Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Me fail English? That's unpossible!"

While researching Clark Kent's departure from WGBS-TV for his old Daily Planet gig, I came across this laughably incompetent shareware term paper comparing Beowulf and Superman. Now, my own academic career was littered with various attempts at genre references, some more successful than others, but this is just so bad. You ghost-write something like this for someone you hate.

Enjoy these unadulterated selections:

The Old English epic of Beowulf spins the magic tale of a man of unimaginable strength who can save people from any danger and whose is extraordinarily endowed both physically and mentally.

[...] More striking is the fact that both Beowulf and Superman have their own individualistic attire. While Beowulf wears a chain mail armor dress that protects him in a very special way, the Superman has his dress protected in a special room in his house. The blue and red dress of the superman gives him his identity. Their powers are capable of deserting them. Superman's powers had to be recovered in the town of Smallville.

[...] Although Beowulf does not sport the name and Superman does, it does not make him any less of a superhero. Beowulf, the hero of the epic poem Beowulf, and Superman, the man of steel from Marvel Comics, both act as superheroes of their time, gaining the admiration of all the people looking on.

There's so much more, including sentence fragments, misplaced punctuation, and another reference to Supes belonging to Marvel. Really, people, don't cheaters have at least some dignity? Handing in this piece of skata is practically an admission that you had nothing else, you were completely wasted when you "wrote" it, and you would be overjoyed with a D. (That's D as in DC, Fact-Checker Lad.)

Probably what's saddest is that it denigrates the value of nerds everywhere. Come on, folks, we're supposed to be the smart ones!
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Sunday, February 26, 2006

There's A Land That Is Fairer Than Day

As many of you know, yesterday Don Knotts died. That saddens me on a few levels, even though my relationship was more properly with Barney Fife. I suppose I am sad mostly because the death of Don Knotts removes the town of Mayberry a little further from our reality.

At various points in its existence, Mayberry has become synonymous for both the good and bad elements of small-town life. Today I want to focus on Mayberry as a constant -- not quite a place, not quite a state of mind.

Last night the Best Wife Ever and I watched Finding Neverland, the fictionalized account of the creation of Peter Pan. Throughout the movie, "Neverland" is used as a metaphor for creativity, imagination, and even an afterlife, with the constant theme being that in Neverland, one never grows old. Implicit in that theme is not just immortality, but a lack of progression from one state to the next. Not a lack of change, mind you, and maybe even allowing for superhero comics' "illusion of change."

The appeal of Mayberry has a lot to do with that kind of stasis, and even with fans' approach to "The Andy Griffith Show." After Don Knotts left, the show continued without him for a few more seasons, but it was never the same. Ironically, Barney was often the shrill voice of progress, always demanding unsuccessfully that Andy bring a more modern sensibility to the sheriff's office. "The Andy Griffith Show" doesn't lend itself readily to deconstruction, or at least the sort of gentle deconstruction that subverts the milieu without destroying its charm -- but in their buffoonish futility, Barney's challenges allowed the show to address various deconstructionist impulses. Put another way, his constant comparing of Andy's stewardship with the "real world's" ways was the show's method of commenting on itself. Thus, without him, the show lost both its main antagonist and its main source of metacommentary, and had to settle for just being heartwarming.

Finding Neverland is a bit treacly too, staying just on the good side of the standard Hollywood believe-in-yourself message, but its heart is in the right place and I found myself genuinely affected.

Fantasy of any kind creates its own eternal now, and with it a self-preserving conservatism that frowns upon change of any kind. However, the corresponding notion that every generation rediscovers the heroes of childhood is, almost by definition, predicated on the fact that children do grow up, at some point shelving the fantasies of youth. In Finding Neverland, playwright J.M. Barrie (or at least Johnny Depp's Barrie) is anomalous in British society for precisely this reason: he presents a children's fantasy to a largely adult audience, and (at least in the movie) insists that children be present at the premiere. He figures they would respond more appropriately to the fantasy than the ordinary audience of snobbish adults would. (Perhaps debunking this, one of the DVD's featurettes suggests that the first Peter Pan audience was entirely made of adults, who still enthusiastically clapped Tink back to life.)

The picture of adults needing children to appreciate a fantasy may be especially resonant with today's superhero fans, whose long-term fidelity to their favorite comics has forced the comics themselves to "grow up" alongside the audience. Today's DC and Marvel readers struggle with how "realistic" their favorite titles should be, and how much whimsy can be tolerated.

Paradoxically, then, the immortality of a Mayberry, a Metropolis, or a Marvelized New York may depend on the ability of us tourists to give up going there, or at least to stop corrupting those places with our demands. In fact, the movie Pleasantville had Don Knotts go against Barney Fife's standard role. There he played the guardian of a world based on 1950s sitcoms and compelled to mature by a couple of "real-world" visitors. They deconstructed "Pleasantville" in just about every sense of the word, bringing social change and a more progressive sensibility to a realm that had become too perfect. While the movie was a metaphor for the kind of societal change necessary to keep a community vibrant and equitable, it also lamented the loss of innocence that such change brought. (Sounds like a typical "Star Trek" episode too, now that I think of it.)

