Thursday, April 26, 2007

"CLAAAREMONNT!!" ... or, Some Thoughts On Star Trek: Debt of Honor

Star Trek: Debt of Honor is an exquisitely-illustrated graphic novel which spans most of Kirk's Starfleet career and affirms, once again, his "first, best destiny" as the captain of the Enterprise. By taking subplots and themes from the first four movies, and using the set designs from Star Trek V, it is positioned as an "unofficial movie," a 25th-anniversary tribute which was supposed to come out in 1991, a few months prior to Star Trek VI.*

Kind of rah-rah, and nothing really groundbreaking (Kirk loves his ship? You don't say!), but sounds promising, right?

Credits first: Debt of Honor was written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Adam Hughes, inked by Karl Story, colored by Tom McCraw, and lettered by Bob Pinaha. Hughes and Story acknowledge the contributions of Gordon Purcell on layouts and Brian Stelfreeze and others (presumably) on other aspects of the art.

Let's start with writer Chris Claremont's plot.

Kirk's been having dreams about kicking Christopher Lloyd in the face (Chris Sims would be proud) on the Genesis Planet. This would be fine, except that the Klingon then turns, in rapid succession, into David Marcus, Khan, and the original Enterprise. Ultimately, Kirk himself becomes the Enterprise, blazing a fiery trail across the Genesis Planet's sky.

Back in the real world, he's out on the high seas with Dr. Gillian Taylor, the Mary Sue from Star Trek IV, watching her bond with the two humpback whales and a few dolphins. The new Enterprise is in Spacedock, for once not assigned to any missions, so Kirk's setting up some side action for himself. (No, not like that, although the topic does not go unaddressed.)

Seems that at various points in his career -- as a lieutenant on the Farragut, right after "The Doomsday Machine," and shortly after The Motion Picture, Kirk encountered a nasty extragalactic race that would strike swiftly and then disappear, leaving little for the Federation to investigate. The attacks tended to follow major celestial events like the Planet Killer, V'Ger, and now the Whale Probe, so Kirk anticipates a new incursion and wants to stop it. His plan involves old Klingon and Romulan acquaintances as well.

Once everyone's introduced and the Enterprise is underway -- and believe me, that takes a lot of the story -- the plan is, as Bill Cosby might have put it, to walk down nothing but dark alleys with ten-dollar bills hanging out of one's pockets. Naturally, the critters attack, rescue missions are performed, sacrifices are made, and the Enterprise warps out just ahead of the big explosion.

Although the main plot doesn't really kick in until a little past the halfway point, that's not really why this book exists. As a 25th-anniversary story, it incorporates as many Original Trek elements as it can, and also includes a couple from The Next Generation (Chateau Picard wine, Klingon discommodation). The book features about a dozen Original Trek characters in cameos or other small roles, along with additional Easter-egg references to Trek novelists. Again, that's all fine on its face.

There are new characters too, and I include in that the new take on Jame Finney, daughter of Kirk's disgraced friend Ben Finney from "Court-Martial." Here, twenty years after the episode, she's pushing thirty as a lieutenant j.g., but she acts like a cadet. She and the other Claremontian junior officers are all aw-shucks, self-deprecating, happy-to-be-here, and of course all supremely competent because otherwise they'd be on some other ship.

The most prominent new character is T'Cel, introduced during the Farragut scenes as a Vulcan scientist assigned to help Lt. Kirk with damage control. T'Cel fights off the nasty aliens along with Kirk, saving his life before giving herself up to the Romulans. T'Cel and Kirk have a liaison, as the kids say, the details of which are strongly implied even as they seem logistically creepy. (For one thing, Kirk is apparently unconscious -- shades of Devin Grayson!) T'Cel pops up whenever Kirk encounters the critters or their handiwork, and she's there for the fireworks at the end too. Essentially, she's the Catwoman/Sans Serif of this story.

As you can tell, the script has a lot of information to dump, and its problem lies in its reliance almost exclusively on dialogue (including log entries) to do it. Characters devote paragraphs to their own motivations and their suppositions about their colleagues. One scene even ends with Bones talking to himself for an extended period -- which, considering the in-jokey nature of the script, is probably yet another obscure reference; but it made me realize the device had gone too far. What's worse, characters talk to each other about things they surely know and/or have discussed ad infinitum over the past twenty-five years. Bones even exposits to Spock about the latter's history with his father. Everyone except the Vulcans sounds wildly unnatural. While this may be Claremont's conscious effort to make up for whole episodes where Sulu, Uhura, et al., only spouted jargon, again it makes you wonder why people don't just get bored and walk away.

And the accents -- good Lord, the accents! It's not that Bones sounds like Rogue and Chekov like Colossus, but Claremont wants there to be no doubt about where they're supposed to hail from. Maybe that's an in-joke too. Thankfully, the Klingons don't start talking Russian back to Chekov until late in the book.

