Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Neverending Crisis

 
Allow me to begin this entry to explain my absence to those who want to know where I was for the last ten weeks. I survived a plane crash in Tasmania where I lived with a family of platypuses. They taught me their language and how to comb the riverbed for invertebrates and lived like a monotreme for weeks until a pair of Slovakian tourists found me. After a brief altercation where I tried to smite the husband with my nonexistent spur we quickly made up and they took me back civilization so here I am. Yeah, that was a bold-faced lie but it is a more interesting account than the truth. Anyway, let us get to the main topic of this entry.

I make my disdain for the New 52 no secret. It was a horribly rushed and horribly executed reboot for several reasons but my biggest problem is that the powers that be left the Batman and Green Lantern franchise (relatively) untouched, which opened some gaping plot holes. That is not to say I found some parts enjoyable: Earth 2 by James Robinson and Nikola Scott grabbed my interest because of my appreciation all things related to the multiverse and I genuinely like these new takes on golden age stalwarts like Jay Garrick. Wally West fans may eviscerate me for saying this but The Flash is much more enjoyable than it has been since Infinite Crisis ended seven years ago. However, I believe that the reboot was a complete waste because if the sales figuresfor March 2013 are any indication, DC is back to where they started in July 2011. Only five of the twenty top selling books are DC titles and all them are either a) written by Geoff Johns or b) part of the Batman franchise. If the intent of the New 52 was to generate long-term interest in their non-Batman titles, then it was a spectacular failure complete with awe-inspiring fireball. Not only did the New 52 fail to attract a new audience, it alienated many longtime readers of their books.

I came across an interesting topic on Comic Bloc Forums where a member asked, “What if DC undidall the reboots and returned to the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths [multi]verse?

“Let's call a duck a duck. DC has pi$$ed off a whole lot of readers over the years, and their endless reboots and retcons have chased away longtime readers... myself included. My pull has gone from over 30 books a month (almost 100% DC) up until post-Flashpoint, and I am now reading quite a few Marvel books again after a loooooooong absence. For me, that spells things out plainly.
 
So, let's undo all the "fixes" they have attempted over the years. Put someone with some idea of how fans' brains operate in charge and have them helm the project. Make it a grand event. I would like to suggest creating a single title for just that purpose. If DC chooses to let fans in on the significance of the book or not, leave it up to them. They could just tease with something along the lines of "Read this series! It will have long lasting and grand implications in the end." You get where I'm going.
 
Also, so as not to cheese off readers post 1985, make it a universe/time-spanning epic. Pick out the characters that are proven winners/have a significant fan base. Get Booster Gold and Rip Hunter to gather up Batwoman, Blue Beetle (Jaime), Barry Allen, Bart Allen from pre-Flashpoint, Donna Troy, and whomever else is worth carrying over to the pre-COIE Universe, and have them journey to put things right. This way the readers can have their cake and eat it, too. We've got the multiverse back, we can bring in newer, fan loved characters, and spin the rest off on another Earth in the Multiverse.

I vote "Yes!"”

My answer an empathic, “NO!” No, no, no, NO! Bringing the old Pre-Crisis continuity is an incredibly terrible idea for several reasons, the biggest on being that twenty-seven year passed since that Crisis ended. The world has seen five American presidents during that time (Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama) and so much has changed culturally since then. I doubt that DC could or even wants to convince Roy Thomas to pick up where he left off on All-Star Squadron and Infinite Inc. or bring Gerry Conway back on Fury of Firestorm. Then there is the fact that DC attracted a substantial fanbase during the post-Crisis era and that would be a great betrayal to them and the removal of Donna Troy and the aforementioned Wally West is still a sore spot for them. No, I do not believe that returning to the pre-Crisis multiverse is a wise idea, neither is bringing back the post-Crisis universe, and hell, I do not event want the pre-Flashpoint universe to return. I simply want a blank slate and bring every character back to basics without any of the continuity baggage DC wants to bring with every reboot.

Imagine the DC universe as an old house with many good memories but the air tastes a little stale after fifty years, the stairs creak whenever you walk on them, and the plumbing and wiring need a little work. Crisis on Infinite Earths comes around and tears down the walls and removes the furniture. The “builders” remove a few support columns (Wonder Woman’s membership in the Justice League, the existence of Superboy as Superman when he was a boy) and leave the plumbing and wiring untouched. They bring in some new furniture and repaint the walls but problems begin to arise. The house is structurally unsound, the plumbing is starting to leak, and the electricity periodically shorts out. Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis attempt address these problems by plugging the leaks with duct tape and hastily solder the wiring. The builders bring back some of the old furniture out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia and assume everything will be fine. Years later, the pipes begin to break and a week does not go by without a fuse getting blown. The builder’s answer is to knock down all but two of the other supports (Batman and Green Lantern) and replace the superficial damage, which leaves us with a wreck of house that is one summer breeze from total collapse. Sometimes the sensible thing to do is to demolish the house and rebuild from the still-intact foundation.

