Monday, April 24, 2006

Who, Williams, and Wall-Crawling Work

I have been watching the next-to-latest "Doctor Who" under what I understand are less-than-optimal conditions; namely, cut up for commercials by the Sci-Fi Channel. It also doesn’t help that the actual newest series has apparently already begun in the UK. So far it’s pretty fun, but admittedly my only other exposure to the Doctor consists of the ‘90s FOX TV movie and scattered "Mystery Science Theater 3000" references. (When the Dalek started spitting out “EX-TER-MI-NATE!”s I could only think of Tom Servo.)

So here’s my question: how connected is this show to the rest of Whovian mythology? I know all the Doctors are part of the same continuity (this guy is the ninth, right?) which goes back decades, so everything has to make sense somehow; but are there a lot of Star Trek-style in-jokes and references? Has the show started to repeat its plots (again, unfortunately, like Trek)? Is the music even similar? I don't feel lost, but I don't know if I'm missing any layers.

The second item is simply to wish composer John Williams a happy 65th birthday. He’s 5-for-45 on Oscar nominations, with his last win 12 years ago (Schindler’s List), and arguments can be made that he’s past his prime, but he’s also responsible for some of the most recognizable music in history. Many a long, lonely car trip in the past few years has gone by faster with an MP3 player full of Williams' scores.

EDIT 4/25/06: Actually, that John Williams turned 74 on February 8. This John Williams, the classical guitarist, just turned 65. I must have heard the birthday wishes out of the corner of my ear on the classical music station and confused one for the other. Still, happy belated birthdays to both!

Finally, Josh wonders (legitimately, I think) why the Peter Parker of Earth-Newspaper-Strip doesn't
use his wall-crawling powers to become the world’s greatest paparazzo. He could kiss the Daily Bugle goodbye and make the big bucks sending photos of Paris Hilton, Tara Reid, Lindsay Lohan, and other typical celebutants to Us and InStyle and the like [...] and then we’d have a whole story arc about the morality of his new way of earning a living. “They chose a career in the public eye … they’re asking for it!” Peter would say. “But Peter … I’ve chosen that life too!” Mary Jane would retort. Eventually, he’d be assigned to take pictures of his own wife, and they he’d have some hard choices to make.
I haven't really kept up with Spidey in a long while, but hadn't he give up freelance photography to become a teacher? (Before he became a full-time Avenger/Tony Stark aide and stopped worrying about money, that is.) I don't think this kind of approach was ever explored in the old days -- it sounds like a variation on the old "why doesn't he patent the web-fluid formula?" don't-go-there question -- but again, I dunno.
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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why No G'Nortest Green Lantern Stories?

Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is coming in August from DC:
The greatest adventures of the Emerald Gladiator, collected in one volume! Thrill to the exploits of several Green Lanterns in stories from GREEN LANTERN ('40s) #1; ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #89; GREEN LANTERN ('60s-70s) #1, 9, 87, 172; SUPERMAN #257, TALES OF THE GREEN LANTERN CORPS ANNUAL #3, GREEN LANTERN ('90s) #3, 0; GREEN LANTERN: MOSAIC #5; GREEN LANTERN GALLERY and GREEN LANTERN SECRET FILES 2005.

It looks like there are at least two Alan Scott Golden Age stories, a couple of John Broome/Gil Kane tales of Hal Jordan, the O'Neil/Adams introduction of John Stewart, Elliott S! Maggin's "Greatest Green Lantern Of Them All," and fights between Hal and Guy Gardner, Hal and Kyle Rayner, and Hal and John. I think the Alan Moore story, just from eyeballing, is a Katma Tui tale about a GL who can only use sound, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, not a bad selection, given the format. A bigger book (or maybe a GL in the [Decade] volume) could offer classics like the Steve Englehart/Dick Dillin JLA vs. Manhunters two-parter from Justice League of America #s 140-41 (March-April 1977), which was as much a GL story as a JLA story. I also have fond memories of the 3-part Marv Wolfman/Joe Staton Dr. Polaris arc from Green Lantern #s 133-35 (October-December 1980), the "secret origin" of Alan Scott's battery from Green Lantern #19 (December 1991), and the Lord Malvolio arc from Action Comics Weekly #s 632-34 (1989) and Green Lantern Special #2 (1989).