The problem is that as an adaptation of filmed works, DOH (I love that acronym) is stuck in "movie mode." If adaptations of plays can feel too stagebound, this one is too screen-bound. It does sport some nice panel layouts and sequential storytelling, but their structure strains under the weight of all that dialogue.

This page, for example: Spock and Bones pedeconference to the Bridge from their chess match on the Rec Deck. Big panels alternate with smaller ones, there's that nice bisection of the two-shot panel with the turbolift inset, and there's plenty of room for word balloons. However, is their conversation really necessary to the story, considering the book's past the 1/3 mark and we're stlll not out of Spacedock? Also, the dense dialogue and the relative lack of movement within "scenes" (i.e., panels) gives the impression that the characters are just taking a lazy trip to the Bridge, and might as well fill in any rookie readers on the way. If this were a movie, it would be Clerks.

Overall, the book is somewhat indulgent. I particularly wonder if the two-page spread of our friend the yardmaster cooing over the Enterprise wouldn't have worked better as a silent image, so that the reader could enjoy it on its own terms. Every Star Trek movie wants to do its own version of the Motion Picture-esque beauty pass, but this one wants to be more efficient, imparting a little (unnecessary) backstory as well.

However, having all of those elements (dialogue, travel pod, huge starship) competing for your eyes' attention on the same visual level leaves the spread feeling disorganized. To be sure, we read from top to bottom and left to right, so we may well be drawn to the yardmaster's first word balloon, and from there follow his soliloquy counterclockwise to the travel pod and then "up" to the Enterprise -- but the largest single image is the Enterprise, and I don't think the balloons can compete with it. A silent spread of the ship, even with the travel pod for perspective, would have been more dramatic.

Still, it wouldn't have let Claremont name-check previous captains (no love for Captain Spock's tenure?) or give his yardmaster the hardly-unexpected personality trait of starship love. If the yardmaster's soliloquy was meant to emphasize a) the history of NCC-1701 and b) the transference of same to NCC-1701-A, I think that even gets a little muddled. Seeing as how everyone connected with either Enterprise loves boldly going, etc., and talks about it All The Time, I don't think we need to be reminded by this guy.

But the whole book is like that, full of little connect-the-dots moments that celebrate how great it is for all of Star Trek to fit together so seamlessly, even when apparent contradictions (smooth vs. bumpy Klingons?) crop up. The book is loaded with dissertations on Trek minutiae, presented virtually in that form. It's not so much a work of fiction as it is a thesis. It's almost its own Wiki.

And again, the problem isn't so much that Claremont seeks to make these connections, but that he has the characters spell them out in dialogue. Our old friend the Omniscient Narrator would have been a great help here, but that would have meant introducing a new voice into the mix, and it's pretty obvious that Claremont wants to build this story on the familiar voices of the cast. The great irony is that he has those characters speak very fannish sentiments, when using an omniscient narrator in this case would have been, almost by definition, incorporating the voice of the fan.

However, that would apparently have violated the filmic nature of the story. Obviously, when filmed Trek needs narration, it turns to log entries and other in-story forms of exposition. Here, though, Debt of Honor doesn't realize it can be a comic first and a Trek story second. Accordingly, it's only too happy to give everyone a chance to monologue, regardless of how it makes them sound. To be fair, I don't recall too many Star Trek comics using an anonymous narrator, but I also don't think those other comics were as verbose as this one.

In this respect, Debt of Honor is a narratively thin work, limited to (wait for it...) "two-dimensional thinking." In one scene, Lt. Finney stops by Bones' office to talk about the Klingon experts that can't make the trip, and naturally mentions everyone's qualifications. Today's superhero books, though they avoid anonymous captions and thought balloons, might well have replaced that exposition with an overlaid panel styled like a library-computer dossier. That's an extra layer of graphic storytelling unique to comics, familiar to Trekkies, and suited to the situation.

As it is, the script appears to have a love-hate relationship with its underlying sentiments. It loves its characters, and wants them to live and breathe and speak in their authentic voices, but in practice it makes them sound incredibly self-absorbed. Maybe this is a Claremont trademark, and maybe he's even making fun of his own tendencies. I'll leave that to the more knowledgeable among you.

Boy, that Hughes/Story/McCraw et al. art is gorgeous, though. The playfulness of this page particularly reminds me of Hughes' Justice League America work.

Clearly the 23rd Century has been good to Dr. Taylor, and of course Kirk always gets treated well by Trek artists. Debt of Honor's saving grace is that while it might be padded by dialogue, at least it has page on page of reverential art.

(* For some reason I think it was delayed until the summer of 1992, but I'm not absolutely sure about that. I know the paperback came out in '92.)
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Sunday, April 22, 2007

New comics 4/4/07, 4/11/07, and 4/18/07

Man, what a week. The Best Wife Ever has been out of town, so you know what that means: blogging about the DC solicits and World War III!