We fans are an anal-retentive bunch that giggle when a writer references an obscure story and weaves into their narrative. We love the smallest mote of continuity because it is somewhat similar to be in on a joke that only a small circle of people know. Unfortunately, the downside to that is that it creates baggage that weighs down a fictional universe and its characters. I recall that Crisis on Infinite Earths writer, Marv Wolfman, intended for the event to end with a blank slate for ALL the characters from an issue of Wizard magazine back in 2005-6. Greg Weisman who helmed Gargoyles and Young Justice explained why this would not work:

“I was working on staff at DC Comics during the publication of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. In fact, during my very first editorial meeting, I raised the question as to why we weren't starting ALL our books over (with the numerical exceptions of Detective and Action Comics) with issue #1. I remember very clearly a collective groan rising up from the conference room table. (They had dealt with this question for months before my arrival.) On the one hand, they wanted Crisis to be a real sea-change, a true reboot (before we knew that term). On the other hand, if you truly reboot Batman, then Robin doesn't exist yet. No Robin, no other sidekicks either. So no Teen Titans. And at the time, the New Teen Titans was the company's best selling book. So the end result was that some things got rebooted and some did not.  This was complicated by the fact that certain creators came late to the party, and certain characters got reboots too long AFTER Crisis.”

There was a financial dimension to it as noted by the Teen Titan mention but I also believe that a fair amount of writers and editors simply did not want to drop the storylines in their respective titles and so they brought their baggage into the allegedly simplified DC Universe. Hence some of the seminal stories of the Silver Age like “Flash of Two Worlds” still “happened” but not in the way they were written. Similarly, Wonder Woman debuted well after the Justice League in the new continuity so Black Canary took her place as founding member so you those of Justice League of America issues where Wonder Woman demonstrated her superhuman strength or used her lasso? Surprise! That was Black Canary. Then we get to the problem of Donna Troy (AKA Wonder Girl), which evolved into a constant headache for the company because of inconsistent writing and that was only the tip of the iceberg that sank DC’s Titanic.

My feelings mirror Mr. Weisman’s when he says, “So, personally, my feeling on reboots in general is that you either do them or you don't. You've got to be thorough and ruthless about it, or don't bother, because otherwise - long term - you're creating more problems than you're solving.”  We fans have grown so attached to our continuity baggage that it becomes heresy to even suggest letting it go. Reboots are an “all or nothing” enterprise and we occasionally need to discard continuity to create a clear narrative. Young Justice was not an excellent program because of the background history detailed in the series’ bible, it was an excellent program because of Mr. Weisman and his staff’s use of motifs and characterization to create an engaging story. DC’s single-minded focus on continuity and attracting new readers proved too shortsighted plus the overbearing editorial direction has only made the New 52 more of an unsightly mess.


We as fans need to overcome this “separation anxiety” that keeps us chained to continuity and limits our thinking. While I do not care for the emotional and creative baggage that comes with continuity, I believe it is far better to distill it into themes that talented writers can approach from a different perspective. Most people could say that the Silver/Bronze Age Superman was stagnant by the early 1980s but Alan Moore proved that he still had some gas in the tank with “For The Man That Has Everything” and gave him a stunning sendoff with “What Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Grant Morrison managed to distill the Man of Steel to his core mythology in All-Star Superman and did not need to adhere to continuity to make it one of my absolute favorite Superman stories all time and I only need to look at the oft-referenced page featuring the suicidal girl as an example.


Superman is supposed represent an ideal. He does not look down on humanity but aspires to lift us up and represent the best in us. He genuinely cares for everyone and image of him comforting the girl shows us that be believes that no individual life is insignificant. Yes, as banal as it sounds, Superman is supposed to represent idealism and bringing back the pre-Crisis continuity will add nothing to it and alienate even more readers. DC ultimately needs to demolish the shaky house that is the New 52 and rebuild from the foundation of themes that made its characters great in the first place, hire the talent necessary, and actually let them do their job. But do they have the courage and the will to make such an endeavor work? Recent events leave me with little optimism.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Platypus Thoughts: Millar Time


Apparently long-time Marvel Comics writer and 20th Century Fox superhero “guru,” Mark Millar says that a Justice League film is a good way to lose $200 million. Can someone in the audience tell me what is wrong with this picture? It is not that Mr. Millar is wrong. A Justice League film has the potential to be a nine-figure atom bomb like 2011’s Green Lantern but his reasoning for why such an endeavor would fail bothers me.

“I actually think the big problem for them is the characters are just too out of date. The characters were created 75 years ago, even the newest major character was created 68 years ago, so they’re in a really weird time...The actual logistics of each member of the Justice League is disastrous, and you put them all together and I think you get an excellent way of losing $200 million.”

Mr. Millar has always entertained the notion that Superman and his cohorts were too “outdated and irrelevant” to the point where it borders on obsession. When I peel away his reasoning, that most of the Justice League members should be collecting old age pensions, it falls apart when I take the longevity of Marvel’s stable into account. Captain America is pushing seventy-five himself, the Hulk and Thor are now fifty, and Iron Man will be turning fifty this year. I fail to see how DC’s characters are irrelevant because of their age when Marvel’s characters are not exactly a breath of fresh air themselves. Never mind the fact that the current incarnations of the Flash and Green Lantern predate Marvel by a few years (1956 and 1959, respectively.) That would be akin to a seventy-five year-old telling me he is not a senior citizen because his neighbor is ninety-five.

Logistics, on the other hand, is where Mr. Millar may bring up a valid argument. Let us hear what he has to say:

“Now the stuff I grew up with… I adored the DC stuff growing up but really, how do you do a movie about Green Lantern,” asks Millar, “his power is that he manifests green plasma from his imagination and uses them as weapons against someone? Even that in itself if you just imagine then watching a fight scene with a guy who’s like a hundred feet away making plasma manifestations fight someone – it’s not exactly raucous, getting up close and personal.”

