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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Pokémon Black and White 2

Something about the phrase “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” still resonates in me nearly fifteen years after the release of the seminal Nintendo Game Boy classics, Pokémon Red and Blue. Enough for me to spend nearly seventy bucks every time Nintendo and Game Freak release the latest iteration of those pocket-sized critters and Pokémon Black and White 2 is no exception. That should sound rather sad for a man who is pushing thirty but there is much to appreciate about the series when it comes to the fundamentals of its core concept. Very little about Pokémon has changed throughout its history, Game Freak may have tweaked the mechanics of the game itself but you still play the role of the silent protagonist who embarks on a journey, confronts a villainous organization, encounter a creature of legend and become the champion. However, Game Freak used this plot to the point of monotony despite the changing themes of Land/Sea/Air of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire and Time/Space/Antimatter of Diamond and Pearl.

This imperfection is particularly evident in Black and White 2 because the game itself is a direct continuation of Black and White with no new pokémon (aside from the new Kyurem and Kami trio forms) or significant alterations to the gameplay. So what made Black and White 2 good enough to take up twenty-five hours of my life that could have been better devoted to other endeavours? It is primal storytelling at its finest. Pokémon, from its first generation to the current fifth, evokes Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and the “monomyth”, or as Campbell himself eloquently says,

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

What makes Campbell’s observation particularly poignant is that YOU are the protagonist of the game. You pick your partners for the journey, you participate in the battles between good and evil, you encounter these fabulous forces, and stand victorious each time you unseat the champion. Whereas most video games focus on characters like Mario, Kratos, or Master Chief, Pokémon elevates the player to the heroic figure in a fashion few other games can accomplish. No matter how repetitive the plots of each iteration of Pokémon get, I am instantly sucked into that world the moment I turn on the game and the only way to get me out is to pry my Nintendo DS from my cold, dead hands (with apologies to Charlton Heston.)

What makes Pokémon Black and White 2 stand out from the previous games is that it picks up where its predecessor left off, something that Game Freak has not done since Gold and Silver twelve years ago, and even takes you to unexplored areas of the Unova region. Black and White 2 even exceeds the original Black and White in that the journey is not has linear. Whereas Black and White was a continuous line from the starting town to Victory Road, Black and White 2 has the player zigzagging around the map, especially in the latter half of the game. The sprites are more animated, which adds more life to the experience, and the plot involving Kyurem as well as the frequent references to the previous game make the experience of Black and White 2 feel more complete. Almost like everything in Unova has come full circle.

Would I recommend this game to everyone? If your main criticism of the series is its repetitious nature, then you will not find anything new in Black and White 2. In some ways I agree that the Pokémon series is not living up to its potential when the concept lends itself to other genres like the MMORPG. However, the game, despites its flaws, appeals to those who appreciate mythology like myself. So as long as the world of Pokémon calls me for adventure, I will answer every time.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Platypus Thoughts: Six Years...

I am sometimes amazed how the years have a tendency to pass by quicker with each passing year. Today marks the sixth anniversary of Gary’s passing. I am willing to wager that some of my (few) viewers will have no idea who I am talking about; the intent of this blog was not to delve into my personal life but I felt a need to pay tribute to the best friend I had never met. The Internet was a very different place back in 1999. Having a personal webpage on Geocities (regardless of whether your content was original or not) was the epitome of cool. Back then I was obsessive about Mega Man and stumbled across his webpage, “Ice Man’s Ice Palace”, and was impressed enough to contact him on AOL Instant Messenger. The rest, as they say, was history.

I was a completely different person back then. A teenager with anger issues and a chip on my shoulder that belied an inferiority complex and deep insecurities; I assumed the identity from of Magma Dragoon of Mega Man X4 to sublimate that anger into fantasies that involved brutalizing villains and devastating cities. Gary was more a trickster in the vein of Coyote and Raven that went against his own insecurities. His life was not an entirely happy one; his body began to fail him about eighteen months after we first met when his kidneys failed due to a hereditary disease on his mother’s side. That necessitated dialysis, which meant he had to work in the trenches of the service industry to pay the bills, an especially grueling task when taking his health into account. Gary’s lungs began to deteriorate a couple years later, and then his heart, and his relationship with his parents were strained at best. Luck did not smile upon Gary Martin.

