Wednesday, March 31, 2010

V For Vituperation

So, after a deeply inauspicious initial 4 episodes, V has returned to the airwaves once again.

Before it came back the people behind the show did an extensive damage control tour, assuring potential viewers that yes, things would start happening and the show wouldn't be the dull muddled mess that tries and fails to blame every nutty conspiracy on lizard aliens like they're writing David Eick fanfic or something.

And while there were signs that things were finally going in some kind of direction (our Ham Tyler analogue finally showed up, and well, he's no Michael Ironside) there are still fundamental problems with this show. I really don't care for the mother vs. mother dynamic they're trying to set up, mostly because Single Lady Cop is as bland as grits and Tranny Scott Pilgrim (with her 3 foot neck) vacillates between "mustache-twirling eeevil mastermind" and blandness that threatens to combine with Single Lady Cop's and cause the show the devolve into a massive sucking wormhole of boredom. The mothership scenes look so much like greenscreen effects they bounce me out of the show every time, and . . .damn it, we're five hours into this thing and there hasn't been one genuine moment in this show where I had any emotional investment in anything that was going on.

Not even when the pregnant lady almost ate the dead mouse or when Tranny Scott Pilgrim ate that guy.

5 hours into the mini-series, meanwhile, I at least had some kind of emotional stake in what was going on. Oh sure, the Nazis from space stuff and the parallels to their rise were so damn obvious they may as well have been written on the moon in 90-foot letters on fire and the whole thing was soaked in melodrama, but damn it, let me tell you this:

Sometimes, melodrama works. Not always, but those who look for one-size-fits-all storytelling solutions are doomed from the start. Oh sure, we live in a moment now where everything has to be approached with ironic detachment and everyone has to have a clever bon mot ready for every occasion and we're so above melodrama and we want realism, realism, always realism (we don't actually, but that's what we claim we want) but sometimes, to borrow an allusion from V, you have to have the bad guys eat the guinea pig, already. Pay something off, for Christ's sake.

You know, when the later Mini-series and TV series completely collapsed on itself, it was at least entertaining as it degenerated into utter camp (and Zorro as a lizard-alien in a big blousy shirt! Remember in WWII when the Nazis did that?) and killed off nearly all its cast for terrifyingly little reason, it was earnest and entertaining in it's way.

The remake is the talkiest, dullest, alien invasion ever. It's Earth: Final Conflict all over again, and oh dear sweet Jesus did I loathe, despite, and generally shun Earth: goddamn Final Conflict. I didn't ask, nor do I need a new one 15 years after the fact.

So yeah. It's not working out, and I think I'm done with the new and improved V. I need a little bit more to my alien invasion than a bunch of nonsense about evil flu vaccines run by a bunch of middle-managment Obamaliens. On the off chance that they get their shit together, I may follow up with on DVD but that would require a 100% improvement and I don't see that happening.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


You may have noticed lately I've been posting a lot more lately--well, that owes to the fact that I'm moving house soon and I wanted to pay off on a lot of things I've been promising forever here at the Prattle. This, then, is the beginning of the long-promised Doctor Who thread. It was going to be Doctor Who Week, but really, it's unlikely we'd cover all of it in a week's time and Doctor Who Writing Of A Period Of Indeterminate Length But Probably Longer Than A Week felt too wordy for a title.

OK, so . . .had I done this in January, when the final David Tennant and Russell T. Davies special had aired and we were staring down the barrel of a new Who era things might have been a bit more timely, but thankfully I've waited until just before the debut of the new guy, Matt Smith, so my procrastination somehow ended up making everything more timely again.

So, let's look at Doctor Who and try, more likely as not in vain, to get a handle on it as a concept and why it's become something so enduring--I mean, we're not far from it's 50th anniversary and even when it was off television, it was always, in some fashion in the public consciousness.

The obvious question is why? I mean, it's this show that began as an educational kid's show, done with a budget charitably described as cheap and cheerful, laden down with melodramatic acting, bogus science at the best of times, and rarely shies away from indulging in a little campiness now and again.

So why this? What made it stick?

Well, the obvious answer is surely the famous monsters--The Daleks, the Cybermen, and others--and we'll surely talk about them soon, but that's not the whole story. After all, as effective as they've been as fuel to drive the storytelling engine, once you get past the age of four, one finds those episodes tend to miss the mark more often than not.

