Sunday, August 31, 2008

Supermonth: Supergirl Liveblogging

I remember watching Supergirl years and years ago, and being generally pretty confused by it. I only have vague impressions left; something about Argo City being underwater, and the Omegadrome, and a cardboard cut-out of Superman. All that's about to change, though, as I pop the DVD into the player and liveblog (so to speak) the flick from start to finish. Join me, won't you?


The opening titles are actually pretty well done; reminiscent of the Superman films without feeling too derivative. Also, very sparkly. Mia Farrow's in it? Interesting. And Peter O'Toole!
Is it bad that I cringe whenever I see one of the Salkinds' names these days?
All right, so we've got some kind of city in a crystal mountain, where people are dressed like it's the Valley of the Dolls. And I think I just heard someone called "Leia."
Apparently Zaltar, O'Toole's character, is some kind of crystal sculptor. Kara approaches him, asking what his new creation will be; he says "I think, a tree," which brings to mind a bit of Joyce Kilmer (and to my heathen mind, a bit of Yip Harburg) and sets Zaltar up as some sort of god figure. We'll see if that pans out.

Anyway, Kara asks what a tree is, and Zaltar tells her it's a lovely thing which grows on Earth. "Earth, you mean where my cousin went?" You know, I've never been keen on the idea that Kara knew where Kal-El was sent prior to her own journey; maybe it's just because in the Silver Age, she watched him through a telescope, which defies more physical laws and principles than most of her powers put together, but it's always kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
Zaltar wants to visit Earth himself, using the "binary chute," but Kara warns that he'd never survive the pressure. He thinks about going to Saturn instead, and then chastizes Kara for not thinking sixth-dimensionally. See, Saturn and Earth are in outer space, while Argo City is in inner space. Well, that clears everything up quite nicely. Wait, what?
Zaltar shows Kara the Omegahedron (not Omegadrome, which I recall now is the thing that made Cyborg all gold and liquidy), the city's power supply, which he'd "borrowed" from "the Guardians." It's a spinning ball that glows and produces a light show similar to the Cosmic Key.
Zaltar says "I think that I shall never see the branches of a living tree;" now I'm pretty certain that the Kilmer reference is intentional. The Omegahedron cannot create life, only the illusion or shadow thereof. Alura, Kara's mother shows up, and Zaltar creates a bracelet for Kara with his orange plastic wand, saying something about "inventing miracles." If the God thing isn't intentional, then the writers lack any sense of symbolism.
Zaltar apparently founded Argo City, though he wishes to leave, wondering what lies beyond the city walls. He has decided to go to Venus, and he surreptitiously kicks the Omegahedron over to Kara, who uses it to animate the dragonfly she created with the orange wand. I'm sure only good can come of this.
The dragonfly rips through a window, which appears to be made of wax paper, and the city begins to explosively decompress. Kara is slammed up against the hole. Some guy who looks an awful lot like Topher Grace shouts her name and rushes to save her, then Zaltar fixes the window with his wand. Apparently the Omegahedron went out the window, giving Zaltar the excuse he needs to leave the city, to look for it. While he's chatting, Kara gets into the chute, and the lotus-petals close up around her to form a pod. She leaves the city, via some kind of gravitational radiation, from inner space to outer space, and according to her parents, she'll never be the same again. If you're wondering why, join the club. Zaltar, as penance for losing the Omegahedron, suggests that he must be placed in the Phantom Zone.
Kara's pod zips through inner space (I guess) alongside some pretty trippy special effects. Kind of "Willy Wonka boat ride" trippy, not quite "the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey" trippy. I guess that means it's only half-full of stars.
We cut to two WASPs enjoying champagne on a high-class picnic. Selena, Faye Dunaway's character, muses about how awesome the world is, and how she can't wait until it's all hers. Peter Cook, her companion (who sounds an awful lot like Alan Rickman), suggests that the only way she can rule the world is to become invisible. What? He then explains how to do so, apparently, which involves a dead man's head and several black beans. Apparently he's some kind of wizard, and Selena's trying to discover the secrets of black magic.
The Omegahedron falls from the sky and lands in Selena's soup. The parallels to the Masters of the Universe movie continue.
Selena picks up the ball and starts to recite some kind of immortality spell. She then dismisses Nigel, gets into the car, and uses the Omegahedron to start it (since Nigel's still holding the keys). On the radio, we hear that Superman has set off on a peace-seeking mission to a galaxy that may be hundreds of billions of light years away. Kara, you have absolutely the worst timing.
Kara's pod opens up, and she comes out, then flies out of a pond, dressed in her Supergirl costume. Okay, wait, what? When did she get underwater? Where did she get the costume? Somehow, I doubt that I'll be given any satisfying answers to these questions.
Testing her new powers, Supergirl picks up a flower, then uses heat vision on it, which for some reason causes its petals to open up. She then discovers she can fly, and dances around in the air in a sequence that's actually pretty cool. The whimsicality of the Superman family, particularly with regard to how fun and awesome flying is, isn't explored often enough. The scene honestly reminds me of a more low-key version of that bit in Superman Returns where young Clark is jumping around the cornfield.
The bluescreen flying effects are less impressive. Helen Slater reminds me a bit of Alicia Silverstone.
There's a gorgeous shot where Supergirl is standing in front of a body of water at sunset, doing the classic Superman arms akimbo pose, with her back to the camera. If nothing else, the cinematography is pretty good so far.
Selena returns to her...um, abandoned funhouse, which I assume she got real cheap from a police auction of the Joker's property. She calls out, and I swear it's for "Ianto." I guess this must be Torchwood Five or something.
Oh, Bianca.
Bianca comes in and suggests that they start their own coven in order to pay the bills. She suggests charging $5 a head for membership fees, which leads me to wonder just how popular covens are in this town. It's that damn Wiccan mafia, I tell you.

Cut to Supergirl flying above the city, when her bracelet starts beeping and blinking. Why did Zaltar give her a signal watch? And if she asks him, will he make her big? She lands, and a semi comes to a stop in front of her. Two skeezy men emerge, making typically chauvinistic remarks to the Maid of Might. She naïvely greets them and asks where she is. The men respond that she's on "Lover's Lane." Great, another "LL" in the Superman mythos. I don't know what's dumber here: that two truckers are going to try to take on a girl dressed like Superman, or that Supergirl's bracelet apparently has an alarm that notifies her of good places to get sexually assaulted.
One of the men tugs her cape aside to get a look at her rear; the other one turns out to be Max Headroom. No, really. Supergirl explains that she's Superman's cousin, and that she's looking for the Omegahedron, the Macguffin that powers Argo City. This exposition doesn't fail our intrepid truckers, who are unwavering in their noble quest to score some Kryptonian jailbait this night. In the middle of a street, no less. You can probably predict what happens: Supergirl lifts Sid the Squid up by his chin, accompanied by the usual bone-cracking sound effects we've come to expect from Kryptonians using their powers on muggles normal people, and she asks why they're doing this. Big Russ's response: "It's just the way we are." Well, there's some anvilicious dialogue for you. That's right up there with Sandman.

Sidenote: I vaguely remember this same thing happening in the Superman/Batman arc that introduced the newest iteration of Supergirl. Except that Kara was naked at the time. But I'll check that when I get the chance.

Supergirl blows Matt Frewer...into a fence, with her super-breath. For some reason, the other trucker pulls out a switchblade and tells her she "shouldn't have done that." He is similarly unfazed when she uses heat vision on the knife. It's like he's consumed by bloodlust, only for sex...if only there were some term for this strange sex-lust.
Supergirl kicks him in the junk. He goes flying into a pile of garbage, and the Girl of Steel takes to the skies. And yet, the trucker must be wearing a frigging kryptonite cup, because he lethargically suggests (not even in falsetto!) that they don't mention this to anyone.
Selena's holding a party, and she claims that the attendees are her army of the night. This is the most incredibly '80s army of the night ever. No army of the night in history has featured so much Jheri Curl and so many white sportcoats with the sleeves rolled up. I was pretty much instantly reminded of this:
That's right, a Hocus Pocus reference.

