty and suffering, surrounded by "plague-ridden" men who cannot die although they hurl themselves from the heights to do so, Stephen Strange and a simulacrum of the winged horse Aragorn must track down and fall before death in an attempt to escape back to Earth. In places almost sickening in its horror, "... Where Boundaries Decay" offers subsequent generations of creators a simple guideline as to how to frighten their readers, namely; tap in the material generated by the cultures of folks who really have lived through hell, and only just survived.
                

Doc: "What is that ... that thing, Mr Tork?"

Tork: "He ain't no thing, Doc. He's a good friend of the family, same as Dawg wuz."

from "Nobody Dies Forever" by Steve Gerber, Mike Ploog and Frank Chiaramonte ("Man-Thing # 10)

"But remember Brothers and Sisters,
You can still stand tall.
Just be thankful for what you've got."

from: "Be Thankful For What You Got" by William DeVaughan

Marvel, it's said, had never received so many letters pleading for the life of anyone, let alone that of a poor old dead dog, or 'Dawg', as they had posted to them in response to "Nobody Dies Forever". The trope of the beloved hound murdered while bravely defending its family is a strange almost-commonplace in many of the era's best comics, but it's probably presented in its most touching form here. From the street mutt slaughtered in "Swamp Thing" # 7, to the Werewolf-slain pet in "Night Of The Moon" in "Batman" # 255, to the poor canine sidekick of Jonah Hex in "Weird Western Comics" # 14, the comic book readers of the Seventies must have developed an anxiously quickening heartbeat and a prickly sense of unease whenever a dog appeared in the comics before them. The very sight of Krypto in any of the Superman titles must have unwittingly caused panic attacks across America and beyond.

         
Private Cop: "You can't enter this city . . It's been rented for the night by a private citizen!" 

OMAC: "I'm OMAC! No city is closed to me!!" 

from: "In The Era Of The Super-Rich" by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer 

"For the love of money,
People will steal from their  mother.
For the love of money,
People will rob their own brother."

from: "For The Love Of Money" - The O'Jays 

Jack Kirby, as we know, loathed bullies, and, from Will Eisner's tale of a young Kirby "explaining" himself to a hoodlum trying to shake down the studio in which they worked, it was a hatred of the abuse of power which he'd carried with him all his life. And OMAC is at its heart a tale of how the bullying elites of the West are slipping from the possibility of democratic control and fundamental human decencies, and of how someone is desperately needed to step in and deliver a few heavy blows in order to bring our supposed betters back into line. In these concerns, OMAC is one of the most profoundly political comics of its time, and it's unfair that it's rarely ever granted the respectful attention it deserves for that beyond the estimable ranks of Kirby fans and scholars. OMAC's world is one of environmental collapse and de-humanising technology, of global corruption and individual helplessness. It's a picture of the whole of the Earth reduced to a great broken playground for warlords of one class or another to lord over it. "In The World That's Coming" ran the tag-line for the series, but almost 40 years later, that world seems practically here. Yet, it appears, there's no Brother Eye or Buddy Blank in sight to inspire our resistance, and the various takes of OMAC which we've been given since carry not a trace of the radical loathing for power which the original so brilliantly embodied.

           
Earl Crawford: "Wh-What are you? Wh-why couldn't you at leave his family s -- something to ... to bury?" 

from: "The Man Who Stalked The Spectre" by Michael Fleisher, Russell Carley and Jim Aparo (Adventure Comics # 435) 

"Remember your guard dog?
Well I'm afraid that he's gone.
It was such a drag to hear him whining all night long ..."

