Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The shadow of Manhattan

Over the weekend I did my civic duty and re-read Watchmen. It took me two sittings: one for the first eight issues, and one for the back four. I did skim the Veidt text-pieces (the merchandising and the Nova Express interview), because by that point I didn’t think they added that much. Besides, even though he is fictional, Doug Roth is a massive tool.

Monday would have been the last day to do Twelve Days Of Watchmen, and I had planned to do one issue per day. This would have committed me to reading the whole thing, because I tend to get bogged down in the early issues. However, that didn’t happen this time since, you know, eight issues in the first sitting. I even found new meaning in the “Ride of the Valkyries” story at the end of issue #1, and I have never really gotten a lot out of that little moment.

Obviously, though, I'm not doing an in-depth, multi-part post. Since so many others have written so much about Watchmen in the past twenty-three years, I figure my humble notes wouldn’t add a whole lot.

Therefore, instead here are just some memories about What Watchmen Means To Me, along with observations on what I got out of it this time.

* * *

Watchmen came out in the spring of 1986, toward the end of my junior year of high school. As I remember, issue #1 actually came out the same day as the first issue of John Byrne’s The Man Of Steel. Not quite the same as Lincoln and Darwin sharing a birthday, but a big day in DC fandom nonetheless.

At the time, I thought Watchmen was unique because it dared to imagine -- and not to sugar-coat -- what superheroics would “really be like.” Alan Moore told Amazing Heroes that costumed superheroes would look about as dignified as Adam West; thus, schlumpy Dan Dreiberg. It was a significant contrast with DC’s other bravura projects, including Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Howard Chaykin’s Shadow, and (yes) Byrne’s Man of Steel. Each of those brought its own “realistic” sensibility to its subject, but each retained a certain amount of unreality. Watchmen wasn’t like that. Watchmen pulled no punches.

I’m not sure I can overstate the power of Watchmen’s surface message. It seemed to annihilate completely any fantasy that doing anything in a cape and tights (well, almost anything; but that would involve taking off the tights at some point) would make any sense at all. You couldn’t have enough super-powered characters to field even a Fantastic Four, let alone a Justice League; because the only plausible number was one. (And oh, the problems he’d cause!) If you were going to skulk around the urban jungle after dark, you’d end up about as far from a billionaire playboy as you could get. Moreover, the billionaire himself would have much better things to do than said skulking. Watchmen was the superhero story which put the nail in the superheroes’ coffin. (That sounds like I’m ripping off an Alan Moore quote, but I can’t remember the quote exactly.)

There is, I think, a significant part of superhero fandom which wants to believe that these fantastic, impossible things can actually work. “Realism” goes a long way towards maintaining this notion. In the old days, it was expressed in things like Peter Parker’s various troubles, Dick Grayson going to college, or Bucky Barnes’ death. However, Watchmen pretty much said that you don’t want superheroes, because just one will destroy the world.

Naturally, the vast majority of superhero comics soldiered on, making slight changes in deference to Watchmen’s heightened standard of realism. Batman’s utility belt had pouches instead of the little vials. Superman’s cape was no longer indestructible. The Flash had an appetite like a Sumo wrestler with a tapeworm. What else could they do? Trying to go too realistic produced stories like Legends, where Ronald Reagan was being manipulated by Darkseid's flunky; or the “New Universe,” which eventually destroyed Pittsburgh in its attempts to be taken seriously. Moore wasn’t done yet, either. In Miracleman #15, he destroyed London as part of the super-fight to end all super-fights. This is how it would be, Moore seemed to be saying. These are your options: namely, the dystopian Watchmen or the almost-as-frightening road to the utopia of Miracleman.

And yet, the thing about Watchmen is that it’s not nearly as cynical as it looks. All the drama, violence, and sex only matter to the extent that we can’t get past them. The thermodynamic miracle isn’t just the uniqueness of each human life, it’s the spark of individuality, of creativity, which powers each work of art. If all we see is one way to go, we limit ourselves to that path. We forget that we each have, as a certain starship captain once said, a “capacity to leap beyond logic” which helps slice through our own Gordian knots. Watchmen trades pretty heavily in structure and form, but it ends up saying you don’t have to do it this way.

