Friday, September 23, 2005

Common Sense and Continuity

"Superman/Shazam: First Thunder" isn't very good. It feels like Winick needed to justify his Superman/Captain Marvel/Eclipso arc in the Superman titles by releasing a prequel. But that's not its main failing.

Its main failing is a complete disregard not only for established continuity, but also for common sense.

Post-Crisis, Captain Marvel was introduced into the DCU during the "Legends" crossover, shortly after Wonder Woman made her debut, following the Crisis. At this point, Wally West was the fledgling Flash, Dick Grayson was grown up and had adopted the Nightwing mantle, and maybe five or six years have passed since them. If Billy started at 10, that'd put him square at the age of 16, which he claimed to be in JSA.

"First Thunder" ignores this, instead suggesting that Captain Marvel debuted during the first year of the modern age of superheroes, before Wonder Woman, the Flash, or Martian Manhunter (some have complained that they also suggest that Batman debuted before Superman, but the text clearly says "around the same time" for their respective debuts, which fits with Batman and Superman's established origins via "Year One" and "Man of Steel").

Now, I can understand wanting to ignore "Legends," but let's think about this a little more critically. It's generally accepted that about 10 years have passed since the modern age started (Batman and Superman's respective debuts). If Billy started in the first year, he'd necessarily be ten years older now. I recall him saying in "First Thunder" that he's either 10 or 13, which would put him in his 20s now.

Captain Marvel kinda loses the "childlike superhero" quality when he can vote and buy porno, doesn't he?

I know they need to keep Billy young, but they really should have put some thought into that before "First Thunder." Between his FT debut and the modern day, the following things have to happen:
*Batman takes a ward, Dick Grayson, and trains him to be Robin. Dick grows up and takes a new identity, becoming a recognized superhero in his own right.
*Batman takes a second ward, Jason Todd, who apparently dies at the hands of the Joker, but actually grows up to become the new Red Hood.
*Barbara Gordon takes on the Batgirl mantle, abandons it, and is subsequently shot and paralyzed. She then serves with Suicide Squad and the Justice League as Oracle before forming the Birds of Prey.
*Will Payton becomes Starman, as does David Knight. Knight works with him briefly before Payton's apparent death, and Knight subsequently dies, leading to his brother Jack's acceptance of the role. Jack acts as Starman for over a year before passing the torch to young Courtney Whitmore, who becomes Stargirl. Stargirl eventually ends up in an aborted relationship with teenager Billy Batson.
*Batman takes on a third ward, Tim Drake, who becomes a respected young hero and eventually quits, paving the way for a fourth Robin to make her name and die, leaving him the role once more.
*The Justice League is formed, as in JLA: Year One. Some time after, Barry Allen dies in the Crisis, leaving the mantle to his sidekick, Wally West. Hal Jordan is stripped of his role, which is given to John Stewart and Guy Gardner at times, before they all resume as Green Lanterns and Hal goes crazy and kills a bunch of people, then dies himself, then comes back as the Spectre, then comes back again as Green Lantern. Also, Kyle Rayner happens.
*Superman encounters a Supergirl from a pocket universe, executes three Kryptonian criminals, and the Kents basically give the Supergirl therapy. She makes a name for herself as a superhero and lover of Lex Luthor II (a clone of the original, posing as his own son, since Lex had cancer and faked his death). Superman gets engaged to Lois Lane, then dies at the hands of Doomsday, to be replaced by four alternate Supermen. After the original returns, Steel and Superboy make names for themselves as solo superheroes. Meanwhile, Supergirl melds with the essence of Linda Danvers and discovers that she's an Earth-Born angel. After an adventure with the pre-Crisis Supergirl, Linda leaves the identity behind and goes to Bete Noire to eventually be forgotten because DC dropped that title and now Peter David has to invent a different backstory. Also, Young Justice. After that, another Supergirl appears and stays around way too long before vanishing into the well of horrible ideas from whence she came, and a third Supergirl shows up with some sort of bad Loebian mystery surrounding her origins. Power Girl fits into all that someplace, and we have to leave time for Electro-Supes, Y2K, and the marriage.
*A bunch of things happen in the pre-Crisis that are actually considered to be post-Crisis continuity (omitting stuff like alter-Earths and characters who shouldn't have existed), but only pop up when writers find it convenient to reference them.