I should probably put Pleasantville on the Netflix list. I remember it as somewhat heavy-handed and obvious, but with enough redeeming qualities to make it rewatchable.

Anyway, you see my point. On some level we expect our fantastic places to be eternal, and part of that means they are unchanging, but at some point our influence may well make them grow up whether we like it or not. Perhaps we older readers have clung to Marvel's and DC's output for so long out of fear that we have become the guardians of those fantastic places, and without our attention they will wither and die forever. It is much easier to give something up if you know it will be safe. I honestly don't know whether I'm ready to do that yet, or at what point I will be.

I do know that a good ending can provide both the means to make a work eternal and the closure necessary to move on. I hear "second star to the right ... and straight on 'til morning!" and I don't picture a green-clad boy -- I see a 60-year-old James T. Kirk with a twinkle in his eye, giving the order to steer his Enterprise into history. I see old black-and-white footage of a rail-thin Don Knotts in a khaki deputy's uniform, and it represents a bucolic village of happy people, forever untouched by anything that would disturb them for more than 20-odd minutes a week.

Now, that may only be a story I tell myself, but it gives me comfort and peace. Like the man said, it's an imaginary story. Aren't they all?
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Saturday, February 25, 2006

New comics 2/22/06

For certain DC books, this was the Week of the Anti-Climax, which might well turn into the Month thereof. We begin with Wonder Woman #226 (written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Cliff Richards, inked by Ray Snyder), a retrospective of interstitial moments from Diana's relationship with Superman throughout the past several Big Events. For the most part it's good enough, and pretty clever in its way, but I have the feeling that it may be too much for anyone without at least a passing knowledge of the post-Crisis WW. Rucka also commits an error in timeline (Artemis' WW stint preceded Diana's death) that, in light of the ending, might not be an error after all.

You'll remember from the end of the last issue that Batman and the Red Hood's final battle takes place just as Chemo gets dropped on Bludhaven. As much as I like the "superhero Batman" interacting with the rest of the DC universe, I had hoped that the Red Hood storyline could exist on its own, without crossover interference. Therefore, imagine my frustration at the last page of Batman #650 (written by Judd Winick, pencilled by Eric Battle, inked by Rodney Ramos), which threatens to open the door to all kinds of cosmic fiats for explaining the return of Jason Todd. Other than that, I thought it was a wonderfully tense standoff between Bats, RH, and the Joker, with Batman once again ultimately finding a third way around two unpleasant alternatives. I do look forward to this story's conclusion in Batman Annual #25, but if it depends on Infinite Crisis I won't be happy.

Green Lantern #9 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Ethan van Sciver, inked by Prentiss Rollins) took what could have been another bloodthirsty makeover of a goofy '60s villain and turned it into a pleasant, straightforward buddy-cop story featuring Batman's reconciliation with Hal Jordan. Hal even says "I don't usually bleed this much on a team-up." You didn't used to bleed this much period, Hal -- but it's nice to see Batman can get along with somebody.

In JLA Classified #17 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, inked by Klaus Janson), Part 2 of "The Hypothetical Woman" finds the League buffeted both by Flash's Starro virus and its newer cousin, which has afflicted a small island. Since there are a few more installments to go, I didn't expect this one to end on quite so dire a series of cliffhangers just yet, but the point is to keep me coming back month after month, and I'll sure be doing that. My earlier complaints about Janson's style not meshing with JLGL's are also a thing of the past.

Does anyone out there know if Blok's math on the cover of Legion of Super-Heroes #15 is correct? I'm sure it is; but I don't know the numbers in my head like some others probably do. Inside it feels like a fill-in issue. The first story (written by Stuart Moore, drawn by Pat Olliffe and Livesay) is a series of "campfire tales" about the Legion popping up in key events of the present-day heroic age, with the point being it's not whether these stories happened, it's that they continue to inspire. The second (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Adam DeKraker, inked by Rodney Ramos) is essentially an extended lettercolumn designed to introduce each Legionnaire to the uninitiated. It does a decent job for what it is, but it all seems to anticipate Supergirl's joining next issue.

Speaking of anticipation, Captain America #15 (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Mike Perkins) uses old newsreel footage of Cap and Bucky vs. the Red Skull to lead into Crossbones' deprogramming of the Skull's daughter. The ending's not hard to guess, so this is more in service of bringing us new readers (again, the uninitiated) up to speed. Perkins also does a fantastic job fitting into the book's usual Epting/Lark style.