Anyway, three weeks behind; no time to waste.


I'm just going to do a quick rundown for these books. I talked about Justice League of America #7 over at Blog@, in connection with the rest of "The Tornado's Path." Madman Atomic Comics #1 was not what I expected -- weird, expositional, and kind of depressing. Welcome to Tranquility #5 was decent, as the first arc starts getting wrapped up. Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #28 was pretty good, and its current arc is ready to end as well. Atom #10 was okay -- I'm not a huge fan of Eddy Barrows' art, and the "Sometimes They Come Back" story doesn't feel right for the book. Detective Comics #831 was very good, especially with the flashback to the previous Ventriloquist. Superman #661 felt like it could have come out of the '70s or '80s, and that's not entirely bad. Superman/Batman #33 finished what turned out to be the Despero arc, and I'm glad it's over. Nightwing #131 was okay -- not as good as the rest of the arc has been. Finally, 52 #48 felt rushed, and never quite came together.


We begin the backlog in earnest with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four #1 (written by Jeff Parker, pencilled by Mike Wieringo, inked by Wade von Grawbadger) and All-Star Superman #7 (written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely), two books designed to meet all one's needs for their respective subjects. I know I'm supposed to say something insightful about every title, but with these it's not going to get much deeper than "more, please." I can't get enough of Mike Wieringo's FF, and he draws a fine Spidey too. Jeff Parker's story strikes a good balance between the typical street-level Spidey adventure and the correspondingly cosmic FF tale. It's nice and light-hearted, with the Impossible Man and a great set of Ben/Johnny pranks. The stakes are laid out a little more clearly in the Superman title, as a "Bizarro plague" comes to Earth. The problem's big enough that it doesn't require Superman to be artificially de-powered, or to hold back, but at the same time Morrison and Quitely's Superman radiates confidence. More, please.

I can see that Tales of the Unexpected #7's lead Spectre story (written by David Lapham, pencilled by Eric Battle, inked by Prentis Rollins) is trying to wrap everything up in its penultimate chapter, but I'm not really invested anymore. The same is definitely not true for the Dr. 13 story (written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang), which just seems to get crazier and more affecting as it goes along. The satire on DC's continuity struggles has never been more clear, with the "Architects" even wearing Ben Cooper-style superhero masks representing some of their signature assignments. (If I'm right, they're Grant Morrison/Batman, Greg Rucka/Wonder Woman, Geoff Johns/Superman, and Mark Waid/Flash). Speaking of stakes, the Dr. 13 story seems to be about nothing less than the survival of DC's own Island of Misfit Toys. We'll find out next issue.

More metacommentary is on display in She-Hulk #17 (written by Dan Slott, pencilled by Rick Burchett, inked by Cliff Rathburn). Slott's treatment of Shulkie's sexual history comes into play during an encounter with Iron Man and some Nick Fury LMDs reference several other books' subplots. The bulk of the story has Shulkie's squad taking out old Hulk villains both in the field and on the SHIELD Helicarrier, and that part's good. Meanwhile, Mallory and Two-Gun try to clean up the former's image following her breakup with Awesome Andy. I have always been a fan of Rick Burchett's work, and Cliff Rathburn's inks are a good complement. However, it all feels like treading water until "World War Hulk" and its attendant round of status quo change(s).

Lotsa plot in Green Lantern Corps #11 (written by Dave Gibbons, pencilled by Patrick Gleason, inked by Prentis Rollins), so I won't try to summarize. Suffice it to say that everything seems to be connected to weird goings-on on Mogo, which I'd guess are in turn caused by the imminent attack of the Sinestro Corps. A mention of the old Empire of Tears only heightens the apocalyptic mood. I enjoyed this issue, because it balances the various plot threads (I count six) pretty well. I'm also a lot fonder of Gleason and Rollins than I was this time last year.

JLA Classified #37 (written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Carlos D'Anda) begins "Kid Amazo," so when we see a slacker college student who's questioning his purpose and the meaning of existence, it's not hard to figure out why. However, this story wants to look at its title character not as someone who will naturally turn to the light (a la Red Tornado and Tomorrow Woman), but someone who can make a real choice to join his "family" against the JLA. In that respect it looks interesting. I know I've seen D'Anda's work before, but I can't remember where. Here it's pretty good -- kind of like the clean Doug Mahnke/Tom Nguyen style, but a little rougher. A decent book all around.

Still sticking with Wonder Woman (#8 written by Jodi Picoult, pencilled by Drew Johnson, and inked by Ray Snyder), even though this issue isn't much better than the last. The art's still good, though. I will say that the story ties into Amazons Attack a little earlier than I expected, and it makes me wonder about how that event played into the development of Picoult's arc.