I can suspend my disbelief and say "okay, that's a good decade of stuff there. A busy decade, but that could all fit into a decade." I can't suspend it enough to say "okay, Batman's gone through four sidekicks. Two have become adults. But Billy Batson's still a kid." I thought one of the consequences of Infinite Crisis was greater attention to continuity. Apparently, it doesn't apply to continuity that you can figure out just by using basic sense.

If you want to keep Billy Batson young, then you can't have his superhero debut back during the time of the big three, unless you say he was 6 years old when he met Shazam.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Death of Jean DeWolff

Yesterday, in a large pile of books at my local comic shop's 50%-off sale, I picked up the trade of Peter David's classic Spider-Man story "The Death of Jean DeWolff," in which the author includes some comments on his reasons for doing the story.

For those who don't know, the story revolves around the brutal murder of police Captain Jean DeWolff, who, unlike most of New York, actually liked Spider-Man. Other murders, including a judge friend of Daredevil's and a black minister appear to be by the same person. Spider-Man and Daredevil independently try to find and catch the murderer.

I came into Spider-Man in the early 90s (not counting the "Marvel Tales Featuring Classic Spider-Man" issues I bought throughout the late 80s). Peter's parents had just come back from the dead, Carnage had just been introduced, and Sal Buscema was making everyone look sharp and blocky. I never knew Jean DeWolff, and I had only heard the title of the story until just recently.

So, a character who was becoming a fixture in Spider-Man gets killed in the opening sequence of the story, leading to the revelation that the murderer was actually another apparent hero, a police officer, which drives Spider-Man into a spiral of guilt, self-doubt, and anger (after all, this *is* what happens to people who actually care about Spider-Man, isn't it? Violent death?). He lashes out at the murderer and at Daredevil, nearly going back several times on his vow not to kill, nearly standing by as mob justice took hold of the murderer.

At the end of the book, David had this to say:
"We killed off a character who had a lot of potential. Readers couldn't fathom why we did that. 'Why kill off a character with whom you could have done so much?' we were asked over and over again. Ah, but where is the dramatic impact in killing off someone with no potential? Someone who the readers are sick of? There's no drama in that, no sense of 'It might have been.' Death should be a tragedy, not a relief. Perhaps in a world where moviegoers laugh at innocent teens being slaughtered by masked madmen, that's been forgotten."

Jean DeWolff died in her sleep, killed by a crazed fellow officer. Both were heroes at one point or another. This is often considered one of Spider-Man's greatest stories, despite the fact that Jean DeWolff was a good character, despite the fact that she could have been a fantastic supporting cast member and even a romantic interest for Spider-Man, despite the ramifications this had on Spider-Man's psyche and life.

No, not despite. Because of.

Death *should* be a tragedy. Superheroes are typically born out of some tragic death--Superman from the death of Krypton, Batman from the death of his parents, Spider-Man from the death of Uncle Ben, Hal Jordan by the death of Abin Sur, etc. etc.
Would anyone weep over the death of Jar-Jar Binks? If Snapper Carr had bit the big one in 1965, who would have shed a tear? When the Spider-Clone was laid to rest, who was at the funeral? Characters who deserve to die do not induce tragedy.

I think folks can see where this is going. The Death of Jean DeWolff killed off a beloved character with decades of story potential ahead of her. It's generally regarded as one of Spider-Man's greatest stories, and a fine work by a young Peter David. How will we look back on the tragic deaths of Infinite Crisis?

Blue Beetle didn't deserve to die, because of this, his death was a tragedy. Now, the test is whether or not the tragedy was worth it. Most good stories, particularly superhero stories, have a fundamental element of sacrifice and loss. It's a dangerous game, and it shouldn't just be F-listers and background characters who pay that price. IC still has a way to go to spin Beetle's death into a worthwhile venture, but I hold out hope that perhaps Beetle will get to chill in superhero Valhalla with Jean DeWolff and Gwen Stacy and all the other characters who died for the greater good of a good story.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

The Blogosphere

I don't like the term "blogosphere." Sure, the sphere's a great shape, but why are blogs supposedly arranged in this spherical format? Is it a solid sphere, or a shell? Are all blogs really equidistant from some blog central point?

Honestly, it sounds like a layer of the atmosphere. Right between the stratosphere and the mesosphere is the blogosphere, cold and thin and such.

I propose that we stop taking this "blogosphere" term for granted. Why not another shape? Where are the blog cones? The blogular prisms? The blogular pyramids?

I hereby propose the blogohedron, a regular blog-sided figure with a blog at each vertex.

Long live the blogohedron!

