Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Essential Archives Of Absolute Masterworks

Here's a non-exhaustive list of collections I would buy, gladly and without hesitation, should they ever appear:

1. Absolute New Gods. I have been lucky enough to collect the six-issue New Gods reprints from 1985 (the last issue of which set up The Hunger Dogs), but to my knowledge, other than a black-and-white paperback, DC has never reprinted this series. That’s unfathomable to me. If Marvel thinks it can sell a pricey oversized hardcover of Eternals, why doesn’t DC want to do the same for its most famous Kirby work? Do two Absolute volumes, include Hunger Dogs, and throw in some behind-the-scenes information about how Kirby would have preferred the series to end.

2. and 3. Color reprints of Forever People and Mr. Miracle would be appreciated too. Again, the Kirby issues of Jimmy Olsen got their own color paperbacks, so why the black-and-white treatment for the rest of the Fourth World? Even Kamandi got an Archives volume.

4. The Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told. Sure, Diana got the Complete History treatment a few years ago, but that was just a bunch of words. Where is the career-spanning anthology volume? Is DC having trouble picking the most representative of the subtext-filled Golden Age stories? She warrants at least her own “Decades” series.

5. Essential Howard The Duck Vol. 2. Marvel has been pretty good about cleaning out its library, and their back-catalogue is varied enough that a casual fan like me doesn’t see huge holes. However, I’m surprised it hasn’t picked up the spare with Howard the Duck. It took four Essential phone-books, but Tomb of Dracula was collected in its entirety. C’mon, Marvel, let’s get this one moving.

6. Showcase Presents Secret Society Of Super-Villains. Between Identity Crisis, Villains United, and the upcoming revival of Secret Six, the time is right to revisit the troubled ‘70s series, and probably throw in the Society’s appearances in Justice League of America to boot.

7. and 8. In the same vein, how about some love for DC’s models of shadowy ‘80s government conspiracies, Captain Atom and the Suicide Squad?

9. Showcase Presents Firestorm. Hey, I like Firestorm, okay? Put together the first Gerry Conway/Al Milgrom series, a few Justice League of America stories, the backups from Flash, and the first year or so of Fury of Firestorm, and see how its numbers compare to Essential Nova Vol. 1.

10. And speaking of Flash backup series, if the Green Lantern Archives get that far, I hope they don’t forget about the early ‘70s backup strip, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, Dick Dillin, and Mike Grell. The various O’Neil/Adams reprints I have seen never seem to get into this material, which bridged the gap between issues when Green Lantern (Co-Starring Green Arrow) went on hiatus.
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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Whither The Long-Form Recaps?

So here’s the thing: I like doing the hideously long, unavoidably verbose recaps of New Teen Titans (and its descendants) and Geoff Johns' Flash. At some point I will add the A.J. Lieberman/Al Barrionuevo Batman: Gotham Knights to that list. The common denominator, besides their publisher, is that at some point I really wondered what I was getting out of each of them. I even dropped New Titans for a few years after issue #100, but broke down and sought out the back issues just to be complete.

Thus, a bit of rationalizing goes into the recaps. You don’t see it right now with the Titans posts, because for the most part those stories hold up well on their own terms. That may change sooner rather than later. Honestly, my memories of “The Judas Contract” aren't as fond as for some of the earlier material from Year Three, because it seemed to me that Wolfman especially had let the title’s success go to his head by that point. Not so much in the larger plot, but in the execution. Anyway, I really can’t wait until the big 1985-86 mega-arc, and to a lesser extent “Titans Hunt” from 1990-91, because those stories, flaws and all, are real tours de force. I do plan to finish up Titans posts with the end of the 1999-2002 series, because as much as Geoff Johns went back to the Wolfman/Pérez well with the current Teen Titans, it is really an extension of Young Justice; and Nightwing and Arsenal aside, Outsiders to me is its own animal.

