Friday, 30 September 2011

On "Johnny Red" By Tom Tully & Joe Colquhoun: "Let Him Fight His War In His Own Way" (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger attempts to discover why a boy's weekly war strip from the Seventies should remain such a compelling if somewhat implausible read, and focuses firstly upon the scripts for 'Johnny Red' by writer Tom Tully;


1975 was already far too late for me where Johnny Red was concerned. My superhero-centric tastes had been long-since fixed, my prejudices repeatedly confirmed by a decade and more's exposure to British weekly comics which featured the most stupefyingly dull, dull, dull war strips. Because of that, my far younger self seems to have missed a relatively brief and untypically radical counter-revolution in the boy's four-times-a-month, fight-them-on-the-beaches comicbook, which appears to have peaked with the arrival of Battle Picture Weekly at the mid-point of the decade. I can only hope that the evidence of this year's Titan Books collection of the Johnny Red stories from 1977 isn't in any way representative of Battle's typical content. Because if writer Tom Tully and artist Joe Colquhoun's work on their tale of "19 year-old Johnny 'Red' Redburn'" and his exploits in wartime Soviet Russia is characteristic of that in the rest of the comic, then my antipathy towards the war stories of the day prevented me from enjoying some very fine if rather breathlessly hectic storytelling indeed.

I'm not the right person to be reading Johnny Red for the first time. It's a strip that was written for a far younger audience than I'll ever be able to qualify for again, and, as Garth Ennis notes in his forward to Falcon's First Flight;

"... there are aspects of the story that stretch credibility beyond the breaking point, no great surprise in a boys' adventure story of the time. "

To Mr Ennis, its the fact that Johnny's Hurricane fighter appears to be able to survive the most "unspeakable punishment" and still return "to the skies again and again" which serves as the "most obvious example of this". Yet given that I'm the kind of reader who's fascinated by the men and women who flew in the War, and who's yet almost entirely ignorant about the technology which they relied upon, the fact of Johnny's implausibly "indestructible Hurricane .... (which) would have been a scrapper from the start", as Mr Ellis so pithily puts it, would have always escaped me. While Mr Ellis was aware even as a boy that "no aircraft could survive such treatment", I've recently managed to read my way through several months of Johnny Red episodes without ever thinking that his fighter should've been scrap and spare parts from the third or fourth week of his adventures onwards.


Instead, it's the fantastical take on the Soviet Russia of Johnny's self-chosen exile which constantly threatens to undermine the strip's plausibility. For all that it's a daringly bleak and considerably bloody portrayal of Stalin's state during the early days of the U.S.S.R.'s enforced entry into World War Two, it's still a far too free and open society in some of its key details for it to feel convincing. The point at which Johnny's ongoing conflict with the People's Commisar Major Kraskin and his N.K.V.D. firing squads began was the moment at which the story started to feel conspicuously implausible. Nobody in the Soviet Russia of the time who was as isolated from political influence as Johnny is shown to be could possibly have repeatedly defied, let alone punched out, the likes of Kraskin and survived. In a totalitarian state such as that of the USSR in the months following the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the fact of Johnny's British citizenship wouldn't have saved him from the power of the likes of Kraskin for a second. After all, no-one associated with the British authorities is even aware in the strip that Johnny Redburn is still alive, let alone fighting on the Eastern Front. Consequently, his disappearance, whether associated with an impossible-to-challenge cover-story or not, would've been the easiest of matters for Kraskin and his fellows to achieve. It's certainly highly doubtful whether a report of the fate of a young man who'd already been cashiered from the R.A.F., and then seen disappearing with a stolen Hurricane across the Barents Sea, would've caused the Foreign Office to raise an eyebrow's worth of concern at a time when the alliance with Stalin was of such vital importance to Churchill's Britain.


But Johnny Red undoubtedly is, for all of its many farfetched plot confections, an absolutely compelling adventure strip. In a time when so many comics are struggling to find an audience even amongst those predisposed to want to buy and enjoy them, the skill by which Mr Tully and Mr Colquhoun's work captivates the reader and compels the turning of each successive page is well worth paying attention to. That this should be so despite a long list of problems which might strike today's reader when first encountering the story marks out how ultimately fine a comic serial Johnny Red is. For it's not just a distaste for boy's war stories, and the very conventions of the Brit weeklies which carried them, which might threaten to destroy the pleasure that's to be found in Falcon's First Flight. And it's not only the disturbing sense of historical irreality which so often intrudes on these tales which might make a more cynical neophyte think twice before continuing. As Pat Mills has said, amidst a host of otherwise positive comments about the strip, there's also something "a little patronising" about the premise that the Soviets needed an Englishman to teach them how to fight the Nazis. In addition, these stories are also woefully thin on characterisation, while character development is almost unheard of, and Johnny Red's three and four page chapters are often by the very nature of their original context repetitive in content and formulaic in structure. There is, after all, a limit to how many spectacular and quite obviously impossible aerial dust-ups and last-ditch survivals a reader can experience before ennui sets in.

And yet despite all of these factors, Johnny Red was constructed in such a ferociously smart and exhilarating fashion that even a doubtful reader such as myself might finds themselves being hauled through one short chapter after another by, amongst other things, the sheer brilliance of the story's structure. For example, Mr Tully's scripts are so taunt and incident packed that each row of panels, and there were often three or four lines of frames to a side, ends with a cliffhanger. That means that just about every side opens on an often life-threatening enigma, progresses through a series of tautly-framed crises, before ending on a major snare of a page-turner. In comparison to so many of the comics of 2011, which are still regularly being written to make sense in the context not of the monthly but the trade, Messers Tully and Colquhoun were effectively writing according the demands of the daily newspaper strip, creating a distinct and dramatically satisfying reading experience for each single row that appeared on their pages. There, each previous situation is recapped, the action progresses, an element of it is often closed, and then the next episode, or usually row, is beguiling set-up; it's an exacting and demanding discipline to follow, but in the context of a weekly strip aimed originally at an audience of early-adolescent boys, it's a fantastically appropriate and attention-focusing technique to put to use.