I submit the following points--One, Doctor Who has endured because it's a pretty sturdy and versatile bit of television. You can go anywhere and do anything, according to the major premise--just get in the box and move on to the next thing. To the extent there's much continuity at all it's left just elastic enough (ideally) to be a resource and not a burden. Additionally, just about the time a certain approach gets stale or the Doctor's character gets a bit predictable, you just regenerate the Doctor and the show around him changes. William Hartnell's cranky anti-hero edge gives way to Patrick Troughton's more lighthearted touches gives way to Jon Pertwee's more action-packed stories, gives way to Tome Baker . . .well, being unleashed upon things, as it should be. And so on. That versatility, and ability to change to meet the needs and desires of the audience, is a key to its endurance.

The other reason, of course, is that in all it's various incarnations, it has a kick-ass theme song:

I've been told by some people the Doctor Who theme gave them nightmares as a kid. Yeah, that's what I said--"What?"

Anyways--I intend through this series to take as close a look as possible at each Doctor in turn and give y'all a picture of what each era was like, what they played up and what they downplayed, and generally look in on each and see what it's like, and we'll get the ball rolling right now.

It's going to be slightly difficult to talk in detail about William Hartnell's Doctor, not just because not many of his stories have been released over here and also because not many early Doctor Who stories exist intact anymore. But from those I've managed to see, I've come up with a picture of a rather interesting era of Doctor Who.

At first blush, one would imagine Hartnell's Doctor as a genial grandfatherly figure, generally there to get his companions from one adventure to the next, but not to do much more of consequence beyond that. That may, in fact, have been the idea when the show was conceived, even.

In practice, it wasn't how it ended up going. In the early stories, the Doctor is very much an anti-hero, at best. At various times in the course of these early stories he sabotages his time machine to get his own way (touching off the perpetual conflict with the Daleks) and later, when the TARDIS gets damaged again (thanks to a faulty spring) he's willing and almost eager to toss everyone out on their ears, whether it would be safe for them to leave or not. It's rather surprising, especially considering how early in the program's life it is. To have a character who carries himself as if he doesn't much care whether the audience likes him or not is compelling enough to carry the show over some of its weaker points.

And there are many. For one thing, a lot of these stories, to modern sensibilities can seem about two episodes two long and intensely arch and preachy in bits. Moreover, you're guaranteed at least one well-intentioned but ultimately poorly realised special effect that completely bounces you out of the story, and at times, the constant bickering among the TARDIS crew can just make you want to scream (not the last time either of those last two will happen in the long and storied run of Who, I should add) for them to belt up and get on with it until the Daleks come back, at least.

But for all that these are (and will continue to be) constant drags on the series, it's Hartnell's approach to the character that gives even the slightest story some dramatic weight. Even to his own granddaughter (whom he eventually sort of abandons) he's an outsider, nearly a misanthrope, and he seems to delight in it at some level. It's no accident that that iconoclasm, and that sort of rebellious streak is something that's common across all incarnations of the Doctor.

As time goes on, the Doctor's character does mellow and becomes more grandfatherly, and the stories ultimately begin to change--initially there was a balance between historical stories followed by stories which focused on science. With the Daleks being so successful, gradually any excuse to catch lightning in a bottle was used, and while some of them are fondly remembered, not many of them stuck (although, we were first introduced to a renegade member of the Doctor's race, it was a one-off thing. But all good ideas come back . . .and back . . .) except for one, introduced right at the end of Hartnell's tenure.

The Cybermen come from a planet where they one were human, but have replaced so much of themselves with artificial parts that they've completely lost touch with their humanity and don't really miss it all that much. In fact, they seek to make everyone like themselves (which certain of you may find a rather familiar motivation) The Doctor naturally thwarts their plans, but not without cost, because at the end of the episode, he collapses, undergoes a rather peculiar change, and all of a sudden is someone else.

And it's here that Doctor Who really takes its first steps towards becoming an indelible part of pop culture. Because not only has the lead actor changed, but the tone and the feel of the entire show will change and y'know what? It'll totally be okay, as we'll see next time, when we look at the Second Doctor's era.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ten Years After: The Story Behind The Story Of GUNMETAL BLACK

(NOTE: While I do feel incredibly self-service for nattering on about myself at time, I'm pleased to announce that 2010 is the 10th year of continuous work on one of my long-form stories, this one being GUNMETAL BLACK, or GMB for short. As of this writing I'm into novel 6 of 10, and more than halfway through. That such an occasion exists, I thought, was reason enough to set aside my usual modesty and toot my own horn.

So . . . toot toot.)