This statement demonstrates how Mr. Millar knows very little of why the Green Lantern film was a failure. There was and is nothing wrong with the concept behind it: a dying member of an extraterrestrial police force gives test pilot the most powerful weapon. It was the horrible writing abysmal execution that torpedoed it with its rushed plot that was thin on characterization, packed with needless exposition, and overuse of computer-generated imagery to name a few. Furthermore, I fail to see how Green Lantern’s ability to generate plasma constructs through his ring would make fight scenes any less exciting because it is not “exactly raucous” or “up close and personal.” Especially when many of the Marvel films to not heavily depend on close-quarters combat.

Take Matthew Vaughn’s (who also directed the film adaptation of Millar’s Kick-Ass) X-Men: First Class where neither Charles Xavier nor Magneto possessed powers that required them to get up close and personal with Sebastian Shaw and his associates. Likewise for Banshee, Havok, and Emma Frost. Similarly, neither Iron Man nor Thor needed to get into a physical confrontation because of the nature of their abilities in the Avengers. Iron Man could dispatch enemy combatants from a hundred feet or more with his armor’s repulsor rays and Thor could just as easily summon lightning and hurricane-force winds with Mjolnir and that did not make the film any less enjoyable. Conversely, Green Lantern can produce swords, axes, and other close combat weapons with his ring to physically engage with his adversaries (like Sinestro) similar to how Thor uses Mjolnir as a blunt weapon against the frost giants. Also, given Hal Jordan’s brashness, it would make more sense for him to engage in close-quarters combat because of his ego.

Millar, quite frankly, is grievously mistaken in his assumptions over Green Lantern’s failings. The Green Lantern franchise has the potential to become DC/Warner Brothers’ answers to Lucasarts (and now Disney’s) Star Wars. However, the management was too eager to jump on the superhero bandwagon 2008’s Iron Man started and they paid for it in disappointing box office returns. Perhaps DC Comics and Warner Brothers should watch the original, unedited Star Wars trilogy and read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Methinks they would learn more from those sources than from Mr. Millar’s ill advice.

Moving on…

“The Flash has door handles on the side of his mask and if he doesn’t wear that mask, I’ll be pissed off, you know what I mean? They’re in a weird, weird situation – if you’ve got a guy who moves at the speed of light up against the Weather Wizard and Captain Cold or whatever, then your movie’s over in two seconds.”

I see it as bad omen when Mr. Millar begins with a criticism of the Flash’s costume. Partly because the wingtips on his “ears” not only invoke the mythological imagery of Hermes/Mercury, but also speaks to the characters streamlined design that hails from the jet age. Perhaps, Mr. Millar is correct in that the Flash’s speed makes it difficult to give the character dramatic tension when he could theoretically solve any problem in a matter of nanoseconds but it is not impossible. A potential film could easily borrow from Barry Allen’s post-New 52 origin and adapt the “Move Forward” storyline with Mob Rule. While some Rogues like the aforementioned Weather Wizard and Captain Cold may not be conductive for a film format due to the nature of the characters but Gorilla Grodd could still give the Flash trouble with his telepathic powers and raw savagery. Talking gorillas from a hidden city may stretch the suspension of disbelief, but would it be more of a stretch than let us say, a city of technologically advanced space Vikings in a distant galaxy?

Then we have Mirror Master, who can conceivably keep the Flash on his toes with the light motif, or the potential for a Reverse-Flash down the line. Plus, with the Flash’s history of traveling through time or to parallel worlds, there is a wellspring of potential.

I am beginning to wonder if Mr. Millar simply lacks imagination.

“You can get away with stuff in comics that in live action’s just a bit sucky – the best one is definitely Aquaman. Aquaman can’t even talk under water. If you think about it in comics it’s fine, you just have a speech balloon, but how do you have Atlantis and people talking under water? Are they gonna talking telepathically? Is it going to be body forms?”

Okay, this is beginning to get more ridiculous. Out of all the reasons not to produce an Aquaman film, Mr. Millar is worried about how the people of Atlantis are going to speak underwater? Given the possibly Shakespearean drama from a plot where Aquaman is locked in a struggle for the Atlantean throne with his brother, Orm (AKA Ocean Master), I would believe that any such concerns regarding how they will speak underwater is secondary. I could cite examples of how Wonder Woman, and even Firestorm, could have the potential to be great concepts but the problem here is that I believe Mr. Millar, in his capacity as a creative consultant for the pending Fantastic Four film reboot, is simply trash talking the competition. I also detect some lingering acrimony from the controversy over censorship of his run on The Authority might factor into his criticisms as well. Personally, I do not know why a website such as SciFi Now would consider Mr. Millar a “superhero guru” when is a decent, if not good, writer at best. Why not ask Kevin Feige, how has overseen the Marvel Cinematic universe? How about more acclaimed writers like Millar’s former partner, Grant Morrison, or academics like Ben Saunders? Millar’s criticisms strike me as shallow, unimaginative, and I fail to see why I should take them seriously.

ADDENDUM:
 
However, does he have a point? I suppose. As a friend of mine said in response to the original draft of my commentary, one of the major obstacles to a Justice League movie is that it would appear to be a desperate attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Avengers and the ill-conceived Green Lantern film does not do much to allay those fears. But Mr. Millar is especially off base in his claims that Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and so forth are irrelevant due to their age and the nature of their abilities. I will also put my friends assertions that Iron Man and Thor’s abilities are “more accessible” into dispute. Jane Foster herself paraphrased Arthur C. Clarke in Thor when she said, “Magic is science we do not understand yet.” So if Mjolnir and the Bifrost are products of technology that is far more advanced than anything found on Earth, then why Green Lantern’s ring, a piece of alien technology, is less believable than anything found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The same applies to lightsabers and hyperdrive from Star Wars, which movie going audiences had little difficulty in suspending their disbelief for, but I digress. Maybe it is simply the wrong time for DC and Warner Brothers to try to shoot for the Moon in a cardboard box when Marvel already won that race, which Mr. Millar is attempting to convey but lacks the eloquence to do so.