In places, it ought to be said, as in the scan reproduced directly above this will show, Messrs Tully and Colquhoun's took the opportunity to present a page marked by a far less crowded design, but that's hardly typical of the mass of Johnny Red tales presented in Falcon's First Flight.

Something of this incredibly concentrated and wonderfully unindulgent approach to storytelling can be noted in the page directly above, where each of the four rows of panels opens on an enigma and ends on a snare. This is surely the absolutely opposite approach to the deconstruction of the modern era comic. The top line, for instance, opens the page with the spectacular follow-up to the previous side's cliffhanger, as Johnny Red cunningly bombs the frozen lake upon which his German opponents stand. (See scan below.) That's immediately followed by the line-closing shot of Red's victims dramatically disappearing into the freezing water. It's a scene which might have taken up several pages in one of today's books, but by the next row, Mr Tully has Johnny flying off to the next incident while the gruesome, E.C.-esque sight of the doomed soldier's hands clawing at the ice to save themselves closes their walk-on part in the story.

By the next panel, Johnny has returned to the temporary landing strip used by his new squadron and we're presented with another enigma: who of Red's comrades has died in the preceding bout of dog-fighting? Cleverly, the nature of that question carries a far less intense air with that than the massacre in the line of frames before it did, which gives the reader something of a breathing space even within this incredibly fervent storytelling structure. But by the beginning of the next line, Johnny is being thrown into a new exacting dilemma, as his Soviet colleagues inform him that some of their fellows are about to be executed, and so the next incident of the tale begins, designed to straddle this page and next to ensure that the reader's unable to become distracted between one panel and another, between this page and the one that's just ahead of it.

In short, Johnny Red is a strip which purposefully, and often quite brilliantly, insists that the reader keeps looking out for whatever might happen next. Despite its ever-more unconvincing if thoroughly imaginative fight scenes, and even given the dream-like lack of substance where its cruel-but-not-cruel-enough fairyland of an U.S.S.R. is concerned, these rows of panels simply must be raced through and these pages simply must be turned. Even when absolutely satisfied, if not actually sated, by Johnny Red as a story, I still found Messers Tully and Colquhoun's methods elbowing me onwards to read more. In fact, such is their skill at hooking and directing the reader's attention that I suspect the two of them could've produced a strip about the joys of wallpaper hanging or lightbulb collecting and I'd've be unable to stop myself compulsively reading through them too.

But, of course, all the command of structure in the world can't of itself explain the lasting appeal of Johnny Red, and I hope that I've not seemed to imply that that's the only reason for the strip's success. To suggest anything of the sort would be a quite obviously ridiculous business, for all the knowledge in the world of how to organise a page in order to maximize its effect can't guarantee that the story which follows is of any worth at all. And as is self-evident from their work, Mr Tully and Mr Colquhoun were wonderful storytellers as well as storytelling technicians. In the second and closing part of this piece, I fully intend to raise my genuine Red Army winter hat to three other key aspects of Johnny Red's success which some of today's more seemingly casual and apparently easily-distracted creators might learn a very great deal from.

To be concluded.


Thursday, 29 September 2011

On Hickman & Ribic's "The Ultimates" # 1:- Yet More Stories For Boys


On the evidence of Messrs Hickman and Ribic's The Ultimates # 1, the fundamental concerns of feminism haven't yet become a matter of public concern and debate on Earth 1610, or, it needs to be said, in the offices of Marvel Comics either. For in the whole of The Republic Is Burning, there's not even a single minor speaking role given to anyone who's not evidently a bloke, while the few occasions in which women are discussed find them mentioned solely in a specifically sexual contenxt. 

(a) The most important role fulfilled by a woman in the pages of The Ultimates # 1 is that of having Nick Fury's drink waiting for him when he gets to work. No. Really. I'm not making that up. The evidence is above.


In an attempt to be as fair as possible, it should be added that there are only 8 different characters in Mr Hickman's script who are given word-balloon time anyway. It's a relatively small cast for a story which takes in scenes set off the coast of Uruguay, in a banqueting hall in Asgard, in the Triskellion's control room, in a Tokyo club, upon a desert which can apparently  be found in Northern Germany, and within what appears to be another dimension hidden within a big concrete mushroom. Yet, wherever the story of The Republic Is Burning travels, women appear at best as silent walk-on characters. Indeed, it'll tell you a truth if I explain that the woman who has the most important role and the most impressive degree of responsibility in the whole comic is the one seen holding Nick Fury's cup of coffee for him as he arrives at work (a). She doesn't say anything, and she doesn't appear again, but she does look competent as well as beautiful in her best Diana-Rigg leather-spy outfit as she waits for her boss to take his morning hit of the bean.

(b) On the left of this panel is the one example of a woman actually doing something more active and responsible than simply holding a coffee cup in this issue. I'm unsure why she's wearing sunglasses and sporting a costume which her fellows don't, but I can say that she's typically Land-esque in her appearance. The chap at the panel's front has been portrayed as something other than a movie star, and given a few lines to 'speak' too, but the rules are different for women, it seems.

Look a second time at the scenes set in Fury's control room in The Republic Is Burning and it can be noted that there's only a few women to be seen there helping to defend the free-ish world. Look again and it can be hard to perceive any meaningful action being engaged in by these women at all. All the operatives who're seen tapping away at their keyboards and looking serious and involved are male, with a single exception, as is Fury's line-feeding second-in-command. In fact, it takes a little concentration to notice any responsibility or even motion on the part of the Triskellion's female staff at all. We can see a blonde woman being somewhat distressed in the background of one panel (a), and there's also a rather sultry agent in sunglasses shown tapping at a tablet while the men around her discuss disasters (b). But no-one who's female is given any lines to speak or any behaviour of relative consequence, beyond that vital Fury-friendly coffee, to undertake.

(c) A woman whose face is hard to see, but whose breasts aren't.