* * *

That gets back, after a fashion, to literally the first thing I noticed about Watchmen, ‘way back at the end of May, 1986: its start date, October 12, 1985. I had just spent most of 1985 living with Crisis On Infinite Earths, which very specifically took place during the months of July and August. It was therefore impossible for Watchmen to be part of main line DC, whether pre- or post-Crisis, because Watchmen started well after the infinite Earths had been consolidated.

Again, this was no small thing. Coming from an environment where anything could be explained away with its own parallel Earth, Watchmen stated right up front that it would have no part of that. Accordingly, no matter how DC tried to dress up its Earth-Charltons, Watchmen would never be incorporated into, and therefore subordinated to, the regular DC superhero line. Nor would there be ironic comparisons to familiar superheroes, because Watchmen even killed off the infant superhero comics.

Setting the miniseries over six months in the past also lent it an air of inevitability, even in panel one of page one. (“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”) By the way, this is why I didn’t want to do an issue-by-issue examination, because virtually every panel contains multiple layers of meaning, and it would have been either redundant or overwrought, or both.

Still, analysis itself is an important part of the story. I hadn’t noticed before this reading how much Bernie-the-newsvendor parodies Ozymandias and his Wall Of TV. There’s Bernie, ever-present on the streetcorner, imagining himself an information broker as Veidt imagines himself a visionary. Bernie tries desperately to draw his customers into his world, but they just want their periodical of choice – especially Young Bernie with his Black Freighter comic, who just wants to be left alone so he can read.

Indeed, that’s a nice metaphor for one aspect of the Watchmen experience. One of the book’s many ironies is the notion that its “realistic,” cynical approach to superheroes makes it an excellent gateway comic; when really Watchmen works best the more you know about comic books, superheroes, and criticisms of both. For many would-be readers, Watchmen may have “too many words” the way that Mozart’s emperor patron heard “too many notes.”

Nevertheless, with all those words and details and Easter eggs (I’m sure Nova Express refers to the William Burroughs novel, but I wonder if it’s also a reference to Adventure Comics #247) fleshing out Watchmen’s world, it’s easy to forget that we, like Dr. Manhattan, exist outside of it. Watchmen can often appear so taken with its own structure that it only exists as a rigid exercise in storytelling (obey the grid!). Thus, the thermodynamic miracle reminds us that without the unique spark we each provide, it is all merely academic. “Who makes the world?” We do, each according to our own perceptions and what we bring to the interpretation of a work.

Again, I’m not convinced that Watchmen is especially reader-friendly, even on the most basic of levels. Starting with page 2, it employs flashbacks and non-linear narrative that might put off readers who, let’s be honest, expect comic books to be simple and straightforward. It is not an especially quick read, although its pace picks up as it goes along. (Less-complicated text pieces help as well.) You almost have to make an investment in Watchmen merely to get through it.

And not to belabor the point, but Watchmen isn’t simply concerned with plot. It’s not just “what happened,” it’s how. Of course, this is the essence of Watchmen-movie criticism: any adaptation necessarily destroys a good bit of the comic’s appeal, because it changes fundamentally how the work is perceived. Even the addition of music and sound effects is an intrusion into the book’s relatively sparse aural landscape. (Actually, I was disappointed not to hear Archie’s “screamers” when I watched a prison-break clip online.) Watchmen plays not only with chronology, but with the passage of time itself, and that’s something which the movie must necessarily homogenize.

Man, no wonder we Watchmen fans have become so protective of the book. It is vast, it contains multitudes. In a way it’s like 2001: superficially simple, even provoking “what’s so great about this?” responses; but with rewards for those who dig deeper. Either way, just reading it is an initiation into a special club in a corner of comics fandom. That club’s been getting bigger all the time, and it may be about to explode.