One of the questions all writers dread hearing is "Where do you get your ideas?" I have no answer for this questions and no one's as yet bothered to ask me, so instead of plowing that furrow again, I'll instead tell you a little bit about how I use my ideas, and how one idea pulls in another and pulls in another until they become one big idea.

You know how in chemistry they teach you that atoms form compounds and stuff like that by sharing electrons? Chemistry was ages ago for me, so forgive me if I don't explain things with a lot of learned finesse or anything, but it goes something like this: Atom A lacks an electron to balance it out, but Atom B has one electron to spare. The two atoms join together, sharing the electron between them, and eventually linking up with Atoms C, D, and so on. Eventually, you have a compound, and if you have enough of the compound, it becomes something you can hold in your hands.

That's a lot like how I write. I get a whole bunch of ideas, or half-remembered ideas I had and never developed and they all sort of smoosh together . . .and eventually you get a story out of them. Some of the later ideas are purpose-built for the story, and some just come from that folder where you leave all the stuff that you worked on but didn't feel strongly enough and decided you'd get around to it someday.

Ten years ago, for something I was doing for a friend, I came up with a character, initially designed to be her character's opposite number. Visually, and in terms of character, I tried to just take her character, pick elements that would make the character antagonistic to her character.

Naturally, nothing happens in a vacuum, and we are all of us the sum of our influences. So this proto-character started taking on elements of cool things as he began to take shape. Take one pinch of brilliant amorality from people like Diabolik and Hunter Rose, take a bit of the single-minded ruthlessness of Golgo 13, take a few visual cues from Strider Hiryu and Heaven knows what else, shake well, add a dash of cinnamon, bake at 450 for 5 hours and, unbeknown to me at the time, GUNMETAL BLACK'S main character, Kienan Ademetria, sprang to life.

I should add, I had no ambition to plug him into the great huge meta-story he now inhabits. That came later. At the time, I had the barest idea of what he was all about. I knew he was the galaxy's deadliest assassin, I knew he had two fembot bodyguards named Vain and Mirage, and . . .gosh, that's pretty much all.

But as in our atomic model above, ideas attract ideas. Kienan's origins (themselves a weird amalgam of Batman and Superman's--he's the last survivor a doomed planet who trains himself to the peak of physical perfection) were set in my head, as was the notion plied his trade in a region called the Frontier, which was a bit of a Wild West-esque backwater of space not necessarily under any central authority's control, Kienan worked for a Triad-like criminal organisation, and Kienan had several dalliances with women in his past, one of whom was dead, the other, so far as he knew, he'd killed when she'd turned traitor.

It wasn't much, but it was a start. The mise en scene of the story was taken largely from an idea I had for a big space saga I was going to write back in 1992-93, as were a few characters that I'd had kicking around through the 1990s. But before any of the heavy lifting came up, my conception of Kienan as a character started to change.

Oh, not the conception of him as a brutal, ruthless assassin--I liked that part, not least because my last character was so goody-good, the idea of writing a character that wasn't made it seem like it would be a nice psychic break from all that and a chance to do something new.

Two things, though--here's where most of the "master thief" and "genius criminal" stuff got dropped, as was his tendency to run off at the mouth. I decided that if I wrote him as this utterly brilliant guy that there wasn't going to be a lot of tension in any of these stories, so maybe the thing to do was to just make him slightly smarter than everyone thinks he is. Ruthlessness and cunning, I thought, would give me the edge I was looking for.

I realised I was writing a story that was probably going to be fairly dark even under the best of circumstances--blacker than a coal mine at midnight at its worst--and so I walked a fine line between portraying Kienan as a driven, though evil, character, and not making him an utter bastard (as these were the early 2000s, I had plenty of examples in comics alone of what I didn't want to do floating around) so the notion of him killing hookers or being a serial rapist was exactly what I didn't want to write about.

But how do you write a moral story about an amoral killer? Well, the easiest way is for him to lose all the time, but if you do that, there's no tension. We know the villain will never succeed, so it gets to be a bit Coyote and Road Runner. So I decided to play it in the ways of Kienan may win in the short term, but there's always a price to be paid--and maybe we wouldn't know that it was coming at the time, but would be a nice hole card to pulled later on. This also solved the problem of Kienan killing most of his opponents--like dragon's teeth, killing one usually created a few more problems down the road.

So I had that going for me, and I wrote a few more short stories featuring him to kind of get a handle on what I was looking for in terms of tone, and as I went a few more bits of the underlying mise en scene and mythology clicked into place.