Yet Marvel may have shot itself in the foot with the Avengers because how can they top what many believe was nirvana for comic book geekdom? Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and perhaps the Hulk are all viable franchises but what else does Marvel have to use? 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises and Columbia holds the rights to Spider-Man to which both companies will keep producing films for to hold said rights. That leaves Marvel with Daredevil? Luke Cage? Black Panther? Captain (formerly Ms.) Marvel? I seriously doubt that any of those characters, aside from Daredevil, are capable of carrying a film by themselves. I enjoy Edgar Wright’s work but I do not have any reason to believe that he can rescue ­Ant-Man from obscurity than he could with Scott Pilgrim. Nor do I believe that Guardians of the Galaxy will be a roaring success because those characters are on an even lower tier than Daredevil and Ant-Man. When I give it more thought, perhaps it is a better idea for DC to shelve their plans for further Green Lantern or Flash films and carefully watch what their competition is doing. After all, despite their terrible luck with non-Batman or Superman films, they have done a respectable job with their properties on television with Arrow as their latest example. Perhaps they can learn a few lessons if Marvel’s cinematic universe implodes under the weight of its own success.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Platypus Thoughts: Alternate History + Superheroes = ?


Superheroes and alternate history are two subgenres of science fiction that have always appeared to compliment one another but very few writers ever dared to combine and exploit to its fullest. One reason for this is continuity, the holy grail of all comic book geeks. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938 and the Fantastic Four in 1961, the Big Two of the comic book industry more or less on a floating timeline that prevents their characters from aging (though continuity is far murkier for DC after two major reboots and countless smaller retcons.) Superman could be BFFs with Joseph Kennedy in 1963 then be shaking hands with Ronald Reagan twenty years later without aging a single day. Another reason is because both companies, especially Marvel, pride themselves on verisimilitude by making their universe superficially similar to ours so neither company has fully addressed the social and geopolitical implications of the effective demigods in their midst until recent years with Marvel’s Civil War and DC’s 52.

However, one can consider Marvel’s “What If?” titles and DC’s Elseworlds line alternate history to some extent. These titles largely centered on the individual histories of their characters like “What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What if Sgt. Nick Fury Fought World War II in Space?” rather than historical events from our world. Some scenarios such as “What if Captain America Were Revived Today?” from What If? (vol. 1) #44 possesses some trappings of alternate history. For example, Namor the Sub-Mariner took a different route when the Avengers pursued him in Avengers (vol. 1)  #4 so he never discovered the group of Inuit who worshipped a frozen Steve Rogers and thus never hurled Captain America into the ocean for the Avengers to find. The Avengers eventually disbanded without Captain America, but more disturbingly, a janitor working at a government facility awakened the mentally unstable 1950s Captain America and Bucky from suspended animation and convinced them that the United States was in danger from subversive elements. As such, the impostor Captain America and Bucky became involved with a political movement that transformed the United States into a police state until a crew of American sailors found the true Cap in the Arctic.

 
Marvel, aside from a dalliance with a robot Stalin, waited almost twenty years to dip their toe into the alternate history ocean with Neil Gaiman’s 1602. While not technically a What If? issue, the mini-series has a point of divergence (a Captain America from a potential future goes back in time to the failed Roanoke colony and aids in their survival) that causes various Marvel characters to appear nearly four hundred years before they should have. Instead of being the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury is Elizabeth I’s chief intelligence officer whose apprentice is Peter Parquagh, an ersatz version of a nameless friendly neighborhood webslinger. However, one of the more intriguing elements of Marvel 1602 is Gaiman weaved themes from X-Men into late Elizabethan history, particularly James I’s persecution of the “witchbreed” or mutants and how Magneto is ostensibly a grand inquisitor for the Spanish Inquisition but hides his illicit activities behind his position. 

 
This fascination with alternate history continued with the fourth volume of What If? in late 2005. Unlike most issues of the title, which were largely self-contained worlds, this volume of the series took place within in a single timeline where Captain America’s genesis occurs in the American Civil War as opposed to World War II and the Fantastic Four were Russian cosmonauts. Being more of an aficionado of American history, I prefer the Captain America one and appreciate how Cap because more of a physical manifestation of the American spirit during one the nation’s most troubled periods rather than symbol. Because of this Cap’s presence shortens the Civil War, prevents Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and his origins in Native American mysticism sparked a cultural craze that prevented the Indian Wars of the 1870s. Out of the six What If? (Vol. 4) one-shots, only Captain America and Fantastic Four address the broader strokes of alternate history whereas the other four are more character-focused. Unfortunately, Marvel did not revisit this timeline as they did Marvel 1602, but they are well worth the effort of searching through the odd long box for.