Yet there is one single woman who does appear for a whole two panels in Mr Hickman's story (c). We never see her face clearly, though somehow we do see her substantial breasts, one in each of the panels she stars in, a fact which seems to say something about the storytelling priorities at work here. Whoever this of-course unnamed woman might be, she's quite clearly intended to be besotted with Tony Stark, whose disappearance causes her to wave with a schoolkid's fervor at the back he's turned towards her as he leaves. Though she's entirely unimportant in her own right to the story, she does inspire one of the two occasions when women are actually mentioned in the dialogue of The Ultimates # 1, for Stark's new dogsbody describes "that woman" as one who has "rather inconveniently misplaced her ankles".  It's an entirely offensive comment, and Mr Hickman manages the trick of appearing to have Stark respond in a way which is anything other than misogynistic while actually defining Tony as something of a good-old fashioned MCP;

Stark: "Two things, Jarvis ... one, this year I'll be dating women who actually eat, and two, don't be offensive -- it's a charity event."

d: Tony Stark's guide to when it isn't appropriate to insult women's ankles.
Given the absence of women from the story as anything other than window dressing, the reader might imagine that Mr Hickman and his editors would have been keen to avoid adding to injury with insult. Sadly, not. Stark's defense of the woman he's just been talking to isn't one which upholds her right not be so judged, although it does seem at first glance that that's what he's doing. Yet his comments very much don't say "That's a cruel and dehumanising thing to suggest" to his employee, but rather his opinion that;

(1) if he's decided to find "fat" ankles attractive, no-one should disagree with him about the matter, and;
(2) we should be "charitable" to the woman given the nature of the social event at hand.

In essence, Stark is suggesting that in particular circumstances, it's important to show charity to women who don't have skinny ankles.  Good old Tony, for now it's plain why folks shouldn't, in certain formal situations, pass crudely derogatory sexual judgements on the physical appearances of women: charity. To compound that, his response to the idea that a woman's ankles are of anyone's business but her own is to propose that it's his definition of what's attractive which counts. "Jarvis" isn't out of line because he's been so unfair to a woman who's doing no-one in the world, as far as we can see, the slightest harm at all. Rather, it seems that Tony's implying that if he hadn't decided to stop "dating" women with shapely ankles, then the absence of such really would be fair game for mockery. The ultimate arbiter, it appears, of how a women should look, and of when it's acceptable to cuss her for that is, surprisingly, not the woman herself, but Tony Stark.
(e) Hawkeye gets the important gag about women and sex over and done first with before moving on to the less important topic of the ending of the world.

Of course, it seems certain that Mr Hickman deliberately designed this scene to show us that Tony really is a fairly decent drunkard and womaniser. Yet in a comic which is so unconcerned with anything other than blokes and blokishness, and which only discusses women in a sexual context, the lack of care and precision in Tony's words really is something to regret. In a book which wasn't so insensitively written, Tony's comments would've passed as markers of the strengths and weaknesses of his particular character. Yet when the only two mentions of women in a comic inhabit the same sexualised territory, what might have been signs of an individual personality instead becomes a theme for the book as a whole, as we can see in the following exchange between Nick Fury and Hawkeye, where the latter has been sent to a Bangkok which is "currently in flames":

Fury: Clint. I'm pretty sure I sent you over there to make sure things did not go to hell.
Clint: Nick, I swear ... she was already pregnant.
It is, of course, just boys joshing, and yet, boys joshing about women in the context of sex is all this comic contains where it comes to any discussion of the other 51% of the world's population. And so, if all we see women doing is offering drinks and looking alluring, and if all we "hear" is men discussing women in terms of sex and nothing else, then it just looks very bad indeed.

(f) There are approximately 731 million people in Europe, but apparently not a single woman fit to be a super-soldier.


It's just as telling to note who isn't a woman in The Ultimates # 1. In addition to the active and apparently more important roles in Fury's entourage being reserved for men, the leaders of this issue's world-threatening conspiracy are all males too. (There are women in their ranks, mind you, and they appear to be identically blonde and beautiful Nordicesque twins.) Still, both Fury's base and the gaggle of his primary opponents do have women prettying up their background. Yet not a single one of the European "Excalibur-class super-soldiers" who're on display are anything other than conspicuously male. It's something which I doubt real-world sensibilities over here on the other side of Pond would ever accept, but then politics doesn't really appear to be Mr Hickman's strong point. (* See H and I below for a few more examples of this.) Similarly, the massed carousing immortals of Asgard are almost entirely male with the exception of one bikini-clad woman carrying the drinks in the background of a single panel and another largely-naked lass making a sole semi-nude appearance to cheer on the immortal boys when they get down to their manly brawling. It seems that only the youthfully undressed cheesecake gets the privilege of waiting on the boys in this Asgard of the Ultimate Universe.

(g) It's as if the grim sexism of J Michael Straczynski's Thor issues has somehow laid down a template that Messers Hickman and Ribic feel honour-bound to follow.

Of course, there can't have been any intention to programme such a significant measure of careless misogyny into The Republic Is Burning. It's impossible to imagine that the men at Marvel sat down as Architects do and decided as corporate policy to treat everyone that wasn't a bloke in The Ultimates as silent and  sexualised support-units for the pleasure and general convenience of men. That's a simply inconceivable idea. No, it seems plain that the problem is still - still - that no-one at Marvel who's connected with The Ultimates # 1 cared to even care about anything beyond the manly super-heroics of it all. For if they had, there's simply no way that this story could've possibly appeared in the unfortunate shape that it has.     

(h) Nick Fury, facing unforeseen circumstances, publicly declares that he can't handle the situation without the absent Captain America. That's right, the only person of colour in the book is all arrogance and insensitivity until things go wrong, and then he needs the Aryan super-man to save him. (Doesn't he have protocols to follow in cases of nuclear disasters, and advisers, and, heavens forbid, political officials who he works for?)

Oh, well. The Ultimates # 1 is just another example of what happens when everyone's asleep at the wheel. It's a car-crash of a comic, and we'll be returning to its worrying representation of people of colour as well as its improbable plot confections in the not-so-distant future.

Until then, the question really does need to be asked again: why don't more women read super-people comic books?