from: "Revolution Blues" by Neil Young

In the comics marketplace of the first half of the Seventies, Michael Fleischer's Spectre scripts were quite literally shocking to more traditional-minded readers. His corpse-white guardian wasn't a super-ghost on a learning curve, discovering how not to judge too harshly we poor fallible mortals, but rather a creature of the most resolutely malicious and savage of natures. And so, each Spectre tale followed a simple and predictable and entirely satisfying path. Someone would do something profoundly terrible and the Spectre would track him down and do something profoundly and imaginatively terrible to him. What was most remarkable was that the stories never became as dull as they were over-familiar and utterly predictable. Fleischer and Aparo's absolutist glee was channelled so joyfully into this month's gruesomely final punishment that the slightest variation in the Spectre's murderous business became funny in itself; the formula worked like that of a Warner Brother's cartoon or the closing havoc of a spaghetti western, teasing the reader towards the satisfaction of a nasty, nasty baddy-killing climax. And yet, these were tales which were so apparently unambiguous in their hang-'em-high, far-right morality that even instinctively liberal-humanist readers could read them and enjoy them, as if they were brilliant satires of notions of frontier justice. Well, perhaps they were. But even the presence of a crusading bleeding heart journalist looking suspiciously like Clark Kent placed as a moral counterpoint in the stories couldn't diminish the sense that the pleasure of these tales was that of schadenfreude. When the Spectre transformed a murderer into a wooden statue of himself and then took a chainsaw to his art, there's nothing but the joy of the most bloody-handed of vengeance-porn sitting there right before the reader's eyes. Even in the era of the slightly-transgressive monster book, there was nothing to match Fleischer's scripts for their message that life's hard, mistakes get made, and then you get transformed into a candle so that the Spectre can melt you down.
        

"Lu Sun ... Would you contend against Fu Manchu?"

"Would you, Shang Chi?"

from; "Retreat" by Steve Engelhart, Paul Gulacy and Al Milgram (Master Of Kung Fu # 19)

"She's reading comics, eating Chinese food,
She chopped the coffee table right in two.
Kung Fu; it's messing with my life."

from: "Kung Fu" by Sharks  (Shockingly, not on Youtube!)

It's sometimes easy to forget how pretentious Pop culture can be, and there never was a pop craze as pretentiously vapid as the Kung Fu excesses of 1972/5. Justifying hours and hours of screeching men smashing themselves in puree with a few seconds of faux-Daoism was the spirit of the times, and "Retreat" perfectly captures both the glee and the portentousness of Bruce Lee and his deadly little brothers. Like a great pop culture mash-up, the script carries an obvious and unofficial guest appearance by Kwai Chang Caine from TV's "Kung Fu", a host of characters from Rohmer's Fun Manchu novels, Shang-Chi himself, and, as if that wasn't enough, the Man-Thing, burning whatever it is that knows fear as the Man-Thing must. It's exactly the kind of smart and unrestrained thieving from popular culture which comics seem to have almost entirely forgotten how to do, and yet here stealing from left, right and centre immeasurably enriched the whitebread superheroic staples of the Marvel Universe. If you could stomach the deeply meaningful as well as revel in the patently ridiculous, the early "Master Of Kung Fu" could be a tremendously enjoyable, if almost entirely insubstantial, ride.

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Friday, 24 June 2011

Comic Book Resources Said What? They Said What?!!!

        
Over on Comic Book Resources this very evening, there's a piece by the supposed "comics commentator" Colin Smith, writing on the theme of "Fans And Dead Superheroes". Yes, I know, that's the Colin Smith who's the blogger of the parish of TooBusyThinking, or "me", as I know him, and, yes, I find the whole business of my guesting on CBR to be as unlikely a matter as you most probably will. You and me both! It was incredibly good fun to do, and I learned a great deal in the process, to say the least. And it was indeed the to-be-expected and yet never-quite-anticipated surreal experience, noting the piece suddenly existing as a briefly passing item on CBR's front page about half an hour ago, and, although I suppose I should be more worldly and guarded, it was a smile-inspiring business too.

Should you be up for considering popping over to see the commentary, the piece is here, and the forum set up for it is here. As I say, I've really benefited from the process, and it'd be kind if you'd consider dropping in over there if you've ever got a couple of dead minutes, because I would like CBR to get some traffic out of the whole business. All and any folks clicking on the above links should of course consider themselves front-line members of the TooBusyThinking Massive for life, although of course you already are, just through your being here in the first place.