Johns’ Flash intrigues me through the character of Zoom. He’s created basically to test Wally, and thereby make Wally a better hero. If that’s not metacommentary (even unwitting) on the recent grim ‘n’ gritty resurgence at DC, I don’t know what is. Johns’ slow buildup to “Rogue War” also frustrated me, with its villain-spotlight issues seeming to derail whatever momentum the larger plot had going, and I am wondering whether the stories will read better in fewer sittings.

That’s also pretty much the main reason for revisiting the last couple of years of Gotham Knights. With its focus on Hush, the Poochie of Batman villains, it was either a near-complete train wreck or a masterwork of subtlety whose nuances can only be appreciated in slow, careful re-reading. I am trying not to be sarcastic here.

Fair warning, by the way: another candidate for the long-form treatment is (Fury of) Firestorm, but I don’t have the first Conway/Milgrom series. I would also like to revisit Steve Englehart’s Justice League of America issues, including the guest-written JLA/JSA/Legion team-up.

Still, though, I probably won't get to any of this until after we get the taxes filed. Talk about long forms....
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Thursday, March 23, 2006

A List, a League, and a Lame Reference

Probably won't be able to post until early next week, so here are some links to tide you over until then.

-- The Onion A.V. Club presents 20 Wonderfully Irrelevant "Andy Griffith Show" Conversations.

-- Via Newsarama, you could be in the JL6FNE! (Although, from a distance, what would be the difference between Tim Drake and Dick Grayson? Height? Short pants? Rubber nipples?)

... and finally ...

-- Would it be wrong to start calling Earth-8 "the Ocho?"
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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Building Character

In these days of revamps, relaunches, adaptations, and deconstruction, there's a lot of talk about what constitutes the "essence" of a character. The problem is, multiple interpretations of a character can create questions about how faithful a given interpretation is.

To be clear, I�m not talking about a Supreme-style menagerie of variations, or a DC One Million-esque series of family trees. Instead, I�m interested in the evolution of a character (or "entity," if we're considering groups) from its original concept to what may be nothing more than a list of characteristics and defining events.

To me there are two main factors at work. The first is continuity, with which we are all intimately familiar. The second is what I would call "fidelity," and it's harder to pin down. Many times, the accretion of continuity helps to define fidelity, as with the gradual expansion of Superman's powers over his first few decades. However, fidelity can also be a check on continuity, by pushing aside established events because they were "out of character" or could otherwise be dismissed. Here the Spider-Clone Saga and the "Teen Tony" Iron Man come to mind.

Of course, sudden broad strokes of continuity can greatly affect public perception of a character. Death is especially powerful in this regard. For over twenty years, every new story featuring Barry Allen as the Flash has carried with it, consciously or not, the emotional impact of his death. This is still true to a slightly lesser degree for Hal Jordan, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes, despite their recent revivals.

Other major changes can have similar, if not greater, effects. Dick Grayson's development into Nightwing was seen or otherwise alluded to in "Batman: The Animated Series," the "Teen Titans" cartoon, the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, and (arguably) even his mention in the "Birds of Prey" TV show. Dick becoming Nightwing has eclipsed Dick's career as Robin, despite the former career being only half as long as the latter. Therefore, it seems that fidelity to Dick's character must include his becoming Nightwing at some point.

Sometimes those big events have direct effects on other characters. Wally West�s path from sidekick to headliner began with Barry�s disappearance in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and much of Wally�s early Flash career was spent trying to live up to Barry�s legacy. Because Wally would be a different character if Barry were still alive, Barry�s death takes on an air of inevitability.

This is not to say that such changes are inherently capricious or meaningless. Barry�s death certainly gives his story a meaningful ending � one last run to save the world, and in the process inspire his proteg� to succeed him � but that doesn�t stop us readers from asking if that is the only ending possible.

Along the same lines, we are also free to question the degree to which other events are critical to a given character�s development. In other words, if Character A is defined by a certain series of events, does it matter if those events were never part of the character's original premise? Is the original just a step along the way to an ur-character, or baseline, against which all the variations may be measured? In some cases, this is certainly true.