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Last straw

I'm done with "All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder." Besides having a needlessly long title, the book is over-the-top ridiculousness, and I can't tell if Miller's being serious, satirical, or just plain awful.

Batman has kidnapped Dick Grayson from corrupt cops, moments after the boy's parents have been killed in front of him. He spends the bulk of the car ride trying alternatively to drug, intimidate, and empathize with the boy, all while engaging in a bit of the old ultra-violence. And let me tell you, O my brothers, this one's really horrorshow.

I think Frank Miller watched every Batman film made since they decided that Michael Keaton could be menacing in rubber, even if he couldn't turn his head, and decided to take every excess of those movies, crank the "Excess" knob to eleven, and let 'er rip. "Batman runs over a cop car in 'Batman Begins'? Here, he runs over a whole squad of cops! And sets them on fire! Batman has crazy gadgets in the movies? Well, here he has a flying car, the one from 'Men in Black 2'! Batman flew up by the moon in 'Batman'? Here, he does a loop-the-loop in front of it! Batman talks in a gravelly voice with melodramatic dialogue? Here, he talks with a super-gravelly voice, with really freaking dumb melodramatic dialogue! Sex appeal? Wait 'til you see this!"

Oh, and Alfred and Vicki Vale get to play Scarlett and Rhett. Or something.

It's amazing how fast-paced this issue is. One shock after another, one ridiculous word balloon after another, it really breezes by so fast that you might be tempted to say "gee, it's nice to see that Miller isn't writing overly-decompressed comics here."

Then, you realize that the plot has made little more than superficial, imperceptible changes from the end of the last issue, and you wonder how so many pages could have been wasted on a car chase and the worst Batman/Robin exchange ever devised.

Why is Batman trying to frighten Dick? Why does he seem to take a perverse, sadistic pleasure in slaughtering police officers and running other cars (and rabbits, and frogs, and other assorted animals) off the road? Why is there sexual tension between Alfred and Vicki Vale? Why does Batman have a flying car? With missiles? Why is he laughing?

Why does Batman say "cool"?

Ugh...the only way this could have pressed more of my "that's not Batman" buttons is if there were nipples on the Batsuit. Remind me to bring an eraser next time I go to the comic shop. I have to make a change to my pull bag.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Half-Baker'd

Am I the only person who didn't absolutely fall in love with Kyle Baker's "Plastic Man" series?

I just recently bought the first trade, and I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. It's got some funny moments, but most of the jokes fall flat on their faces. The funniest parts are when Baker pokes fun at the DCU, or does new and unexpected things with Plas's powers. Then, it's hilarious. Particularly Baker's take on Batman, that was fantastic.

But the rest? Just bland. Sometimes tedious, sometimes trying too hard for laughs. Overall, a really, really mediocre read. Maybe Joe Kelly spoiled me with "The Dark Nut Strikes Again" in JLA, but that single issue told a better "comic farce with emotional gravitas due to Plas's past" story than the whole trade of Baker's comics. Maybe it's because Kelly's humor had less to do with pratfalls and slapstick, was a little more cerebral. Maybe it's because Woozy Winks wasn't there. Maybe it's because Plas had a straight-man to play off of.

I think that hit the nail on the head with the rubber mallet: "Plastic Man" reads like Bud Costello meets Natasha Badinov. When your slapstick character is a hero and your straight-woman is a villain, the dynamic between the two characters gets really complicated and takes away from the humor. Furthermore, Plas doesn't hold up well as straight man to Woozy Winks's dopey antics.

I know I'm going to take flak from folks who see my praise of the Infinite Crisis books and my dislike for this, who think "oh, this schmuck just likes dark, brooding comics. He doesn't know that comics should be vibrant and fun. What a jerk." Not so, noble reader. I loves me some fun comics. I recently started collecting Keith Giffen's "Ambush Bug," easily one of the funnest, most consistently hilarious comics ever printed. Giffen's "Justice League" and subsequent follow-up minis, "Trinity Angels," Greg Rucka and Louise Simonson's respective takes on Mr. Mxyzptlk in Superman's comics, Dan Slott's "She-Hulk" and "Spider-Man/Human Torch," and nearly anything with "Power Pack" in the title...some of my favorites, and fun comics all around. So it's not that I just don't like comedy comics.

I just didn't particularly like "Plastic Man," which is a shame given my love for the character and my enjoyment of Baker's work in "Truth" and "Bizarro Comics."

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Like a kid again...

I wore my Superman t-shirt today because it was clean, the reason behind most of my clothing decisions.