* * *

One of the other big ironies about Watchmen is the idea that Veidt’s triumph is only temporary. After all, Nixon (who, presumably, has not mellowed with age) is still President, and Rorschach’s journal still has the potential to expose Veidt’s plan. While the United States’ negotiating position has been weakened considerably by Dr. Manhattan’s departure, apparently it’s a bigger deal that the Soviets (under Gorbachev, the revelation of which always surprises me) are sufficiently moved by the New York tragedy to pull back their troops. The point is, Veidt did a lot, but the world doesn’t seem out of the woods just yet. Naturally, Dr. Manhattan warns Veidt that “nothing ever ends.” Of course, as he says that, Watchmen is about to end, leaving behind a world that might not be “fixed,” but at least is stronger.

Even that reinforces Watchmen’s message. From the beginning, the book repeatedly makes, and then takes apart, the case that one figure can be solely responsible for the fate of the world. This is not to say that the book argues for two figures, namely Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Instead, any time one person is set up as a singular transformative force, the world rebels. For most of the book’s recent history, Dr. Manhattan has bolstered U.S. aggression and provoked Soviet adventurism. However, his removal doesn’t produce a more benign equilibrium … and neither, apparently, will the “Alexandrian” solution imposed by Ozymandias.

Ozymandias’ plan and Watchmen’s scope both look all-encompassing, but again, I think that misreads both. The point of Watchmen seems not to be that it’s the last word on superheroes, or the genre’s only logical examination, but that the genre is still capable of many interpretations. Again, Watchmen has no central figure. The world doesn’t stop even in the absence of Dr. Manhattan, the would-be watchmaker himself. I mentioned Nixon above, but thanks to Dan and Laurie the superheroes are still around as well; and they may even become a “family business.”

* * *

See, that all sounds fairly obvious, doesn’t it? In hindsight I’m amazed that so many people interpreted Watchmen so darkly all these years. It’s not the love letter to superheroes that a Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, or Kurt Busiek would have written, but it’s not dancing on the genre’s grave either.

Ah well. Now I just have to get used to the idea that Dan and Laurie can fight in gratuitous slow motion….

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thoughts on Donna Troy and "Dollhouse"; or, If You Wait Long Enough, It Gets Better

Last night I was taking care of a couple of nerd obligations -- watching "Dollhouse," because clearly someone has to; and trying to come up with my fifth list item for Tom Spurgeon's "Five For Friday" feature -- and found myself flipping through the Who Is Donna Troy? paperback collection.

WIDT? features the eponymous story from The New Teen Titans vol. 1 #38 (January 1984) in which Robin helps Wonder Girl reconnect with her past. It follows that one with Tales of the Teen Titans #50 (January 1985), the double-sized issue chronicling Donna's wedding. After a five-issue Titans storyline involving Donna's secret outer-space origin, it concludes with a short piece about Donna's memorial service (she was killed in a story not reprinted here).

It's no stretch to say that Donna -- or, perhaps more specifically, Wonder Girl -- has had a strange and complicated history. "Wonder Girl," like "Superboy," started out as the teenage version of an adult hero. Thus, Wonder Girl was the younger Wonder Woman. However, as the Wonder Woman comics got increasingly crazy in the 1950s and early '60s, the adult Wonder Woman found herself teaming up not only with Wonder Girl, but with the toddler Wonder Tot. The story goes that, when the time came to create a super-team for the teen sidekicks of adult heroes, the editor noticed only that there was a Wonder Girl, and put her on the roster without checking to see where she came from. Consequently, the "Wonder Girl" who first appeared with the Teen Titans in 1965 didn't get a separate origin, or even a real name, for four years. The first mention of the name "Donna Troy" came in Teen Titans vol. 1 #22 (July-August 1969), courtesy of writer Marv Wolfman.

Of course, Wolfman and artist George Perez would go on to produce most of the stories reprinted in the aforementioned paperback, and that's really where I want to start. Unlike her colleagues, Donna didn't have that much of a history from which character traits could be derived. Robin was struggling with independence from Batman, Kid Flash was already in semi-retirement, and Speedy had that unfortunate junkie phase. Therefore, it wasn't hard for Wolfman and Perez (and especially Wolfman) to flesh out Donna as everyone's friend, and sort of the wholesome girl-next-door. Since she had no real history, pros and fans alike could see whatever they wanted in her.