Despite all of his misfortunes, Gary always went out of his way to make me smile with his silly pranks and jokes. He also was a source of encouragement and told me to keep writing. He wrote in a card he sent to me years ago, “Always believe in yourself, you’re destined for great things, so keep up the hard work. You’re a great friend that everyone needs to have.” I still have that card and I keep it close to me when I grapple with my own demons. Gary, whether he knew it or not, helped me through a tumultuous time in my life and was one of the few people that could make me smile. If there ever anything that could convince me to believe in fate, it would be Gary. Somehow I believe our shared insecurities made gravitate towards each other and in that friendship I found a kindred spirit.

My life is poorer without Gary and I do not believe I will completely recover from losing him. Time may heal all wounds but it always leaves a scar. While I may slowly come to accept that Gary is no longer a part of my life, I know there will always be a piece missing. Perhaps it is serendipity that the music of James Blunt best describes my feelings towards a friendship and a life that providence cut short. “1973” will always remind me of the nights we spent embarking on crazy adventures through instant messenger. My mind will always glance back on those times, in spite of time marching on. And “Stay The Night” will always remind me of the happiness our friendship brought me.

You may be gone, Gary Eugene Martin, but you will never be forgotten.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Legionnaires

I maintained that two things that destroyed Legion continuity are Crisis on Infinite Earths and the fans at the beginning of my previous post. In my haste I forgot to clarify is it not so much the fans’ fault for the title’s often-confusing continuity but how fan appreciation for the Legion’s rich history turned into continuity porn. The Terra Mosaic is probably the most egregious example where the Bierbaums revealed that longtime supporting character, Shvaughn Erin, was actually a man who used 30th century drugs to turn himself into a woman to get Element Lad to love him. Addressing the issues of transgenderism was very progressive and admirable in 1992, but I believe that they wrote the story to service longtime fans’ suspicion that Element Lad was gay. It becomes all the more glaring when you consider Tom and Mary Bierbaum were members of the fan club, the Legion Outpost, and the Interlac amateur press association (a precursor to contemporary message boards/forums online.) It simply made an otherwise good story look like an amateurish piece of fanfiction.

However, while I did not care for Terra Mosaic, at least it introduced the Batch SW6. “The who?” you may ask. The SW6 Legion were teenaged “clones” of the then-adult Legion that woke up from stasis during the Dominator occupation on Earth. While the Adult Legion believed them to be clones created by the Dominators, new (but inconclusive) evidence suggested that the Adult Legion were, in fact, the clones, which led to the cloning blues between the two teams. Only a couple years before Spider-Man made the word “clone” a dirty word for most comic book fans. Thankfully, Legionnaires sidestepped the prickly issue and focused on good, old-fashioned superheroics.

Where the fourth volume of Legion of Superheroes dispensed with the codenames, Legionnaires embraced them but with “radical” nineties sensibilities. Lightning Lad became “Live Wire”, Phantom Girl became “Apparition,” and Chameleon Boy shortened his name to “Chameleon” but more than a few kept the old names. I read that many longtime Legion fans hate, hate, HATE the new codenames but in the context the 30th century with an early-nineties cultural zeitgeist, would a teenaged superhero from 1993 call themselves Lightning Lad? While I admit some of the names like Alchemist, Gossamer, and Leviathan are just plain silly, some like Live Wire actually complimented the personality of the character. Moreover, it always bugged me the Bierbaums could conceive of a replacement for Supergirl with Laurel Gand, they never bothered to give her a codename until the SW6 Laurel called herself “Andromeda.” The name not only evokes a sense of majesty because of her namesake from ancient Greek mythology but also power because Andromeda is also the name of the galaxy next door. Laurel Gand is the name of that attractive blonde in accounting, not a girl who can shoot lasers from her eyes and juggle boulders.

(Interesting how little fashion changed between the 1990s and the 2990s in the DC Universe.)

With that said, character and pacing make Legionnaires work especially well for me. As much as I loved reading the Silver Age Adventure Comics from my mother’s collection as a child, the characters were relatively flat. Though storytelling grew more sophisticated through the Bronze Age, Lightning Lad never grew to be more than the devoted, but incredibly bland, father and husband whereas his SW6 counterpart lived up to his chosen codename. Moreover, the founders (Live Wire, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy) very much resemble a Freudian power trio with the impulsive Live Wire as the id, the stoic Saturn Girl the superego, and the straight-laced Cosmic Boy the ego. Plus, Cosmic Boy’s seemingly reciprocated affections for Saturn Girl brings a conflict that was not present in the old Adventure Comics stories because of her long-running relationship with Live Wire.