So, she lights Peter Cook's cigarette with her finger as a demonstration of her awesome powers. He shows her...something; it's not clear what, apparently to demonstrate that ambition is dangerous. As a response, she toys with one of the partygoers, again to demonstrate her amazing abilities, which now extend to telekinesis and beverage-based scorpion-generation. She sends Nigel away angrily.
We cut to a forest, where Supergirl is asleep on the ground, wrapped in her cape. She wakes up and bids a rabbit good morning. Then, all the woodland creatures help her make a pretty new dress so she can impress Prince Malverne at tonight's ball.

No, wait, scratch that last part. A couple of kids run in to retrieve a lost softball, then return to the diamond, which appears to be separated from Supergirl's sleeping place by a single row of trees. She starts watching the game, seemingly surprised to find it. Because, you know, someone with incredibly sharp super-senses can't possibly hear a loud softball game being played thirty feat away. Supergirl may be the world's soundest sleeper.

She checks out one of the girls in the audience, who appears to be wearing some kind of school uniform. Somehow, by walking behind various trees, Supergirl is able to change her costume into a matching uniform and backpack, and turn her brunette to boot. By comparison, Superman's superweaving skills are like the guy who learns how to sew buttons back onto his shirts before he goes to college.
Sidenote: I think I've linked to that super-weaving page more often than any other single page on the web.
Supergirl, incognito, goes into some kind of private school and begins looking around. The name "Danvers" is dropped fairly casually by a passing student; it apparently belongs to the headmaster or principal or whatever. Supergirl says she's a new student; and noting a portrait of Robert E. Lee on the wall, gives her name as "Linda Lee." You know, I want to go to a private girls' school where the headmaster has a picture of a Confederate general on the wall; I imagine there would be nothing but totally progressive values in such a place.
Nigel barges in to complain about all the nasty new Gryffindors students, who have played pranks on him. While the headmaster is out of the room listening to him grousing about his Potions class, Linda forges a letter from Clark on the typewriter and sneaks it into Danvers' file. How did Linda find out her cousin's Earth name?
Holy crap! Girls in bras! That's honestly racier than I expected. And girls in bras with towels inexplicably wrapped around them from chest to knee. That's...more bizarre than I expected. Linda gets a tour of the campus, including the "girls who lounge around in their underwear" dorm that exists solely in movies and college males' dreams. Linda gets placed in a room with Lucy Lane. What a coinkidink! Danvers puts two and two together about their relatives working together on the same paper. Strangely, though Lucy claims that she was supposed to have a single, the room is clearly a double, and Lucy has decorated it as such, including signs that say "It's mine beyond this line." She also appears to be reading a She-Hulk comic.
Linda sees a poster of Superman on Lucy's wall; I may have misremembered the cardboard cut-out. Lucy offers to introduce Linda to Superman. Irony!
Selena's playing a game of "He loves me, he loves me not" with Tarot cards, and comes to the conclusion that people will do anything for love. Thus, she concludes, she's going to make everyone fall in love with her. Some kind of tchotchke on the armrest starts pulsating, and the camera cuts briefly to show Linda in class nearby. Eventually, Supergirl's bracelet starts blinking and beeping, and she uses X-Ray vision to see Selena's car driving away. She is about to leave when Professor Snape chastizes her.
After class, Linda and friends are playing what I can only assume is field hockey. One of the other girls is apparently trying to kill Lucy Lane for no reason besides pure malice, and Linda rushes in to save her, allowing the field hockey ball to shatter against her body. And then, girls in the shower! And girls peeping on other girls in the shower! And the mean girls are fiddling with the pipes in order to give the girls a good scalding. Ah, the wholesome fun of an all-girls prep school. Linda, naturally, turns the tables on them with a bevy of super-senses and some heat vision, leading to their eventual humiliation.
Lucy offers to pierce Linda's ears. That can only lead to great things, I'm sure. It'll be like those old comics where Jimmy tries to cut Clark's hair. Oh, and Lucy's in a bra again. And Linda's putting a bra on over her uniform...and stuffing it. What the hell?
Speaking of Jimmy, Lucy talks about how she's having him come up from Metropolis.
Linda Lee is Willow Rosenberg. Especially in her voice.
According to Linda's map, Midvale is near Peoria, IL. Next thing we see is Supergirl on a flying tour of Chicago. At least they're not trying to pretend that Chicago is Metropolis or anything. I'm glad that the modern films have been better about masking their locales; no more Statues of Liberty in Gotham and Metropolis.
Selena's making a love potion. Kind of makes me wonder what the heck the point of the flying scene was. Gosh, this movie's long...there's still over an hour left.
Oh, right, Bianca.
Selena lures a landscaper into her secondhand hideout and gives him a dose of the love potion. Then Nigel shows up, wearing what appears to be a Members Only jacket.
Ye gods, I can't imagine how boring it must be to be reading this. Especially if you're not watching the movie while doing so. Many apologies.
The landscaper wakes up in a daze and ends up walking through the still-active haunted house; Nigel tries to talk Selena into doing something with Mosaic. I didn't realize that Green Lantern was going to show up.
Jimmy Olsen takes Lucy, Linda, and his friends out for a classy dinner at a generic fast food restaurant. They happen to see the love-potion-struck fool staggering through the street. Apparently he hasn't looked up from his shuffling feet since he left the funhouse, since he's supposed to fall madly in love with the first person he sees. Also, since he's not kissin' everything in sight, this must be Love Potion No. 7 or something, not #9. Lucy calls him a dingleberry; Linda asks what a dingleberry is. Oh Linda, be very glad that Lucy didn't explain it to you.
Jimmy pops by to offer some anti-drug propaganda from behind his bowtie and sweater-vest. Jimmy, you're a tool.
Selena uses the Omegahedron, which is either stuck inside a dragon-shaped box, or has grown to be shaped like a small leaden dragon tchotchke, to send an earth mover chasing after her lovestruck gardener. In the entirety of the chase, he apparently sees no one. Lucy runs out to climb into the runaway piece of construction equipment, hoping to stop it. Instead, she's knocked rather easily unconscious, while calamity ensues all around her. Cue Linda's quick change in the bathroom.
Supergirl surveys the area, apparently trying to figure out which problems to stop first. She actually manages to take care of things pretty efficiently. Supergirl changes to Linda for some reason before opening up the jaws of the earth mover (having taken it away from the chaos), and naturally he falls in love with her. Selena, watching through her magic mirror, is terribly upset. This naturally could have been avoided if she'd chased after him in a car rather than trying to remote control construction vehicles to capture him. Don't supervillains ever do anything simply?
Somehow, despite watching the whole thing through a magic mirror, Selena and Bianca miss that Linda and Supergirl are the same. She sends some kind of spell to kill Linda or something.
Supergirl shows up to fight the invisible wind or monster or something. It's invisible, and it's stormy, but it's not totally clear what the threat is supposed to be.
Okay, it's invisible Godzilla. Supergirl stops it (revealing its shape in the process) with a makeshift lightning rod that generally defies the physics of lightning rods.
Linda finally figures out that the bracelet is a kind of tracking device for the Omegahedron. She follows it to the funhouse, where the gardener-stalker shows up with chocolates and roses.
Lovestoned landscaper gets a name--Ethan--and continues talking in wannabe Elizabethan. He proposes to Linda, and they both act kind of dumb.
Selena starts spinning the lovebirds on a magically out-of-control Tilt-A-Whirl. Linda, as you might expect, disappears, and Supergirl drops in shortly thereafter. So far Selena still hasn't made the connection. She's not particularly bright. She also claims to be a "Siren of Endor," which I think means she's supposed to be a tall, bald Ewok.
To demonstrate her awesome power, Selena tries to kill Ethan. With bumper cars. Supervillains are dumb.
"You got hit on the head with a coconut." "Supergirl" = "Gilligan's Island."
Selena has brought Nigel in to teach her Occlumency or something. He uses the Elder Wand to help her with the Omegahedron, and together they capture Ethan just after he apparently figures out Supergirl's identity.
Selena feels up Nigel so she can steal the Elder Wand (or whatever), and uses it with the Omegahedron to make Nigel look like a hobo in drag. She also turns her funhouse into a mountaintop castle with a decor strangely similar to the Luthor place in "Smallville"Selena entrances Ethan and puts Supergirl into the Phantom Zone, complete with the classic spinning square motif. Which is actually pretty cool. The glass pane breaks, and Supergirl is in a dark, barren wasteland of a world, which is (I presume) the movieverse Phantom Zone. She quickly discovers that her powers are gone completely. So she starts walking. I know it's not going to happen, but I think it'd be pretty awesome if she ran into Mon-El or some Phantom Zone prisoners. So far, though, she just falls into a tar pit.
Selena's driving through the city, where some of the college students (Lucy included, also Jimmy) are protesting her. She really asserted her omnipotent dominance over Midvale rather quickly.
Wow, maybe we will get to see some Phantom Zone prisoners, because someone just pulled a sleepy Supergirl out of the muck.
Oh, it's Zaltar. He offers her a "squirt," which is less dirty than it sounds, and he's clearly gone a bit mad, or at least a bit depressed.
There's a way out of the Phantom Zone, but it's impossible. Which I'm pretty sure means there's no way out. Eventually Supergirl's super-perkiness convinces him to help her try to escape via some kind of singularity or something.
One thing I'll say about Selena, she knows how to pace herself. Some villains are all "Today the city, tomorrow...the world!" but she's all, "Today Midvale, by the end of the week the contiguous bits of North America, and after that we'll see." Good for you, Selena. Don't spread yourself too thin.
Supergirl and Zaltar make their way through Disney's The Black Hole, while Selena tosses fireballs at them from afar. That doesn't do much, so she decides to summon "the demon storm." Zaltar sacrifices himself to let Kara go on without him, and the god parallels from earlier go largely unfulfilled, except maybe in some Nietzschean way, but it's been awhile since I read Zarathustra, so I can't be sure. Supergirl escapes and flies into Selena's lair. Selena threatens the lives of Kara's friends, as you might expect, and Supergirl neutralizes her trap, as again you might expect. Supergirl demands the Omegahedron, but Selena uses it to power up the Elder Wand so she can do some flashy but ultimately lame magic tricks to the general environment. In the meantime, I should say that it's really a good idea to have a magical villain in this flick. It allows for some more entertaining encounters than you get with the traditional beat-em-up of superhero flicks. I wish one of the Superman sequels would remember his other weakness like this does.
Selena summons Stampede to stop Supergirl. There's some weird stretching, and Supergirl's writhing in pain, but she hears Obi-Wan Zaltar's voice in her head and it gives her the resolve to call on the Strength of the Bear and break free. Ethan disturbs the Omegahedron, and Nigel tells Supergirl to "confront her with it," which is singularly vague advice. Somehow, Selena and Bianca--who really feels like a bystander in all this--are sucked into the magic mirror, and the monster vanishes. That's kind of a confusing climax.
Supergirl takes the Omegahedron and swears Jimmy and Lucy to secrecy about her existence. Ethan says he'll explain to the others about Linda, and they share a tender moment. Supergirl flies off.
Supergirl goes back underwater and we see Argo City in the distant darkness. I think that must have been the source of my confusion as to Argo's whereabouts as a kid. The credits roll, the theme song plays, and the movie's over.
Again, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Much like my experiences with "Lois and Clark" and "Superboy," I expected this to turn out to be absolute crap, but it was actually pretty decent. There are some nasty plot holes, and some things aren't entirely clear, but overall it's a decent flick, and Supergirl is made into a distinct character. At no time does this movie feel like it's just Superman in a skirt, or like the plot is interchangeable with the Man of Steel. It's very much a Supergirl story, and Supergirl has enough whimsy and pluck (though her naivete is frequently overplayed) to carry the film. The film is easily better than either Superman III or IV, and doesn't suffer from the blatant bad ideas of those movies. My biggest complaint is that it sometimes feels like there are ideas that don't get followed through all the way, and points that don't quite get complete closure. At the very least, it's worth a watch, and it's worth the $7.50 I shelled out for it. I'm happy to put Supergirl onto my DVD shelf.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 4)