Fantastic Four #535 (written by J. Michael Straczynski, pencilled by Mike McKone, inked by Andy Lanning) concludes both the Thing/Hulk fight and the Reed/Sue Social Services subplot, and I have to say, the Hulk plot was handled better. In fact, these past couple of issues have felt like Hulk has hijacked the book, which wouldn't be a bad thing, but it doesn't leave much room for exploring the title characters. Again, a passing knowledge of Hulk history is probably required.

Not so for The Thing #4 (written by Dan Slott, drawn by Andrea DiVito), which feels more like this month's FF book. Ben has to babysit his niece and nephew with the help of Lockjaw, the teleporting dog. Hijinx ensue, although Franklin also learns a valuable lesson about money. The best part of the book is the Watcher gag near the beginning, but that doesn't mean it peaks early. Very well done.
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Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Bat-Brand

Jim Roeg's blog has led me to Plok's A Trout In The Milk. If you like Jim, you'll like Plok. Of special note are his seven-part musings on Fantastic Four and the creation of Marvel continuity (handily accessed from his front page). One of those essays, "Crisis on Infinite Roys," contains this digression:

[A poster on the John Byrne forum] wonders how Batman's origin can possibly make sense as it stands in the fully-unified and rationalized DCU, and he's got a point. If such a rationalized universe had existed at that time, then Bruce Wayne might very well already have known of Superman's existence, and so his decision to put on a cape and tights could not have been...um, unforced, shall we say? In fact as this guy over at JBF pointed out, if you had the example of Superman before you, you would probably not decide to dress like a bat in order to frighten criminals, so much as you might decide to frighten them by dressing to resemble that scary indestructible guy a couple counties over who keeps sending crooks to the chair. And then, you know, throw in some spooky bat-imagery too, just for pizzazz.

Now, I think Plok and this unnamed JBF poster are onto something. Of course Bruce dresses like Superman, because of course he knows about Superman. (Remember Alfred's line in "Year One" about "that fellow in Metropolis?") It still doesn't take anything away from Bruce's motivations. In fact, it arguably makes them more subversive.

As you know, I think one of the great unexplored notions of the Batman milieu is the "Bat-Brand." This is my bit of fanwankery which explains why someone would take the time to make every bit of (unique, expensive) equipment the public sees, from boomerangs to jet aircraft, fit the same bat-winged theme. It's all propaganda, like Zorro slashing his initial, with the biggest instance being the Bat-Signal. That tells the crooks they can't even count on the cops' good graces anymore, because they're on the Batman's side too.

But why a superhero suit? Specifically, why one which so clearly follows the Superman cape/tights/boots/briefs model? After all, in the recent movies the costume has been turned into black-on-black body armor, with no gray portions and certainly no undies on the outside. However, in those movies Batman was not born into a superheroic environment, and I think therein lies the difference.

Plok states, quite reasonably, that Batman dresses like a superhero "just because," and the style of costume has more to do with selling comics to the kids of the '40s than it does with rationality or "realism." Again, to me the "in-continuity" explanation also goes back to marketing, and the subliminal associations a superstitious and cowardly lot would make. Batman's schtick involves not staying still long enough to give people a good look at the costume, but if it ever got to that point, the costume itself would provide a final distraction.

Consider: if "I shall become a bat" means trying to convince criminals he's some kind of bat-human hybrid, then preserving that illusion becomes more important, and any holes in that illusion become more significant. This happens in the first Burton movie, when crooks observe the dazed Batman's body armor and note "he's human after all." Likewise, the notion that Batman depends on body armor carries with it the converse that Batman is weaker without the armor.

However, it seems to me that when a crook gets too close to a Batman who looks, even superficially, like Superman -- with a chest symbol, briefs on the outside, and an obvious set of spandex tights -- it makes him wonder if Batman is similarly superhuman, and that momentary pause gives Bats the edge. It's a choice between physical advantage and psychological advantage, with the awareness that a physical advantage might be taken away more easily. Indeed, the realization that Batman is a normal guy, who's still got the upper hand despite the lack of body armor, may be just as unsettling.

Perhaps more importantly, though, reminding folks of Superman has a wider societal effect. Superman clearly becomes omnipresent in Metropolis very soon after his debut, and Bruce no doubt seeks the same kind of ubiquity for his alter ego. Casting himself as the "Gotham Superman" doesn't just imply that he has Superman's powers, it also implies that he has Superman's reach. In fact, Batman has to go further, first uprooting the corrupt authorities and then co-opting the legitimate ones. Batman becomes omnipresent in Gotham by virtue of these changes, and stays that way through the brand-identification tactics of the Bat-Signal and the various bat-themed doodads.

Even the original Robin outfit may play on some collective societal memories. In hindsight it seems to incorporate elements of Dr. Mid-Nite's costume and Green Lantern's red/green/yellow color scheme, and therefore could remind Gothamites of better days with the JSA. Moreover, Robin and Batgirl can be seen as Batman's "franchisees," officially-sanctioned emissaries of the head office further extending the head office's reach.