Later, I went shopping. Among the items I picked up was a bath towel. Now, I hadn't really stopped to think about it, but the towel I picked out was bright red. After all, I'd never had a bright red towel before.

It wasn't until just a few minutes ago that I realized the implications of these two seemingly unrelated events.

I'm 21 years old, and I have a bright red towel tucked into my collar for the first time in my life. Crazy.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Guest Post: Heroes of Conservatism

My good friend Jon Maxson has penned a guest post today in response to the upoming jingoistic and laughably out-of-touch neo-con comic maxi-series "Liberality For All." I plan on writing my own thoughts as a follow-up in the next couple of days. Enjoy!

Sean Hannity: Superhero. Ok that just sounds weird. But it’s the concept of the new conservative comic book “Liberality for All,” a right-leaning adventure meant to give young conservative readers a role model in the world of comics. Hannity too, seems to be a strange pick. Why not Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter? My guess is he’s the only one who would wear the tights. I say, why make new comics when, with just a few minor modifications, children can already learn the joys of conservatism from already existing comic characters?
Superman – From now on, Clark Kent is the only conservative columnist on the Daily Planet. His liberal co-workers mock him for his views but love Superman, thus proving the media bias. Crazy liberals. Doomsday’s name will be changed to Rapture, and Superman will welcome him with open arms. In one great storyline, Karl Rove leaks Batman’s secret identity to Kent, who publishes it and then spills his guts before a grand jury to avoid going to jail. Kent then loses it, swears on air and walks out of a live CNN broadcast.
Wonder Woman – Wonder Woman is flattered by her powers but chooses to not use them, staying at home and not interfering with a man’s world.
The Incredible Hulk – The Hulk enlists to go to Iraq where he is accidentally killed by friendly fire. In order to make their war seem more heroic, the government lies to Hulk’s family about the cause of his death.
Batman – Gotham City’s concealed weapons allowed Dr. Thomas Wayne to defend his family during an attempted mugging. His son Bruce grew up and started several businesses, which all failed and were finally bought out by his father. He loves guns.
Robin – Robin is responsible for Sept. 11.
J. Jonah Jameson – He stays pretty much the same.
X-Men – Every so often, God just decides to change people into mutants. All references to evolution are deleted.
Captain Planet – He is still called Capt. Planet, but now allows for twice as much arsenic in drinking water.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

ORGANIC !$%&@##! WEB-SHOOTERS????

I just finished reading the excellent trade "Spider-Man/Human Torch: I'm With Stupid," and was clued into a recent development in the Spider-verse.

No, not keeping his mask on with his stickiness, something I've always wondered about. After all, he can stick to a wall with his butt, but it never occurs to him that his face can stick to stuff too? And his mask, no less? With the frequency that Spidey loses masks, you'd think he would have realized that by now.

Spidey has organic web-shooters now. Because he has them in the movie.

Well, gee golly jiminy-f***. Why not make that change over in "Ultimate Spider-Man," the story the movie's more based on? Why make the change in the comics that the kids *aren't* reading?

Jesus f***ing Christ. I cannot believe this. How did they explain this? Did he wake up one morning, scratch his butt, and squirt webbing down his backside? Because I want to see that issue, that's freaking hilarious.

And, apparently, he's now to Spiders what Aquaman is to fish, more or less. He can "receive primal messages" from insects and the like. Why insects? Because arachnid-based heroes somehow understand their prey? Hey, maybe every animal-based hero should have the ability to communicate with their totem animal. Vulture could settle down on a park bench to feed pigeons, Rhino could move to Africa to commune with his thick-skinned bretheren, and Dr. Octopus would drown in a tragic attempt to wed a friendly squid.

But there's more! Green Lantern now asks street lamps what they're knowin', having come to watch their flowers growin'! Batman annoys the Justice League with his frequent use of echolocation, and wait 'til you see the counsel's conversations with Ol' Scratch in "The Daredevil and Daniel Webster."

The justification for these changes? From Newsarama, referring to Tom Brevoort's comments, "at this point in time, a larger audience is more familiar with a Spider-Man with organic webshooters than without."

Well, damn. A larger audience is also familiar with a Spider-Man who isn't married to Mary Jane and is a college student, than the high school teacher who bedded the supermodel. A larger audience is also familiar with a dead Doc Ock. Do we rewind the last twenty years of Spidey history and kill one of his greatest villains to line the comics up with the movies?

Last I checked, the movie was based on the comic, not the other way 'round.