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None Braver, None Duller: A First Friday With "The Champions"

      
1.

There’s always something intriguing about a supergroup. Them Crooked Vultures. Cream. About a thousand bands led by Miles Davis. ELP. Gnarls Barkley, The Travelling Wilburys, and The Golden Palominos. Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Crosby Stills and Nash. Crosby and Nash.

If one star’s a big deal, then a collection of them surely has to be exponentially fantastic.

But they don’t tend to make supergroups up from the folks who play occasional timpani and flugelhorn on stage behind the big names, let alone from the backstage crews who keep the star vocalist’s ten-thousand dollar Persian carpet dustless and unruffled for his shoeless on-stage cavorting.

This is why The Champions were a very bad idea. They were the superhero equivalents of the best of a selection of short-order cooks from the local catering crews providing chips’n’pasties for the folks who hoover that ten-thousand dollar Persian cavorting carpet.

        
2.

I promise you, I’ve not come to mock the first issue of “The Champions”. But I will admit, it’s exceptionally hard not to. Because “The Champions” is an almost-inexpressibly terrible comic book. It’s as if the most merciless, savage and utterly unfond satire of the typical mid-Seventies Marvel product had been sneaked into the company's publishing schedule. If its art was worse than its plot and its script, then that’s only because its art was as catastrophically awful as any that’s ever appeared in the first issue of a Marvel superhero title. Yet there were still several moments when wordsmithery threatened to out-crass even the worst of the back-of-a-schoolbook scribbles. The dialogue was as purple as the anatomy was peculiar, the design work as ropey as the plot-coincidences were overwhelmingly daft. It all seems suspiciously tongue-in-cheek, and yet, only the most admirably straight-faced of parodists could ever succeed in keeping their work as joyless as writer Tony Isabella and the art team of Don Heck and Mike Esposito succeeded in doing here. In truth, time spent with just a few of the pages of "The Champions" # 1 is enough in itself to explain why so many folks in the Seventies were convinced that the superhero sub-genre could never survive.

It’s a car-crash of a comic from the top-left of the very first page, which features the Angel’s never-seen-before and never-to-be-seen-again pompadour, to the right-bottom of the very last, where a strange emotionless profile of Venus has apparently been sellotaped into the frame in order to show that the laws of perspective aren’t operating in the comic’s very un-grand finale.

Net-tradition suggests that the best thing to do with such a comic is indeed to ridicule it, to gut it and serve up the most absurd of its contents in a series of supposedly silly and/or inept moments under a heading such as “The Seven Craziest Champions Moments!”, or “Let’s Laugh At This Cringeworthy Champions Crud!”, or whatever. And I am tempted, except that there are folks who are actually very good at doing that kind of thing while avoiding making the whole process seem like cruel and exploitative playground bullying. Anyway, it’s impossible to believe that such an exercise hasn’t already been played out with the pages and panels of the red-rag-to-a-blogger-entitled “The World Still Needs …. Champions!”.

        
3.

Pantomime artiste“The World Still Needs …. Champions!”

Christmas audience of kids: “Oh no it doesn’t!”

Pantomime artiste: “I said, the World ..”

Christmas audience of kids & parents: “OH NO IT DOESN'T!!!”

           
4.

Something went wrong with “The Champions” from the off, that much we can safely intuit. Perhaps Don Heck had been asked to turn the art job around in an insanely fast time, and perhaps Mike Esposito was operating under similarly back-breaking circumstances. After all, both were able craftsmen who’d often shown themselves well capable of turning in some pleasingly classy jobs, though this period rarely saw them operating at the height of their powers. And perhaps Tony Isabella’s habit of describing in his scripts exactly what the art on the page was already depicting, for example, came from a belief that only a fraction of his plot had made it to the boards he was dialoguing. Perhaps the strange politics which marked the book’s gestation period left nobody who was involved quite sure of whatever it was that they’d set out to do in the first place.