The Bierbaums go even further by dividing the Legion into separate cliques, notable Live Wire’s friendship with the former Sun Boy, Inferno. Both characters are womanizing jerks in their own right, but together their general jerk-ishness is off the charts. Particularly in Legionnaires #2 where both characters berate and insult the applicant, Cera Kesh, after her telekinetic demonstration goes awry. While I will not spoil details, Inferno’s spurning of her affection is an important story pivot for the next four issues. I also appreciate what the Bierbaums did for Ferro, now without the “boy.” Since Ferro Boy was only a member for six issues before his death in Adventure Comics #352, he never got much character development other than exuding a reckless confidence from his Legion audition. His SW6 counterpart is not much different as one of my favorite scenes in the first issue of Legionnaires is when he takes of his Legion flight ring to literally get the “drop” on a band of fleeing miscreants and turns to his iron form moments before crashing into him.

(So that's where the "Ya Tuh Duh" from Legion of Three Worlds comes from.)

There are so many of these little character moments, I could write a three thousand word essay, but will probably not because of time constraints. Outside of the varying and charming personalities, I appreciate how the Bierbaums make the first six issues interconnected. Each issue reads like it is self-contained but it clearly builds up to the show down with a reformed Fatal Five, who are the seminal Legion villains, and ties up almost every dangling plot thread at the arc’s conclusion. While the build-up and final execution are formulaic in most respects, Legionnaires is still highly enjoyable in its simplicity. Plus, the story does not take itself too seriously. Case in point, the odd life of Tenzil Kem AKA Matter-Eater Lad.

I always had a fascination with the less powerful members of the Legion of Super-Heroes like the first Invisible Kid (Lyle Norg), Bouncing Boy, and Brainiac 5 but something about Matter-Eater Lad that fascinated me. Maybe it was the sheer ridiculousness of his power and why him, out of all Legion applicants got to bump elbows with powerhouses like Ultra Boy or Mon-El. Granted, M-E Lad did not come into his own as a character until Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums re-envisioned the character, his absurdist sense of humor livened things up. Especially when he takes on the Persuader in Legionnaires #6. You have a guy built like an entire armored brigade who swings an axe sharp enough to slice through gravity’s pull, and M-E Lad gnaws the handle.

Add it a peppering of wisecracks and non-sequitirs, I almost think M-E Lad could carry this book himself. Though my only complaint is that the Bierbaums did not give me enough of Plaid Lad.

 (Mutant ability? Careful Plaid Lad, or else Marvel will send Litigation Lass after you for copyright infringement.)

As for art, I am not much of a critic in that regard. You will probably enjoy it if you are a fan of Chris Sprouse’s work on Tom Strong. It looks more manga-esque than his later work but compared to the grittiness of Keith Giffen, and others’, work on Terra Mosaic the characters appear more animated. The backgrounds are detailed but not overly ornate and the new uniforms bright and more reflective of comics’ emergence from the “grim n’ gritty” era of comics. Unfortunately, this series was never collected into trade paperback format to my knowledge and is unlikely that it will ever be collected at this point. I would highly recommend hunting down the first arc (Legion of Super-Heroes [vol. 4] #41, Legionnaires #1-6) online or at conventions. While it may not be Watchmen, Legionnaires is what I wanted the Legion of Super-Heroes to be.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Platypus Thoughts: Long Live The Legion

To say the Legion of Super-Heroes has continuity troubles would be an understatement and I could attribute their woes to two things: Crisis on Infinite Earths and its dedicated fanbase. Ever since the Crisis rebooted the DC Universe, the Legion has had to make several retcons, revamps, and reboots to fit into that universe but every attempt was akin to nailing a square peg into a circular hole. Pre-Crisis, the Legion’s history was simple, they were a team of teenage superheroes (eight years before the Teen Titans) from the 30th century who were inspired by the example set Superboy to fight injustice across the galaxy. John Byrne’s 1986 Man of Steel reboot of the Superman mythos eliminated Superboy and had Superman begin his career as an adult and thus created the first continuity snarl that would unravel the Legion of Super-Heroes eight years later.