That leaves us with 52 #49 (written by The Architects, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencils by Eddy Barrows, inks by Dan Green, Rodney Ramos, and Barrows) -- and honestly, with everything that happens in 52-land this week, I can't say much more about the leadup in this issue. The Dr. Magnus bits were the highlight, and Barrows draws facial features a bit soft for my taste.


The elephant in the room this week was World War III, about which I've already written some 1600 words behind the above link. Short version: incoherent, redeemed somewhat by the efficient 52 #50. Moving on.

The Metal Men show up in Superman/Batman #34 (written by Mark Verheiden, pencilled by Pat Lee, inked by Craig Yeung), and the story is set up for them to fight Supes and Bats, but it's not much more than that. Lee and Yeung's art is dark and slightly exaggerated, such that when one of the bad guys looks grotesquely overmuscled, I'm not sure whether I should accept that there's an in-story reason or that it's just bad anatomy. At one point Bruce Wayne gets slapped by the widow of one of his employees, killed in an attack, and you don't see that too often, so the story gets points for that. However, it sure doesn't have as much fun with Magnus or the Metal Men as 52 does, and I hope that changes.

By now you've probably heard about the bestiality in The Spirit #5 (by Darwyn Cooke), and sure, that's good for some laughs, but it's only part of another solid issue. The plot takes off from the unauthorized licensing of the Spirit's likeness into some unexpected directions. When a comic makes you feel sympathetic for a guy who loves his pet more than he really should, that's saying something.

Manhunter #30 (written by Marc Andreyko, pencilled by Javier Pina Diego Olmos, and Cafu, inked by Robin Riggs and Art Thibert) was enjoyable, but perfunctory: the Wonder Woman arc ends, the Chase-and-her-sister arc ends, and there's more with Mark Shaw. I think having this book "uncancelled" took a little pressure off everyone involved and let them spread out more, so that it feels more transitional than anything else. It's good that the book isn't cancelled, and the resolutions are all handled well -- there's even an Amazons Attack tease, if I read it right -- but it doesn't seem as ... resolute, I guess, about everything.

Andreyko also writes Nightwing Annual #2 (pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson), the secret history of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon's lurve. Andreyko does a good job with the material, working in Dick's time with the New Titans pretty well, and Bennett and Jadson likewise do right by the characters. (They take particular care with the Robin costume.) Dick does have one moment where he lives up to his name, which I'm sure you've read about already. I am not a Dick/Babs 'shipper, nor am I a Dick/Kory 'shipper. I think Dick and Babs are more like siblings than potential lovahs, and I never got the sense that Dick and Kory were in it for much more than the sex. Therefore, I wasn't emotionally invested in these events, but I can't tell you what either party's ideal mate looks like. Anyway, a pretty good issue overall.

Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #51 (written by Tad Williams, pencilled by Shawn McManus, inked by Walden Wong) centers around Topo leading the Atlantean survivors through underwater "hatches" which teleport them across the oceans to Sub Diego. Along the way, they encounter Species 8472 ... I mean, the race that built the hatches. The art seems to be a little more cartoony than it was last issue, to go with the more fanciful tone overall. I'm not complaining about that. The book seems to be finding a middle ground between the isolation of the early Busiek SoA issues and the pre-OYL stories, and it's still intriguing to me.

Big doins' are afoot in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #11 (written by Marc Guggenheim, pencilled by Tony Daniel, inked by Art Thibert), mostly in preparation for next issue's fight with the Rogues' Gallery. This issue is about Inertia gathering the Rogues, and Grandma Iris telling Bart why she's pointing that gun at him. I don't really buy Inertia as a Rogue mastermind, especially since he's Bart's peer. However, the issue flows well, it's not implausible otherwise, and I'm interested to see where it goes.

The JLA/JSA/old-school LSH team-up begins in Justice League of America #8 (written by Brad Meltzer, pencilled by Shane Davis, inked by Matt Banning). I must have missed Geo-Force joining the League, and the issue dwells inordinately on Red Arrow almost getting killed by a tree. It was okay, although I spent the whole issue wondering what else it would reference from my childhood. The art was fine, although very similar to the regular Benes/Hope team. I said over at B@N that this crossover could be so big, it forces Meltzer to pick up the pace, and I still hope that's the case -- but this issue was just prologue.

And then there's The Brave and the Bold #3 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by George Perez, inked by Bob Wiacek), another incredibly good issue teaming Batman and Blue Beetle against the Fatal Five. I intend to catch up on the new Beetle, so I don't know how closely Waid writes him to his regular voice. However, I did think Beetle's dialogue, funny as it was, fell into a standard Waid type. It was still very funny, but it felt familiar too. Anyway, more, please.