Take Wonder Woman, for instance. Her earliest adventures featured positive messages of compassion, tolerance, and understanding, right alongside a lot of strange sexual imagery. Today, the message of peace remains, but the subtext has been scrubbed significantly. In refocusing the character on her mythological roots and her diplomatic mission, the character�s post-Crisis caretakers did go back to the beginning, but they didn�t feel the need to use everything from the William Moulton Marston/H.G. Peter days. In fact, the current comics version of the character has become so successful that I would argue it is the baseline.

(Not having read much of the recent John Byrne Doom Patrol, I am loath to argue that its retro-continuity-rollback sensibilities are somehow less representative of the team than the Grant Morrison version, but from what others have said that may well be the case. Has the Morrison DP become the new standard, even compared with Byrne's recreation of the original?)

A superhero�s baseline interpretation might not even come from the comics at all. The Superman of the �70s and �80s movies, played by Christopher Reeve, is perhaps the biggest influence on the character in the past thirty years. At the time, though, it was a clear variation from the Earth-1 iteration then featured in the comics. Still, many of its aspects made their way into the 1986 comics revamp. From there it�s debatable whether "Lois & Clark," the animated series, and "Smallville" looked more to the movies or the comics. Regardless, the new Superman Returns apparently takes its cue pretty directly from the first two Reeve movies.

I realize here that I�m getting back into the "multiple distinct variations" paradigm, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that those movies � specifically the first one�s origin sequences � made it more acceptable for the �86 revamp to discard a lot of the Silver Age trappings. In other words, continuity was sacrificed for the sake of fidelity.

Honoring both continuity and fidelity, the two Spider-Man movies drew great inspiration from the Lee/Ditko/Romita Sr. stories of the �60s. When the movies altered sequences, as with the "death of Gwen Stacy" scenes in the first movie, the changes served larger plot concerns. Gwen�s death was a pivotal moment in the comics, but in hindsight it allowed Peter and Mary Jane to solidify their relationship. While no one would argue that Gwen�s death should be forgotten, in the first movie she would have been superfluous. (She�ll be in Spider-Man 3, so go figure.) Again, fidelity to the character of Spider-Man now includes his successful romance with Mary Jane, not necessarily his continuing angst over Gwen�s death.

Similarly, the various Batman animated series skipped Jason Todd entirely, giving Tim Drake a version of Jason�s origin. When Green Lantern was introduced on the "Superman" animated series, he had Kyle Rayner�s name but Hal Jordan�s origin. The recent Flash-centered episode of "Justice League Unlimited" gave Wally West Barry Allen�s police-scientist job. Again, these changed elements must be judged, positively or negatively, in light of fidelity to the underlying character. While they lack the tragedies from which their print counterparts were born, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Fidelity includes tragedy and change, but clearly it doesn't have to stop there. It just has to make sense in the context established thus far, and ideally it will expand the character's horizons. Not a bad set of goals, even for the soulless world of corporate superhero comics.
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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Our Top Stories Tonight: Stuff I Did"

In the same way that I think of Batman being in marketing, I keep thinking about Clark Kent the journalist. The Golden Age Clark was a crusading reporter in an age when reporters could proclaim an agenda. The Silver Age Clark was an establishment type, a nerdy guy in a suit and glasses whose purpose was to fade into the woodwork and give Superman some cover.

(The Earth-1 Clark’s significant stint as a TV anchorman is still fascinating to me. Seems like Superman would often have a Clark robot cover the nightly news, which is clearly a jab at talking-head culture. However, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark would have been a nationally-known figure, alongside Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds. Clark was a precursor of sorts to young up-and-comers Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings. Imagine a young Brokaw ducking into a storage closet to fly off and stop a tsunami – with plenty of time to write it up and report on it at dinnertime -- and you see why I want Grant Morrison to devote an All-Star Superman issue to Clark’s TV career.)