(i) Ah, the reason why Mr Fury is so alone when the bomb drops. It seems that the Ultimate Universe is one in which the Constitution has been rewritten, because the President is shown reporting to Nick Fury in order to discover what the man with the eye-patch is going to do. Of course, in the real world, everybody does what the civilian government decides, in times of emergency as much as during a typical day, but here the President comes asking to know what action Fury will be taking. As I say, politics isn't Mr Hickman's strong suit, or perhaps, precision with his dialogue isn't. Who can say? After this issue, it's hard to feel charitable, though perhaps a coup has occurred over there in that particular America, or maybe somebody has decided that the USA would free such a massively powerful organisation from democratic oversight. The mind boggles ...
TooBusyThinking will be back tomorrow with an entirely enthusiastic look at an example of undoubted storytelling excellence. No, really, TooBusyThinking will be back tomorrow, and it will be with an entirely enthusiastic piece. 


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

On "Legion Lost" # 1 by Fabian Nicieza And Pete Woods

In which, the blogger would have you warned, there are a great many spoilers ...


Even putting the context of DC's "New 52" initiative aside, it's difficult to imagine a situation in which Legion Lost might qualify as even a barely-adequate comic. For it's such an awkwardly and unhelpfully written book that it's unlikely to appeal even to a majority of the ever-dwindling, ever-aging rump of Legion Of Superhero fans, of whose number your blogger most definitely belongs. But then, this isn't a comic which would be accessible, let alone enjoyable, to the great mass of readers who aren't already both devoted to and knowledgeable about the very arcana of flight rings and Time Institutes and the legacy of the three founding Legionnaires either. This is a comic book, it seems, designed to appeal neither to the experienced or the novice consumer, and, presuming that there's a method in such an apparently suicidal approach to marketplace survival, the question simply has to be why?

An example of exposition that's just not needed in this story.  Yera's career background is entirely irrelevant to the events of "Present Tense", and yet there it is, cluttering up an already background-saturated panel.

The storytelling misinvested in Legion Lost is so repeatedly and so substantially flawed that it's easy to get distracted by the business of noting one creative shortcoming after another. And so, yes, the narrative flow from panel-to-panel and page-to-page is often unhelpful if not actively confusing, while facial expressions and body-language are regularly depicted in a way that quite undermines the story that's being told. Important events are repeatedly obscured or even absent from the reader's gaze, there's a tendency to describe key plot-beats rather than showing them, and unnecessary exposition really does clutter up the comic's pages. Even the taken-for-granted skills associated with the likes of the provision of attention-snaring page-turning panels are often absent from Legion Lost. For all of its glossy production values and moneyshot moments, Present Tense is a profoundly and inexplicably amateuresque production.

This is apparently the scene of a terrifying pathogen being released without warning or explanation into the atmosphere. How the reader is expected to make sense of this, let alone be impressed and unnerved by it, remains a mystery. Note the quite detached expression on Dawnstar's face, who could be noting the slightly late arrival of a paper-girl or boy, and the apparently unconcerned statement of "We are too late". Well, when you've seen one end of the world, I suppose you've seen them all. (Actually, the whole moment, which went totally unforeshadowed in the pages before, looks rather magical, with all those trees lit up as if it were Christmas. It may be a dramatically unhelpful panel, but it is undoubtedly pretty.)
But the truth is that Legion Lost might still have managed to be a tolerably entertaining comic-book had one key flaw in its script been attended to. For what finally sinks the comic isn't its, shall we say, idiosyncratic storytelling, but the fact that its climax requires the Legionnaires present to behave as if they were impossibly dense and careless. Indeed, the whole supposedly-tragic conclusion to this first issue, with its Legionnaire deaths and escaping super-villains and the resulting exile of the remaining team-members to the 21st century, relies upon characters behaving in a completely implausible way. Because of that, the preceding pages have had to be presented in such a fashion as to obscure the stupidity of both script and characters. Consequently, Legion Lost # 1 is a comic whose creators are struggling to compose a compelling story which doesn't reveal how flawed its basic premise is. Or to put it another way, underneath that surface of dodgy storytelling is a narrative which has sacrificed logic for expedience and effect. And if the story is at points confused and imprecisely told, then it had to be, for the only other option, it seems, would have been to inconveniently rip up the whole plot and instead produce one which actually made sense.

Well, how did the surviving Legionnaires manage to escape the exploding Time Bubble? As is par for the course here, tell not show is the order of the day. Tellus, it seems, "erected ... a telekinetic shield ... as Alastor .. detonated". It's a good job we have this explained to us, because otherwise we'd never know.
Everything in Legion Lost # 1 is designed to set up a new status quo in which a small team of 31st century super-people are trapped in 2011 without either the hope of rescue or the advantage of any significant future technology. And in order for that to happen in such a way as to provide the reader with some high drama and a water-cooler moment or two, the Legion's Time Bubble is shown being destroyed as a result of the apparently unforeseen mutation of a prisoner who the LSH are taking back to the future with them. But to make this plot-twist one which the audience can both believe in and be shocked by, the Legion can't be shown to suspect that the terrorist Alastor might transform into a monster who could destroy their only means of returning home.

After all, that would make them at least partially responsible for the disaster which the text quite obviously wants to pin solely on Alastor's shoulders. What a shame it is, therefore, that the story itself makes it perfectly obvious that the Legion would simply have to noted that Alastor was indeed infected by the same creature-creating pathogen which he's also inflicted upon the new post-Flashpoint DCU. For Present Tense is full of sequences which clearly establish that the Legion really ought to have dedeuced that Alastor possessed the capacity to destroy their time-traveling technology if allowed anywhere near to it. In short, their placing him in the Time Bubble for the ride back to Levitz-land, without a great deal more care having been taken to control him, makes them look anything but a group of  heroically able superheroes. Whatever those shackles which the Legion used to restrain him in their complacency were made of, they quite obviously weren't in any way strong enough.