If Superman was never Superboy, then who inspired the Legion founders (Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl) to band together? Moreover, how did Mon-El come to become a member of the Legion if he never met Superman? Paul Levitz attempted to rectify they paradox by having Superboy come from a “pocket universe” and long time Legion foe, the Time Trapper, would redirect Superboy and the Legion between the universes each time they went backwards or forwards in time. Superboy died at the Trapper’s hands in “The Greatest Hero of Them All” (Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 #38.) However, the funeral scene reveals another snarl. 

(Notice the statue on the left.)

Apparently, the pre-Crisis Supergirl was still a member of the Legion despite her erasure from existence after the Crisis but this paradox would go unaddressed for a couple more years still. Paul Levitz’s second tenure on the Legion ended in 1989 and Superman editor, Mike Carlin, ordered the removal of every Superman reference in the Legion of Super-Heroes, which addressed the problem of Supergirl. Artist/Plotter Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums would “reboot” the Legion by replacing Superboy with Mon-El as the inspiration of the team (albeit under the new moniker of “Valor”) and replaced Supergirl with another Daxamite, Laurel Gand. Valor is apparently a messianic figure in the 30th century of this new timeline because he seeded several worlds with metahuman captives of the Dominators that would later become members of the United Planets.

I have to admit that I never warmed up to the fourth volume (otherwise known as “Five Years Later”) of the Legion. The gritty Blade Runner-esque dystopia never appealed to me, and it stripped away the shining futuristic technology and the colorful uniforms and codenames that made the Legion so entertaining to read. Instead of a utopian future where the Legionnaires gallivant across the galaxy, fighting the Fatal Five, the United Planets’ economy collapsed, the Legion disbanded, and Earth is under the covert control of the Dominators. Far from the wonders I have read from Adventure Comics toe Levitz’s run. The Legionnaires discarded the staple codenames and uniforms in favor of a more “realistic setting.”

However, there was at least one light in murky grittiness of “Five Years Later” and the reason for this lengthy and meandering exposition: Batch SW6. With 1993’s Legion of Super-Heroes (vol. 4) #41 the Bierbaums brought back some of that magic back with the highly underrated Legionnaires series…

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Green Lantern #0

I picked up a copy of Green Lantern #0 this afternoon so I would at least give my impressions of it to see if the backlash I mentioned in my previous post is warranted. To put it in simple terms: it is, to a degree. There are parts of Simon Baz’s character that I like; he possesses a degree in automotive engineering and was involved in a street racing accident that killed his brother-in-law so he took auto theft to give the proceeds to his widowed sister and nephew. There are some parallels to Hal Jordan from Emerald Dawn where Hal drove while intoxicated and critically injured a friend in an automobile accident. There is much to work with Simon’s character here, he is a young man that made a deadly mistake and is trying to atone for it as a Robin Hood-like character, though not in the Green Arrow vein. Simon unwittingly jacks a van that contains a bomb and drives it into an abandoned factory to save innocent lives…

…and that is when Geoff Johns drops the anvil on my head.

For those who have never visited TV Tropes, the “anvil” I refer to is shorthand for anvilicious, which the site defines as:

“A portmanteau of anvil and delicious, anvilicious describes a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.”

The frequent references to 9-11, the backlash against Arab-Americans, the harassment, and the increased airport security was heavy-handed enough, but Simon’s “vacation” to Guantanamo Bay is what had a flock of canaries circling around my head for the bus ride home. Then came the interrogation where Simon protests that he was, “A car thief, not a terrorist” and the "advanced interrogation techniques", which struck me as pedantic and condescending to the reader. To be honest, I expected better from Geoff Johns. This issue would be much better if he focused on Simon’s positive qualities and had not used him a rhetorical device to lecture us on how the United States government is so bigoted towards Muslims. If you are a new reader, I suggest avoiding this issue. If you are a collector, I would say pick it up if you are following Rise of the Third Army.