Superman has a bunch of superpowers.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. But that's how these things go, sometimes. You never know how they're going to change your favorite characters.

I mean, look at some of the older Superman games; they knew how to treat the character right. On the Atari 2600, Superman could pretty much just fly. I think. It's hard to tell with that game. And then on the Genesis, he could do a bunch of stuff, but really only if he got special power-ups. Otherwise, he could be killed with a few punches by pretty much any enemy. And that's the Superman we know and love, right?

Video games have long had problems dealing with the matter of Superman's abilities. If he has unfettered access to all of them, it can become something of a game breaker, in the same way that many writers have called his abilities a story breaker. Especially invulnerability. Playing an average Superman game could be precisely as tedious and effortless as playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Game Genie with unlimited invincibility.

Thankfully, Superman Returns tackled that particular problem. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of issues left with the rest of Superman's prodigious set of abilities. Chief among these, and one that games have long struggled with, is which ones should be included? As far as I'm concerned, these are the important ones, ranked more or less by necessity:

  • Super-strength
  • Heat vision
  • Flight
  • Super-speed
  • Invulnerability
  • Super-senses (especially super-hearing and X-Ray vision)
  • Journalism
  • Freeze-breath
Most Superman games are pretty good about touching on all of these, at least in some fashion. Here's a brief run-down of how they're often utilized:
  • Super-strength: Superman is strong. Duh.
  • Heat vision: Superman's primary ranged attack; usually some kind of special move, usually drains some kind of power meter, sometimes used only in certain levels (especially flying levels).
  • Flight: Sometimes it's pretty much useless (Justice League: Heroes, JL: Task Force, most side-scrollers) as Superman hovers a few feet above the ground. Sometimes it's only used in specific levels (the Genesis Superman game had R-Type-style shooter levels that were all flying, and Superman 64 is apparently a long flight practice game); more recent games (SR, Shadow of Apokolips) incorporate it as a major, if not the primary, mode of movement.
  • Super-speed: Often ignored; sometimes only present in certain moves (the Genesis game had a power-up where you'd spin around really fast to drill through the floor). In SR, you can run or fly at super-speed by holding down a button.
  • Invulnerability: Discussed at length in the first post.
  • Super-senses: Often ignored or triggered rarely in specific places. SR and Shadow of Apokolips use a radar icon to simulate the combined senses, notifying you of events and enemies in the general vicinity. You can trigger X-Ray Vision in Shadow of Apokolips, but it only works on certain things--specifically, things in areas where you're supposed to use X-Ray vision. Doesn't exist at all in SR.
  • Journalism: I'm using the term loosely here to encompass the set of Clark Kent's specific skills--sneaking about, investigating things, interviewing, gathering information, etc. As far as I've played, only Shadow of Apokolips uses this to any degree.
  • Freeze-breath: Generally present as Superman's second projectile attack. Freezes enemies on contact for a period of time. In SR, it can also be used to put out fires; Shadow of Apokolips basically combines this with the more general super-breath, which can move things.
While I like a lot of the choices in Superman Returns, the power set isn't really one of them. Strength is hard to screw up, their solution to the invulnerability problem is pitch-perfect, and the flight system in the game is almost flawless (I think the next post will be just on flying), but after that, things fall apart a bit.

Speed is the first issue, and this was largely the case with Shadow of Apokolips as well. In the games where super-speed is an option, you usually lose fine control when you move faster. That makes a lot of sense, really; it's how speed often works in the real world, and it's been a mainstay of video game logic since at least the days of Sonic the Hedgehog. Most games try to make each power-up have some drawback as well--something simple, like limited duration, or something more significant, like decreased health or control. It maintains the balance of the game.

The problem is that this really doesn't apply so well to Superman; super-speed applies not only to his movements, but also to his reflexes, senses, and thought processing. It's not quite to the degree that the Flash operates at, where he consciously shunts into speed-mode and everything moves in slow motion, but it's certainly similar. And it would have to be; otherwise Superman would constantly be flying into things by moving faster than he could think or react. Sure, he's going to build up some inertia over time, and that should be accounted for, but it shouldn't be quite so bad as it is in SR, where a short super-speed flight will typically send you careening into various buildings. Super-speed should, at least sometimes, shift Superman into so-called bullet-time (as it has in recent adaptations like Smallville and Superman Returns), where everything else is slowed and Superman is moving at a normal pace.