Lights, action, shock, deaths. No sense at all.
In order to disguise the Legionnaire’s culpability for the disaster which marks the end of Legion Lost # 1 while maximizing the surprise of the Time Bubble's destruction, Fabian Nicieza really does work hard to make it seem as if no-one could have foreseen Alastor's propensity for turning into a hugely powerful behemoth . But at the same time, Mr Nicieza also has to try to ensure that the reader can believe that the Legionnaires know far more than just a little something about the disease which they've been sent back in time to contain. They are, after all, supposed to be the heroes of the piece. But it's a close-to-impossible trick to pull off, given that the Legionnaires are either on top of the basics of the mission they've been sent to complete or not, and trying to present them as both knowledgeable and yet uninformed is just one of the contradictions which leaves Present Tense riddled with inconsistencies and disappointments.

It certainly seems that Mr Nicieza has deliberately avoided mentioning in Present Tense that the pathogen which Alastor is said to be planning to release causes people to mutate into great car-hurling hulksters. For if that effect of the condition was to be openly described in the story, then who could ever accept the scene of the Legionnaires simply binding the obviously infected Alastor with a few relatively thin restraints in their Time Bubble without thinking them to be a pack of fools? Similarly, none of the Legion, with one key exception, is ever shown discussing the symptomatology of the very condition that they've been propelled back in time to deal with. All they're ever allowed to say is that it’s a “pathogen”, and they seem to be rather unconcerned with the effect which it might have if it's released. Their concern, it seems, isn't with the pathogen so much as capturing the man who's threatening to let it loose into 2011, and the Legionnaires certainly never mention the possibility of having to deal with any super-powered victims of it. In such a way does the Legion Lost's writer appear to attempt to both sign up how the comic will close, in that Alastor is established as an impressively formidable foe, while also trying to misdirect the reader's attention away from the implausibility of his plot design, wherein the Legion members are required to behave as if they're unable to imagine that their opponent might be contaminated and empowered by the infectious agent he's stolen.

The hope, it seems to be, is that the reader won't notice how daft it is that the Legionnaires miss both the threat which Alastor poses as well as the clearly obvious tell-tale signs that's he's infected. And it does seem that Mr Nicieza is quite deliberately implying that the Legion both knows everything about their task and yet very little of it at the same time. For example, the fact that the Legion do know the effect of the unnamed disease is clearly shown three pages before the story’s end, when Tellus states that Alastor is beginning to transform because “he has been infected”. Tellus therefore quite clearly recognises the symptoms of contamination, which confirms that the Legion knew that their enemy was in possession of a particular pathogen which could cause such specific mutations. How strange it is, therefore, that they never apparently considered, before letting him into the Bubble, that he might be infected himself, and therefore a substantial physical danger to their safety.

In which no-one but Gates notices that their opponent now shows every sign of being infected by a very deadly disease indeed, despite knowing  (1) his previous degree of physical power, (2) his new town-flattening strength, and (3) the effects of the pathogen itself.  (Oh, and poor-soon-to-apparently-die Gates, the loudest and most willful of Legion members, doesn't say anything more about it!)
Yet the Legionnaires failure to take in consideration Alastor's possible contamination is by far the least of their sins where the events which lead to the death of two of their comrades are concerned, and, on its own, it'd probably be a carelessness on their part which the reader could most likely ignore. But Present Tense makes it quite plain that they had a great deal of evidence that Alastor was actively infected and profoundly dangerous, and yet they simply chose to ignore it. Perhaps it’s conceivable that in the challenges posed by a difficult mission, one or even two of the Legion might have failed to consider the possibility of Alastor's contagion. But what’s not conceivable is that they’ve also already been clearly  shown that Alastor is infected, and yet they're apparently unable to process the information they've been given. As Timber Wolf tells the team after capturing him, he's seen the evidence that Alastor had “ripped apart a small town".

Yet of all the Legionnaires present on this mission to the past, none think to notice that the man who carried the monster-creating plague back in time is now quite obviously infected with the mutating-causing pathogen. To miss that is surely inconceivable, and yet that's exactly what the Legionnaires do. Somehow, they're capable of being told he flattened Red Lake Falls and yet they don't wonder how he could possibly have done so. These are six very smart superheroes from a ferociously advanced future, and even Wildfire is, for all his impulsiveness, an educated and competent individual who's served in at least one key continuity as a Legion leader himself. But only Gates even notices that Alastor has suddenly turned into a creature of considerable power, and even he doesn't link the surprise of the terrorist's new powers with any danger he might pose to the team. Indeed, the most willful and determined of Legionnaires is given just six words to express a touch of concern -  “He has no abilities – does he?” - and he then quite simply shuts up, as if the point he was making wasn't an absolutely vital one. (See the scan immediately above.) Now, the reader might think that the fact of a previously quite typical individual wiping out much of an entire town all on his lonesome might be a really obvious giveaway, if not a blindingly flashing-red warning sign, but it seems you'd be wrong. For the plot requires the Legionnaires not to notice the degree of threat which Alastor poses even as Timber Wolf's witnessed, actually seen, the considerable damage their truck-throwing, cop-murdering opponent is capable of.

Timber Wolf arrives at the end of Alastor's rampage. (That's his reflection in the puddle in the second panel, a clever, but hard-to-notice effect.) How is it possible that the Legionnaires so under-estimated their opponent's threat when the evidence of his power was so overwhelmingly obvious?
This whole situation, this entire charade that the Legionnaires are surprised by Alastor's infection and subsequent power, becomes an even more implausible business when it's remembered that Tellus has already referred to Alastor as a probable “patient zero” as well as the "index case" where the pathogen is concerned. It’s odd that he does so, because it’s hard to understand how he could actually know that Alastor is infected. The suspicion inevitably lurks that he's telepathically deduced the information, but nothing is said to explain his declaration at all. A difficult thing to understand, it's true, but then it's equally difficult to grasp how Tellus has forgotten the same fact two pages later, when he declares with some considerable surprise as the Time Bubble's end arrives that "Something is wrong ... with Alastor ... He has been infected ...". Either we accept that Tellus has confused the meaning of the phrase "Patient Zero", and thought that it refers to the human cause associated with a specific epidemiological investigation rather than an infected individual, or we accept that he really does suspect and then immediately and incredibly forget that Alastor is likely to be an extremely dangerous captive indeed. Once again, we find Mr Nicieza trying to show that his Legionnaires are admirably informed and competent, while at the same time presenting us with characters who behave in ways which are forgetful, ignorant and incompetent.