And thus the Magical Platypus commanded, "Thou shalt not drop anvils on thine neighbors head. For it is often painful and sometimes a poor literary device." (Rule #42)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Playpus Thoughts: Simon Baz, the Arab-American Green Lantern

It looks like we have a new Green Lantern, and guess what, he is Arab-American. Granted, this is not actually news since some vigilant comic book fans spotted the tattoo with the Arabic lettering on Simon Baz’s forearm shortly after DC Comic released the solicit to this week's Green Lantern #0 months ago. The DC media machine is ramping up the publicity for the character via an interview with Green Lantern writer, Geoff Johns. What caught my attention is how Jeff Kaurob of the Associated Press wrote that Arab-Americans fell, “under intense suspicion and ostracism in the days, months and years following the [9-11] attacks.” This caught the attention of noted counter-jihadist, Robert Spencer, who criticized the press release and Geoff Johns for, “wittingly or unwittingly . . . abetting that victimhood mythology, and its sinister goal.”

While I do believe that certain interest groups abuse the term “Islamophobia” to suppress legitimate criticism of Islam, my concern with Simon Baz is that DC is not treating him like a viable character. For one, hate crimes against Muslims are not as prevalent as the article suggests. Muslims only accounted for only 13.2% of reported hate crimes in the United States in 2010, according to the FBI. Compare that to Jewish-Americans, who comprise 65.4% of reported hate crimes the same year. So I agree with Mr. Spencer that this is pandering.

However, since there are hate crimes against Arab-Americans (albeit much fewer that DC Comics or the Associated Press wants us to believe), I can accept that Simon and his family have faced suspicion and ostracism. What I do not want DC to do is tell me why Simon Baz is an interesting character, I want them to show me in the comic and issuing press releases that spoil the issue is not the way to do it. This is a problem endemic to the industry; comic book sales are falling across the boards and publicity stunts like Jeff Kaurob’s article, and the New 52 in general, only bump up sales in the short term, which implies desperation, especially after the failure of the Green Lantern film last year. Marvel pulled similar stunts with the deaths of Captain America and the Human Torch as well as President Barack Obama’s appearance in Amazing Spider-Man. I am simply tired of these press releases and want to enjoy the story on its own merits.

So there is my problem with this article: it is not the fact that Simon Baz is a Muslim or Arab, it is that they feel that they need to beg the public for attention just to get a momentary sales spike. Personally, I think Simon Baz may be an intriguing character in that he wears the tattoo, which is haram in Islam, so he is not a devout Muslim as Johns admits,

"He's not a perfect character. He's obviously made some mistakes in his life, but that makes him more compelling and relatable," he [Geoff Johns] said. "Hopefully (it's) a compelling character regardless of culture or ethnic background. ... But I think it's great to have an Arab-American superhero. This was opportunity and a chance to really go for it."

I am invested enough in Green Lantern to pick up the title through Rise of the Third Army but am I am simply tired of DC’s fickleness. Simon Baz had potential but DC Comics squandered it through its histrionics and pandering.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Platypus Thoughts: One More Day

Noted Internet reviewer and critic, Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug, recently savaged the much-maligned Spider-Man story, One More Day, for the two hundredth episode of his web series, Atop The Fourth Wall, and rightfully so. Throughout the course of the seventy-five minute view, he exposed a number of plot holes and contrivances that bring the quality of the story into question but I find this criticism of particular interest: Spider-Man is the most irresponsible hero in any universe. A curious notion considering the axiom, “With great power comes great responsibility” defines his very motivation for becoming a superhero in the first place. However, I have difficulty disagreeing with Mr. Lovhaug who notes that Peter Parker always uses his alter ego as an excuse for his personal failures and repeats the same mistakes. One example Mr. Lovhaug uses is that Spider-Man did not even have life insurance to ensure his family’s well being in the event of his death at the hands of a supervillain. As Mr. Lovhaug says:

“He never learns from his mistakes. Never takes into consideration how his life as Spider-Man affects everybody else.”

What would happen to his family if he were to die from an “occupational hazard?” What does he do if his gallivanting as Spider-Man negatively impacts his family and friends?” He rarely takes those questions into account and lets his personal and professional life suffer because he refuses to make the necessary sacrifices. This becomes especially egregious when you take Peter’s age into account. Peter became Spider-Man after he turned sixteen and at least ten years passed since then according to Marvel’s “floating timeline”, which would make him at least twenty-six years old. Most adults around that age try to find some balance in their lives between work, love, and recreation but Peter’s approach to the world is still that of a teenager. That has to make me wonder if Peter Parker’s irresponsibility and immaturity is indicative of a deeper malady afflicting the comic book medium: the refusal to believe that even fictional characters are, in fact, mortal.