Naturally, that kind of approach can produce a creepy slippery slope, where Donna stays popular and loved because we said so. In 2003, Donna was killed (for all intents and purposes) in a fairly ignominious way at the climax of a miniseries designed to reshuffle DC's teen-hero and former-teen-hero team books. It was done mostly for shock value, since the reactions of various characters would cause said reshuffling. However, those were the characters: the book in which Donna appeared, Titans, never got as much attention as DC had hoped, and certainly not as much as the other team being broken up, Young Justice. Thus, on one level, Donna's death was an opportunity for the characters to voice what DC presumed would be the fans' reaction -- except that by 2003, Donna's popular days were at least about ten (and probably closer to 15) years behind her. Younger fans wouldn't have connected with Donna the way the older fans had; and we older fans had, I suspect, become jaded and bitter about superhero death anyway.

Still, Donna's death led to the last story in the Who Is Donna Troy? collection, writer/artist Phil Jiminez' account of Donna's wake. Jiminez is a huge fan of all things Wonder Woman and Teen Titans, and had drawn the JLA/Titans miniseries which led into the Titans ongoing which was cancelled as a part of Donna's death. This made Jiminez an especially appropriate choice to eulogize Donna. His story is rife with the kind of references and in-jokes which we enlightened superhero fans are supposed to condemn as "inaccessible."

Regardless, if like me you recognize the references (notwithstanding the fact that they refer to earlier stories in the WIDT? book), or if you know the significance of the "HELLO MY NAME IS DONNA" doll, odds are you'll find the story moving, as I did. The pivotal moments in Donna's life -- finding her real family, getting married, dying in battle -- resonate with those who "knew" her, because they are built on the readers' own hopes and dreams. I'm convinced that the fans who like Donna Troy actively want to like her in a way that other characters with more established histories don't facilitate.

What's this have to do with "Dollhouse?" Well, it's not that Donna is a blank slate on the order of Echo, or that people who like Eliza Dushku really like Eliza Dushku in some preternatural way. Instead, it's the notion that a series can be actively challenging to its viewers for a while, almost daring them to watch; and then turn a corner, change things up, and become all-of-a-sudden "good."

By now we all know the criticisms of the show's premise. Last week's episode reinforced those criticisms: why go through a shadowy criminal enterprise when you could hire a real person, etc. Last night's episode helped justify the Dollhouse's business plan, even if it raised still more questions (as pillock observes, what kind of infrastructure must it have?). However, it was a step in the right direction. Apparently the back half of this batch of episodes really reveals the point of the series, and these we're seeing now (including that debut episode, which I gather was reworked heavily) are just standalone warmups.

Question is, though, how much of the bad stuff must we wade through before that corner to Qualityville is turned? I have watched the first episodes of both "Farscape" and "Babylon 5" and wasn't sufficiently intrigued to continue with either; but I stuck with any number of shows which started out fair-to-middling and only hit their stride after a year or two. Whether I became more receptive to their individual charms, or they each simply got better, is something of a moot point; because in the end, the result is the same. You sit through a lot of fair-to-middling stuff so that the payoffs will matter more. "All Good Things..." was a reward for watching "Encounter At Farpoint." DS9's "What You Leave Behind" even included a montage. I know I'll be paying special attention to the Final Five's early scenes whenever I watch "Galactica 2.0" all the way through. "Lost" seems to be composed exclusively of buried details. Accordingly, if "Dollhouse" lasts long enough to build up its own macro-story, I'm sure I'll look back on these early episodes with a more practiced eye. That doesn't mean they were necessarily good ... just that they were, I don't know, tolerable. I'm not real comfortable spending my time just on the tolerable, but obviously I do believe in giving a show a chance to prove itself.

Going back to Donna, I do think that "Who Is Donna Troy?" and "We Are Gathered Here Today" (the wedding issue) were, by themselves, good comics. By that I mean that they were crafted well enough so that the emotional moments were built on elements from the stories themselves, and not merely on the reader's pre-existing awareness of the character. Sure, it helped if you knew Dick and Donna's relationship, and especially Donna and Terry's, but I read each of those for the first time when I had been away from comics for a couple of years. In this respect I think Perez's layouts and character direction help greatly, especially with the wedding. Talking about these stories in the context of the overall series, I thought they succeeded
almost despite the fact that there's not much more to Donna beyond being pretty and nice. However, the peculiar alchemy Wolfman and Perez were able to use on her has turned that around into a kind of unequivocal goodwill -- that because she's so nice, we don't want anything bad to happen to her, and we even actively wish her well.