Perhaps “The Champions” was simply a rabble of no-one-else-wants-us superheroes thrown together according to an editor’s arbitrary definition of what a superteam should be. (Len Wein had insisted that any strike force of super-people needed a minimum of five members, including a strongman, a woman and a character currently carrying their own book.) It was the year of the superteam at the House Of Ideas, after all, with the Invaders, the Liberty Legion, the Legion Of Monsters, the New X-Men and the Guardians Of The Galaxy all being thrown into the marketplace around the same time, like bags of puppies hurled into a storm-drain.

Only the X-Men made it out of the waters and truly prospered, and it took Marvel’s newly Claremontised mutants several years simply to push past their initial bi-monthly schedule. The Invaders made a fair scramble for dry land, and held on to the edge of it for more than three years, but sales crumbled and then crumbled some more and the book was gone. Everyone else, including the Champions, went under pretty quickly..

       
5.

Why were so many of us apparently beguiled by the very idea of “The Champions” in the day, and why have so many of us stayed terribly fond of the comic and the concept despite the fact that it was such a relative failure of a book? (When a comic seems to carry less depth and heart than DC’s “Freedom Fighters” of a just slightly later vintage, it’s safe to say that things had not gone entirely well with either its R & D nor its commercial launch.) I suspect a great deal of the sense of “it-could’ve-been-a-contender”, which still haunts the occasional board discussing the comic, can be explained by the fact of how exciting it was back in 1975 to see characters who patently had pretty much nothing in common with each being thrown together. The now-already declining horror boom of the period aside, the superheroic population of both the DC and Marvel universes had remained relatively stagnant for years, and even the fraternisation between characters who inhabited what would now be called separate franchises was limited. Yet there in the Champions were the two least-interesting of the original X-Men, the Soviet super-athlete just dumped as a sales liability from “Daredevil”, Thor’s boorish and occasional godly sidekick, and the Ghost Rider, a character so both absurd and banal that he rarely appealed beyond the first-glance recognition that he drove a motorbike while his head was on fire. Given that only one of these superfolks had the slightest hope of carrying their own title, it surely made sense that they’d all add up to a half-decent sales success?

         
It is, of course, the kind of logic that assumes that a man disinterested in a particular meal will warm to its eating if it’s mixed in with three other unappetising dishes seasoned with a single foodstuff mildly to his taste.

And yet, the possibilities; surely simply through introducing themselves to each other, these characters would reveal aspects of their characters and their world that we’d never seen before. The Marvel Universe beyond New York and the major books was incredibly under-explored and underutilised in 1975. (It could be argued that in many ways it still is.) “The Champions” was an opportunity for all these superfolks to compare back-stories, effectively crashing one previously discrete area of continuity into another, Booms and bangs would undoubtedly occur. What did the godless atheist Black Widow make of the Satan-created Ghost Rider? What response might carny-born-and-bred Johnny Blaze have towards the hot-house private school students with the name badges “Worthington” and “Drake”? How much fun would they all have to constantly generate in order to entice party-happy Hercules into hanging around, and who else might get called into what was obviously going to become a book that was even more out-there than Steve Gerber’s “Defenders”?

       
6.

Perhaps the only truly amusing aspect of “The Champions” 18-month existence was the almost-total lack of humour and fun in the book’s pages. Angst there was, and by-the-numbers super-conflict too, but there was hardly anything that was daring or exciting or innovative or even pleasingly executed. (*1) Even the threadbare conflict provided by the jostling of testosterone-charged blokes trying to woe the sole superwoman in view was almost immediately solved by having the biggest bloke with the only goatee leap straight into the water-bed with the perennially be-girlfriended Black Widow. Flaming heads, frozen heads and great moulting wings did nothing, it seems, for Madame Natasha, despite her being just about the only heroine of the period who might convincingly have matched Johnny Blaze leather-for-leather, bad-ass for ass.