There's certainly every effort made to assure us that Tellus knows what he's talking about, for he does refer to Alastor as both the "index case", meaning the source, of the pathogen, as well as its "patient zero", meaning the individual who initiates the spread of the disease through her or his own infection. He uses the terminology quite precisely, which means that we have to accept that he really is saying that Alastor is likely to be an ill and lethally threatening individual. In fact, Tellus seems to be the team's expert on the pathogen right up until the moment at which he actually comes face-to-face with the person who he's already described as probably playing host to it. Only expert knowledge on his part, for example, could explain his statement that removing Alastor from 2011 “should minimise … the pathogen’s spread”. And it seems that the Legion are quite happy to leave for the future in the knowledge that the plague will be limited in its effects, which must explain why they make not the slightest attempt to warn or advise any of the present day's citizens about the situation. (*1) All of which means that Tellus as well as Gates and Timber Wolf should at the very least have been up in claws and flippers about the danger posed by Alastor before he was ever pushed towards the Time Bubble.  But, of course, that never happens, or the story would grind to a halt under the weight of its own logic.

*1 - Mind you, if Tellus doesn't know what he's talking about, then we have to assume that none of his fellows do either. That would mean that Tellus is nothing but a blowhard, and his recommendation that they abandon 2011 to the contagion - because things 'should' be alright - is one that's nothing more than waffle. Either Tellus knows what he's talking about, and therefore he should've realised that Alastor was infected, or he doesn't, in which case the Legion are playing with who-knows-how-many-lives without a clue as to what they're doing.

Straight from the mind of the big telepathic fishy-hero; Tellus strongly suspects that Alastor is infected, and uses very specific terminology to describe the matter. Yet two pages later, he's forgotten the whole business.

Because of this need to avoid making the Legionnaires look as stupid as their behaviour proves them to be, the fact that it's the pathogen which is causing Alastor to become strong enough to hurl trucks at police-cars  is never mentioned until the climactic scene within the Time Bubble. Though we do see the terrorist in his pathogen-mutated form, there's nothing on the page to tell us that he isn't normally able to transform himself in such a way. This sleight of hand means that the reader doesn't question the Legionnaire's lack of concern about what appears to be the threat of Alastor's super-powers. Since the script doesn't mention that there's anything new and unexpected about them, we're left assuming that Tyroc and his colleagues already know that Alastor can make something superhuman out of himself.

This also means that we don't listen with any great concern to Gates's brief question about Alastor's supposed lack of any special abilities, because it comes across as if any confusion is his fault rather than that of his colleagues. He and his words are crammed down into the far corner of the panel involved, and none of his comrades cares to acknowledge his concern, let alone reply to it. As a result of this withholding of key aspects of the plot, the reader is nudged into looking at a scene of the Legionnaires behaving in an inconceivably stupid fashion in such a way that they appear to be entirely sensible if somewhat harassed individuals. They're clearly being obtuse, and yet they seem well-informed. Indeed, it's Gates, who's the only one who's even vaguely aware that there's a terrible danger closing in on them, who seems to be the misguided Legionnaire on the page. It's a confusing state of affairs which helps only on the first read through of the story to temporarily cover up the fact that the Legion are dangerously and stupidly under-estimating Alastor. Even then, it's a tale which leaves what's in truth a barely-coherent narrative feeling strangely unsatisfying, while a second glance at Legion Lost leads to the inevitable conclusion that whole story's little but illogic and misdirection.

And so, when reading Present Tense for the first time, it's the big green-and-purple protagonist who seems entirely to blame for the Time Bubble's destruction, as the story's creators would seem to want us to believe. But from then onwards, it's clear that any court-martial of the Legionnaires concerned would find all of them to have been in dereliction of their duty on the occasion of the deaths of two of their fellow Legion stalwarts.

After all, how can it be that Timber Wolf sees the evidence of what's supposedly a no-more-than-typically powerful individual having destroyed much of a town without even wondering whether Alastor's been infected or not? How can the other time-travelers hear the Wolf's report and not make the only logical deduction that's possible from it? Yet, once again, the reader's been made to believe that the destruction of the Time Bubble was entirely beyond the Legion's capacity to foresee or forestall, and so the Legionnaires can shown ignoring the most explicit evidence as if it were of no importance at all. But it's an illusion which only holds for the first dash through the comic's pages. As soon as the reader discovers that the Legion hadn't realised that Alastor might be monstrously transformed, and at the point at which they see the largely unprepared Legionnaires facing oblivion because of that, it becomes very obvious indeed that they've just not been paying attention to the world around them at all.

Over and over again, key information in Present Tense is obscured and characters are made to contradict themselves so as to not make the Legionnaires ultimately look as thick as thick can be. Tellus is given a fine-sounding diagnosis and prognosis to spout which he then instantly forgets, and Gates is used to express an entirely-sensible and fiercely legitimate concern which is then incredibly ignored, and by Gates himself as much as anyone else. Information is withheld so that we don't question the Legionnaire's competency, and yet complacency is ultimately what their behaviour displays. It's a surely deliberate process by which the Legion are presented as simultaneously smart and stupid, able and incompetent, and all because the reader mustn't be allowed to conclude that the deaths of Gates and Yera are at least as much the team's fault as they are Alastor's. The assumption behind this seems to be that no-one would want to read a comic about super-folks who are that stupid and that lacking in care, although I for one think that a comic which took such an approach in an open and thoughtful manner might be very much worth the investing in. Yet the truth seems to be that Mr Nicieza simply hadn't been able to find a way to wrap up his various first-issue plot-lines without relying on the Legion being not just dense, but out of character, inconceivably forgetful, and disastrously careless..

"They're ... gone ... Both of them ...": Yes, they are, and all through all of your lack of competence and care too.
I've yet to come across a single, significantly positive review of Legion Lost # 1, and all of those I've read quite correctly speak of the confusions, obscurations and awkwardnesses in the comic. And yet, there's an irony that if many of those problems were absent from Present Tense, a far worse series of reviews would likely have occurred. For underneath all those problems with the script is the fatal failing of the plot itself, and its the fatal flaws in the latter which so twist and fracture the sense of the story as a whole. 