Lastly, bringing our survey of some thirty-odd issues to a close is Birds of Prey #105 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Nicola Scott, inked by Doug Hazlewood). The fight with the Secret Six continues as the mystery behind You-Know-Who's sudden reappearance is explored. It has to do with a Rasputin cult, apparently. Hawkgirl and Scandal fight and the new Secret Sixer is revealed, but most of it is standing around talking. It's good talking, don't get me wrong, and as I've said too many times in this post, wait 'til next issue. Good as Sean McKeever may be, he'll have a hard act to follow on this book.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Could, Would, Does, Part II: Evil Kids, Mismatched Moons, the Multiverse, and Green Lantern

This weekend the Star Trek Remastered episode was "And The Children Shall Lead," a ... well, just a wretched episode that I think trumps even "Spock's Brain" as the worst the Original Series offered.

It's got a creepy premise -- a research team commits suicide to keep a malevolent entity stranded on a distant planet, and their deaths leave their children vulnerable to being controlled by the entity itself -- but wow, everyone acts like idiots. I mean, no one thinks to tackle scrawny Tommy Starnes as he makes his onanistic gestures? What's worse, the kids can take over the Enterprise so easily because apparently they only need to control a half-dozen people. Never mind the other 420-odd, who are apparently fascinated by shiny objects and FreeCell. Oh, and shiny objects reminds me: daggers, Sulu? I wonder -- would that long-desired Excelsior-centered spinoff have ever featured a story where the Captain was paralyzed because he thought his ship would be Ginsu'ed open?

Sheesh. I don't even need to mention Melvin Belli's sparkly muumuu.

As you can tell, "ATCSL" really tests my defense of the wild and wacky as harmless examples of the "Does" approach. It cries out to be rehabilitated. In fact, I couldn't help but make connections between it and the plot of Star Trek V. Both feature eevil aliens manipulating the naive to bring them starships and spread their eevil throughout the galaxy, so it wouldn't be a stretch to suppose that Gorgan, the Friendly Angel, is (appropriately enough) affiliated with ST5's "God." There's probably a novel waiting to be written there, complete with flying daggers attacking Excelsior.

Of course, we could all just agree to forget "ATCSL," much as Gene Roddenberry disavowed Star Trek V, but that raises a troubling question: once those disavowals start, where do they stop? Indeed, aren't such disavowals the flip side of this whole Could, Would, Does structure? On one hand, the Does approach seems very fundamentalist, even dogmatic, in its suggestion that even the dopey stuff has value. On the other, though, a desire to justify every detail seems to lead inexorably to the Could and Would camps. I haven't quite figured out how to graph the degrees of Could, Would, and Does, but apparently one can pass through the Does realm and end up in the Could.

This kind of analysis always reminds me of "Twin Peaks." If you remember, the show made a big splash over its initial run of six or seven episodes in the spring of 1990. It then went on vacation for the summer and came back at the end of September -- the very day, in fact, that "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2" premiered on my local station. Oh mais oui, many donuts and slices of cherry pie were consumed that night!

Ahem. So I was watching all the "first-season" episodes, looking for clues, and noticed that at the end of the first-season finale, when Cooper is shot, the Moon was in a particular phase. However, at the beginning of the second-season opener, which picked up immediately thereafter, the Moon had changed phases. Now, at first, I thought this was a clue, because who knew what was and wasn't a clue at that point? The more I thought about it, though, the more I figured it was just a mistake -- or, in a more sinister vein, a deliberate attempt by David Lynch & Co. to screw with his viewers' heads. By the time I got to the troublesome logistics of X Files bees carrying virus-laden pollen, I was too tired of overthinking and just went with the flow.

I don't like admitting that kind of thing, because it seems antithetical to the Could approach, and the Could is a fairly rational, if somewhat obsessive, middle ground between the fundamentalisms of the Does and Would viewpoints. I'm trying to see how far the Does approach will go, but as we have seen, the Does approach ultimately sank both "Twin Peaks" and The X Files. This is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- because the Does approach could also be shorthand for "making it up as you go along," which both David Lynch and Chris Carter were doing after a while. Moreover, the cynical might well describe it as "the rubes will buy anything." I stoppped watching "Lost" when I thought its writers were headed down the same path.

Accordingly, there's a strong desire to temper the Does excesses with Could justifications. This becomes a problem when the Could-derived rules start limiting the Does-inspired possibilities. To bring this back to superheroes (thank goodness), I remember a few stories from the 1970s and early '80s which tried to establish that various parallel Earths were twenty years ahead of each other, such that the Batman of Earth-2 was 20 years older than his Earth-1 counterpart, and the Earth-1 Batman was twenty years older than some other Bruce Wayne, etc. This was the premise for the very fine story "To Kill A Legend" in Detective Comics #500, but expanded to an ongoing rule of an infinite Multiverse, it's too restrictive.

This may seem a little hypocritical, since I called the Multiverse a Could tool in the last post, but I think the difference is that the Multiverse expands storytelling possibilities, whereas rules defining it may tend to restrict those possibilities.