To be clear, that kind of success is in addition to whatever enjoyment a reader new to the whole Donna thing gets out of those stories. Donna went through a lot of mediocre stories before Wolfman and Perez came along, and the duo didn't make her a star overnight either.

That's the appeal of serial superhero comics, though, isn't it? Even the bad stuff gets repurposed eventually ... except the really quite extraordinarily bad stuff (like the "Teen Tony" Iron Man or the Team Titans book), which is annihilated in the metaphorial incinerator. Still, if even the bad stuff has some potential value, aren't we just lowering standards with each bad element?

More than likely, I suppose ... but regardless, it sounds like I've been suckered into "Dollhouse" for a while....
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Numbers are fun!

I notice that May's issue of Fantastic Four will be number 567.

Get it? "4 5 6 7?" Huh? Huh?

Okay, it's not a big deal, but as long as people mention things like 8/8/08, I figure somebody finds it at least a little intriguing.

Too bad the Calculator is a DC villain....
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Monday, February 16, 2009

"Aieee! El Hombre Murcielago!"

Glad to hear that Mark Waid is writing a Batman story set in Barcelona, not just for the potential "Fawlty Towers" jokes, but because I always liked the globetrotting Batman. Batman has always gotten around, of course; but Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams seemed especially fond of sending the Darknight Detective all over the world. Indeed, their first Batman collaboration, "The Secret Of The Waiting Graves" from Detective Comics #395 (January 1970), took Batman to Mexico.

Batman went to Spain for October 1970's Enemy Ace homage, "Ghost Of The Killer Skies" from 'Tec #404. The only appropriate line of Spanish dialogue I know is the title of this post, which comes from that story.

In the Newsarama story, Waid observes that
Batman's big Achilles heel -- Batman's big problem -- is he's used to working in Gotham where people know who he is to some degree. Or at least the police. He works at least in some concert with the police. When he goes to Barcelona, they treat him the same way they treat Killer Croc. He's a winged freak prowling the streets.

To a certain extent, this was true in the O'Neil/Adams stories: whenever Batman left Gotham, nobody seemed to know exactly how to deal with him, and more often than not, the locals would simply freak the heck out (e.g., "Aieee!"). Therefore, not that I want to see the rest of the world portrayed as provincial and timid, but I hope Waid and artist Diego Olmos are able to do that kind of "outside" perspective convincingly.
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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fate Accompli, Part One

Today I want to look at the first part of DC's Dr. Fate series, which ran for 24 issues (and an Annual) from 1998-90. It's the kind of series which doesn't seem all that relevant today (there have been, what, four Fates since then?); but I remember it as well-crafted and I just completed my collection. Join me, won't you?

* * *

The late 1980s were a pretty good period for DC's superheroes. Crisis On Infinite Earths gave DC plenty of opportunities to experiment, especially with characters who had previously been only visitors to the main-line Earth. The new Justice League (soon to be Justice League International) was a representative sample of the merged Earth; and it included Doctor Fate, late of Earth-2. Therefore, I wasn't surprised to see, not too long into the new Justice League's run, a Dr. Fate miniseries by JL's braintrust, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis.

This four-issue miniseries (cover dated July-October 1987) bid farewell to Kent Nelson, the old Doctor Fate. Nelson started out as a costumed sorceror who used mystic artifacts (a helmet and amulet) to wield powerful magical forces. Over the years, the Doctor Fate stories revealed that while Kent himself had learned some basic magic, the real power came not simply from the helmet and amulet, but from the omnipotent being inside them: Nabu, the Lord of Order. Indeed, Nabu was only one Lord of Order among many, and they collectively opposed the Lords of Chaos. It all broke down along pretty clear good vs. evil lines, with the Lords of Chaos being creepy, green, scaly things with lots of sharp teeth, and the Lords of Order being soothing blobs of light, like bubbles in a cosmic lava-lamp. You wouldn't think a being like Nabu would settle for mere backseat superheroics, and eventually, he didn't. In time, Nabu completely controlled Doctor Fate whenever Kent put on the helmet.