Meanwhile, DC, like their marvelous competition, has only dabbled in the realm of alternate history with its Elseworlds line but there are a few notable examples such as Batman: Holy Terror written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Norm Breyfogle. The point of divergence for this story is that Oliver Cromwell lived ten years longer and the United States became a totalitarian, theocratic state. While I have never read the issue on account that it has been out of print for over twenty years, a cursory glance of the synopsis on Wikipedia was enough to pique my interest and should do the same for other alternate history enthusiasts. DC’s Tangent imprint, introduced in 1997, operates under a similar premise where there are not only vastly different versions of Superman, the Flash, the Atom, and even obscure characters like the Sea Devils but the presence of superpowered beings radically altered history from what we know. The central premise behind the imprint is that an alternate version of the Atom intervened in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resulted in the destruction of Florida and Cuba. As such, Atlanta became an underwater city populated by merpeople, their technology advanced further than the mainstream DC Universe, and the hippie movement was in its infancy when the nineties rolled around. 

 
Dan Jurgens, the man who killed Superman and the brain behind Tangent, justified this divergence when he told Comic Book Resources:

“While the DCU Earth is essentially the same as our own, no more advanced in terms of technology or communications despite the existence of those qualities within the super-powered community, Earth Tangent is greatly influenced by all of that. Earth Tangent's economic, geographic and political landscapes are defined by the superhero community, whereas in the DCU those aspects exist unaffected by the superhero community.”

Jurgens brings up an excellent point about a medium that birthed the trope, “Reed Richards is Useless.” Take the Flash’s rogues gallery for example, Captain Cold and his cohorts possess technology that can generate temperatures near absolute zero, alter weather patterns, and even transmute the 118 elements. Why did the scientists and business leaders not reverse engineer the technology after the Central City Police Department confiscated it? The Tangent imprint gives something of a look at such a world and is perhaps a blueprint for how ambitious writers should combine the two genres.

Some could argue that Superman: Red Son is an alternate history and I suppose it is to some extent. The premise is simple enough: baby Kal-L lands in Ukraine in 1938 instead of Kansas. However, my impression of the mini-series is that if it is alternate history, it is about squishy as bag full of marshmallows (or a Type X on Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility.) Its writer, Mark Millar, makes reference to even greater civil unrest in the late 1960s under surviving JFK, a war against communists in the South Pacific in 1983, and a second American Civil War in 1986 without too much elaboration. Granted, there are constraints to the medium but it is clear that the focus is more on Superman as a seemingly benevolent leader of the Soviet Union and his rivalry with Lex Luthor than on the butterflies that a Soviet Man of Steel would create. That is not to say Red Son is not worth reading, it is more fantasy than alternate history. 

 
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is the mirror image of Red Son in terms of realism and setting. In fact, the world of Watchmen could be a reflection ours until 1938 where the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 inspired a wave of costumed vigilantes, and again in 1959 with the creation of Dr. Manhattan. Alternate history is one portion of Watchmen’s complexity that Moore executes extremely well. Dr. Manhattan essentially gave the United States the strategic advantage in the Cold War and practically won the Vietnam War single-handedly but that also becomes a disadvantage because he is also the lone reason why the Soviet Union stays in check. Hence, Moore makes the consequences of his departure realistic as evidenced by the Soviet invasion of Pakistan and bringing Earth closer to the brink of Nuclear War. However, there are also several other economic and cultural consequences as well. The good doctor’s ability to synthesize lithium allows for the mass production of electric cars, hence reducing the United States’ dependence of foreign petroleum, and the appearance “real” superheroes essentially led to the death of the medium in the late forties so pirate comics like “The Tales of the Black Freighter.” (Though I wonder how Indian fast food became so popular with the American public instead of McDonalds.) Watchmen is practically required reading for all comic book fans, but to read it again from the prism of an alternate historian demonstrates how well the two genres blend.

One of the things I admire about alternate history is that it posed a question Marvel asked when they released a new title in February 1977, “what if?” Personally, I am not as interested in the typical “What if the Axis won World War II?” or “What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War?” as I am interested in smaller events like “What if a more moderate candidate sought the democratic nomination in 1972” or “What if Lucille Ball decided not to sell Desilu Studios to Gulf+Western?” because even the smallest pebble can create many ripples. Marvel 1602, Tangent Comics, and Watchmen demonstrate that alternate history can blend with the fantastic as peanut butter tends to do with chocolate, and they are only the tip of the glacier. In a universe populated by gods, aliens, and immortal cavemen who could alter the flow of history well before the 20th century, the myriad of scenarios to use as story fodder is practically endless. Is there a writer ambitious enough to push this hybrid genre to its creative limits?

Only time will tell. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Platypus Reviews: A Legion Lost Retrospective







Today saw the last issue of Legion Lost, another New 52 launch title, hit comic book shops and the cancellation leaves me with conflicted feelings towards the title. On one hand, it was nice to have a second Legion of Super-Heroes title for the first time in twelve years, but the title was scarcely above average at best and mediocre most months. Not that there was anything with the concept: a team of legionnaires chase an anti-human terrorist who wants to change the past by mutating the humans of our era, but everything goes to hell when their arrival ends with two legionnaires dead and their advance technology inert. A concept that shares similarities with James Cameron’s the Terminator and the deaths of the two legionnaires ramped up the stakes. So where did the title go wrong?

I am afraid that the title was doomed from the beginning and I am, quite frankly, surprised that Legion Lost was not a victim of the first and second New 52 cullings. The Legion of Super-Heroes, similar the New Teen Titans, was a niche title since the seventies after the apex of the team’s popular Adventure Comics run in the sixties. Legion fans have an eye for minutia for continuity and obscure characters who made a single appearance like Legion rejects and the like. If you never had picked up a Legion title before the New 52, chances are that you would find the first issue confusing and chaotic. If you had no idea of who Dawnstar, Wildfire, Timber Wolf, or especially Chameleon Girl and Gates were you had no reason to even care that a time travel accident left them stranded in the 21st century. Writer Fabian Nicieza did not give much of an introduction to these characters nor did he establish their personalities to make an uninitiated audience care.