If Present Tense had been told in a typically transparent fashion, that closing sequence of comicbook shock and angst and awe would have been both entirely unsurprising in itself and thoroughly reprehensible where the behaviour of the surviving Legionnaires was concerned. Because of course Alastor was capable of becoming a monster! Of course the Legion should have realised that he was infected and capable of hurting them so! And instead of objects of sympathy, Tyroc and his team would have been revealed as being at best idiots and at worst criminally negligent.

What a choice to be faced with in order to save a story, if that truly was the choice that had to made; to either own up to the fact that the plot relies on the dumbest of conceits, or to make the story truly confusing and potentially unsatisfying in order to protect even something of the plausibility of the big loud bang and all the dead heroes at the end of it.

Well, perhaps. Or it could well be that my assumption that there's any such a purpose behind the problems of Present Tense is entirely misplaced. Perhaps Legion Lost # 1 is just a thoroughly stupid comic book without a single half-decent excuse that we know of for being so. Perhaps it was produced under an impossible deadline, or subject to the influence of a whole chain of other creators and editors? Perhaps, maybe, perhaps ...

Who knows? All we can be sure of is the comic book itself, and that's clearly a daft little thing masquerading as a deeply meaningful superhero melodrama.


Sunday, 25 September 2011

The New DC 52, The Mighty Mr Terrific, The Retiring Spider-Man: Smith's Miscellany For September 25th 2011

In which the blogger presents the first in what's intended to be a regular series of end-of-the-week musings, links and other recommendations, inspired in considerable part by Bill Reed's much missed "Sunday Brunch" articles on Comic Book Resources. What follows will in future be shorter than most of Bill's old columns were, but sadly, I suspect, not in any way as sharp. Still, in the hope that practice might make, er, slightly better ...


Let's start with something that's as heartening as it's undeniably important. For there's a touching, short collaboration between Paul Cornell and Mike Collins on the subject of Dandy-Walker Syndrome on display at the D-W Alliance page here. You might want to first read Mr Cornell's description of how the short four-panel strip came about as recorded on his blog here. The very phrase "Dandy-Walker Syndrome" is one that I was utterly unfamiliar with before, but, as I wish I could convince every publisher of textbooks to believe, there are few better ways to get vital information across than a well-designed comic strip.

Retrieved from the JSA member biogs here.
The comics blogosphere can be a terrible bear-pit at times, and that sometimes goes for the occasional creator as well as just a few, shall we say, of the fans too. I certainly worry about the degree to which my profoundly little-league pieces here might stray into the province of the unfair comment, and that's to say the least. But examples such as this from Mr Cornell and Mr Collins, and the response of so many folks from both the fan and pro community to the thankfully-now resolved Mike Meyers case, can often be as inspiring in a general sense as they are in their specifics. Of course, these issues of health and well-being are endlessly more important that this new collar on a costume or that money-absorbing, multi-crossover climax. But even in the context of my matters-to-no-one-but-me blogging, the kind of work that Messers Cornell and Collins have done for the Dandy-Walker Alliance can also function as a friendly but necessary restraining hand on the shoulder, reinforcing as it does the importance of focusing on the evidence of the comics work being discussed and nothing else but. How so? Because as any of the Mr Terrifics would undoubtedly agree, there's little if anything that's more important than Fair Play!, and any single example of the need for playing fair inevitably raises a host of other issues and responsibilities as well. 

Crivvens! (*1) Well, there's a thought. It's almost as if the case might also be made for comics professionals being treated as human beings too ... 

*1:- A splendid word which Martin Grey of "Too Dangerous For A Girl" has inspired me to put to use ...

The original being far too big for my lil'scanner, the above was retrieved from Greg Hatcher's absolutely charming "Friday In The Reference Library", which you'll find here. I really do recommend that you pay a visit to his 2007 trip around his book-shelves.
2. It's Getting Hard To Care About The Multiverse

Staring at the covers of the Steranko History Of Comics, with their collage of characters from a host of different and mostly long-defunct publishers, is a rather bittersweet business these days. For in the early Seventies, when these treasuries were first published, even a crossover between Superman and Spider-Man was simply inconceivable. Indeed, there was still something of a sense of the transgressive and remarkable about the annual JLA/JSA crossovers, and the appearances of the likes of the long-vanished Seven Soldiers Of Victory and the Freedom Fighters in those team-ups were thrilling simply because no-one had ever thought such riches of super-sociability possible. In a time where the very idea of DC shockingly licensing Captain Marvel from Fawcett would've been entirely implausible, Steranko's covers presented a vision of a Bridwellian world in which every super-person existed in the same continuity. At that time, that seemed like the most impossible and exciting of prospects.

Today we live in a age when it's an absolute commonplace for characters, or perhaps we might better call them 'properties', to meet up in supposedly once-in-a-lifetime adventures that rarely feel like anything other than the most mundane of run-throughs. And there are few highlights in the crossover tradition to match the rare delights of the  Loeb and Cooke Spirit/Batman one-shot, or the much maligned and yet entirely delightful meeting between Archie and the Punisher produced by Lash, Goldberg and Buscema. All too often in such crossovers, the reader might never know that there'd ever been different traditions, separate storytelling conventions, distinct approaches which once meant that experiencing one company's comics could be a very different business to reading those of another. As the homogenisation process has ground onwards, the very idea of characters who originated within different fictional universes meeting and interacting has become less and less surprising and more and more uninteresting. And where once I'd stare at Steranko's covers for his histories and wonder "what-if?" almost as if it were a heresy as well as an obvious impossibility, now I don't think I'd care if every figure on his two covers met for a 12 issue Crisis on Infinite Schisms extravagance. 

Or at least, I wouldn't unless I heard that a truly remarkable creator, or team of creators, had been given the project and promised a significant degree of editorial freedom to do so. I think we'd agree that a Darwyn Cooke solo flight on such a series, for example, would undoubtedly sprinkle some hundredweight of redeeming fairydust over the whole tarnished business.