I still didn't have a title for this enterprise (or the idea that it was , but thankfully I had a vast collection of coloured pencils and a very mind-numbing stretch of jury duty, during which I decided to fill up one of my sketchbooks with titles ideas.

And sure enough, "Gunmetal Black" popped into my head. It was a nice image, and it played to the mood of the story equally as well as the fact that Kienan carries guns. And as I always take the path of least resistance when it comes to titles (fun fact: All GUNMETAL BLACK titles are music-related, and most often a bit of lyric or a song title. This is rather wonderful for me as there are few things I hate more than trying to come up with titles. The two others are a certain question I'm frequently asked regarding GMB. Also, broccoli.) the first thing that sounded right was what stuck.

So I started writing the first novel--finally. Then one became two, and two became three, and that was about the time someone started asking where all of this was going.

I didn't have an answer the first couple times. But, as I was driving in my soon-to-dead car, listening as the tape deck devoured yet another painstakingly-crafted mixtape, it all clicked into place. Where it would go, if not exactly how I'd get there, and a few major status quo shifts I could do on the way there.

As I stated here before, GMB doesn't follow the usual arc, wherein your main character starts on the periphery of the action and gradually spirals in closer until they're in the heart of the main story. GMB draws a straight line through several plots, some short-term, some longer-term, and one that specifically touches most every plot to one degree or another.

This unconventional way of telling what one person called the "overarching metaplot" gave me an enormous freedom to tell GMB stories. If I wanted to do an intimate, personal story, I could. If I wanted to tell it in nested flashbacks, it's possible.A story where the main character doesn't even show up? Oh yeah. If I wanted to tell the entire story from the point of view of the person who ends up murdered at the end of it, well why not? The versatility the concept offers is something which helped to keep things fresh over the story's first decade and kept it from feeling like too much of a grind (something this big will always feel at times like a slog, though.)

Whether all of this works or doesn't I leave up to the reader. In its first decade, GUNMETAL BLACK has found quite a few fans (where they come from and what they take from it is something of great interest to me) and I hope when the time comes where the end is written and we've seen what comes from Kienan's prophesied trip to Earth, they'll have found the journey worth it after all. I certainly hope they have.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Would Just Like To Gently Suggest . . .

. . .that everyone quit hyping Kick-Ass and the Scott Pilgrim movies for about 24 hours.

Really, guys. I don't like either of these things and don't really wanna know. Mark Millar is a blight on all that is good and right in the world and despite being exactly the sort of thing it seems I would like, Scott Pilgrim leaves me utterly cold no matter how many NES games it references.

So perhaps a day without one or both not showing up on every goddamned site I visit during the course of a day would be nice.

I'm not a fool--all I'm asking for is a day, here. Just a little psychic break, a bone thrown to those of us who really don't give a shit.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Way Back When: AVENGERS FOREVER (1998-2000)

When we finally write the book on comics history (well, we have--many times over--but stick with me here) hopefully when people speak of the 90s and get over their hate-gasm for the wretched excesses of the first half of the decade (of which there were many) and how it nearly killed the comics business and the 800 other things you always here right after someone says "The 90s," they will talk about the back half of the decade, and what the most influential superhero book of the time was.

Grant Morrison's JLA. Because before then, the idea seemed to be to toss out every single element of Marvel and DC's long history in a fevered mania to ape whatever Image was doing at the time, because whatever people tell you, just about any business will default to "ape whatever's selling as hard as you can for as long as you can" if they're desperate enough.

But JLA was different--it showed that you could work with elements of the past with an eye towards the future and create something that was vital and felt "now" without completely abandoning what had gone before. It used history, but wasn't beholden to it.

With the benefit of 14 years, of course, we can see that fine distinction, like the imitators of Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Miracleman before them, that the wrong lessons were learnt, and ultimately what you end up with is stuff like Alex Ross' output post 2000 and Geoff Johns at his deadly worst (or as it is known to be called elsewhere, Flash: Rebirth)

But at the time, this looked like a way forward, especially for Marvel, which limped into the mid-90s with all the grace and elegance of a drunken socialite who can't stop vomiting all over herself. Heroes Reborn ended up beyond a joke, the X-Books (long the spine of the Marvel line) were starting their end-of-90s flailing for direction, and the only thing with any kind of excitement around it were assumed-to-be-mid-list books like Heroes For Hire and Thunderbolts.

We've talked about Thunderbolts here at the Prattle before, and it's a great exemplar of this trend, in that it took something from Marvel's history, recapitulated it into something fresh and new and created a pretty compelling storytelling engine out of it.