Take the Green Lantern mythology. A Green Lantern ring is a very Does-oriented device. The basic mechanics of the ring are also, I would argue, Does-oriented. The Guardians of the Universe use those big blue chess-club brains to generate green plasma for the Central Power Battery. The CPB then beams that energy all over the universe to thousands of individual power batteries, which in turn provide 24-hour recharges for individual rings. The setup may have been tweaked slightly since the Kyle Rayner era, but that's pretty much it. It works for the kinds of stories appropriate to Green Lantern adventures.

However, it cries out to be rationalized and justified. What kind of nanotechnology is in the rings? How much of a charge do the individual batteries hold? Is the Central Battery like a cosmic cell-tower, beaming energy invisibly throughout all creation? Mustn't that energy therefore travel faster than light? Couldn't it be intercepted? These, I feel, are the kinds of questions around which Geoff Johns could construct the last GL epic anyone would ever need or want, involving Sinestro's ultimate attempt to destroy his old masters by striking at the very supply lines of their power ...

... but once Johns does that story, laying bare all the details of How The Rings Work, then every GL writer who follows Johns, and every GL fan, will be charged with that knowledge, and if anyone wants to change The Rules, he or she might be looking at another 5-part miniseries to explain the changes.

Instead, of course, Johns decided to continue the Kyle Rayner model and abolish the yellow impurity -- ach! the only weakness that could crop up through a coloring error! -- and, I think, the 24-hour rule as well. Not that the rings became more magical, mind you. Now they're like super-tricorders, able to provide exposition at the slightest twitch of willpower. Additionally, now the Green Lanterns are more invested in procedure, thereby inviting fans to take notes for future nitpicking. There is a lot more jargon in Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps these days, which is not all bad, just ... a little less swashbuckling.

I say that, and I've talked before about wanting the Green Lanterns to establish their jurisdictions more clearly, because in the Real World, they "Would" have to compete with local law enforcement....

Again, Could, Would, and Does all work together, and maybe with some more thought, I'll start to figure out how.

Until next time--!

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Could, Would, Does

Can't remember where I saw the article -- maybe in an old Best of TREK paperback, maybe in The Physics of Star Trek -- but it stated flat out that the transporter represented technology so advanced, it didn't even fit with what the 23rd Century otherwise showed was possible. In other words, going by the rest of the Federation, Klingons, etc., technological achievements, none of them should even be close to having a working matter-transportation system.

And yet there it is, like the proverbial bee that physics says can't fly.

This may end up being a half-formed post full of half-baked ideas, but I'm on a sugar high from Easter candy. Buckle up, folks:

Are there only three kinds of superhero stories?

Any superhero story involves at least one idea that separates it from what we consider the real world. Accordingly, any superhero story makes a case for how a given Concept X either a) could work, b) would work, or c) does work.

“Could” stories include most retcons, but they also include stories which rely on a lot of “realistic” jargon. “The Anatomy Lesson” is a classic Could story, as is Alan Moore’s explanation for including the ‘50s Marvelman stories in his revamp. However, those Chuck Dixon Batman stories that tell you the costumes are made of Nomex and Kevlar are also Could stories. Basically, a Could story says that Concept X is workable on its face, but flawed in its execution. The Could approach says that Swamp Thing can have Alec Holland’s memories, and Mickey Moran can have ‘50s adventures, but they need these retcons to do so. Likewise, Batman would be ventilated like a breezeway without that Nomex and Kevlar. Superhero comics today rely heavily upon the Could approach. Batman Begins is a very Could movie.

The pinnacle of all “Would” stories, at least for superheroes, is Watchmen. Would stories are declarative and definitive. Civil War is a Would story. Miracleman Book 3 (where he confronts Margaret Thatcher and ends up ruling the world) is a Would story. Ruins, where the spider bite gives Peter Parker cancer (right? didn’t read it) is a Would story. Supreme Power is a Would story. Would stories are generally depressing.

However, in a sense, the early Marvel superhero titles are also Would stories, because by and large, they allow a generous amount of real-world influence. Peter Parker takes his Spider-Man act to TV, much like the JMS-flavored Blur becomes a product pitchman. The Fantastic Four likewise become celebrities, and their public identities give them a new set of problems. The Hulk is pursued by the Army. Even Captain America is taken wholesale from the last days of World War II and plopped into the 1960s. Early Marvel was doing riffs not just on DC-style superheroes, but also on its own pre-superhero comics, using those disparate ancestors to say that its new superheroes “would” act differently, and specifically more “realistically.”