The problem, of course, is limiting this. After all, if you could shunt into bullet-time whenever you wanted, then there'd be no challenge to any battle. So the player's ability to go slow-mo has to have limited duration or limited applicability, while also having some explanation to justify the limitations. It wouldn't be particularly difficult to do that, especially depending on which universe the game is based on, but even just having the bullet-time mode drain your stamina meter (because Superman has to work hard, physically and mentally, to do so much in such a little time) and ending it if Superman gets hit (because it breaks his concentration) would be enough.

Which isn't to say that there shouldn't be a speedy way to get around, too. There's a place for the SR-style super-speed, where you just move faster, but it needs to have much tighter controls and it doesn't need to include such a drastic loss of precision.

My biggest complaint about heat vision is really just a complaint about SR's sloppy controls. Both SR and Shadow of Apokolips allow Superman to do either a sustained beam or a short, powerful burst that drains a lot of the power/stamina meter, and that's fine with me.

X-Ray Vision and the other super-senses are a fairly major sticking point in SR. I don't mind balling up Superman's senses and representing them with a radar display; it worked well for Spider-Man's spider-sense too. My problem is that there should rarely be a situation where I'm Superman, and I can't see what's happening on the other side of a building, or around a corner. I can see through things, I shouldn't have to search so much for the bad guys. I know that making X-Ray Vision a constant option requires a lot more thought and programming into the locations, which is why Shadow of Apokolips only lets you use it in certain places. Still, at least some token attention should be given to it, and systems now are getting able to handle environments of that level of scale and detail. As consoles improve, the excuses for omitting X-Ray Vision dwindle.

You already know my problems with freeze breath as a concept, but I like having it around as a weapon in-game. It's not usually a problem; it's used fairly creatively in Shadow of Apokolips (at one point, Superman has to move a bunch of floating mines without touching--and thus triggering--them), and it's an essential bit of the SR arsenal. But for some reason, SR decided to make "super-breath" and "freeze-breath" separate powers. I'm not sure why; I've not found a single situation in which super-breath is useful and distinct from freeze-breath. It's a waste of a power slot, which could have been filled by something--anything!--more useful. Superman only needs one breath-related superpower in a game.

Which brings us to Journalism, Superman's overlooked ability. One of the nice things, one of my favorite things, about Superman: Shadow of Apokolips, was that it included levels that you had to play as Clark Kent. These levels usually required you to sneak around, take out video cameras, and use your powers in covert ways as you gathered pivotal information to further the plot. While there are other games that involve Clark somehow, it's never been with such a clear eye toward the story, and I've not seen it used since. Bringing Clark Kent into the game allows for many, many more gameplay options, including recon and stealth missions and types of character interaction that you otherwise wouldn't find. Moreover, it would allow the game to make use of some of the supporting cast, which is sadly missing from SR and many other Superman games.

Hopefully I'll get to the cast in a future post. There's not much left to cover; we're almost home free!

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Two great tastes that taste great together

I've counted at least three references to Doctor Who in the most recent Middleman episode. First, a NASA agent named Lethbridge-Stewart, a name-dropping of the Zygons, then an intergalactic Perpugilliam treaty. Add to that all the Die Hard references, the First Law of Robotics, a reference to that episode of Saved By the Bell, and the fact that the text on the Clotharian bomb was in Aurebesh, and I'm beginning to think that this episode was made just for me. If you're not already watching Middleman, dammit, start. You really, really don't want to see the deep blue funk I'll fall into if this show gets canned.

Oh, and I should have that Aurebesh transliterated in a couple of days. I need to get a copy of the episode that I can pause, first.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 3)

I understand the impulse to make Metropolis a gigantic, sprawling...well, metropolis. It's clear in the game of Superman Returns that the designers were trying to demonstrate how overwhelmingly huge Metropolis is, spread across four islands, the main one (presumably New Troy, though the arrangement of the city doesn't really map well onto any of the canonical versions, nor even the version shown in the movie) having several tiers of urban plateaus. Metropolis is huge.

Unfortunately, Metropolis is also uniform. There's very little in the way of distinctive landmarks, which makes getting around the city a chore. The screen has a little radar and a note of which general neighborhood you're in, but that doesn't really tell you much, largely because there's no clear distinction between neighborhoods. The Spider-Man games have it fairly easy in this regard, since they're modeled on a real city, and thus have lots of recognizable buildings and areas to pull from. Plus, the layout of the city is mostly pre-determined, so there's no fumbling in that regard either. In SR, the only real recognizable places are the Daily Planet and a couple of Planet Krypton and Big Belly Burger restaurants. And even those aren't particularly easy to find; the best way to find the Daily Planet building is to start the game in front of it.

For practical purposes, Metropolis needs some navigation help. I'm not sure if street-by-street notifications would really help, but labeling key locales on the in-game map might be useful. Shrinking the city would certainly help (paging Brainiac); it can be big without being so confusing, and Superman really ought to know his way around.

Including some other major landmarks and areas would be useful, too. The plot of the movie universe makes it unlikely that there'd be a LexCorp Tower, but what about the GBS building? The Daily Star? The Ace O' Clubs? S.T.A.R. Labs? 344 Clinton St.? The Newstime offices? The Avenue of Tomorrow? Props to the game for including Hyper Sector [sic] and Suicide Slum, but the whole point of Hypersector was that it was more futuristic than the rest of the city, while Suicide Slum is Metropolis's industrial and criminal district; there's nothing to show any of that in the game, and both areas are pretty much the same as any other area.

Part of this is the fault of DC Comics for not developing a clear, consistent layout for Metropolis. This seems to be the general consensus in-universe:


(Image taken from here, but I think it's originally from the Metropolis Secret Files & Origins)

Although that's pretty loose. Even that doesn't note where most of the landmarks are located, just general regions. I know that it's useful to writers and artists that the fictional cities remain flexible, but there needs to be some kind of definition.

Personally, I'd like to see them actually canonically define what states cities like Gotham and Metropolis are in, rather than leaving them vaguely floating around New England. The old DC RPG apparently placed Gotham in New Jersey and Metropolis in Delaware, which actually makes the most sense to me (especially since it's been repeatedly established that Gotham is north of Metropolis, and that both are island cities on the east coast). "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" placed Metropolis in New York, which doesn't make much sense geographically, particularly in relation to Gotham.

But even that's not entirely necessary, it'd just make things somewhat easier. No, someone needs to actually draft a rough map of Metropolis, establishing where landmarks are in relation to one another, so media tie-ins and comics can have some idea of the layout. It doesn't seem to hamper Spider-Man much that his city is relatively rigidly defined, it shouldn't be a burden to DC's heroes either.

Following that, the ideal Superman game would include as many familiar spots as possible, and should do its best to make the different boroughs and neighborhoods distinct. If the Grand Theft Auto games can manage it, so can Superman. Also, I'd like to see them incorporate the sort of Easter eggs that litter the Spider-Man games: billboards and that sort of thing with throwaway in-universe ads. There are some generic billboards in SR, but nothing related back to the DCU. I'd like to see posters advertising the soap opera Secret Hearts, or ads for Newstime and Wayne Enterprises and the Super Buddies. I'd really like to see benches promoting the services of the Power Company and Kate Spencer.

Other generic landmarks would be nice; I mentioned hospitals in the previous post, and police stations would be nice as well. In fact, the S.C.U. and Science Police ought to have some kind of in-game presence; it needn't be big, but just having them around to assist (or be assisted) in the random battles would be cool. Also, they could serve the very useful purpose of evacuating panicky civilians from battlegrounds.

Oh, and battlegrounds! I've mentioned a couple of times that I'd like to be able to do the typical superhero thing--"Let's take this fight away from the city"--especially since the city has a health meter. Don't tell me that there aren't any condemned buildings or abandoned warehouses in Metropolis, where Superman can take enemies to in order to fight them with limited collateral damage; it seems like the city's full of them (though not so much as Gotham, which apparently has its own abandoned warehouse district).

Metropolis has been around for most of Superman's history, and it has developed a pretty distinctive character of its own. If the games would treat the Big Apricot with a little more detail, it would add immeasurably to the feel of the game.