Things did get better over the next five issues when things calmed down enough to show tensions between the time-lost legionnaires. Especially team leader Tyroc who had to deal with the always hotheaded and belligerent Wildfire or Timber Wolf who (appropriates) broke off from the crew to hunt for their target. Likewise with Dawnstar who seemed emotionally distant from her teammates, which led to a rift between her and longtime love interest, Wildfire that I always found forced because Geoff Johns pulled on this plot thread in Legion of Three Worlds. Combine that with the fact that they were persona non grata in the 21st century, survival became a concern, especially when unidentified metahumans tended to attract unwanted attention from the US government and the secretive team of metahuman operatives Stormwatch.  However, two events sent the title sliding into mediocrity: the departure of Fabian Nicieza and “the Culling” crossover with the Teen Titans. Not that to knock on Tom DeFalco’s skills as a writer but “the Culling” was a needless diversion from the main storyline and some of the names he used (like “Psy-Kill” and the “Meta-American”) sounded like a villain from an early 90s Image comic penned by Rob Liefeld. So the conclusion to the first arc ended on a whimper rather than with any meaningful resolution, so the title dithered on to its final issue.

Not that there were not any interesting plot developments. I found the Echo division of the Science Police (the 31st century version of the FBI, or the Mounties if you are Canadian like me), who monitored the timeline and sent denizens of the future to past eras as part of a Witness Relocation Program intriguing. Even the revelation that Chameleon Girl was an SP spy was a clever touch considering that the character infiltrated the Legion back in the eighties during Levitz’s acclaimed run on the title. Even, her superior, Captain Nathaniel Adym (any relation?) had a sinister presence as her superior who ordered her to make sure the stranded legionnaires fulfilled their destiny. And then a space barbarian and his talking dragon show up to threaten Earth for no reason other than he just can.

Seriously, an evil, celestial version of He-Man and Battlecat are the final villains the stranded legionnaires face in their own title. To quote a certain contributor to That Guy With the Glasses, “I could not make this shit up if I tried.”

To sum up the plot that the last issues in as few words at possible: the ersatz He-Man sets up a force field and builds a machine. Captain Atom—I mean, Adym decides to blow up ersatz He-Man with a singularity bomb that will destroy half of North America to “save quintillions.” The Ravagers, Superboy, and even Harvest from “the Culling” join the fray. Then Gates teleports ersatz He-Man, his space dragon, and the bomb into the nearest black hole to eliminate the threat; all the legionnaires are alive at the end and there was much rejoicing!

Except when telepathic goldfish, Tellus, reveals that ersatz He-Man’s intended “to communicate” to an unrevealed presence with his machine and not to destroy the Earth as they first thought. So the stranded legionnaires will be waiting for whoever was at the end of ersatz He-Man’s call and the final issue ends with, “Never the end!”

I know I am glossing over more that a few details, but does it really matter at this point? I cannot help but feel that these sixteen issues were a waste of my time because despite the compelling story elements Nicieza and DeFalco offered me as a reader, the bad far outweighed the good and DC could not bother to give us long-suffering readers any resolution other than the promise that these Legionnaires may make an appearance in a future issue of Teen Titans or The Ravagers? I would rather have had DeFalco take them back to the 31st century where they would receive the attention they deserve than have them sit around and wait for Harvest or whoever to show up. In the end it feels like a waste. A waste of my money, a waste of my time, and a waste of my patience with DC after the New 52 nearly burned up the last of my good will.

But at least The Flash has been a compelling read and a visual treat, but please do not tell any Wally West fans that I said that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Platypus Reviews: Name's The Same...

 
Every pop culture aficionado should now about the 1984 hit comedy, Ghostbusters. A movie that made almost $300 million at the box office and spawned a successful animated series and line of action figures and, unfortunately, some regrettably horrible games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Fans of the franchise also know that Columbia Pictures was also not the first company to use the name and Filmation produced a live-action television series by the same name in 1975, which prompted Columbia to buy the rights to the name. Meanwhile, Filmation produced an animated Ghostbusters series of their own in 1986 while DiC Animation named the animated spin-off, The Real Ghostbusters as a “take that” to Filmation. The point of my brief history being that it is interesting how the names of multi-million franchises like Ghostbusters inadvertently take their namesakes from obscure series from other mediums.

Fast-forward seven years to 1991 when Street Fighter II swallowed the allowances of teenage boys’ allowance whole in the arcade or bought the fight to the living room with its home release on the Super Nintendo. What most fans of the seminal fighting game do not even know is that the name Street Fighter comes from an extremely obscure comic book from 1986, one year the release of the original arcade Street Fighter. By obscure, I mean that only one mini-series published by Ocean Comics and a one-shot, The Original Street Fighter, published by Alpha Comics in 1995 exist and are hard to come by as independent publications. The only reason I know this comic existed is because I saw a cover image of the second issue in the Overstreet Price Guide almost fifteen years ago.

I came across the first two issues at my local comic shop a few months ago, and fortunately, the owner let me have them for free. Never one to refuse a good deal, I brought the issues home to read and see what the deal with it was and, “Hoo Nelly,” it blew my expectations out of the water, and not exactly in a peasant way either. So to quote Linkara, “Let’s dig into Street Fighter #1 and 2.”