So, said Marvel, this Kurt Busiek fella's on to something (accusations of him being responsible for killing comics came later, of course) and the Heroes Reborn business was ignominiously winding down as JLA's star was on the rise, so why not let him apply that balance of appreciation for the history of comics and his ability to tell new stories with those elements and let him have a go with it with Avengers, formerly a flagship book that has spent of the 90's fouling its own nest in various brutal, embarrassing ways.

And so they did, and sure enough, Avengers' sales went up. Part of that was due to Busiek's writing, but equal time must be given to George Perez returning to the book and really bring his A-game (even if he took no great pains to hide his obsession with seeing Scarlet Witch in bondage) and it was a good fit--Busiek would find these odd corners of the Marvel Universe and pull a story out of them (The Doomsday Man? Really?) and for the most part, they were fresh enough and presented in such as way as to where one didn't need a course in Marvel History to understand what the hell was going on. Not always, of course (The Triune Understanding/Traithlon/3-D Man running plot never really came together, ever) but enough to where the book was stronger in ways it hadn't been back when they were all wearing bomber jackets and were drawn by Mike Deodato Jr.

So strong was the Avengers brand, that at the turn of the millennium, Marvel spun off another year-long series that could be best described as Busiek's love letter to the breadth of Avengers history, Avengers Forever. I collected Avengers Forever when the issues first came out (probably missed a few, as the whole business of chasing them around three newsstands--remember those?--could be problematic at times) and at the time, I wasn't particularly impressed.

But recently, I was in a nostalgic mood, found the hardcover collection for cheap, and decided to pick it up, deciding that even if the story still didn't appeal to me, Carlos Pacheco's frankly amazing art would still carry the day.

And the verdict is--I liked it, but not as much as I thought I might. The art is stunning, and the time-travel device gives the story freedom to do some really cool things and bring some stuff to the table one wouldn't expect. But structurally there are some real problems--most especially there are two issues worth of infodumps near the end of the book--exactly when things should be ramping up for the epic conclusion--that just grind things to a halt, and for what?

Basically so we can explain why the Vision and the Human Torch can be the same guy, more or less. Oh, and to completely handwave The Crossing, without going into too much detail, which would make this book worth it even if the rest of it was dreck.

Here's the bottom-line plot--Eternal pain in the ass Rick Jones is crippled and suffering from some kind of Mysterious Disease and it's somehow tied to when he used some sort of Locked-Up Human Potential to end the Kree-Skrull War (which always struck me as a slightly flaccid ending to that particular saga, but that's a rant for another time) in trying to cure him, Jones gets tied up in a brain-melting complicated plot involving Kang, Immortus (might he possibly be my least favourite character ever, even against Red She-Hulk? I believe he might.) a cabal of time-traveling aliens from What If? called the Time Keepers, Libra from the Zodiac, and Jerry Mathers as the Cleaver.

OK, not that last one.

Anyways, one thing leads to another, and a team of Avengers pulled from various eras of their history pops into existence. From the (mostly) present day, we have Giant-Man and the Wasp; from the time when Roy Thomas was using Hank Pym to write Roy Thomas fanfiction we have Yellowjacket in his original iteration (another failed chapter of many wherein people try to get me to give a damn about Henry Pym) ; Captain Marvel (Genis-Vell, who would get another series spun-off from this book, and in fact Avengers Forever sets up most of the status quo of that series) ; Hawkeye, fresh off his stint as Goliath (I never did work out what the point of that was) post Kree-Skrull War; Captain America, shell-shocked and raw from the climax of Steve Englehart's Secret Empire story; and Songbird from Thunderbolts, who from what I can tell from the backmatter, was put in there basically because she was cute.

And soon enough, the structure of the series is set up--reluctantly, the Avengers team up with Kang to stop Immortus from killing Rick Jones because he is the key to some terrible destiny for mankind. Kang teams up with the Avengers to prevent himself from ever turning into Immortus as he is fated to do (this is the beginning of Busiek slowly turning Kang into marvel's Grand Admiral Thrawn) and generally, it's one big chase through time into space.

Just as well, really, as the more you try to think your way through the plot and Immortus' machinations and oh dear lord how much continuity are we trying to resolve now, the more your head's liable to hurt. So rather than confront that, let's concentrate on the more effective bits for the moment: The War of the Worlds Avengers from issue #4, wherein a group of Avengers featuring Killraven and the Crimson Dynamo battle back Martian invaders; The return of the 1950s Avengers in issue #5 (only to be immediately deleted from continuity, of course that didn't last very long); A side trip to Marvel's Old West (Y'know--Pacheco does a pretty good Western story . . .they should let him do one again sometime) and finally the footnote-busting final battle between every Avenger that ever was vs. a legion of alternate universe Avengers.