But nothing so exciting as uni-sex leather-swaps ever appeared. In fact, even the punch-ups themselves were embarrassingly vanilla, as if everyone had headed for California for the superhero equivalent of wild, transgressive sex and ended up in the missionary position with someone who looked just the same as their first hand-holding crush. In a time when the Defenders and their enemies were routinely swapping brains with each other and the odd stray wild deer too, and in a day when substantial numbers of super-people were quite obviously involved in some steamy personal shenanigans, The Champions just seemed to stumble from one Marvel-typical showdown to another, from one lukewarm meet’n’greet how-are-you social session to the next.

        
These Champions weren’t just second-string properties, they were apparently third rate personalities too. And though things got a touch more involving as time passed, things never actually became interesting even though they could descend into the hysterically overwrought. Even Hercules wasn’t a joyful force of nature so much as a cross between an eternal mope and a grand bore. The Iceman and the Angel seemed caught together like two shy boys trapped in the kitchen at a parent's-away party glad for the company but bored with each other. The Black Widow was anything but a proactive team leader, let alone the Man-Bull kicking proto-feminist of her Daredevil days, whereas the Ghost Rider, who was after all a demon-fighting stunt-rider with a liquid-flame skull, spent his time whining that he didn’t really fit in. Well, of course he didn’t. A super-person could no more generate a spirit of esprit de corps with The Champions than you and I could find ourselves suddenly bonded for life with the shoppers we’d shared an impossibly long queue with in our local supermarket one rainy Sunday afternoon.

All of which, from a slightly askew perspective, makes the Champions perhaps the most distinct, if least invigorating, superteam of all time. Putting aside the issue of whether any other creators could’ve used these characters in a more interesting and exciting fashion, there's surely something to be said for a bunch of folks who clearly have no get-up-and-go, who are directionless and clueless and, truth to be told, neither particularly bright nor notably inventive. Every fictional universe of superheroes has to have its cast of bores, dullards, drifters and just plain typical folks, who if life had perhaps been kinder, might have been happier as a high school P.E. coach (Hercules), or the Headmistress of a tough inner city comp (Natasha), an accountant (Drake), a creative executive in the recording industry (Angel), or, given how inflexible Ghost Rider could be, a performer on a motor bike in a travelling circus leaping double-decker buses for a living.

           
These ordinary people, regardless of their powers and costumes, were the Champions, it seems to me, and to criticise their characters for their lack of depth, subtlety or even interest is perhaps to miss the fun of them. What makes this superteam so interesting is that they're not so impressive, they're not ever going to be world-beaters without the presence of a few other folks around to offer up the 'vision thing', and yet they are as best they can fulfilling their potential. They're heroes, but they're mediocre heroes, like you and I would most probably be. For “The Champions” is what happens when well-meaning and quite ordinary joannes and joes go to war, or rather when they set out for the front and then discover that they can’t quite work out in which direction they ought to be headed.

All of a sudden, I like them every one of them a very great deal.

*1:- I know that any Champions aficionados who might by chance pop over may well disagree with me. The John Bryne issues, for example, have a loyal following. Mea culpa! I've no doubt I'll warm to them as they wheel into view.

Next week, on “FRIDAY WITH THE CHAMPIONS”, we’ll be taking 750 words to look at “The Champions” # 1 itself, and asking ourselves why the MU didn’t have a Superhero registration Act years and years ago, given the idiotic and dangerous individuals it had tripping over each even in well-respected Californian campuses.                 

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Thursday, 23 June 2011

On John Ostrander's "Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire"

In which the blogger comes to praise the achievements of John Ostrander as evidenced in the new "Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire" TPB. Discussion of the undeniable virtues of Luke McDonnell's art in the same collection will, the blogger assures you, be attended to in a future piece here on TooBusyThinking;

            
1.

One day, when my excesses of enthusiasm and arrogance combine to overwhelm my better judgement, I will set up a private university of The Comic Book Arts Of Storytelling.