Still, the more I think about it, the more I'd like to see a G'Nort paperback. Start, of course, with Justice League International #10 (February 1988), which introduced G'Nort Esplanade Gneesmacher; and maybe include JLI #s 14-15 (June-July 1988), his first real adventure with the League. From there, unfortunately, things start to get a little too silly, but the introduction of JL Antarctica in Justice League America Annual #4 (1990) and the four-part "A Guy And His G'Nort" in Green Lantern #s 9-12 (February-May 1991) might make a respectable collection.

Now, I may be showing some bias by listing more "favorite" G'Nort stories than, say, Kyle Rayner stories; and it is also true that I could more easily put together Guy Gardner or John Stewart collections before getting to Kyle. I like Kyle fine -- I think it is just that I haven't spent the time with his stories that I have with the others. Besides, for me many of Kyle's brightest days (ha ha) have come with the JLA, so it's been harder for me to see arcs in his own book that have been better than JLA adventures. That Manhunter arc early in Judd Winick's tenure wasn't so bad, and the Effigy introduction was decent enough. I also liked the Kyle/Connor Hawke team-ups, and of course Kyle's banter with Wally West (although I don't think Wally was in Green Lantern a whole lot).

Besides, Kyle's got his own paperbacks. Time for G'Nort's!
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Thursday, April 13, 2006

More Library Books: A Contract With God and Teenagers From Mars

Good news for my fellow Williamsburgers (Williamsburgians?) who rely upon the local library for their comics: I have finished Teenagers From Mars (by Rick Spears and Rob G.) and A Contract With God (by Will Eisner).

Of course, I can’t say anything about the latter that hasn’t already been said more eloquently elsewhere. Naturally, I found “The Super” and the summer-vacation story very powerful. I mean, it’s Will Eisner, you know? And yet, I think I went into the book with no real expectations, so discovering these stories was that much more of a revelation as to how good he really was.

However, this doesn’t mean I will compare Teenagers From Mars to Contract With God. On the whole TFM was entertaining, if a bit bipolar. I appreciated its message, but when the big rampage at the end of the book started percolating, I wanted to step in and advise our heroes not to go so far with their rebellion. There’s one moment in Clerks where Dante, cited for selling cigarettes to a minor, is told there is no possibility of appeal. That moment has always seemed wildly unrealistic to me, and it therefore sacrifices a little bit of the movie’s credibility. Not that Clerks is a searing docudrama about the hideous conditions faced every day by heroic minimum-wage slackers, but most of the time it exists in the real world. TFM spends a little less time in the real world and ends up being a Kevin Smith movie with a bit of Natural Born Killers thrown in.

Still, I did enjoy Macon and Madison’s romance, and the individual issues flowed into each other almost seamlessly. Rob G.’s art is well-suited to the story, breaking out of a fairly standard grid for the big action sequences. He also includes a lot of detail, not just in backgrounds but on the main characters’ ubiquitous T-shirt iconography.

Anyway, maybe I am just na├»ve, but the extremes to which both sides go during the third act just seemed over the top. To that point, the book had done a good job setting up the main characters’ low-key existences. In a sense, then, the big ending keeps the book from being completely predictable, although some predictable plot elements set it up. I want to like Teenagers From Mars, and I think it’s worth reading. I am just not sure if I was in the right mood to appreciate it fully.
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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Hinge Panel (With Apologies To Ragnell)

Last week was pretty busy. The Best Wife Ever's brother and his wife came into town for four days and three nights, and we went out every night they were here. At one point they asked me about the Fantastic Four movie, which they had just rented. Coming at it from a non-fan perspective, they weren't too impressed with its lack of coherence, and they wanted to know what I thought about it.