Edit: One more minor detail: I was playing the game earlier, just to remind myself of some of the layout issues, and I ended up picking up the Daily Planet globe. It's pretty much impossible to set the globe back in its spot; this is partially due to the really bizarre physics of the ball. See, it handles an awful lot like it's made of plastic and filled with helium. If you drop it, it bounces lethargically around down the block, sending civilians into a panic as it wrecks cars and pavement with each landing, until it rolls to a halt against a building or something. Racing it to the bottom to try to catch it is an exercise in futility; Superman basically has a mid-air seizure as you try to hit the catch button next to the falling sphere. I like being able to manhandle the Daily Planet's most distinctive feature, but I wish it would handle like a giant ball of metal rather than a giant party balloon.

Then again, considering how frequently that globe gets knocked around, maybe the city finally decided to replace it with something less expensive.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 2)

Continuing with the discussion of the necessary elements for a good Superman video game, today we'll be addressing the random encounter/event system.

I really like the trend in games like Ultimate Spider-Man, in which you are free to roam the city, and you get random alerts that you can choose to respond to--crimes in progress, people in danger, etc. It adds to the feeling of actually being a superhero--helping people in need, foiling crimes, patrolling the city, that sort of thing. In general, it makes the game feel a lot less linear.

There are some problems with the way the encounters are implemented, though. The biggest problem with these in Ultimate Spider-Man is a lack of variety; the biggest problem in Superman Returns is that there's very little control over triggering the events. In USM, you're basically on top of the event before it really starts progressing; in SR, the screams and sirens start if you happen to accidentally pass within a few square miles of the dot on the radar. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if not for one of the things I like about SR, which is the Metropolis health meter. In USM, you can trigger an event and ignore it without any real penalty. In SR, if you ignore a triggered event, mass destruction will ensue to the city, essentially penalizing your health. There needs to be a little more choice involved, and that's easily enough accomplished by tightening up the trigger radius. As with so much of Superman Returns, otherwise decent gameplay is muddied by sloppy controls.

Superman Returns really tries to give a bunch of variety. You fight dragons, robots, mutants, Kryptonite-powered aircraft, giant aliens, and the occasional supervillain. And sometimes, a combination of those. There are tricks to most of them. Some of the robots are very, very fast, others explode violently when hit, others are immune to heat vision and can avoid freeze breath. There are two types of dragon; both are tough to take out physically, but one goes down with a bit of heat vision and the other with a little freeze breath (they are, naturally, color-coded). You can't use the long-range powers on the mutants or they'll grow larger and stronger; if you punch Riot, he splits off a duplicate.

The problem is that, despite the variety of events, fights generally come down to freezing and punching. That's the best way (as far as I've found) to beat the robots, the Kryptonite ships, Riot, most dragons, etc. It's my basic fall-back strategy, but it works a bit too well and too often. I find myself rarely pulling out the heat vision (because it seems to be more dangerous than the freeze-breath) and never pulling out super-breath (which just blows things away without appearing to actually do anything).

The only exception to the fights in these random encounters is the building fire. Every once in awhile, you'll have to put out some towering inferno, which you naturally do by blowing on it. Freeze breath works fine for this, which suggests to me that super-breath is utterly redundant. Apparently you can also pick up and move around the fire trucks to put out the fire, but it's unnecessary and seems pretty tough to do, given the sloppy controls. The infernos represent the only reprieve you get from battle in these events, and they're a bit on the bland side. Where's the rushing into the building to rescue trapped children and pets?

I'd like to talk about how other Superman games have done the random event system, but in my experience, this is the first one to do so. It gets a lot right, but all the random robots and faceless monsters really make me wonder where the familiar villains are. Mongul and Metallo show up in the main plot; Riot pops up now and then in the encounters, but Superman has a long list of villains that would be great for this sort of thing, and would add a lot of variety to boot. Let's see some bank robberies (as in USM) by minor supervillains like Loophole and Barrage. Let's see some creativity to the beat-em-up battles, like being able to stop the mutant rampage by finding Dabney Donovan or Simyan and Mokkari and taking out their control system. Where are the deadly toys and lethal pranks? None of this would be any harder to implement than what's in the game (and similar games) already; there's really no excuse.

The other problem with the random events in SR is with the civilians. Harming the civilians decreases the city's health, and I like that. If the controls were tighter and allowed for more options, this would provide a great way to make the player have to be creative with their powers. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to move a fight to a more sparsely populated area. Even that wouldn't be a problem if the Metropolis populace weren't the dumbest, most oblivious people in the world. They don't run away from a fight, they just wander around aimlessly. Occasionally, they will wander right between Superman and the monster du jour. While Superman's in mid-punch. I know this is the big city, and they're used to this kind of thing, but no one should be that blasé. In USM, people run away as soon as Spidey starts punching, and those are New Yorkers.

So, naturally, any battle leaves several innocent bystanders lying in the street, crying for help. Superman can pick up individual civilians and rush them to nearby ambulances, and doing so restores some of the city's lost health. The usual problem of sloppy controls means that Superman typically grabs at air three or four times before actually finding the injured person next to him, but once they're in hand, he can rush them to the EMTs and drop them off. Then, he can rush back, where he'll often find that enough time has passed that the rest of the injured people have disappeared. If, by some chance, you happen to trigger another event while ferrying civilians, you'll find that the ambulances often don't move between events, requiring even longer trips to rescue bystanders. And sometimes, just sometimes, the ambulances never show up or disappear entirely, leaving Superman to uselessly carry around civilians and drop them off on the sidewalk.

If rescuing civilians is going to be a priority, then it needs to be a priority. Superman should have time enough between events to aid in the cleanup. It doesn't need to be unlimited time--there could even be a clock or counter on screen--but he shouldn't have to choose between saving injured people and stopping another event, just because the triggering radius is too large. Civilians should have a better AI, and ambulances should always be nearby. Moreover, there ought to be hospitals and police stations and such, as a stationary alternative for rescue.

Of course, those would require that Metropolis be a navigable city, which at least in SR, it isn't. Next time, we'll be exploring what Metropolis should be in the ultimate Superman game.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Synchronicity

So, I just finished watching the Middleman episode from two weeks ago, and I start flipping channels. Lo and behold, there's a much younger Matt Keeslar on "Law and Order." Interesting how that sort of thing works out.

Incidentally, anyone know where I can get a green(?) Eisenhower Jacket? GenCon kind of whetted my appetite for convention costumes, and I'm thinking I might middle it up at Wizard World next year. I've searched a bit online, but I haven't yet found anything quite right that isn't antique and covered in military insignias.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Supermonth: A Totally Hetero Thought

So, most representations suggest that Superman has indestructible hair. It makes some sense (though not a huge amount), though it depends on how Superman's powers are supposed to work.

One thing I wonder, though, is what the texture must be like. I mean, I'm sure the hair on his head is relatively normal, but depending on the artist, Superman's often been shown to be pretty hirsute. Body hair, at least in my limited experience, is generally fairly coarse; would body hair of steel in turn be like steel wool? If Clark Kent's showering, does he wear holes in the washcloth with his indestructible man-fur?

If I were to guess, I'd suspect that his hair is the same texture as human hair, but much stronger, but what does that mean for his plumbing? I imagine the super-mullet was hell on his drains.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Supermonth: Supertropes I Hate: Soul-Vision

I'm told that I have Elliot S! Maggin to blame for this trope. Apparently, some passage in Miracle Monday inspired Mark Waid, in "Superman: Birthright," to give Superman the ability to see the souls auras of all living things. We'll get back to that momentarily.

In theory, I like Elliot S! Maggin. The idea of having an exclamation point in your name is simply awesome, and I dig (the first) Kristin Wells, the Superwoman from the future--especially her costume. In practice, though, I don't think I've ever read any Maggin Superman stories that I've really enjoyed. Everything I've read from him seems to me like it takes itself way, way too seriously. And the idea that "Kal-El" translates roughly to "Star Child" is a bit too end-of-"Neverending Story" for my taste.

And yet, just yesterday I bought Miracle Monday at a used book store, thereby completing my collection of Elliot S! Maggin Superman novels, neither of which I've read. Yet. I think I'll be hitting up Tom DeHaven's It's Superman before I get to the Maggin stuff.