And if any aspiring musician who reads this, feel free to write me a theme song if you do not mind getting paid in cashews and gum wrappers.

 
So we have the cover of Street Fighter #1, and the main thing that strikes me is the similarity of the comic’s logo to its video game namesake’s and that it where the similarities end, my platy-pals. Instead of Ryu, Ken, or even Dan Hibiki, we have a random stranger in a black body suit with turquoise face paint and holsters slung around his upper leg and shoulder crashing though a skylight onto a trio of stereotypical gangsters. In terms of composition, it is a striking cover where “Street Fighter” takes up a good half of the page so we know who the main character is but I have no idea why he has one hand open while the other is balled into a fist. The perspective of the cover is also a bit wonky as the artist drew it with two perspectives: a frontal close-up of Street Fighter (who I will dub “SF” to avoid confusion) and an overhead perspective of the gangsters and crates below. The latter’s placement and posture is also problematic. It looks like “Shades” is about to swing his chain into the head of “Knives,” who will in turn accidentally thrust his blade into the should of “Fedora,” who looks like he is in excruciating pain because he contorted his spine into an unnatural position. At least, that is what I believe will happen moments after SF lands on the floor. Aside from that and the lack of detail in the background, unless these criminals painted the walls of their warehouse yellow, it is not a bad cover but not really a good one either. It aroused my curiosity enough to open it, but how does it fare under scrutiny?

If I could describe my feelings of the story into six words, they would be, “pretty good, but a little generic.” From what I have read about the writer, Ron Fortier’s, bibliography and noticed that he has written a number of pulp novels and Fortier’s forward in Street Fighter #1 even admits that he based the character on “Batman to the Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes to the Shadow, Bruce Lee to Buck Rogers,” and it shows. SF borrows heavily from Batman and the Punisher in his origin as second issue explains the murder of his family at the hands of the mob. There are also elements of Doc Savage as two police officers train the now-amnesiac Adam Ranger to become a weapon against the criminals of Metro City along with loyal group of specialists. Like I said, generic, but that does not necessarily mean SF is a bad character. Bill Finger took inspiration from several sources like The Mark of Zorro and The Bat Whispers for Batman and the Man Who Laughs For the Joker after all. If you are not a fan of the old pulps like me, SF will seem unremarkable but has enough draw if you are such a fan.

 The prose in the caption may appear overwrought it is also very atmospheric. As cliché as “In the heart of darkness the spark of hope burns” would sound today in 2013 it calls back to the era of pulps and radios. However, my main gripe with the plot of the first issue is that it reads in a very pedestrian manner because the three act structure that involves SF rescuing an anonymous woman, then one of his police allies betrayed by a corrupt officer, and rescue the daughter of city councilor held hostage by a mob boss who swears revenge. Again, somewhat uninspired but necessary to establish the character and the pace of the story does pick up in the second issue with a raid on a police precinct and the promise of a roaring rampage of revenge next issue, which I do not have.

 
Street Fighter’s biggest shortcoming is its art. Gary Kato’s style reminds me a little of Steve Ditko in terms of expressions and the panels move fluidly during the action scenes where SF is using his martial arts prowess against his adversaries. However, his style is very simplistic to the point where it appears that he penciled the book as if it were the nineteen-forties. Ocean Comics published this comic in 1986 when superstar artists like John Byrne, George Perez, and a slightly saner Frank Miller were at the top of their game. Harsh for twenty-five year old comic book, I know, but with comics being a visual medium, artwork that looks like something a middle-schooler would hand in takes away from what is an ultimately serviceable story.


So do I recommend Street Fighter the comic book? Personally, I would have only spent money on it to satisfy my curiosity though I suppose it is satisfactory if you are a vigilante devotee. Fans of the video game will definitely find disappointment when they realize that none of their favorite world warriors are featured in it. But for the completists that want all things Street Fighter, it would make an interesting (if not odd) part of their collection.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Green Lantern #15

 
I expressed my cautious optimism for the new Green Lantern, Simon Baz, when I reviewed Green Lantern #0 three months ago and I can now assuredly say that his arc has gone off the rails. Structurally, Green Lantern #0 had a much tighter focus but Green Lantern #15 is cluster-bombed and offensive wreck of comic book. Allow me to make this clear, I like Simon Baz. I like that he is trying to capture the terrorist that planted the bomb in the van he stole, even when a fugitive on the run from both the federal authorities and the Justice League. However, one revelation irreversibly soured me on this arc. The terrorist that “set” Simon up? He is a white male and presumably a survivalist or part of a militia judging by the arsenal in said terrorist’s basement and the “an American hero” comment he makes in the issue is equally frustrating.

Before anyone accuses my statements as racist, that is not my intent. My issue with this comic book is that it reinforces “us vs. them” mentality I see in today’s race relations. European males maintained a political and cultural hegemony for centuries, I get it; I know that there are more than enough homegrown terrorists in Middle America as evidenced by Adam Lanza’s killing spree in the recent Newtown tragedy. Geoff Johns scraped the bottom of the bottom of the barrel when he used the “angry racist white man” stereotype in Green Lantern #15 and it shows. Personally, I was hoping that the terrorist(s) in this issue were Muslim Arabs. Not because I believe all Muslims and Arabs are terrorists but because I believe that Johns wasted an opportunity to rise above petty politics and show Simon Baz as the hero he can be.