I’m still working on the details of the curriculum, but I’ve already got some of the broad outlines of the course up and ready for further development. For example, students will spend their first year slaving to master as many of the fundamentals of the craft as they can without resorting to either amphetamines or smart drugs. (They’re not to filch from my sugar or caffeine stashes either. After all, we’re teaching them to be laudable citizens, not citizen snack thieves.)

At the end of their first three terms, all students are going to be required to read the first volume of John Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad” stories, and overnight too. And if each and every single one of them doesn’t turn up on the morrow with their mouths locked wide open with a respect tumbling into stupefaction, then they’ve effectively volunteered themselves to repeat the first year of the course again.

This is, I really do believe, the fairest and most objective of all exam regimes.

                   
2.

It’s hard to believe that the stories in the “Trial By Fire” collection were part of the mainstream of superhero comics almost a quarter of a century ago. How is that possible? If stories this clever and involving, smart and moving, ambitious and well-crafted, were somehow being published by DC in the May of 1987, then surely there’d be more of a trace of such a golden age in our here and now? For although it's not that Mr Ostrander stands without professional admirers, or that his work failed to inspire modern-era successors, it is that there surely should be a greater mark of his influence evident today. Gail Simone, for example, has written that Mr Ostrander’s work on the Suicide Squad “influences everything I do”, and refers to the respect he’s held in the industry in general in the article you'll find here. In particular, she identifies how an “entire wave of writers, including myself, Greg Rucka, Christos Gage, and Geoff Johns, learned how to write morally twisty characters at least partially from John long before any of us had ever met him.”

But that's still not Mr Ostrander's due, and of course, Ms Simone was never suggesting for a second that it ever could be. For even the single example of "Suicide Squad" among all of his work can serve to illustrate what an important writer he is. In its own fiercely-engaged fashion, it was a epochal comic book, a mark of ambition and competence in those post-Watchmen months when the business suddenly and temporarily forgot to repress its potential. Nobody in comics had ever before approached the matter of a team book by paying so much attention to the psychological flaws of each of the individual personalities on the page. The many and various characters in the “Suicide Squad” are nearly all so fundamentally damaged as people that any two of them could maim each other over the feather’s extra weight of stress caused by a slow-delivering chocolate dispenser. Indeed, so horrendous and irreconcilable are the barely hidden flaws in Mr Ostrander’s cast that the reader almost feels shamefully voyeuristic in watching one terrible conflict play out after another.


There’s Rick Flagg, who believes he was tasked by his dying father to carry on the ugliest of battles while knowing that he was responsible for his own mother’s death. He sits exactly where a hero would in the narrative, but he’s so busted-up and haunted that he’s often on the edge of exhaustion even before the punch-ups can begin. There’s Amanda Waller, with a murdered daughter and a murdered husband and perhaps one of the most thoroughly unpleasant personalities ever created in comics, and that includes a fair number of line-leading criminal masterminds and tyrants. The sociopathic Captain Boomerang, the schizophrenic Enchantress, the morally catatonic Deadshot, the emotionally-compromised Marnie Herrs, the amnesiac Bronze Tiger, the professional revolutionary Plastique; if any single one of these characters reached out and slashed another with a switchblade, no-one could be entirely surprised and no-one could be short of a host of hypotheses concerning why.

The holy grail of team books is one composed of characters who never need to be made to behave in an inconsistent and unconvincing fashion, no matter how extreme a plot-twist it is that's being executed. With such an armory of a cast, conflict never has to be imposed, because the very nature of the folks on-panel screams out that conflict is what’s inevitably going to occur.

      
3

There's an audacious two dozen speaking roles in the script for the first issue - "Trial Of Blood" - alone, as well as an unsettling half-page involving a silent and rat-soul-sucking Parasite and a debate about his civil rights. That number includes twelve or so members of Task Force X, including the Suicide Squad, and six of their opponents in the super-terrorist cell known as Jihad. Yet, though the story feels packed with character and incident, it never comes across as stodgy, slow-moving or uninvolving. Everyone we meet is introduced, everyone is made distinct, everyone has a role to play, everyone does something telling.