Once a superhero universe gets established, though, it starts to make its own rules, and therein lie the potential for divergences. “Flash Of Two Worlds” was a Could story. Dick Grayson leaving for college in “One Bullet Too Many!” was a Would story, but the eventual Robin/Nightwing succession was a Could story. It all comes down to the extent to which reality influences the fantastic. The most obvious real-world influence is the passage of time, and its acknowledgment is at the heart of both the Multiverse and the Dick-to-Jason transition. (It’s also at the core of DC’s problems with Captain Marvel, but that’s a topic for another day.)

That leaves the Does stories. All-Star Superman is a Does title, as is most of Morrison’s superhero work. By implication, then, the Mort Weisinger Superman of the Silver Age, and the Jack Schiff Batman of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, are Does stories. Instead of starting with the real world and incorporating the superheroes, they start with the superheroes and incorporate the real world. Hogwarts is a Does environment. Calvin and Hobbes was a Does strip. The Does stories are, at least theoretically, the most fun, but they put the burden most squarely on the creators.

See, the Could stories work from the outside in, relying on a knowledge base that is fairly public. It’s like fan fiction (to my fanfic-untrained eye): both extrapolate, or interpolate, based on identifiable bits of continuity. When we say Reed Richards is acting out of character, we are saying that our extrapolation/interpolation doesn’t match up with JMS’ or Millar’s. In that event, we need a Dwayne McDuffie to insert another knowledge bit -- another variable that “makes the math work” (allusion intended).

In that respect, the Could stories and fanfic are two sides of the same approach. Both look at the deficiencies in Concept X and try to fix them with real-world rules. By contrast, the Does stories attempt to identify the “rules” of a fantastic/superheroic world and construct their stories around those rules -- which may be, and probably should be, somewhat different.

Accordingly, the Does stories are the most vital, because they appear to be the only avenues for generating raw story material. Both the Could and the Would stories can put new spins on old material, but the Does stories provide the grist for the Could and Would mills. The Does stories are special for this reason, because almost by definition they are not predictable.

Now, this is not to say the Does stories are perfect. Plok reminded me in an e-mail that I already effectively labeled "Spock's Brain" a Does story. It was in a comment on Jim Roeg's blog back when Civil War ended:

...I imagine Data or Bashir or the Doctor cornering Admiral McCoy at some cocktail party and asking some winking question about ", you really got it reattached?" and rather than getting some remodulated Treknomedibabble answer, just having Bones shrug and smile. Oh well, these things happen. You don't have to explain everything, because once you do, you're limited by the explanation.
Obviously we're talking about the willing suspension of disbelief here, and the degrees to which we can accept those suspensions. "Spock's Brain" is pushing it, but the point is, it's something new. It's grist for the mill. You can't construct a retcon around it if it doesn't exist in the first place.

And that, I think, is the chance one takes by stepping out on that limb marked "Brain And Brain..." or postulating that a device can disassemble someone on a quantum level and reassemble him -- body, mind, and spirit, remember -- thousands of kilometers away. The transporter was born out of budgetary necessity (much like "SB's" invisible alien ship, come to think of it), because it made the series work regardless of whether it worked within the context of the series.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly how I feel about the Does stories, because ultimately, I just appreciate the creativity on display. Again, the Could and the Would stories are predictable to various degrees because they rely upon real-world rules. Readers are comfortable with them because they trust the rules of this world. The Does stories require the reader to put his trust in the creative team, and sometimes when you're talking about the fantastic that's not as comforting. It can be hard to embrace these kinds of stories, because to a certain extent that can involve choosing fantasy over reality, and that can be an awful choice....

... so instead we bring the real world into the fantastic, and we end up with the Coulds and the Woulds.

I dunno. I could go on for a little while longer about how "protomatter" represents the fudge factor of creativity, but I'm getting tired and you probably are as well. The point is, we readers (and writers, more often than not) keep trying to solve the mysteries of these universes, when their mysteries are their raisons d'etre.

What do you think?
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Not quite a placeholder, not quite an excuse

Sorry for the lack of new content. A couple of posts are percolating, including the promised look at Chris Claremont and Adam Hughes' Debt Of Honor hardcover. I've also been trying to get ahead on my Grumpy Old Fan essays, and also helping the Best Wife Ever with our tax returns. And it was Easter.

Speaking of which, this year's Easter basket from my folks contained the 44 Years Of Fantastic Four DVD, so I have been enjoying the post-Kirby issues of the early '70s. Stan Lee stayed on the book through #125, with occasional fill-ins written by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Archie Goodwin. John Romita and then John Buscema pencilled the book, with Joe Sinnott's inks tying everything together (and tying it to Kirby as best he could).