Today’s Clark falls somewhere between his predecessors in terms of social activism. Mild-mannered no longer, he has more freedom to crusade without endangering Superman’s secret identity, but by and large writers have given Lois Lane all the juicy reportage. This isn’t surprising -- with Lois being his fianceé/wife for the past fifteen years, she’s going to be around constantly and has to look good next to Clark/Supes -- but it takes away from the chance to use Clark’s job as a window on Superman.

The most significant paradigm shift of the post-Crisis Superman was the approach to Clark Kent. In the past, Clark was Kal-El’s disguise which allowed him to operate effectively as Superman. Today, Superman is Clark’s disguise. On Earth-1, Kal-El (as the teenaged Superboy) was a superhero before he became a journalist. Today, the sequence is also reversed. Clark’s social activism still springs in significant part from a desire to his powers productively, but (as seen in Superman: Birthright), his “streak of good” fuels both sides of his life.

Moreover, it makes sense that Clark would want to be a reporter. Clark clearly believes that people are fundamentally good, so if he can present them with the facts they need to make informed decisions, they will make the right decisions. The biggest check on Superman’s power is his own trust in the rest of humanity, just as the core of Superman’s appeal is the public’s trust in him. This two-way relationship keeps Superman from taking over the world and keeps the public from being afraid of him.

Of course, Clark’s crosstown colleague Peter Parker presents an alternate take on the superhero journalist. For Peter, photography isn’t a calling, just a way to pay bills. Clark is in a position to portray his alter ego favorably, but Peter isn’t -- the more foolish his photos make Spider-Man look, the more job security he has. Both men use their positions as cover for their heroic identities, and naturally both want to make the world a better place, but the similarities end there. Peter's experience as a journalist is fundamentally shaped by Jonah Jameson's announced agenda of ruining Spider-Man, whereas Clark's editors have never seriously crusaded against Superman.

In fact, didn't one DC/Marvel crossover make it a point to show Jonah applauding Superman in an editorial? Again, this issue of trust is at the heart of Superman's character, and today it can be played ironically against the sort of journalistic smorgasbord which the information explosion has given us. Clark-on-TV was, for its time, a simple updating of Clark-in-the-paper: Clark went where the public got its news, whether in print or on video. Today, Clark works for a "major metropolitan newspaper" not only to get instant access to breaking news, but also probably because a cable-TV head or (heavens!) some schmoe with a website would just fill a niche. It could be argued that newspapers are becoming their own niche, I know, but they are far from being marginalized -- and they still are seen as fulfilling a higher journalistic calling than either network or cable TV.

Makes me wonder why Clark never worked on radio. (Silver Age Clark could have done his reports through super-ventriloquism.) Having no personal experience with the golden age of radio news, I will still speculate that radio in the '30s, '40s, and '50s was seen as the TV news of today -- more immediate, more visceral, and therefore less intellectual than the newspaper. Electronic media, from Edward R. Murrow in London forward, arguably deals more in emotion and impression than print, which could actually separate Superman from his fellow citizens. Through the Daily Planet, Clark can bring stories to light that help people live their lives better. Showing Superman's exploits on TV makes him a spectacle, and he wants to be more of an example. Clark probably isn't above setting Supes' adventures in a context which emphasizes the latter.

Wow, sounds like I have talked myself out of the Clark-as-anchorman story, doesn't it? Oh well, probably best to keep the Ron Burgundy comparisons to a minimum....
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

More Library Books, Plus "Galactica's" Season Finale

Went back to the library yesterday and oh, the things I checked out. So far I have read Promethea Vol. 1 and 1000 Steps To World Domination. Thought Promethea was pretty good, but isn't Moore going back to the Supreme well a little with the multiple incarnations of Promethea? I know it gets more philosophical as it goes on, but I'll have to wait until Vol. 2 is returned to find out.