And to carry such a mass of character-work, Mr Ostrander's story is woven from some very different cloth than is typical in most of the books of 2011. There are what would now be heretical panel configurations containing ten and even twelve information-rich frames. (How would that appear according to what's supposed to be the new-DC "no-talking-heads" orthodoxy?) And yet there's also a five page sequence showing a murderous terrorist assault on a movie-set of an airport, full of blood and spectacularism and the destruction of a faux-Airforce One, and a two-third-of-a-page moody establishing shot of the Belle Reve Federal Prison too adding a touch of the monumental to events.

More than a decade before the likes of Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis began in their individual ways to experiment with mixing the grandest of set-pieces with the most everyday of still close-ups, John Ostrander was after his own fashion pioneering techniques to try to achieve the same. His work was often far more literary in its inspiration, far closer to the melodrama of the post-Stan Lee consensus, and far less determined to stand as an extravagant break with the past. But radical it was, and conspicuously successfully too.

         
4.

Continuity is of course something of a potty-mouthed word these days. It carries with it a sense of the shameful obsessions of unworldly Fanboys. Continuity, it seems, is an insult, an indulgence, a petty distraction from the business of telling stories and attracting the inexperienced reader. But that's not how continuity plays in "Suicide Squad", where the world and history of the DCU are so utterly integrated into the tales at hand that the affectations of what we commonly know as continuity appear to belong to quite another storytelling tradition altogether. There's no sense of playing with a host of ill-integrated past stories in these tales. Instead, Mr Ostrander presents us with what feels like an entirely convincing and coherent fictional world. And so, the Jihad operates in a geo-political context established in "Superman", 

     
while Madame Xanadu from 'The Spectre' is called upon to help out the Enchantress, with Jim Corrigan making a smart two-panel cameo. Even the Manhunter-trained Privateer from the JLA turns up as a prequel to the then-coming "Millennium" crossover. It's not just that the continuity is tight and wide-ranging here, but that it's joyful and imaginatively used and it's applied to create a universe rather than to revel in obscurantism. The People's Heroes in the "Firebird" two-parter are obviously and entertainingly the same characters as last shown  in "Outsiders", while they logically discuss Pozhar, another Soviet superhero last seen in Mr Ostrander's "Firestorm" tales. Darkseid's orders to rescue Glorious Godfrey from the Task X prison flow directly from the mini-series "Legends", while even the helicopter used by the Squad had previously been seen being constructed in the factories of Ferris Aerospace in "Green Lantern". (Editor Robert Greenberger, who obviously threw himself into this universe-building with a commitment above and beyond the call of comicbook duty, discusses the process in the text pages of the original "Suicide Squad" # 1.)

Here is the continuity-consistent immersive universe that's apparently now considered a chimera, that's so often thought of in 2011 as involving too great a burden of trivia and constraint to achieve anything but the alienation of readers. Yet "Suicide Squad" is an argument that continuity isn't the death of entertainment, but a vital component of it if approached appropriately. In these pages, Mr Ostrander created an extravagantly impossible and yet entirely-plausible fictional world by looking at events as seen from the margins. It's a song from under the floorboards, and I've never so been able to believe that the DCU is a universe rather than an insubstantial backdrop as here.

      
5.

A reader who knew nothing of the past of the superhero sub-genre and only a little of its present might, upon encountering "Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire", be moved to conclude that some catastrophic collapse of creative and intellectual IQ had occurred in either the industry or its audience, if not both, in the years since 1987. Some of that presumption would come from a recognition that even medium-selling titles of the past had apparently been targeted at the kind of patient, literate and curious-minded consumer that Big Two now seem often to have stopped believing in. And there might also be a sense that creators as a whole had either become a great deal less knowledgeable about the world beyond the pages of the superhero comic, or that they'd decided that their readers couldn't or wouldn't cope with any such enthusiasm for anything beyond the least taxing view of life beyond Avenger's Mansion..