This set me off on a dissertation about Jack Kirby expanding the frontiers of comics, yadda yadda yadda, and how no movie could be as cosmic as Kirby's stuff warranted. Because their eyes hadn't yet started to glaze over, when we got home I pulled out the Masterworks volume which reprinted FF #s 41-50.

I had been talking about a single panel from Fantastic Four #50 which I had first seen printed by itself, out of context, in the old World Encyclopedia of Comics. Gazing upon that panel some thirty years ago, I had no idea what story it came from, who drew it, or even who apart from the FF were represented, but the volumes it spoke fascinated me:

Because almost every person visible is in motion, the panel creates tension. We can't see Johnny's face, but we know from his posture he's worn out. We can also tell from his dialogue he's more than a little on edge -- rattled upon his return, but glad to be back. Like Reed, we don't know what he's brought, but Johnny talks about "infinity" and "the other side of the universe," so it must have been worth the trip. Something big's going on, for sure. Who's that flying in the background? my grade-school self wondered; and why isn't the big bald guy doing anything?

What a great panel. I learned soon enough about the Silver Surfer and the Watcher, but I probably didn't see that panel in its proper context for another twenty years. At that point, I know it lived up to my expectations. There were the Fantastic Four at their apex, hip-deep in the seminal first encounter with Galactus, desperately trying to prevent Earth's destruction until their colleague could return. By then I knew the story before reading it, since it had been referenced so often throughout the years. In fact, I think I bought the Marvels paperback the same day as the Masterworks, and could therefore compare the original with the "documentary" approach -- but Alex Ross only works in the literal, whereas Kirby was free to throw whatever he needed on the page to give the reader the proper scope. How indeed would a movie portray Johnny's journey? Even 2001 used abstractions and false colors to traverse the infinite.

So when the grade-schooler of the '70s saw that panel in the mid-'90s, the circle, as they say, was complete. My hunger to know had been replaced with the revelation that my imagination was on target. This panel was, in recruiting terms, a "hinge" -- that is, the piece that allows the door to open. Rarely do we step through doors and find the new space exactly as we thought, but that's what happened here.

My brother-in-law's wife looked through the Masterworks volume for several minutes the other night. I think she got a little confused between Medusa being in both the Frightful Four and the Inhumans, and I don't think she's ready to convert to the Church of Jack Kirby, but who knows? At least she got to see what the original Fantastic Four was all about.
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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mike W. Barr, Grant Morrison, and the '70s Love-God

Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Seven Soldiers are all good examples of the notion that nothing is too lame or too obscure for Grant Morrison to make cool. Even Morrison's JLA started with the (self-imposed) restriction of using the seven original members as they presently existed. Maybe that last one wasn't such a handicap, but you see what I mean.

Now Morrison will be the new regular writer on Batman, which by itself sounds like DC's latest license to print money. I'd venture to say most fans today associate this pairing with JLA more than they do earlier ventures like the Legends of the Dark Knight arc "Gothic" or the Arkham Asylum graphic novel. And why not? The Morrison JLA's uber-Batman solidified the character's public perception as the one indispensable Leaguer, whose combination of intelligence and physical skills more than made up for his lack of superpowers. Just over a year into Morrison's run, his hype for new villain Prometheus was basically that he could defeat Batman.

If Morrison's Batman has a handicap, it may be his stated focus on the "hairy-chested love-god" shaped by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, and an initial arc which could include revisiting the 1987 Mike W. Barr/Jerry Bingham graphic novel Son of the Demon. In SotD, Batman does more than team up with Ra's al Ghul -- he becomes second-in-command of al Ghul's empire, Talia's husband, and (eventually) the father of Talia's child.

Son of the Demon is best remembered today as the inspiration for Kingdom Come's Ibn al-Xuffasch ("Son of the Bat" in Arabic), the young man who Bruce thought Talia miscarried but who Talia gave up for adoption. That represents SotD's only legacy, since Denny O'Neil stated soon afterwards that it was not official DC continuity. (Denny O'Neil apparently didn't think Batman should be having sex.) Opinion on the story seems split -- here's a positive review, and here's a negative one.