In this issue; the strangest Spider-Man and Silver Surfer stories ever! (Cover scan coutesy of The Grand Comics Database)
3. The End Of Spider-Man! That Murderous Silver Surfer!

But if you're interested in some of the strangest of superhero tales from the past, then perhaps I might point you to UK comics creator Lew Stringer's Blimey! blog, whose archives contain the fascinating story of how the publishers of Britain's TV21 weekly in 1972 dealt with their licensed Spider-Man and Silver Surfer reprints once they'd cancelled the title. What's that? You've never read the Kane/Romita tale in which Peter Parker permanently retires from web-slinging? You've not experienced the Kirby-illustrated strip in which Norrin Radd slaughters all of the Inhumans? It's a fascinating story, as you might imagine, and there are scans in place in Mr Stringer's article of the truly disorientating final issue of the once-mighty TV21.

4.  A Digression On The New 52

I've always thought that this blog ought to try to concentrate on the kind of subjects which are less typically discussed across the comics blogosphere, and so I've largely stayed away from the DC's "New 52" books. This wasn't an easy decision to make, in bloggery terms, because the whole business of working through the first three week's new arrivals and dissecting each of them in turn looked to be a whole lot of fun. Thankfully, the visitor numbers for the blog have more-or-less held up over this period, but I've still felt as if there's been a really splendid party going on elsewhere which I've just not felt justified in joining in with. For one thing, I live out here in the sticks and I rely on the post for my new comics. Given that I'm not one for the digital option as yet, a great deal of what I'd've written has already been well-nailed down by a considerable number of commentators days before I even get to crack open each new parcel of books.

For another, a great many of the concerns which I tend to focus upon in this blog have been quite excellently dealt with elsewhere. I don't think, for example, that there's anything in the slightest that I could have added to Andrew Wheeler's estimable piece at Bleeding Cool entitled 52 Problems, which discussed many of the problems with sex and gender in a significant number of DC's new books. I thought Mr Wheeler's article was truly well-written, well-argued and respectfully lacking in hyperbole and fan-rage too, though you'd never guess that if all you'd read were some of the responses to it. In fact, it was one of a series of articles written in the past few weeks which left me thinking that I really ought to be leaving the blogging for others to get on with. That's a process which began with Julian Darius's forensically focused How Not To Relaunch A Universe, and continued with Laura Hudson's fiery and admirable The Big Sexy Problem With Superheroines And Their "Liberated Sexuality".

There's undoubtedly some admirable comics which have emerged from the reboot/no-reboot. I've stated a respect for the new Action Comics, Demon Knights and Wonder Woman before, for example, though that's a small return from my own perspective for such a huge investment of resources on DC's part. My concerns remain those that I was expressing in the weeks before the new books arrived, for I just couldn't see how the Common Comics Culture would manage to reform itself to the degree that the hype suggested would happen. And, sadly, the storytelling has mostly stayed predominantly weak, the content's remained read-it-in-a-minute thin, and many key social issues are either being  ignored or facily attended to. Even the matter of a continuity-light universe has proven to be largely a chimera. Many of the the start-afresh books are already playing with a mass of complex backstory, while those the elite titles who've avoided rebooting are carrying histories which seem quite ludicrous simply because of the weight of history which the new attenuated timeline has to bear. To stare at this week's shot of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Damien all gathered together in Batman # 1 is, for example, to feel the whole superstructure of the New DC start to collapse. How ever was there ever enough time for all of those Robins to have existed, let alone flourish and, Damien aside, move on? And wasn't there a certain Jason Todd who's supposed to have played a central part in events there too?

Because I just can't shift the suspicion that the whole campaign has been a spectacularly Pyrrhic victory. Reports from retailers as estimable as Brian Hibbs suggest anything but, and yet my fears remain. For I'm not at all surprised that there's been such an incredible demand for these books. I've always believed that there's a very considerable number of lapsed and would-be readers who are just waiting for the chance to buy into comics in a seriously committed fashion. What worries me is what happens if and when the hype and the incredibly high hopes its inspired begins to subside. Because this suicide-throw of a kick-start isn't likely to ever be repeated, and if the to-my-mind mostly insubstantial product that's being shifted can't maintain its splendid start over the next 12 months, then what can possibly come next?

5. My Sincerest Thanks, and Indeed Apologies, Go To ...

Finally, I've always been sincerely grateful to folks who link to TooBusyThinking. Looking around the comics blogosophere when I started writing this blog, I noted that such links were rarely acknowledged, and so, not wanting to break ranks and appear all-too Uriah Heepy, I've tended to keep my gratitude to myself. I regret that now, because it seems to me that I've allowed a fear that I'll seem ingratiating and overly-sincere stop me paying the simple courtesy of thanking those who've done the blog a genuine favour. So I hope it doesn't sound all Innocent-at-the-Oscars if I just tip my hat to the kindness of folks who've helped add a few souls to TooBusyThinking's visitor tallies, when and if such happens. I really feel that I ought to be able to mention everyone who's ever helped the blog in this fashion, because out-of-the-way comics sites like this one really do benefit from such recognition. But Statcounter's records disappear every few days, and so there's a severe limit on how much I can rectify the situation. Mea culpe. The road to hell, good intentions, etc, etc .....
According to the data I do have, which takes me back just to Friday gone, I fear, I owe thanks to Lovecraft In Brooklyn (Metafilter), K (The 1966 Batman Message Board), a good egg whose name I can't find amongst the 1676 replies to the Laura Hudson article mentioned above (Comics Alliance), and to Al Ewing and Rob Williams, who were generous in their linking to the blog through Twitter. To them, and anyone I've missed, either through stupidity today or a misplaced restraint before, my quite genuine thanks are both owed and offered.

By Mr Cooke, of course. (Retrieved from Dial B For Blog.)
6. And Then He Remembered His Own Traditions ...

I do hope the coming week is kind to everyone who's popped in to visit this page, and that everyone experiences the benefit, as used to be said here, of sticking together. There'll be pieces on the New 52, Johnny Red and perhaps even the politics of Asgard in the coming week, so should you have a moment free when there's nothing else going on, you'd be very welcome to drop in here.