I'm in the mid-130s now, the better part of a year into Roy Thomas' tenure as solo FF writer, and I can tell only subtle differences between Roy and Stan. Roy uses second-person omniscient narration where Stan's was more personalized, and both look back to the existing FF subplots for ideas. Johnny's been mooning over Crystal's return to the Hidden Land, the Baxter Building's landlord is on the rampage, and Roy's first arc sends Ben back to the Mole Man's lair to find a cure for Alicia's blindness. Meanwhile, Reed and Sue are absentee parents now that Agatha Harkness is babysitting Franklin full-time, and it leads to Sue walking out on him -- but Reed's committed to the Fantastic Four, and lucky for him Medusa's just shown up to take Sue's place. Everyone fights the Frightful Four before heading back to the Hidden Land, and Johnny, Crystal, and Quicksilver.

Boy, the more things change, huh?

The scans aren't pristine either, but that's actually kind of charming. They reflect the quality of a comic I'd buy out of a back-issue bin. They're not all mint-condition, but they're good enough to read, and that's all I really ask. My monitor's big enough that I don't get eyestrain (at least not too noticeably) and the layouts are conservative enough that I don't feel cheated for not seeing the whole page at once. I still prefer the actual issues, but this is a great alternative.

Anyway, at this rate I should be through the '70s by Memorial Day if not sooner, and then I might skip forward to the "Heroes Return" issues to see how they hold up.

(Man, all this Claremont! Can a Sovereign Seven retrospective be far behind?)
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Sunday, April 01, 2007

USS Intrepid, and a little about Chris Claremont

If you had wondered over the past several weeks why posting here had been kind of light, here's one reason: I had finally gotten around to building one of my pet projects.

As you may remember from previous posts, I build model kits. Most of these are Star Trek kits, with a few Batmobiles thrown in just to keep things interesting. Because many of these kits are not entirely accurate, a pretty healthy aftermarket of corrective parts and decals now exists.

One of the most notoriously inaccurate kits is the AMT/Ertl version of the refit Enterprise from the Kirk movies. The kit aims to reproduce a mosaic pattern seen on the hull at certain angles and under certain lighting conditions. On the filming model, this effect was produced through subtle variations in the paint scheme. However, in the most common version of the model kit, a random -- and, needless to say, inaccurate -- pattern was cut into the plastic parts. (Good luck finding the original version, now called the "smoothie.") To obliterate this pattern takes (at least for me) a full tube of modeling putty, some sandpaper, and a lot of elbow grease. There are other problems with this kit, but that's the biggest.

Still, the model was used for reference by any number of Star Trek comics artists. This two-page spread from the hardcover Star Trek: Debt of Honor gives you an idea of the random pattern. (Please excuse my horrific scanner skills.)

Of course, it's also possible to just say you're not buliding the Enterprise, which is what I did with her sister ship Intrepid.

The original Constitution-class Intrepid was destroyed (offscreen) in "The Immunity Syndrome," but its successor appeared in the Diane Duane novel My Enemy, My Ally. There it was supposed to be a more advanced version of the Constitution class, which I took to mean that it was similar to the refit Enterprise of the movies. Its registry number, NCC-1730, comes from the venerable Star Fleet Technical Manual listing for the second Intrepid, and its paint scheme is meant to suggest an intermediate step between the grays of the Original Series and the cooler colors of the Motion Picture era.

There's also a travel pod:

I know I'm not the best modeler around, and up close you can see some pretty obvious flaws in construction and painting, but I'm pretty proud of the effort anyway. Aftermarket parts include a new bridge, phaser bumps (including two on the secondary hull above the shuttlebay), nacelle caps, photon torpedo tubes, navigational deflector, and the travel pod. The name and registry number decals were custom-ordered, and the other decals are all aftermarket. The kit came from eBay, and the parts and decals from Federation Models.

So what does this have to do with fan fiction? Well, take a closer look at that spread from Debt of Honor -- which, I don't mind pointing out, abbreviates to DOH. As you can see, it is a fine-looking book, and clearly a labor of love for all involved. However, it is written by Chris Claremont, who you may have heard can be a little verbose. These two pages give you an idea of how Claremont tries to ingratiate himself with fellow fans.

Here, his throwaway character (who may well be an in-joke; I don't know) has two purposes: to bring any newbies up to speed on the illustrious history of the Enterprise name, and to remind all the readers that every right-thinking person in Starfleet lurves the Enterprise unconditionally. Those goals aren't so bad, but getting them across through the yardmaster's Dear Diary-esque dictation is a little too precious. Not only does it make you wonder about the yardmaster's personal life, it tells you that Claremont has put a lot of thought into the role of memoranda in the 23rd Century. See, even the most boring paperwork (or whatever it would be called) can facilitate florid, romantic prose! The combination strikes me as a classic fanfiction-style device: go deep enough into the minutiae of the subject to let the reader know that you know how the tiniest things work; and infuse those minutiae with the passion you feel as a fan. I definitely don't mean to knock all of fanfic by implication, but this seemed pretty over-the-top.

Someday I'll have to do a full post on Debt of Honor, because most of it's a pretty fun read. Until then, enjoy Intrepid!
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