Okay, those last bits might be stretching it, but you see where I'm going. Batman can't be Superman, giving personal attention to each and every transgression, but he can be as big as Superman through active brand marketing and other forms of propaganda. "No Man's Land" touched on this a little, with Batgirl offering an initial Bat-presence and spraypainting bat-symbols all over town, but it wouldn't hurt DC to acknowledge it from time to time. It fits perfectly with the rest of Bruce's campaign, and even argues for the return of the yellow oval....
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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lieberman On Finishing Gotham Knights

Andy Lieberman gives The Pulse some insight on his just-concluded Gotham Knights run. When I get around to revisiting Lieberman's two years -- which will probably be sooner than I had planned, since this interview is fresh in my mind -- this will come in handy.

For example, I had no idea Hush was supposed to be the main character. That explains a lot.

As for Lieberman's last issue itself, I thought it started off very promising, particularly where the Joker was concerned. I also didn't mind the last page all that much, considering its potential as a setup for "One Year Later." Yes, that sounds a little hypocritical of me considering all the kvetching I've done about pass-through storytelling, but I think there is a subtle distinction.

Anyway, Lieberman is done with Gotham Knights, but so far I'm not.
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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Costumes Optional

Now that there's going to be an Aquaman TV series, the only original Justice Leaguers without their own shows are Green Lantern and J'Onn J'Onzz. To me, J'Onn is particularly ideal for today's don't-call-it-a-superhero trend. "Smallville's" motto has been No Tights, No Flights, "Birds of Prey" stayed away from costumes for the most part, and beyond a fondness for orange and green, I don't expect to see the familiar Aqua-duds on the new guy. Again, though, this plays to the Martian Manhunter's strengths as a shape-shifter. J'Onn doesn't need a costume -- his disguise is other people.

Moreover, J'Onn's multiple Earth identities would make a Martian Manhunter show a virtual anthology -- "Quantum Leap" meets "The X Files." Here's an alien stranded on Earth, with all the Superman powers plus shape-shifting, invisibility, and telepathy, and a history of fighting crime "undercover" among humans in the paranoid 1950s. It practically begs to be adapted! Of course, now that I think about it, it does sound like "Something Is Out There" or "Hard Time On Planet Earth," both of which were gone before too many people had a chance to watch them.

Thinking about similar setups, "Quantum Leap" plus "X Files" is probably also a good description of what a "Deadman" TV show would be like, with mysticism taking the place of science fiction. A "Spectre" TV show would be a different kind of cop with superpowers, and might even play up the religious angle. ("Touched By An Angel" meets ....)

Still, why are we not hearing more about adaptations like these? (Because, idiot, similar pitches produced "Something Is Out There" and "Hard Time On Planet Earth," not to mention movies like The Hidden, none of which had any particular staying power?) I don't think producers are particularly scared of being tarred with the "geek" brush if they focus on costumes and powers -- after all, "Lois & Clark" went four seasons, which isn't bad even compared with at least six for "Smallville." Instead, I think it's more budgetary -- costumes and powers are expensive. That's why I think Martian Manhunter, Spectre, and Deadman would make good, economical series. (I'm thinking there was talk of a "Deadman" series a few years ago, but can't remember specifics.) Come on, Warner Bros., prove me wrong!
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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My Top Five Comics Couples

I've been lucky enough to spend the past six Valentine's Days with the Best Wife Ever, but for this list I'm casting my mind back to the bitter days of singlehood, when these comics couples helped sustain my lonely heart.

(Actually, I was never particularly bitter on Valentine's Day -- more grateful that I didn't have that particular stressor. Not that it's stressful now. In fact, I daresay that when you are planning for the love of your life, it's not stressful at all. The only stress comes when you're in the early days of dating and you're not sure how it'll come across. Anyway....)


5. Dick Grayson and Koriand'r: In the mid-'80s, after George Perez left the book, one of the big subplots involved Starfire going back to Tamaran for an arranged marriage, and Dick freaking out as a result. While I wasn't that emotionally invested in them, as soap opera they were tremendously entertaining.

4. Donna Troy and Terry Long: Sure Terry is Marv Wolfman's surrogate, but for a while there every real-world wedding I attended was compared to theirs. I lobbied hard for "Annie's Song" at my own wedding, but the Best Wife Ever hates John Denver and that was shot down faster than a Dick Cheney hunting buddy.

3. Brenda and Eddie Valentine: As a huge Billy Joel fan, how could I not love their comic-book counterparts?

2. Ralph and Sue Dibny: Of all the couples who adventure together, these two were the most fun. Keep your Hawks, your Stranges, your Green Arrow and Black Canary, your Allens, even your Kents -- with the Dibnys, it was even money as to who was the smarter half of the couple. Honorable mention goes to Gabe Webb and Jennifer Mays from The Maze Agency, but neither of them could stretch.

1. Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud: Silver's probably the most popular Bat-character who was hardly even touched after their creative team left. To me that says Englehart, Simonson, and Rogers got it right the first time, and honored it well enough with Dark Detective.

If you're single and/or bitter this Valentine's Day, I've been there. It gets better, and if you don't mind being bitter, that's OK too.
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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Buckle Up, Boys And Girls: New Teen Titans #s 23-25 and Annual #1

I have been trying to alternate these long retrospectives so I spread the love around, but sorry, Geoff Johns Flash fans -- it can't compete with Wally's old team.

The Tamaran storyline which closed out New Teen Titans' second year offers a chance to survey the Titans landscape. The title hadn’t peaked yet, but in hindsight these issues come at the halfway point of Pérez’s main body of work. This particular storyline also revisited Starfire’s pre-Titans antagonists, the Gordanians (last seen in issue #1) and her own sister (teased in issue #3, finally seen at the end of #22, given a backstory in TotNTT #4).

However, this storyline was more than just another Titan vanquishing the ghosts of his/her past. It was an expansive romp across the fairly unexplored Vegan System, and therefore a DC space odyssey which didn't involve the more longstanding DC sci-fi characters. Instead, it showcased the Omega Men, who Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton had introduced in June 1981 during Marv's stint on Green Lantern. It's also noteworthy for getting away, for the most part, from the book's ongoing subplots. Although the story's seeds had been planted early, the rest of the book hadn't been building towards their resolution. As such, this storyline was almost a vacation from the regular subplots.

It was a long vacation, too: no other arc had lasted more than three issues, or featured so many main characters. There really wasn't room for the book's usual subplots, since Wolfman and Pérez had a lot of ground to cover with Vegan politics. Add in a special surprise guest-star, a MegaForce ad on the inside cover of #23, and the first-ever Titans Annual, and the heads at ESPN would call this saga an instant classic.

Now then. I complained earlier that Blackfire seemed almost woodenly evil in the Tales miniseries, but Pérez has a bit of fun introducing her to the main book. On the cover of #23 (September 1982), she blasts a helpless Starfire as the other Titans flounder in the vacuum of space. On the first page, Pérez puts the camera in a For Your Eyes Only angle, looking out from between Blackfire's three-inch heels. She wants nothing more than revenge, both on the sister of whom she is jealous and the monarchy that denied her the Tamaranean throne, and Pérez has her stride through these pages, owning them in a leather, metal, and caped outfit.

As for the Titans, they're being escorted to the D.A.'s office by the Army after their alleged murder of Brother Blood. Bethany Snow, drawn with a perfect little crazy true-believer glint in her beady eyes, is there too, propagandizing for Blood. As Starfire dodges an anvil with "I'll never allow myself to be chained up again," we also meet the aquiline district attorney Adrian Chase. Away from the press, he chews out the group for playing into Blood's PR campaign. It recalls the hard-nosed King Faraday guest shot from issue #18 – plus he's a smoker, so you know he's tough.

But who cares about lawyers? Signaling the end of subplot maintenance, three Gordanian attack ships buzz Manhattan, setting off a psychic whammy in Starfire's head. Out in the hall, Chase tells Snow that Brother Blood survived and is dropping the charges against the Titans. Unfortunately, Chase's office explodes from Starfire going nuts. The Titans try to stop her, but the Gordanians get there first, and abscond with the captive princess.

When the Gordanians demand Earth's surrender, Robin turns the tables, telling the lead alien that Earth's superheroes will destroy the Gordanian fleet unless they surrender. Before an enraged Gordanian can disintegrate Robin, a couple of Army sharpshooters kill him. This unnerves Kid Flash, and Raven is similarly shocked to learn she's inadvertently killed a Gordanian with her soul-self. Meanwhile, the main Gordanian ship is making tracks for Vega.

Nobody's answering at the JLA Satellite, so the Titans must salvage two Gordanian spacecraft. Since one of the ships is at the bottom of the East River, Aqualad gets a chance to feel good about himself, but mopes about not being much use on a space mission. That's nice -- see you later! "Several hours later," in fact, the two flyers take off, soon catching up to Blackfire's flagship. As Blackfire tortures Starfire, tractor beams bring the Titans’ flyers aboard, and the Gordanian's security drones make surprisingly short work of the team. The helpless Starfire watches her friends blown out an airlock....

... only to be gathered up by Raven's soul-self, and pulled aboard the JLA Satellite in a tractor beam manned by none other than Superman! Robin's ecstatic, thinking now that the mission will be over in a few more pages, but the Man of Steel has had a severe drop in power level and can't help them. However, as issue #24 (October 1982) opens, we learn he's been hosting the Omega Men, who also hail from the Vega system and would love to punish the Gordanians and their Citadel masters. The Omegas are Primus, his wife Kalista, the feline Tigorr, the blockish Broot, the mist-powered Nimbus, the winged Harpis, and a few others we'll meet later.

