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.