Perhaps such a limited sample of the comics of 1987 as are included in "Trial By Fire" really might evoke an imagined comicbook industry of the past far more commonly marked by ambition and intelligence than that of today. But the truth is that Mr Ostrander was every bit as much an anomaly back then as the likes of Cornell and Simone and Ewing are now. Yet there's a wonderfully invigorating sense in these tales that Mr Ostrander simply couldn't help himself from mining these stories with far more than just a narrative spine, an obvious conflict, a water-cooler moment and a link-up to a crossover. His fascination for politics, for example, is woven throughout these tales. It's an exquisite, and rather repellent thing, to watch his take on President Reagan waving away criticism of the Red-Baiting of the Justice Society in the early Fifties. Out here in Earth-it-really-happened, Reagan had been, after all, an informer snitching on his Hollywood colleagues in the late Forties, so of course he'd not want to hear the period discussed or his old bosses bad-mouthed once safely on top of the greasy pole. And Mr Ostrander's take on Gorbachev is similarly convincing; he never makes the mistake of portraying the Premier as a cuddly little liberal lacking a spine and a sense of his own power. His Gorbachev is fiercely bright, but still obviously a man who's lived within and fought his way up through the Soviet hierarchy.


         
But then, this relentless and playful love of everything, this determination to retain a faith that the audience finds thinking and questioning as fascinating a business as Mr Ostrander evidently does, is evident in so many different aspects of these stories. Yes, he's engaged with both contemporary affairs and the backstory of the DCU, and with the narrative traditions of the thriller and adventure movies too. But there's other unexpected nuggets underpinning his stories, lending meaning to them without ever drawing attention to themselves. My favourite is the way that Mr Ostrander uses the details of the famous and tragic murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964. The appalling absence of altruism on the part of those who heard Damita Waller's torture by the Candyman in "Secret Origins" # 14 carries the same spirit of anomie which the Genovese killing inspired in most everyone who heard of its circumstances. That folks could listen for that long to a woman's suffering and yet not even call the police; the real horrors in "Suicide Squad" are often very much those not of the super-worlds and the super-people, but those of our time and place.

     
6.

Like all the best pop-entertainment,  the stories in "Suicide Squad" can obviously be enjoyed solely in terms of their considerable virtues as rather bleak, tense and white-knuckle-ride entertainments. In fact, I strongly suspect that Mr Ostrander would be appalled at the idea of anyone sidestepping the pleasures of the narrative in order to first play around with all the continuity and history, psychology and politics. But the more the reader cares to return to these stories and spend some time in their company, the more it becomes clear that Mr Ostrander just wasn't content to ensure that he delivered the reader their money's worth in terms of plot and spats and deaths and explosions. Instead, there's a form of writerly enthusiasm that's obvious in these pages and which is still furiously working away in both text and sub-text. It's never too obvious, it's never too indulgent, it's certainly never pretentious. But sometimes it snares the edge of the reader's concentration even at the least conspicuous of scenes and makes them think twice about what they've just read.

For example, at the end of the second chapter of "Trial By Fire", the Squad are returning home from the Jihad's mountain-side base after an only partially-successful mission. Yet they're obviously going to escape, and though one of their number has been killed, the rest of them will surely make it back across the border. And there in Mr McDonnell's art stands all the tropes of the closing sequence of a gritty action-adventure epic. The lonely helicopters flying safely across the desert, the rising sun behind them, the danger receding into the distance. But then the reader considers the very last narrative caption on the page, which argues for anything other than an optimistic reading of the success of the mission or the future of the survivors;

"The two aircraft turn west, away from the dawning day, heading back into the night."

But shouldn't they be headed into the dawn, and away from the night?

Even in something not unlike victory, there's an appalling unease ....


Tomorrow: It's Friday With The Champions here on TooBusyThinking. Oh, yes; California 1975 here we come ...

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