Back aboard Komand'r's starship, Koriand'r breaks free of another Pérez-designed torture rack, but Komand'r wins their brief battle. The ship arrives at the Citadel homeworld, which is ringed by a series of asteroid fortresses that used to be the planet's moon. That's some hard-core "when life gives you lemons" stuff right there. As Blackfire takes the unconscious Starfire to the snowy Citadel castle, the captions fill us in on the victorious campaigns of Lord Damyn, the Citadel leader, who among other feats, personally exiled Vega's "living goddess," X'Hal. He is one bad dude, and Komand'r wants to unseat him.

On the Omega Men's starship, the Titans are learning the finer points of hoisting the space-mainsail and battening down the space-hatches, and also enduring the contemptuous mutterings of Demonia, the serpentine Omegan. Raven senses evil, and Robin wonders if the Titans are in the way, but Nimbus and Broot tell him to ignore her. Besides, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob's parole board, "no one named Demonia could be evil...."

Meanwhile, Komand'r uses Starfire as an opportunity to see Lord Damyn, and here things might get a little confusing. See, the Gordanians are green frog-guys with big tails and gold armor. The Citadel types have kind of purple-black skin with no tails, but they're also fairly bulky and have gold armor. Are they related? I don’t know. What's more, their guards (the Branx) have grey fur and four arms and wear parkas. Anyway, Damyn talks like a slightly denser Ralph Wiggum with a sociopathic streak, and after another brief Starfire outburst, Blackfire joins Damyn for the royal dinner. Here we learn from an expatriate Psion (the Citadel's mortal enemies -- more green reptile-guys, dressed like old-school Brainiac 5) that the Citadel plans to kidnap X'Hal.

As it happens, Primus has been telling the Titans about how slow-witted Damyn is in everything except warfare. They're on their way to Okaara, the warrior planet, to get reinforcements, and joining them on the shuttle down is Auron, an energy-being. Turns out Auron is X'Hal's son, and X'Hal is dead, but she's now an energy-being too. The two have some parent-child issues, which should give Auron a lot to talk about with the Titans. The Gordanians interrupt their reunion, and despite Auron's whining about how he's forced to kill, he starts tearing up Gordanian starships. While the other Titans and Omegas fight to defend X'Hal from the Citadel, Changeling turns into a Gordanian (both green, after all) and tries to sneak Robin and Cyborg into the stronghold.

New Teen Titans #25 (November 1982) amps up both plot and action. The Omega Men plus Raven, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash fight the Citadel on Okaara. In the midst of the fighting, Raven (who freaked out about killing the Gordanian accidentally on Earth, remember) is trying to heal all the wounded on both sides, but it's all too overwhelming -- and the evil spirit of Trigon starts breaking through Raven's defenses. The almost-forgotten romance between Raven and Kid Flash resurfaces briefly, to allow Wally to comfort her as she collapses exhausted after fighting off Trigon's influence. The battle turns into a stalemate, so X'Hal gives herself up to the Citadel.

The main plot, though, is with Robin, Cyborg, and Changeling catching up with Komand'r and Koriand'r. There are some nice sequences with each hero individually taking out some alien baddies, and it too comes to a head when Robin sees the bloodied, near-death Starfire lying at her sister's feet. Tears in his eyes and screaming with rage, he jumps out of the shadows to attack Komand'r's party. Perez only devotes a couple of panels to this, but as with the other action bits, they're so efficient and dynamic he doesn't need many more.

When the dust settles, Komand'r is threatening X'Hal, but Cyborg has his white-noise blaster at Lord Damyn's head. Standoff, right, just like the cover says? Not quite -- obviously the Titans don't know that Komand'r wants Damyn's job herself, and vaporizes him. Komand'r proclaims herself leader of the Citadel, and Robin tries to convince her to let the Titans take Kory back with them. Komand'r says no -- she's been taught to destroy her enemies, and she only wants Kory to live long enough to see Tamaran destroyed. As the issue closes, Starfire has recovered, and assumes a fightin' pose.

This brings us to the grand finale, New Teen Titans Annual #1 (1982). Taken up largely with the big battle between Starfire and her sister (hereinafter just "The Fight"), it also includes the origin of X'Hal (who wore armor very similar to Hippolyte's) and the Omega Men's big assault on the Citadel's fortress. The Fight is actually organized by the Psion, who offers Koriand'r the chance to spare Tamaran and Komand'r the legitimacy a systemwide-broadcast victory over Koriand'r would bestow.

The Fight is quite patently To The Death, because we know both characters hate each other just that much. Indeed, in a way this issue is the culmination of all those "why must I hold myself back?" statements Kory has uttered in the past couple of years. The Fight takes 8 1/2 pages, including 6 pages nonstop, and at the end apparently Komand'r is dead. However, the Psion has rigged the outcome so that either woman's death would trigger a series of explosives throughout the system, destroying the Citadel bases and allowing the Psions to pick up the pieces. In a bit of deus ex machination, though, X'Hal uses her energy powers to disarm all the devices, saving the Vegan worlds but sacrificing herself.