The problem with the comic book medium is that it is a serialized form of fiction with decades worth of continuity to draw from (seventy-five years for DC Comics, and fifty years for Marvel.) Very few formats, aside from the waning daytime soap opera, can even brag to have that kind of history. However, the problem Spider-Man poses is that these characters static because the perception that character development destroys the long-term marketability of the Big Two’s major trademarks. Joe Quesada, current Chief Creative Officer of Marvel and main architect One More Day, justified the magical annulment of the Peter/Mary Jane marriage with the following assertion:

“We worked too hard to get Peter to this point. I can understand why some of you want to see the characters grow old, but we have to manage these characters for the future – a future beyond you and me. A married Peter Parker – as cool as that may seem – from a creative standpoint, it handcuffs the character. It’s a very problematic thing for Peter because it cuts him off and makes Peter the oldest person in the book.”

I can understand Mr. Quesada’s standpoint. Our lives unfold in phases: we are born, go through childhood and adolescents, accept the responsibilities of adulthood, marry, raise children, and ultimately die. As reviled as the Clone Saga is to this very day, Peter Parker already passed several milestones by the mid-nineties. He married the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May passed away in the memorable Amazing Spider-Man #400 (a very nicely crafted story by J.M. DeMatteis where Peter was finally able to let go), and it appeared that he was going to accept the responsibility of fatherhood. Though Marvel erased the latter two events, it left the character with two options from Mr. Quesada’s perspective: retire or die.

Almost all stories since the days of antiquity are finite in scope. Both principal characters of the Illiad, Achilles and Hector, died by the epic’s end and the Norse gods would meet their end in Ragnarok. Every character aside from Horatio died at the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series came to an end with the Death Hallows. However, the very nature of comic books rarely allows for meaningful conclusions or happy endings for their characters. Mr. Lovhaug’s tone in his One More Day review seems to indicate that he wants character development but the truth is that comic book fans are a very conservative lot and very attached to their characters.

Convoluted storylines aside, Marvel could have given Peter Parker a happy ending in the Clone Saga; he could have handed the mask to Ben Reilly and rode off into the sunset with his wife and unborn child without the question of, “who is the real Peter Parker?” However, could the fanbase or Marvel’s marketing department have accepted it in the long term? I sincerely doubt it for one important reason: Spider-Man became part of the public zeitgeist as the “everyman” hero. He had appeared in at least three animated series by the nineties and the crossover between mediums insured that Peter Parker would always be synonymous Spider-Man in the same way Clark Kent is synonymous with Superman and Bruce Wayne is synonymous with Batman. So struggle does not become so much as the “the man vs. the mask” as it is “the man vs. the icon.”

Characters such as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom are the exception to this rule because there had been no crossover to other mediums in the interregnum between the Gold and Silver Ages. According to some accounts, editor Julius Schwartz created a new Flash (Barry Allen) instead of using the original Flash, Jay Garrick, in Showcase #4 because or a perceived turnover in the fanbase. Barry Allen became an icon of the Silver Age and many concepts of that era, namely the foundation of old DC Multiverse where his predecessor existed on a parallel Earth, are tied to him. The beauty of Barry Allen’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths is that DC gave it a sense of finality. I have the “last” Barry Allen issue of the Flash (Flash vol. 1, #350) where he had his “final” battle with the Rogues and reunited with his long-thought-dead wife, Iris West-Allen, in the thirtieth century to have his happy ending, at least until Crisis on Infinite Earth #8. The beauty of his death is that DC gave the character a proper sendoff and effectively ended the old Silver Age status quo in 1986. Similarly, DC Comics gave the Silver Age Superman his own ragnarok with the Alan Moore-penned Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow that closed that chapter of the character’s history and wiped the slate clean for the John Byrne reboot.