I found 1KSTWD kind of uneven and even a little meandering, but I didn't hate reading it and would probably give it another try. Also in the pile are Teenagers From Mars, Birth of a Nation, and A Contract With God, so the catching-up continues.

For some reason or another, I was pretty wiped out Friday night, so the Best Wife Ever stayed up until 11:30 watching the season finale of "Battlestar Galactica." After a Saturday's worth of "I wish you would watch the tape already so we could talk about it," I finally watched it today, and I have to say, it took a pretty giant step towards getting back into my good graces. SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course.






Pretty much since the beginning, the whole Baltar/Six subplot has really annoyed me. Most of that is frustration at Baltar's incompetence continually being concealed, so now that he appears to be completely exposed, that part of his arc seems to be at an end. Baltar may have been a tragic, misunderstood figure at the beginning of the series, but by now he is almost beyond redemption, and I look forward to his comeuppance, if not outright villainy.

Watching the end of the episode also made me remember the 1978 "Galactica" pilot, whose discussion of settling on a viable planet ended with a Cylon ambush. It's a compliment to the current show that I wondered whether it would devote a substantial series of episodes to planetside society, much like it has allowed the Pegasus to stick around. The Best Wife Ever considers the show more interesting ("more like Star Trek," in fact, which I know would cause many "Galactica" buffs to clutch their chests and/or rend their garments) when the fleet is in space exploring, not stuck in orbit.

And since I mentioned Star Trek, the occupation of New Caprica and the flight of the fleet (har har) also produced strong echoes of the Cardassian/Dominion occupation of Deep Space Nine. Here as there, I expect that the fleet will liberate the planet and restore some kind of familiar status quo, but instead of this being a temporary cliffhanger stunt, I get the feeling that it is more of a thought-experiment by the producers. "What if Baltar did win? What if they did colonize a planet?" Here are the answers, plus Lt. Castillo's old mustache and Tigh in a Floyd R. Turbo hat.

I do want to clarify that my satisfaction with the current cliffhanger doesn't stem from any familiarity or dumbing-down of the series. I'm not going to say that the familiar elements were handled with irony, because that probably reads too much into them. Moreover, I don't think the show will change Baltar's character enough to make him an outright black-hatted villain, like his '70s predecessor. I am glad the show seems to have taken a few big steps forward while leaving room for its original premise to remain valid, and that's why I'll still be watching in October.

Until then, it looks like we'll get the new "Dr. Who." Apparently the rest of the world loves this show, so I hope it's not wrong.
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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tom Goes To The Library (And Starts Catching Up)

Yesterday I finally got a Williamsburg Regional Library card. My first checkouts included Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, and Persepolis, and I read them last night and this afternoon. I also got Green Arrow: The Archer's Quest (because I am too lazy to dig out the back issues) and Kitchen Confidential for when I got tired of looking at pictures.

Of the first three, I liked Persepolis the most. It reminded me of Maus both structurally and thematically, and I thought Marjane Satrapi did an excellent job distinguishing several characters both visually and by "voice."

Bone Sharps I was familiar with through its Free Comic Book Day giveaway. Although I thought it was very ambitious, and certainly took great pains to balance good storytelling with historical accuracy, after a while some technical aspects of the art started to intrude on my enjoyment of the book. Mostly this happened when I started confusing the characters with Dilbert's Elbonians. Otherwise, the book reminded me pleasantly of Empire of the Air and similar tales of dueling scientists.

I'm still not sure if I liked Good-Bye Chunky Rice. For his first graphic novel, Craig Thompson certainly demonstrated a good command of the medium, but at times it seemed a little obvious. I mean, I picked up on the whole "I carry my home on my back" thing well before Chunky mentioned it. Casting the main characters as cute funny-animals also confused me a little, especially because Chunky seems at first to be the same kind of indeterminate-age man-child as, say, SpongeBob. However, over the course of the story he seems to be a little more worldly, and his relationship with Dandel seems more intimate than just "best friends." Accordingly, I didn't know how afraid to be for him during his journey. As a meditation on how we test the bonds we form with others (and how sometimes we can never break those bonds), the book holds together (no pun intended) pretty well, but I can't say I'm eager to plumb its hidden intricacies again anytime soon.