In the epilogue, Kory learns that her parents and brother are still alive (Komand'r had said that Ryand'r, their brother, had gone mad and killed their parents), but she can't stay on Tamaran because their pact with the Citadel which exiled her in the first place is still operative. That's okay, Robin says, the Titans are your family too, and you can come home with us. The End.

I've talked a lot about this storyline's independence from the book's regular subplots, and it's tempting to look at this arc as a backdoor pilot for the Omega Men's regular series, which launched in April 1983. However, as mentioned above, it was a chance to address the issue of Starfire cutting loose, and it would provide the final spark for the Robin/Starfire romance which had been percolating almost subliminally since issue #2. Still, Tamaran was going on the back burner for the next two years, and the Titans wouldn't return for another three.

Again, though, this arc requires so much for its own maintenance that there's little room for the regular subplots. Still, with so much of the arc concerned with fighting, killing, torture, and violence in general, I wonder how much of an ironic coincidence it is that #22 begins with the Titans under guard for the alleged murder of Brother Blood. With the exception of Raven, raised by pacifists, the other Titans seem to accept that they've been drafted into the Omega Men's army, and therefore they'll have to kill some extraterrestrials. Indeed, even something relatively benign like Kid Flash's super-speed piloting leads directly to the Omegas' assault on Citadel headquarters. Wolfman and Pérez don't really gloss over the issue, but neither do they dwell on it.

Going along with this theme is the recurring image (from #22 through #25) of Koriand'r shackled, bloodied, and abused. On one level it's a necessary component of this kind of revenge story, degrading the hero so her final victory over her enemy will be that much sweeter. Moreover, it's not particularly surprising, given Komand'r's actions in the Tales miniseries; and at least Kory is of age here, so we're not seeing these horrors visited on a child. However, it skirts very close to being gratuitous, and as with the larger issue of the Titans' killing during wartime, Wolfman and Pérez don't really comment on it.

Probably the more charitable view is that these comics were meant to be read month-to-month, and the cumulative effect of all this violence would be abated by the intervening weeks. Starfire needed to be in the background but still in jeopardy until the closing pages of #25, and her fight with Komand'r in the Annual would make up for all the mistreatment. I'm not saying it's right, just trying to imagine a rationale.

Anyway, moral implications aside, this arc still gets big ups from me for its scope. It was the book's biggest storyline to date, and it was some of the creators' best work. Every Titan got a little moment to shine, with Changeling even single-handedly short-circuiting Demonia's attempted betrayal. Year Three was off to a fast start, with one of the book's most memorable characters waiting for the group's return to Earth.

Next: runaway teens, super-powered and not.
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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Periodic TV Update, Winter 2006

There are good reasons why I haven’t been posting as much, but I’m sure they are either a) too complicated, b) too boring, or c) both. Suffice it to say that this continues to be a strange leisure season for me. As I wait for "One Year Later" to alter my comics-reading habits, I'm listening to more NPR and Tony Kornheiser, and my TV-watching is at an all-time low. Most of this is attrition; but I have also gotten tired of a few shows, “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” among them.

So Thursday night was the big TV night for me, and as I watched “Everybody Hates Chris,” the last half of “Smallville,” and “The Office,” it hit me that in various ways, I knew how each of these series would end, should end, or has ended. Chris grows up to be Chris Rock (albeit a Chris Rock whose timeline is a few years behind the real one). Clark Kent becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet, falls in love with his old Smallville friend Lois Lane, and squares off as Superman against his old Smallville friend Lex Luthor. At least, that’s how you’d think “Smallville” would harmonize its continuity with the familiar Superman mythology.

Likewise, the original British version of “The Office” wrapped up its main subplots in a Christmas special which was the de facto series finale. The American version is clearly distinct from the British version, even down to character names, so we are not meant to think that these are the same people. (The fanboy in me wonders if there’s not an “Office Of Two Worlds” somewhere down the line.) Therefore, what happened to David, Tim, Gareth, and Dawn may not repeat itself with regard to Michael, Jim, Dwight, and Pam – or, because its “Americanization” may demand more big events to drive ratings, those things might happen sooner or in a different order, and then be reversed to restore the status quo.

With “Smallville,” the status quo still has some radical changes to make before it will look like the "adult" Superman. Clark has to craft his civilian and superhero disguises, Lois has to show a little more interest in journalism, and Lex has to embrace his dark side more fully. Right now Chloe seems more like "Lois" and Lionel Luthor acts more like "Lex," so maybe some brain-switching is in the pipeline before the series ends. Perhaps in all of that confusion, people will forget all the supernatural things they’ve seen Clark do over the years, and Clark himself will figure out how to use all his powers more effectively.