So, Mark Waid gave Superman the ability to see this amazingly beautiful aura around all living creatures, and he hated to see that aura snuffed out. Consequently, he was a vegetarian.

Now, here's where I start having a problem: plants are living, too. They're just as alive as animals. Why wouldn't they have an aura? What about bacteria and fungi? What gives animals the special soul-aura that makes them inedible? Would he see an aura around Medphyll or Mogo? Or Red Tornado? The kingdom of Animalia represents a relatively small portion of living things, especially in a universe as densely populated as the DCU. The whole concept fails out of the gate.

But my bigger problem is a thematic one, one that plagues so much of "Birthright." John Byrne may not do much right, but his Superman was conceptually more "man" than "super." He was (technically) born on Earth, his costume was designed by his human family, and his decision to become a superhero was borne out of his rapport with humanity and desire to help people.

Waid, on the other hand, ramped up the alien aspect of Superman's character. He made Clark more of an outcast loser than he had been in decades (perhaps more than he ever had been), Superman's costume came from his alien parents, and as the biggest punch to the gut, his rationale for helping people was more or less borne out of his alien ability to see their souls, and not wanting to have to endure the ugliness of watching souls go poof. This kind of thing really distances Superman from the humanity he struggles so hard to achieve and maintain, and that's a damn shame.

And the worst part of all of this is that every time I think the soul-vision idiocy has been shoved mercifully back into the bottle, it crops up again in-continuity, where Superman assures Lex Luthor or Superboy that they do, in fact, possess souls (which, apparently, means that they're living animals. Whoop-de-flibbity-doo). It hasn't shown up recently, certainly not that I've seen post-OYL, so I hope above hope that Busiek and Johns and the others working on Superman comics have recognized what an asinine idea this is, and have consigned it to the dustbin of stupid powers along with super-hypnotism and rebuild-the-Great-Wall-of-China-vision.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

General News

So, if you're going to Gen Con Indy like me, Diamondrock, Jon, the Action Skeptics, and Wikinite, feel free to track me down. I may be dressed as the future Senator Robert Blutarski, but keep an eye out anyway.

I'm going to try to keep the Supermonth posts going--yes, I know, I've been doing poorly--and I'm going to use the next several hours to finish several posts for that.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Great Moments in Superman Villainy: Brand New Toyman

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'd liked when the Superman comics embraced Toyman's creepiness and made him into a schizophrenic murderer.

But as Will Staples aptly noted in the comics, the animated series did the "creepy Toyman" much, much better. They kept the "emotionally-stunted manchild" aspect, but jettisoned the tubby guy in the striped suit for a small guy dressed as a toy, with a creepy painted-on smile.

Havin' a ball!
Yeah, that's him. So, naturally, I was psyched when the Toyman was reintroduced in the "One Year Later" Superman arc, modeled after the animated version. It wasn't the first recent attempt to revamp Toyman; Greg Rucka did something with the Zatanna mindwipe not too long ago, but I don't think Toyman appeared again until OYL. This was a much more drastic change for the character, though I kind of wonder what Rucka might have done with him if he'd had more of a chance.

More recently, Geoff Johns gave Toyman yet another revamp. And I have to admit, it's the best of the three. Apparently Geoff Johns noticed, as I did, that the Jurgens revamp turned Toyman into a Batman villains, and the recurring theme of Schott's conversation is how he's a "Superman person, not a Batman person."

Schott reviews his history, from his beginnings as a sort of Willy Wonka figure through his natural progression to creepy homicidal maniac (not much of a stretch, really). He reveals his protectiveness of children and his desire to punish bad people. Moreover, he reveals that all the other variations on his character--Hiro Okamura, Jack Nimball, the Animated-style Toyman, and even the Jurgens revamp--were incredibly advanced robotic duplicates of himself. The last one, the one who killed Adam Grant and went a bit schizophrenic, had a glitch or three in his programming. The voice he heard, his "Mother," was actually Schott trying to regain control over him. It may be moderately cheap to try to absolve Schott--still a homicidal maniac--of the fifteen-year-old murder of a C-list supporting cast member's kid, but at least it's done in a clever fashion.

So we end up with a more nuanced sort of Toyman, but without invalidating the ones that have gone before (and in fact giving them all the ability of coexisting and adding new wrinkles to each of their characters). It's a good move on Johns' part, and I hope these villain-spotlight issues continue; they were one of the best parts of his Flash run. In fact, about the only thing I don't like about this Toyman revamp is that it seems to be the same concept as what he's doing with Brainiac. It fits, at least to some degree, with both characters, so it's not too much of a complaint. In the long run, this means that there are a lot more possibilities for good Toyman stories, and that can only be a good thing.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Supermonth: Forgotten Favorites III

I like Joe Kelly a lot. In fact, I think he's one of the most underrated writers in mainstream comic books. His run on JLA had a few missteps toward the end, but it was easily as good as Waid's tenure. To Superboy, he brought a great sense of humor (and consequently had one of the few readable "Last Laugh" tie-ins) as well as some striking emotional content. Even his run on Supergirl had the seeds of brilliance, which is particularly amazing considering what he was given to work with. His Superman/Batman Annual[s] have been top-notch, and I doubt that I even need to mention Deadpool.

His run on Action Comics was more of a mixed bag. Kelly came onto the title during one major Superman overhaul, which also gave us Jeph Loeb's "Superman" and Mark Millar (and subsequently J.M. DeMatteis) on "Adventures of Superman." The book was consistently good up through "Our Worlds At War" (more or less) and surprisingly enough, through "Last Laugh."

The turn for the worse happened around the same time as the next major Superman overhaul, which gave us Joe Casey's tone-deaf pacifist Superman over in "Adventures" and Steven T. Seagle's utter crap in "Superman." Surprisingly, at that time, the only decent Superman comic was the one being written by Chuck Austen. It was a dark era.

But throughout, despite following the rest of the series' drop in quality, Kelly managed to give us some great stories; among them were Action Comics #775, Emperor Joker, and this one:

It tickles!"O Captain, My Captain."

August 2000
Action Comics #768

Let me lay it out here at the beginning: This comic is fun. Impulse fun. It's clever, it's witty, and it even gets touching toward the end. It's quite probably the best Superman/Captain Marvel team-up book I've ever read. And Cap doesn't appear in full until the third act.

The book starts with Lois investigating Superman's recent poisoning (in the "Critical Condition" storyline, which is likely to show up in one of these retrospective review posts), and finally getting upset that overprotective Clark has been shadowing her. As she's telling him off, he excuses himself to attend to some kind of hubbub downtown. Superman arrives to find Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. CM3 causing a bit of a scene in an attempt to find him.

See, it seems the Shazam power has gone a bit wonky. CM3's got the speed and strength, but he can't turn them off. Mary's got the "Power of Zeus," which is, as Freddy notes, fairly ill-defined. She's mostly just babbling incomprehensible gibberish.

What do you do with a drunken sailor?

And Cap? Well, the world's mightiest mortal has been reduced to the world's mightiest mandible:
I decided not to include the panel where Mary Marvel sings Olivia Newton-John's 'Physical.' Yes, seriously.
'
Marvel's disembodied chin led the wonder twins to find Superman's help. They have a conversation along the way back to Fawcett about the differences between Billy and Superman, but it's cut a bit short by one of those fantastic scenes that you can only see in comics:
Yes, that's Farrah St. in Fawcett City.
Giant. Glowing. Frog.

I could leave it right there, you know. You really ought to be convinced at this point. But I'll continue, just to drive the point home.

We have a one-page cutaway as Lois's investigation has brought her into the waiting arms of four killer robots. Guess she's re-thinking the whole "don't follow me around, Clark" thing.

Superman goes after the frog, but isn't really making any progress. Mary tries to explain something, but she's speaking in pop culture-ese, so she's no help. Finally, Superman puts two and two together and realizes that Cap's chin is a perfect fit. He slips on Marvel's big red mouth and, well, you can guess, right?
Logo speak!
Ah, it's like the Amalgam Age of Comics never ended.