You-all are lucky, in fact, that I decided not to compare and contrast Chunky Rice with The Archer's Quest. Both explore "what we leave behind" from different perspectives -- one from that of the person who departs, and the other from that of the person who recollects. Honestly, I didn't expect to like TAQ after having been burned by Brad Meltzer's heavy-handedness in Identity Crisis, but compared to the latter the Green Arrow story is almost sublime. If Meltzer can dial back the melodrama for his Justice League stint, it could be a real treat.

The fact that I am winding up a post about three non-superhero graphic novels with a thought on one of the most mainstream superhero books there is, is probably more than a little sad, I know. I'm trying, people; I'm trying!
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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Quick Thoughts On Batman Annual #25

Last week, after reading Batman #650, I thought that the “Red Hood” storyline suffered by association with Infinite Crisis. To that point I had enjoyed both, but both were (no pun intended) worlds apart in terms of tone. The Big Event moment came out of left field, introducing an element of cosmic hoodoo into a tale which acknowledged the larger DC universe but wasn’t affected significantly by it. However, the crossover stuff wasn't that prevalent, and I went into Batman Annual #25 wondering how integral it would be to the return of Jason Todd.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Batman Annual #25:






The Annual confirms that the re-animatory spark was a kind of all-purpose Get Out Of Jail Free card, courtesy of Infinite Crisis. Writer Judd Winick linked it to Superboy’s pounding on the walls of netherversal reality, but it might just as well have been a tap on the forehead from the Blue Fairy.

Admittedly, the Batman titles have historically been in something of a bind when it comes to cosmic themes. The books pride themselves on not getting too far from the plausible, but they have to exist side-by-side with characters who travel through space and time at will. Despite conventional wisdom which holds that Batman could single-handedly neutralize most of the Justice League, any incursion of the science-fictional into a “regular” Batman story will likely be greeted with skepticism. Batman’s “sci-fi closet,” postulated by Grant Morrison in the context of a Justice League story, was arguably one of the more daring departures of recent years. However, given the strategic thinker into whom Batman had evolved, he would have been stupid not to have such an arsenal.

Therefore, on one hand it is similarly practical to have Infinite Crisis facilitate Jason’s return. In the larger scheme of things, it’s just as good a mechanism as any other, and probably no less convoluted to explain.

Still, though, it feels like a cheat, given that Infinite Crisis had played such a small role in the story. Winick had already used a number of more traditional superheroic elements in his Batman issues, including Amazo, the android with all the powers of the Justice League. Working a similar established plot device into the story would have drawn both on Batman’s history in the larger DC universe, and would have felt more organic than the almost-literal bolt from the blue Infinite Crisis provided. Heck, Amazo himself could have used Zatanna's powers to re-animate Jason.

In a way this situation reverses the equities of previous comfort-zone-busting story arcs like “Knightfall” and “No Man’s Land.” In both of those arcs, the main problem suggested a quick solution via one or more of DC’s ultra-powerful characters. Zatanna or Dr. Fate could have repaired Bruce’s broken back, and a crew of superheroes could have rebuilt Gotham like they rebuilt Metropolis a few years before.

Both of those arcs therefore illustrate the need for the key to the mystery to be planted within the story itself. In the inevitable comparison with its Captain America counterpart "The Winter Soldier," "Under the Hood" will surely come up short for having to go outside its own boundaries. (The Cap story didn't depend on House of M to bring Bucky back, and even eschewed the Cosmic Cube as a possible explanation.) The fact that most of "Under the Hood" was handled well makes the big revelation of Batman Annual #25 harder to take.
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