At the time, though, it was a pretty big deal. It was the first hardcover Batman graphic novel. Mark Hamill, still five years away from Joker-hood, wrote the introduction. More violent and profane than the regular books, it showed a barely-clothed Bruce climbing into Talia's bed. In scope, Son of the Demon presented O'Neil and Adams' globetrotting "James Bond Batman" with a mature-for-1987 sheen -- the '70s love-god updated for PG-13 readers.

The theme of the book, not surprisingly, was "parents and children." Qayin, the villain of the piece, blames Ra's for the deaths of his parents, and took revenge by killing Talia's mother. Batman blames Qayin for Talia's miscarriage, and has issues with the "bat-demon" which seems to have replaced his own parents. Finally, Batman gets to be happy as a husband and father, before circumstances restore the familiar status quo. The rest of the plot involves terrorism, Bond-scale battles, and a weather satellite that could start World War III, all in just 78 pages.

Accordingly, while Son of the Demon moves at a pretty fast pace, it makes Batman's life-changing choices seem all the more capricious. Alfred and Commissioner Gordon appear briefly, establishing Batman's connection to Gotham City, but once Batman decides to join Ra's, he apparently leaves Gotham for several weeks without a word to either Alfred or Gordon. At that point I began to wonder how far the Bat-costume could go between washings.

I think this is where the book diverges from the Morrison paradigm of "Batman always has a plan." It is possible, and probably even Barr's intent, for us to believe that Batman would ignore his life in Gotham in order to stop Qayin. In Batman's mind it may be just a temporary absence, and a necessary part of completing the current mission. Once Talia gets pregnant, Batman may even feel justified in settling down with her, and perhaps taking her back with him. However, we see none of that, getting only a Batman caught up in the emotions of the moment.

It seems to me that the Morrison Batman could still have enjoyed his time with Talia, but the readers would have gotten at least a mention of Robin and/or Nightwing minding the store until he got back. The story might even have involved Batman going off the reservation, maybe severing his ties with Gotham completely, only at the last minute to reveal that his proteges, watching from afar, had provided him a safety net. The Batman who bought off Mirror Master in "Rock of Ages," and who beat Prometheus at his own game in "World War III," would have something like that in reserve. Even the O'Neil/Adams Batman of the original Ra's al Ghul stories faked Bruce Wayne's death so that Batman could track Ra's unhindered.

Still, for whatever reasons, the story only got 78 pages. For the most part it uses them well; but it doesn't seem concerned with convincing the reader that Batman is ready to be a husband and father. To be sure, it doesn't show Bruce Wayne's commitments, and the only person Batman seems to leave behind is Alfred, who merely tells Talia to "take care of him." The more those things were mentioned, the more they'd have to be addressed, I suppose, and probably pages were tight. In any event, the book presents Batman as Bruce's only real life, just as it presents the Bat-suit as Bruce's only real clothes, and that's hardly an invalid approach.

Nevertheless, Son of the Demon doesn't exist in a vacuum, or even in a sort of generic-Batman setting. It refers both to the original Ra's stories (a character from that arc is murdered) and to Barr and Trevor von Eeden's Batman Annual #8 (1982). And, of course, those life-changing events wouldn't have much meaning if they didn't happen to the "real" Batman. That's why I have the feeling that the story of Son of the Demon would be better served with more of an opportunity to explore its ramifications. Even the Bane of the Demon miniseries, which advertised the union of Talia and Bane, got four issues -- ten more pages than this graphic novel.

Since Morrison picks up after Batman's "One Year Later" reintroduction, maybe he can get into the emotional consequences of a Bat-child. Maybe he will even paint a plausible picture of a Batman ready to be domestic. However, I have a feeling that whatever Morrison's love-god gets into, he will have a plan for getting out.
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