At the end of the miniseries, however, the status quo had changed radically. Doctor Fate still looked the same -- blue-and-yellow costume, yellow cape, featureless golden helmet and matching amulet -- but inside "he" was the union of two people, Eric and Linda Strauss. Until Nabu magically aged him to adulthood, Eric had been a ten-year-old boy, and Linda was his stepmother. Kent Nelson, who himself had been aged similarly by Nabu, and who had subsequently been fighting the forces of evil since the 1940s, was allowed to die. For his part, though, Nabu assumed human form, using Kent's body to do so.

Again, on the outside nothing had changed about Dr. Fate. In fact, he went on to appear in a number of different superhero titles in 1987 and '88, including the Millennium crossover and the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries. None of it had anything to do with the Strausses or Nabu/Kent. Heck, I didn't know it wasn't the original until I saw the chronology on

And then, towards the end of the year, DeMatteis and artist Shawn McManus launched an ongoing Dr. Fate series. Initially it read like a variation on the superhero sitcoms DeMatteis was writing concurrently in Justice League International and Mister Miracle. Indeed, DeMatteis added a hapless straight-man neighbor (lawyer Jack Small, who was tall, ha ha) and a cute demon with a funny accent (Petey, who disguised himself as the ugliest dog in the world). Schtick was plentiful, as were running gags, and really, the comedy -- especially the bit about Nabu wanting to be called "Kent" -- got old after a while.

Still, the first arc made it clear that the yuks were just the enticement; and the real message of Dr. Fate was ecumenical. Over the course of twenty-four issues (and an Annual), DeMatteis and McManus (and occasional guest artists like Tom Sutton, Jim Fern, and Joe Staton) were telling the larger story of Fate's struggle between the extremes of Order and Chaos.

But I'm getting ahead of myself....

* * *

The first year or so of Dr. Fate contained basically three arcs. Issues #1-6 saw our heroes team up with Typhon, Lord of Chaos (inhabiting Jack's body, naturally) and trying to stop Andrew "I ... Vampire!" Bennett from bringing on the Mahapralaya, where all creation is washed away and returns to its source. Andrew just wanted to die, but kept being reborn, and the Lords of Order told him the end of creation would be pretty final. (Thus, Typhon's involvement: the LOOs wanted the current age of Chaos to come to an end, and the LOCs didn't.) It all went down at a temple in India, where Bennett and Fate realized that no matter what happened to the material world, the eternal forces behind creation remained constant and benevolent. In other words, no Mahapralaya yet, because you can't hurry a supreme being.

A couple of shorter stories followed: issue #7 spotlighted Petey; and issues #8-9 told the story of amateur sorcerer Joachim Hesse, who was trying to replace the god Indra and just ended up ticking Indra off. In the latter issues we learned that Linda could become Dr. Fate (in female form, obviously) on her own, which she had to do because Eric had fallen sick.

The book then took an unexpected turn. In issues #10-13, Eric and Linda each became their own Dr. Fate, and together they fought Darkseid; but at the end of issue #12, Eric died-- taking with him the possibility that Fate will be a new form of humanity -- and issue #13 was all about Linda letting go.

* * *

Now, a brief interlude: at that point, all those years ago, I dropped the book.

It's hard to remember why -- maybe I was bored with it, maybe I had budget issues (this would have been my junior year of college), or maybe I just wanted to free up a spot for the new Legion of Super-Heroes.

In any event, I look back now and wonder what was going through the minds of DeMatteis and editor Art Young. Was it poor sales? DeMatteis and McManus (and Young) would stay with the book through #24, almost another year; and their successors would produce seventeen more issues. My experience notwithstanding, Dr. Fate never had the aura of a title no one wanted to read. You certainly couldn't say it "limped along" for forty-one issues. In today's environment, after #13, I'm inclined to think that DeMatteis would have left the title, and DC would have brought in another creative team for a few issues of closure.