However, my problem with the Post-Crisis DC Universe is that DC never properly gave its Pre-Crisis status quo a proper farewell. Most DC’s “history” remained intact aside from the fact that the surviving Earths from the Crisis folded into one universe and former Kid Flash, Wally West, took his mentor’s costume and became the third Flash. While I have no problem with legacy heroes in theory, the very act of putting on Barry Allen’s costume at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 symbolically crippled Wally West as a character. Granted, the lasting appeal of the character is that Wally grew from a womanizing, self-centered jerk into a responsible and respected hero much like his uncle from the Baron run to Messner-Loebs to Waid to Johns' run at the end of the second volume. Unlike Spider-Man, DC Comics let Wally West develop as a character by letting him overcome his insecurities of living up to his mentor’s example. What made Wally’s growth problematic is that he grew up in a universe full of icons.

DC went to great pains to state that there could only be one Superman and Batman in the Death of Superman and Knightfall story arcs. Though DC presented its audience with four “Supermen” in Reign of the Supermen, none of them could ever be the genuine article, and Azrael proved to be a poor substitute for Bruce Wayne. If Barry Allen’s uniform became the “iconic” look for the Flash then would Wally West be slightly more than a substitute for his predecessor? I concede that Greg LaRocque redesigned Wally’s uniform in 1991 but it was still too aesthetically similar to Barry’s to truly distinguish the two. Wally West fell in love with and married a television reporter, Linda Park, as Barry did with a newspaper reporter, Iris West. Both had twins in Don and Dawn Allen (The Tornado Twins of the 30th century, long story), and Jai and Iris West. Wally took Barry Allen’s position on the reformed “Big Seven” version of the Justice League, and though he had his own unique Rogues, Wally West inherited Barry Allen’s enemies during Geoff Johns first run on the Flash. Wally West essentially became “Barry Allen-lite.” Even Bruce Timm and his production team had to radically transform the character from his personality to his motivations to make Wally viable for Justice League.

I own a few issues of the original Barry Allen run (mostly those with the Firestorm backups), and while the Geoff Johns writing was more sophisticated Cary Bates, I have trouble seeing what makes Wally distinct from Barry in terms of personality. I would go as far as to say that the focus of the title moved from Wally to Captain Cold and the Rogue during Johns’ first run, and then to Jai and Iris West during Mark Waid’s third run. The fact that Bart Allen’s “death” and Wally’s return coincided with the just-as-maligned Countdown probably did not help either.  Between Marvel’s mishandling of Spider-Man in One More Day and DC’s mishandling of the Flash franchise from Infinite to Final Crisis, I have got to wonder why the Big Two simply do not give their universes a complete reboot. After all, the 2003 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica kept no continuity from the 1978 original and it was successful. It comes down to the fact that DC and Marvel kept their characters in continuous publication in the almost twenty-five years whereas Battlestar Galactica had been off the air. The fact is that we, as fans of DC and Marvel’s characters, want our beloved characters to grow but yet we tend to grab our pitchforks and burn Joe Quesada and Dan DiDio in effigy that idea of making too radical change. The fact is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we want our characters to grow and change, we have to accept that their stories have to end as Barry Allen and the Silver Age Superman’s did twenty-five years ago.

That is my fundamental problem with One More Day: Joe Quesada believed that he could “magically” erase twenty years of continuity to reorder the fictional cosmos of the Marvel universe to suit his whims. That is simply amateurish and reads like horrible fan fiction written by an eleven-year-old with a “D+” in English. (I must apologize to all eleven-year-olds now. They could write much better stories than One More Day.) Moreover, One Moment in Time essentially made One More Day even more pointless because Peter and MJ were still “together” for those twenty years but just not “married.”  At least DC tried to bring their character back to formula after Crisis on Infinite Earths and The New 52. Sure, they failed spectacularly with how you need a scorecard to keep track of the history of the DC Universe but at least they tried to simplify their universe. I do not want to figure out how Emerald Twilight, Green Lantern: Rebirth, Sinestro Corps, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day “happened” when many of the principal characters like Firestorm did not “exist.” I am not interested in seeing the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe or Peter Parker’s marriage return. I would much prefer to see the Big Two grow a pair of stones and do what Julie Schwartz did back in 1956: sweep out the clutter and start over with a clean slate. Comic book fans are essentially the hoarders of popular culture fandom; we cling onto every obscure scrap of continuity and complain whenever the big two deviate from it. After almost three decades of grandiose “events” where the Big Two claim that, “nothing will be the same again,” only for the characters to revert to their standard modus operandi because writers, editors, and fans cannot “let go” of the stories of old, I have serious doubts whether the industry has much life left in it.