The rest of the issue is relatively calm, as Captain Marvel speaks with the Egyptian frog goddess about calling off her attacks--dissecting the city (and the Shazam powers) like children dissect frogs. Superman and Cap separate and chat a bit about their newfound respect for one another.

It's a great story, whimsical but wrapped around one of those classic "respect the environment" morals (and some closure to Lois and Clark's troubles). It's full of great character interactions and a plot so bizarre that it'd make Grant Morrison swallow his gum. The art's the biggest weakness; Duncan Rouleau's art tended to be particularly inconsistent, and this issue is no exception. Panels like the ones I've shared somewhat make up for the weaker bits. It's an utter travesty that this issue has never been collected--especially since the arcs directly before and after have gotten the trade paperback treatment.

Go out and treat yourself to Action Comics #768, readers. You won't regret it.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Things I've learned from comics blogging

There are several things I've learned from these long years of comics blogging. Among the most significant is this bit of advice:

Chris Sims is always right.


Case in point: The Middleman. I think I managed to catch half an episode before Wizard World, but I tracked down the first two trades of the series on his recommendation (and I do mean tracked down. I think I found the only two copies at the convention, and that was after two days of looking). Naturally, it was precisely as fun and fantastic as the Invincible One's glowing reviews suggested.

Well, my extended solitary weekend gave me the chance to catch up on some of the episodes that I'd only seen bits and pieces of, and I'm even more stoked about the series now than I was before. According to the Middleblog, they've decided on a shortened season but have said emphatically that the series isn't dead (though I think I might mail in a bag of M&Ms just in case). I'm looking forward to seeing the episodes I've missed over the last couple of weeks, and I hope upon hope that there'll be another season. If you're not watching this, you should be, and if you haven't read the trade(s), then you might head on over to your local comic book establishment to put in a request. Amazon's apparently backordered, or it hasn't been released yet, or something, but it'd be a good idea to get on the waiting list.

So, for all of you savvy blogohedron denizens who already knew Sims' Maxim, maybe you can answer a question for me (the Internet has failed me so far in this regard). In the pilot episode and the fourth episode of the series, the Middleman himself is accompanies by a bit of theme music, an old-school country-western sounding jingle that goes "clean livin' was his credo, and justice was his pride." What is it from? My guess is that it's not original to the show. Anyone know its genesis?

Oh, if only the bringer of face-kickery weren't on vacation...

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Supermonth: Straightforward Reviews II

So, in the giant pile o' comics I've bought but not yet read (which is rapidly approaching "two long boxes full" status), there's probably a disproportionately large number of Superman comics, because I tend to purchase a disproportionately large number of Superman comics. But I'm making a dent in them, slowly but surely, and the extra-long Supermonth has been a great motivator for catching up on the Man of Steel.

Oh no, it's Booger Beast!Case in point: Judd Winick and Joshua Middleton's 2005 miniseries "Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder." I read the first issue some time ago, but never quite managed to finish off the last three. A weekend alone in a secluded cabin house in the suburbs has allowed me to rectify that, and I can now give my impressions.

Insert here the obligatory play on the word "impression," wherein I perform a hilarious but clearly strained imitation of some famous person, say, Groucho Marx. Also, I believe this is the part where the duck comes down.

While this may be damning with faint praise, the miniseries is easily the best thing I've read by Judd Winick in quite some time. It's also the first thing I've read by Judd Winick in quite some time, since I haven't actually followed the man's work since he was on Batman, and I don't think I've read a single issue by him since the Checkmate/Outsiders crossover. I don't think it would be innovative to say that Winick's work tends to be melodramatic and have an inflated sense of its own importance (not to mention that it tends to be preachy and full of tokenism), but that's a fair assessment.

And it's present here, too, at least to some degree. The short format (a four-issue miniseries? In this day and age? I thought six was the new four) prevents things from going too far off the rails, but the tropes are still there in an abbreviated form.

In fact, "abbreviated form" might be the phrase of the day with regard to the miniseries, because it feels as though it's trying to accomplish an awful lot in such a short time. Surprisingly, it mostly works, despite introducing Dr. Sivana and Sabbac, while also bringing Lex Luthor and Eclipso into the mix, as well as a superpowered mercenary named Spec, who admittedly doesn't do much (nor does Luthor, but the focus is clearly on Sivana).

The art is good, the action is fast-paced, and the character work is generally pretty on-key. The conceit of the series is that it presents the first encounter between Captain Marvel and Superman, set in the first few years of both their careers.

Superman gets some nice chances to shine. Even though he's been at the superheroing thing for only a little while, he's portrayed as much more mature and down-to-Earth than Captain Marvel...in the former case, for obvious reasons.

Marvel, on the other hand, is immature without being particularly brash or stereotypical. He's mostly just energetic and enthusiastic, while also more than a little naive and emotional. The wisdom of Solomon makes up for some of the slack, particularly when he proves to be the more skilled hero at handling magic threats, but his youth comes through when he's starstruck at meeting Superman, or when he throws a bit of a tantrum after his friend is killed in gunfire intended for him.

Which brings us to one of those Winickian trope moments. I've got no problem with Billy Batson's black friend--in fact, the story could use a bit more of all sorts of diversity--I have a problem with how telegraphed his fate was from moment one. As soon as you saw Billy sharing his secret identity exploits with a character we'd never heard of before, you knew he was going to be worm food--and the requisite "defining tragedy" for our budding hero.

Because, um, apparently being a homeless orphan just isn't enough. It's a shame, because while Billy's anguish and anger over losing his friend--and because he wasn't able to save him--feels fairly genuine and is handled well, it has no dramatic tension or power for the reader, since anyone even slightly familiar with Captain Marvel's history knows that this kid doesn't continue to be a presence in Billy's life. So it's a little hollow to try to present this as a character-defining tragedy when we know that Billy's had worse tragedies before, and when we had a defined character without ever hearing about this tragedy before.

Those are fairly minor complaints, though. I seem to recall some people bothered by Cap's decision to barge into Sivana's office and choke him over orchestrating the hit that killed his friend, but it seemed to me exactly the kind of thing a superpowered eleven-year-old would do. And that leads nicely into Superman's shining moment, where he chases Cap to Mount Everest (where they had talked in a previous issue) to tell him off for his brash actions--and finds out that he's been crying out of remorse and fear. Superman is clearly taken aback, and awkwardly offers some kind of support as he tries to figure out what the hell is actually going on. Billy finally clears things up by revealing his true form...which leads Superman to ask "who did this to you?"

And then he lectures Shazam. Now, that's awesome.

Shazam gives a bunch of dodgy "old wizard" answers to Superman's "how could you; he's just a boy" speech, until Shazam offers that the boy could use some guidance. We move then to Clark Kent finding Billy's room in an otherwise empty apartment building. He sits down and reveals his identity to Billy as a way of bonding, more or less.

It's a good story, and there are some nice thematic beats to it. The characterizations, at least as far as Superman and Captain Marvel go, are pretty spot-on. Which isn't to say that there aren't some problems--the biggest of which is that this is set in the wrong era.

See, the first issue opens with Shazam narrating that Superman and Batman have barely been operational for a year, while Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash all have yet to make their debuts. This is a problem on every conceivable level, and it only gets worse later in the series.

We're told that Billy Batson, during these events, is eleven years old (with perhaps a year or two of uncertainty, but that's about where I would have guessed before they made it explicit). In JSA, when he's kind of kindling a relationship with Stargirl, he's sixteen (and that's well before the One Year Gap). That means that everything of the modern DCU would be compressed into a five-year span. Think about that for a minute--Batman went through four sidekicks in five years. Dick Grayson went from kid to college to cop in five years. Barry Allen must have been active as Flash for a span counted in months!

Moreover, Superman here isn't acting like a rookie. He's more experienced, more mature, and more dad-esque than he ought to be for his first year on the job. There's no real awkwardness to him; he acts in a professional manner that doesn't suggest greenness.

What makes the most sense is to ignore Shazam's speech and figure that this is three to five years into the modern age of superheroes. The Justice League has gone through a roster or two, Batman's had at least one Robin, and Superman's become the de facto leader of the superhero community, with all the respect and experience that commands. This makes more sense with regard to the timeframe, Billy's age, Clark's mannerisms, and even the logic of superhero debuts.