But I'd like to see the numbers. I want you to add up all the living people who have ever picked up and read a Spider-Man comic since 1962. 45 years worth of readers worldwide. Now, add to that the people who haven't picked up a comic, but have watched one of the Spider-Man cartoon series (I do this to remove overlap).

Now take the number of people who have seen the Spider-Man movies, but have never seen a Spider-Man comic or cartoon episode. I'm willing to bet the numbers aren't as different as people would have you believe. Spidey's been popular for two damn generations, the movies have been out for what, four years? I call shenanigans. Shenanigans!

And to make the change in the core Spidey titles! It's been what, ten, fifteen years comic time since he got his powers, and now he suddenly further mutates to be able to produce a substance that he himself invented? Isn't that a little convenient? They could do this a bit more believably over in Ultimate, where Pete's dad invented the webbing. Who knows, maybe working with chemicals caused his dad to develop a genetic mutation, etc. Why in the regular titles? Why in the ones that are, in no way, marketed toward the people who would be coming in from the movies with no comic background?

Let me tell you, Mr. Brevoort, there's a much greater number of people buying regular Spider-Man comics who know about mechanical web-shooters than people who don't.

See, what Spidey's writers have forgotten for several years is that Spider-Man is not a totally physical hero. Pete's brain made some valiant attempts to get into the plot under J. Michael Straczynski, but then some super-powerful Morbius wannabe would show up and start another epic fistfight.

Peter Parker is a genius, a scientist, and a little of a renaissance man (that boy can sew!). When it became apparent that he might need webbing of some sort, he whipped it up with a chemistry set. When he realized he'd need to carry extra webbing, he made a belt with extra cartridges. When they needed a convenient excuse to get Spidey away from his webs, some powerful villain would crush the shooters on his wrists. It was a convenient plot device, but more, it was a constant reminder that Spider-Man's greatest powers are his intellect and ingenuity.

After all, what else does he have? He's strong, but there are others who are much stronger. He's agile, but there are others who are more agile and faster, to boot. His only unique powers are stickiness (oh, sorry Nightcrawler, nevermind), and a spider-sense that warns him of impending doom. He wouldn't even make the cut for the Legion of Super-Heroes, by their 1960s entrance standards.

But he's smart, and that's what counts with Spider-Man. He can think himself out of situations when he can't punch his way out. His webbing was a constant, active reminder of that.

Not so, anymore. Why? Because this little change will apparently make Spider-Man more marketable? Bull. If Joe Average picks up a Spider-Man comic, he's going to have a harder time understanding why Peter is married to Mary Jane, why Aunt May knows his secret, and why the Parkers are living in the Avengers Mansion, than he is understanding that Pete has machines on his writs that shoot webs. Is it because the change adds to the character? I submit that it is not. Is it because it'll have major ramifications on Peter's average life? I think not. They admit that no one's really made a big deal of Peter's webbing in recent years (and I have noticed that few seem to remember that it dissolves after an hour).

Then why? Because it'll anger the long-time fans (hey, as Bill Willingham says, any reaction, good or bad, is equal. Right?), and because it's easier to write a quasi-mystic or thinks-with-fists character than a genuinely smart one. Quasi-mystics can be as naïve and inept as a plot dictates, and still be believable. Fist-thinkers can be painted broadly with the "brash and impatient" stroke as the plot requires (see: Wolverine). Smart characters don't have an excuse. Spider-Man made mistakes all the time when he started out, but that's 'cause he was a rookie. Now he's had a decade of in-comic experience, coupled with an intellect second only to Reed Richards (Sorry, Doom, you're number three. Although there is that fetching Hank McCoy fella...), he doesn't have an excuse to make the dumb mistakes that plots might dictate.

But if they make him a brash fist-thinker or a quasi-mystic who talks to spiders, that's like using plot hole putty. A writer doesn't have to work nearly as hard as he would to imagine how a super-genius might get himself out of a situation. Let the plot dictate the characterization.

Well, I call it crap. Plot-necessitated characterization is reserved for the extras, the museum curators and stereotypical scientists and grizzled cops who are there to give exposition and provide cannon fodder or the occasional emotional gravitas. Plot-dictated character doesn't work with established characters, because it requires the characters to act contrary to their nature to make the plot feasible.

So, if we remove Spider-Man's intellect, then we don't have to worry about making him look like the "world's dumbest smart guy" like Mr. Fantastic, we can let the plot dictate why he's a moron. Then, we don't look like lazy writers.

Spider-scribes, your shortcomings are showing.

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