Looking back, though, it seems like DeMatteis really did have just twenty-four issues' (and an Annual) worth of Dr. Fate in him, and Eric's death was just part of the story. I'll have more to say about the practical aspects of DeMatteis' story (seen, of course, from the outside perspective of a reader who's too smart for his own good) -- but for now, let's get back to the plot.

* * *

Issues #14-15 guest-starred Justice League International (including some of the new JL Europe), as old Fate foe Wotan tried to gain ultimate power from, oddly enough, that temple in India where issue #6 concluded. Instead, Wotan was blinded by said power, and went off to be rehabilitated by the temple's residents.

After a standalone issue (a flashback to E & L's early days as Fate), DeMatteis' last act began. Issues #17-24 involved the Phantom Stranger, the creation of an Anti-Fate who served the Lords of Chaos, and the introduction of a pleasant couple with a special little girl. Meanwhile, Linda gradually lost her ability to turn into Fate, Nabu stopped wanting to be called "Kent" (a nice payoff for that particular gag), and Jack and Petey explored the world within Fate's amulet.

It may be too glib to say that everyone lived happily ever after, but that's what happened. (In fact, that's exactly how the Phantom Stranger -- who at one point became extremely happy, smiling a big toothy smile which was actually kinda creepy -- put it in issue #24.) Eric and Linda were reunited, stepping into the bodies of the recently-deceased nice young couple so that they could take care of the little girl, who was revealed as the new hope for a new form of humanity. Nabu left Kent's body, choosing to be reborn as Linda's unborn child; and Kent and his wife Inza returned to life, ready to take over Doctor Fate with #25.

* * *

As a singular body of work, I found DeMatteis' and McManus' Dr. Fate fairly satisfying. The ending is a little too perfect, although I'm sure that's the point; and the same goes for the lessons learned whenever someone tries to use that Indian temple for his own selfish purpose. There is a lot of repetition in these issues, and a good bit of symmetry, but it is the kind of thing which inspires multiple readings.

As an ongoing prospect for a comic-book series, however, Dr. Fate is fascinating for the frustrations I imagine it would provoke in today's environment. There's nothing wrong with the basic premise -- in fact, it's the deliberate explosion of that premise (i.e., Eric's death) which is the source of my fascination. Today, Eric's death would signal either that the series was being retooled (presumably to improve sales) or that it was going through a '90s-esque cycle of death, replacement character, and rebirth. The notion that this version of Dr. Fate was finite hardly seems commercially viable to me these days. Indeed, if (as #24 suggests) Kent Nelson was returning to the role , it would make Eric & Linda placeholders, if not the "bait" in a bait-and-switch. Now, Dr. Fate was a very sweet series, and I don't mean to treat it so cynically; but I'm sure you'll understand that I've been conditioned towards cynicism over the past several years.

Thankfully, I take away from Dr. Fate a message of hope and renewal. DeMatteis argues that although we never really die, each life we live is still worth living. How appropriate, then, that he used a quirky take on a self-perpetuating corporately-owned superhero -- one of the most durable of fictional creations -- to make his point.

And now I'm off to read Doctor Fate issues #25-41, so watch out for Part Two....
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Which Essential Next?

As you all know, I am always interested in Marvel comics from the '60s and '70s. So far I have read all the Essential volumes for Captain America, Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, Godzilla, Killraven, Super-Villain Team-Up, and The Defenders.

Furthermore, I have read the first volume only of Essential Thor, Essential Avengers, Essential Doctor Strange, and Essential Spider-Woman (yes, I know).

Therefore, I have two questions:

1. Which new series should I start? Contenders include Iron Man, Hulk, and Marvel Two-In-One, but I welcome all suggestions. (It will, however, take a lot to get me to buy Essential Dazzler Vol. 1; and keep in mind I bought the Spider-Woman book without hesitation.)

2. Which of the series listed above (Thor, Avengers, Doctor Strange, or Spider-Woman) should I pick up next? Again, I'm leaning towards Doctor Strange, but I could be swayed.

Note that Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man (and probably Peter Parker by extension) are not part of the discussion because I am reading the Masterworks (and I have the FF reprints on DVD).

For your convenience, here is Wikipedia's chart of Essential reprints.

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