Aside from those continuity concerns, the only other problem I have is with Superman's identity reveal at the end. Superman and Batman's identities are supposed to be the DCU's best-kept secrets, yet it seems like they get revealed to absolutely everyone. Here's a kid that Superman has known for all of two weeks, and he's already handing over the glasses? That rang a bit false.

But it can't be entirely blamed on Judd Winick. Someone at DC needs to write up a scorecard with who knows whose secret identities--at least among the major heroes. It would go a long way toward combatting basic continuity errors (Jay Garrick was often surprisingly unaware of Billy's secret identity for someone who had seen him transform) and to keeping the Justice League from referring to each other by their first names in the heat of battle.

Anyway, to the point, Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder--recommended. Pretty good stuff, as long as you can get past the setting issues.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Supermonth: Incommunicado

Sorry for the silence. I'm blogging at a Borders in the 20 minutes before they close. I got stuck out of town unexpectedly, and I don't have Internet access at the place where I'm staying.

Which isn't to say that I'm not reading and writing up stuff for posting. There'll be a flurry of posts tomorrow, methinks.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Supermonth: Forgotten Favorites II

You can almost smell the melodrama."Toys"
December 1993
Superman #84

If the Internet in 1993 had been more than just a way for University Scientists to trade porn over Usenet, it would have been abuzz when Superman #84 came out. And not The Dark Knight OMG this is so awesome" abuzz; Identity Crisis "WTF this is way too dark and comics should be fun" abuzz.

And for good reason: it's not a particularly good comic. It lays the melodrama on with a trowel and caps it off with a depressing downer ending. Its message is a very heavy-handed, Spider-Man-style moral of power and responsibility, which feels a bit out of place in a Superman comic--even if it is only two issues after his full return from the dead. It just rings hollow. Plus, it's got painfully forced meta-jokes like this one (I've highlighted it, just to make it extra clear):

I'm going to take this to the Maxx! This sure is Wet Work! It's a good thing I have such Young Blood!

But in 1993 (and for many years thereafter), I counted this comic among my favorites. It's safe to say that nostalgia-colored glasses have tinged my feelings toward this book, but it was touching and disheartening and frightening when I was ten. And it's not to say that the comic does nothing right; I like a lot of the choices, and the story actually altered the status quo (slightly). But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

The story opens on Toyman, who is dressing a little like The Ventriloquist meets Jack the Ripper, and a collection of children that he's kidnapped. This issue represents a serious change in Toyman's character, from stripe-clad villain who sends whimsical murderous toys after Lex Luthor (and others) for revenge, to a psychotic manchild with murderous toys and, um...knives. He sleeps in a giant crib with several large stuffed animals and captures children away from the evil world of adults to be his perpetual playmates. After this issue, Toyman has something of a breakdown, and begins exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, hearing the voice of "Mother" and otherwise becoming a bit like a child-obsessed Norman Bates, minus the crossdressing.

Meanwhile, Superman's off hauling a ship away from the shore, whereupon he accidentally discovers a shipwreck sunken beneath the ocean floor. He rescues a treasure chest and muses about how much he enjoys his abilities, and how he'd be doing this kind of thing all the time if he were Aquaman. After taking the chest to the proper authorities, he shows up outside of Lois's apartment to take her to breakfast...which is actually dinner, since they'll be flying to Paris. While this is a great example of Superman actually enjoying his abilities for a change, it brings up the obvious foreshadowing of our Aesop:
I'm sorry, Lois, could you spell it out for us a little more?

We cut back to Metropolis, where Cat Grant and her son, Adam, have come to attend a Halloween party. Adam, disaffected preteen that he is, is dressed in his finest Superboy leather-and-shades number, and finds the shindig totally lame. Cat chats with Jimmy Olsen, dressed in his Turtle Boy outfit, while Adam goes off to find something more entertaining. It's okay, Adam, after "Countdown," I think everyone's in agreement about Jimmy's entertainment value. Moments later, apparently, Adam is approached by the Toyman in a big green dinosaur costume, who tells him about a room with "some superb video games." Naturally, this catches Adam's attention, and he follows the would-be Barney.

Clark and Lois have been walking around Paris, talking about future Elseworlds stories:
Yeah, Lois, I read 'Red Son' too.

Cat and Jimmy have looked everywhere for Adam, to no avail. They're finally about to call the police. Meanwhile, Toyman has doffed the dino suit and is dragging Adam back to his hideout, claiming to have "rescued" him from his "lush of a mother." Adam, who is kind of a jerk, not only tells Toyman that he wants to go home, but also insults his selection of toys. While Schott's monologuing, Adam tries to find a way out. Instead, he finds the other captured kids. True to his costume, he does the Superboy thing and sets the kids free.

Whereupon Toyman shows up, angry because Adam has broken the rules. He...well, you can guess:
Well, at least the other kids got away, right?

The next scene is really more of a montage--two nine-panel pages of Cat Grant finding out about Adam's death and subsequently identifying the body. When shown, inexplicably, Adam's face is in total silhouette...it doesn't make much sense (his hair is colored in, for crying out loud) but it really adds something to the gravitas of the scene. I don't know, maybe it's the human equivalent of Optimus Prime's body turning gray after he died.

Clark and Lois return, arriving at the Daily Planet offices in good spirits. They are, naturally, the only ones. Jimmy informs them of the terrible news, then drives the point home with all the subtlety of a tackhammer:
That's right, Superman. Feel guilty.

As I said, the story's heavy on the melodrama. There's not much subtlety to it, which is probably why it touched me so hard as a ten-year-old. Nuance probably would have gone just a bit over my head. Still, it was a genuine change to the status quo, and a genuine development in Cat Grant's character. The grieving process ain't easy for her, and the next issue focuses on her drive for revenge. It's a decent little storyline, if a heavy-handed one.

And I like what they did to the Toyman in this. Like I said, this is a transitional issue for the character. Here, he's a bombastic villain, making grand gestures and big, Snidely Whiplash speeches about his heroism, saving these children and bringing them to his perfect world. And yet, he's also an emotionally-stunted man with a child's mentality, taking playmates because he cannot have them otherwise, throwing deadly tantrums when his 'friends' don't play by the rules. I think the next issue completes his transformation from supervillain to psychopath (as I recall, that's when he starts hearing "Mother's" voice), but the ultimate effect was to make him a more menacing, more frightening, more generally disturbing character. Let's face it, the Toyman as a long-haired man in a striped suit sending deadly teddy bears after Superman...well, it's kind of a one-act play, isn't it? His character is the gimmick. This took the concept to a more logical conclusion--the fact that the Toyman would be severely creepy. The character's shift in drive (delusions) and target (specifically going after children) made him quite a bit more effective as a villain. Now, he's going after the innocent and vulnerable, and he's doing it with the intellect of a homicidal genius and the maturity of a petulant child--far more dangerous than sending robot nutcrackers after an indestructible superhero or a rich businessman. In effect, they made Toyman into a Batman villain. And I think it worked well to make him a more versatile character (for awhile).

Sure, it's melodramatic. Sure, it really smacks you in the face with the responsibility lesson. But this issue was necessary at the time. Two months prior, Superman had been restored to full health and power at the end of the Death and Return arc. Lots of characters were changed by the experience, and there was plenty of collateral damage, but ultimately most of the pieces--particularly the named pieces--had been put back in the right places. This story re-established the finality of death in Superman comics. It hit hard and heavy precisely because it needed to remind us that not everyone can be tossed into the Kryptonian Healing Matrix and be restored to life. And in that regard, the melodrama and heavy-handedness are slightly more understandable; they were trying to give Adam Grant's death the same kind of focus and weight that they gave Superman's...with the exception that we all knew Adam wouldn't be coming back.

But the most effective part of the story, at least for the grown-up me, is something that I don't recall ever noticing before, something that presents a severe contrast between Superman's death and Adam Grant's:

The other kids didn't make it. When Superman died, at least he took Doomsday down with him. When a civilian dresses up in a superhero costume, does something heroic, and makes a terrible sacrifice to ensure the safety of others, we're conditioned to balance their deaths with the good they were able to accomplish.

Not this time. Adam Grant died for nothing. That's about as depressing as Superman comics get.

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