Still, it's not like everything I watch is a prequel or remake. Why, just last night, after the last four "Arrested Development" episodes, I turned on "Battlestar Galactic"-- d'oh!
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Thursday, February 02, 2006

New comics 2/1/06

This week was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it featured new issues of Green Lantern and Legion of Super-Heroes after only two weeks, since both series are trying to get back to a regular monthly schedule. Second, I expected both Gotham Central and the Rann-Thanagar War Special to have endings, but instead both seemed beholden to larger corporate storytelling concerns. In the case of GC, take that as a spoiler.

Other than that, not a bad week. Batman and the Monster Men #4 (by Matt Wagner) and Detective Comics #816 (written by Shane McCarthy, art by Cliff Chiang) both featured good, straightforward, entertaining Batman stories. BMM relates Batman's narrow escape from the lair of Hugo Strange's monsters; and 'Tec finishes up the Mr. Zsasz two-parter with the cops chasing both hero and villain. Both explore the balance between mundane crime and super-crime, and both feature healthy doses of Bat-mystique.

Green Lantern #8 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Carlos Pacheco) finishes its latest two-parter with Mongul (and Mongal, his unfortunately-named sister), and since half of it is Pacheco-illustrated dream sequences, I had much the same reaction as I did with Pacheco's Superman/Batman arc: very pretty, and it gives him room to draw all kinds of outlandish situations, but ultimately it doesn't add up to much. I'm still trying to work out how Hal's fantasy would be so seductive to him. Either Johns doesn't quite get the Black Mercy, or he's just throwing in wild scenarios and teasing the explanations. Anyway, once GL and Green Arrow get back to reality, it's all fun and games until somebody's head comes off, and I'm wondering -- between this and Infinite Crisis, can I bring the "Four Beheadings And A Funeral" joke out of storage?

Legion #14 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Ken Lashley and Adam DeKraker) continues with the political and personal fallout from the Legion's victory over Terror Firma. Again, it's probably a cop-out, but I need to read this book from the beginning. There was a point when it all seemed familiar but radically new, and now it seems to have assumed that the reader is familiar with the radically-new aspects. It's not poorly done by any means, and I don't dislike the characters, but I get the feeling I've spent too little time with them.

Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #3 (written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Yanick Paquette) was a fun issue mostly for the inclusion of Mind-Grabber Kid, a one-off Denny O'Neil character from the late �60s post-Gardner Fox era of Justice League of America. Now MGK is an adult trying to trade on his moment of fame at a superhero convention. Yes, it's easy to mock comic conventions, but it's also fun, and Morrison does it with a knowing wink. There was a lot of cheesecake in this book at first, but now I can see where Morrison has been going with it.

Fantastic Four #534 (written by J. Michael Straczynski, drawn by Mike McKone) continues Ben and Johnny's fight with the Hulk, but throws into the mix the notion that the Hulk is acting out all of his most painful memories in a gamma-fueled haze. It feels a bit more like a Hulk story than an FF story, and it probably requires at least a passing knowledge of Hulk history to understand completely, but it works. Ben and Johnny are handled well too. A fun "Franklin Richards" story rounds out the issue.

Captain America #14 (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Steve Epting) concludes "The Winter Soldier" and, in fact, wraps up a dangling plotline from as far back as issue #1. Although it's a Cap/WS fight, it builds both on Cap's emotions for Bucky and WS's confusion about his own origins, so there's more dramatic heft to it.

It also provides an ending, which brings me to Gotham Central #40 (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano) and Rann-Thanagar War Special #1 (written by Dave Gibbons, drawn by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado). With RTWS I kind of understand, and arguably I have tacitly bought into the whole concept of this sort of "half-issue" (as in, this should have been Infinite Crisis #4.5) on the front end.

RTWS does three things: it allows everyone in space to point and gawk at the big hands coming out of the space-warp; it resolves the Rann-Thanagar war; and it sets up the new Ion series. Now, maybe when I see this in the larger Infinite Crisis context, I will understand the editorial meeting at which it was decided that these three things should happen in a special outside the main miniseries. Right now, though, this particular issue just feels very padded. It contains one extremely unfortunate (and I hope accidental) reference to the big "footprints" revelation in Identity Crisis, and the Ion setup also comes out of left field (and will probably be revisited even further in Ion #1). I was sorry to see the one person die, though, and that was handled decently.

In hindsight, though, this last arc of Gotham Central has been nothing but setup for future series -- specifically, Detective Allen as the new Spectre, and Detective Montoya working out unresolved issues about Allen�s murder. As setup it's okay, but I was expecting some closure and I don't feel like this last issue of the series was a fitting end for the arc, let alone the series itself. I had thought Gotham Central was insulated somewhat by larger editorial dictates, and it's disappointing to see so patently that in the end, it wasn't.
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