Martin Luther King Jr. said nearly a half century ago, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My main issue with the “us vs. them” mentality is that it leaves no room for the subtle grays in between. There is good and bad in every human regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed and it is through our decisions where reveal the true content of our character. While Simon Baz is a car thief, he also cares deeply for his family, feels a deep sense of responsibility over his mistakes, and places the safety of others over his own needs. Had the terrorists he was searching for been Arab-American, I believe that his better traits would have shone through his skin color and he would have risen above the negative stereotypes associated with his community. However, Johns chose the intellectually lazy route that I see has grown prevalent in mainstream American culture. Just like one cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong, one cannot valorize a minority by demonizing the majority. I find it unproductive in any meaningful dialogue.

The lack of focus in Green Lantern #15 only exacerbates the problems I see in this issue. In addition to the Simon Baz arc, there is also the Hal Jordan/Sinestro subplot and the subplot involving the Guardians of the Universe and the First Lantern, which do not receive much attention because only so much plot can fit in twenty-two pages. With the supposedly cosmic scope of Green Lantern and the Guardians’ scheme to extinguish free will in the universe, Simon Baz’s storyline feels forced and extraneous to the Rise of the Third Army “event.” That is also my biggest problem with Green Lantern and its sister titles, everything feels like a build-up to the next intra-line event. In the span of five years there was Sinestro Corps, Blackest Night, Brightest Day, War of the Green Lanterns, and now Rise of the Third Army, which feels like the build-up for the next big crossover. Personally, I have had enough of this nonsense, Green Lantern is not enjoyable as it was earlier in Geoff Johns’ run and it has gotten formulaic to the point of repetition, the race/ethnic relations undertones make it insulting.

In some ways, I believe the drop in quality is endemic to what I see in the New 52 (and the Marvel Now initiative to a lesser degree.) Despite, the repeated claims that this reboot is a “fresh” new start to the DC Universe, most of it is stale as week-old bread and buildup to Trinity War feels like the same intra-company crossover, but that is another rant for another day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Wreck-It Ralph

 
Imagine if a certain nameless studio combined the premise of 1995’s Toy Story with themes from 1989’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, slap on a video game veneer, and Wreck-It Ralph would be the end result. Remember when video arcades used to be a common sight in shopping centers or as standalone establishments? As a child of the late eighties and early nineties, I remember when there used to be an arcade at my local shopping mall and even the neighborhood Seven-Eleven had an arcade cabinet near the back, so Wreck-It Ralph is a fond trip down memory lane for me. The set-up is simple: characters from arcade classics like Q*Bert, Street Fighter II, and even Dance Dance Revolution come to life when the lights go off to have a drink and Tappers (you might need to wikipedia that one.) For “bad guys” like the titular character, it is not a charmed life because everyone hates and shuns you what is simply a regular nine-to-five job for them.

Wreck-It Ralph is a dyed-in-the-wool Disney animated feature, which a blessing and a curse. Without spoiling many plot details, it amounts to: hero feels something is missing in his life and goes on quest to find it, hero is diverted from his quest and meets foil (often love interest), hero and foil become close friends, villain engineers misunderstanding that reverses the hero’s, and so forth. If you know your Disney films, you are not going to find anything particularly original here so Wreck-It Ralph relies largely on video game references for humor or to stoke nostalgia for hawk-eyed viewers. Personally, I love Sonic the Hedgehog’s voice cameo as public service announcement. YouTube junkies and old-school Sonic fans would recognize it as a tribute to the “Sonic Sez” segments from the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog animated series of the nineties. The production team even managed to sneak some sound effects one might find familiar; the weapon charging sound from Mega Man X was used for Calhoun’s weapon almost makes up for the snub the Blue Bomber got when they removed Dr. Wily from the final cut, almost. Believe me, a seasoned gamer will have no problem finding the Easter eggs in this film.

Oddly enough, I did not mind Wreck-It Ralph being a completely CGI film in a market that is saturated with CGI film that all look similar to each other. Even the humans in most Pixar films look like the animators rendered them with the same art style. Wreck-It Ralph avoids this shortcoming through the variety art styles used. Ralph and his antagonist, Fix-It Felix Jr., possess this cartoon-like look complete with exaggerated anatomy and features could have easily been a Nintendo game back in 1985. The denizens of “Sugar Rush” all have this deformed anime look, which should not be to surprising since an actual J-Pop band composed and played the theme to this “game”. Calhoun, who hails from a first-person shooter in the vein of Halo, has the most realistic anatomy of the cast. The variety of different styles as well as the art styles borrowed from Sega, Capcom, and the 8-bit pixilated aesthetic the animators slavishly emulated provides a contrast I find lacking in other CGI films. Believe me, you will want to stay through the credits if you want the film to give you a real nostalgia trip.

As for the voice acting, I would say Jane Lynch was the main stand out to me. Her husky voice gave Calhoun’s lines added weight, especially in the middle of a bug war when she’s screaming metaphors at the player. Imagine you shoved Sue Sylvester into a disk drive and spliced her with a dash of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman for good measure. I also give major props to Alan Tudyk for his rendition of A-class jerk, King Candy. If you vaguely remember the voice but cannot remember where from, it is an imitation of the late Ed Wynn, who voiced the Mad Hatter in Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland. It was a fitting tribute to the Walt-era films.

So what is my final verdict on Wreck-It Ralph? It will not get any awards for its largely formulaic plot but its charm comes from its characters, humor, and nostalgia factor. Generation Xers and Millennials owe to themselves to see this film if they want to see an interesting take on a childhood staple. It was definitely work the thirteen bucks I paid, plus the five-dollar frozen yougurt.