On a micro-level, we get some good character bits along the way as well: Hawkeye gets his first taste of leadership (prefiguring his run as leader of the West Coast Avengers and the Thunderbolts); Captain America gets a measure of his confidence back; Captain Marvel tries (and fails) to avoid his destined fate; and Songbird demonstrates some amazing competence and fits so well in the Avengers that it's a damn shame that whole thing never ended up happening.

Oh yes, and we get a mention of my favorite totally inconsequential Avengers villain ever--Oort the Living Comet, whose only appearance featured the Avengers yelling that they'd never heard of him. I think that's just wonderful.

That's what works and makes it a nice humming-along kinda read. What doesn't work as well are the aforementioned infodumps that threaten to crush the story flat. Couple this with the time-travel gimmick, which threatens to convolute the present story even without the damn retcons, and you get a story that as soon as it slows down becomes somewhat impossible to follow. Doesn't help that some of these retcons threaten to skirt close to Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart fanfic, either.

And most damning, the idea of Immortus as prime mover of the story means this story turns on exactly why I hate and despise Immortus--damn near every Immortus story I've read features him as a walking Get Out Of Continuity Free Card, wherein he's just there to look enigmatic and explain why Everything You Know Is Wrong and patch over some writer's mistake. That, to me is not a character--that's plotting spackle in a funny purple hat.

But so long as the story concentrates on its strengths--epic stuff that spans the breadth of Avengers history (this was also what JLA/Avengers did very well with as well, and they were written by the same guy, too . . .hmmm . . .) it manages to be a gripping read with enough stuff to give the longtime readers a rush of nostalgia and hopefully, by shining some light into seldom-visited corners of the Marvel Universe, maybe got some people excited by the potential they saw there and encouraged them to explore further.

In short, people who like this sort of thing will find that it is the sort of thing that they like. It's not as strong ultimately as Avengers was during the same time, but it's not bad either, and well worth a look, even if only for the art.

And Oort the Living Comet. Mustn't forget about him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Witless Prattle Home Game!

Hi all,

Just had a great thought for a fun comics-related game you can play at home or when you're desperately trying to stave off boredom.

You may or may not be aware that there is a comic that was titled The Deadly Hands Of Kung-Fu. I have discovered that you can actually apply to any comics title and it automatically makes it a ten times better comics title.

Need an example? OK, how about The Deadly Hands Of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen? The Deadly Hands Of The Batman Family? Or even the infamous and sure to be controversial The Deadly Hands Of Giant-Size Man-Thing?

Now YOU try!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


At it's core, the Justice League is an inherently bulletproof concept--the world's greatest superheroes (plus Aquaman) gathered together. It's curious then how often comic creators fail to "get it," whether by packing the team with Avengers-esque "single characters who don't work well outside of team books," packing the team with complete unknowns, or just generally having them spend issue after excruciating issue littering the page with interior monologues and bogging down the book with interpersonal soap opera.

Likewise, the Crime Syndicate is an equally bulletproof concept--they're the Justice League, only evil and on a planet that is also evil. Naturally, Comics are fairly happy to barely use them, as they've only had very notable appearances (in my lifetime, anyhow) at the beginning of Crisis on Infinite Earths (in which they died in an oddly powerful moment) JLA: Earth 2 (which formed the basis for the modern-day Crime Syndicate) and JLA/Avengers (which kinda echoed the beginning of Crisis, but wasn't quite as powerful, but was a clever roman a clef on the aforementioned scene) as I guess they don't fit into all the metatextual navel-gazing that they feel should naturally go on in a comic called Justice League.

Thankfully, as these predilections went into overdrive over the last decade, we had the DCAU, also known as "If you liked DC comic characters, but hated DC Comics, well, there's this." Funnily enough in the decade-plus run of the DCAU, they'd never done a Crime Syndicate story. the closest they'd come was the Justice League episode "A Better World," wherein the Justice Lords took over their parallel earth, Squadron Supreme style. It was a great pair of episodes, true, but it wasn't the the JLA vs. Crime Syndicate story you knew they could do.

The plan was, as I understand it, that when Justice League transitioned into Justice League Unlimited, there was supposed to be a direct to video movie bridging the two series which would, in fact, feature the Crime Syndicate fight. It didn't end up happening--at the time, at least.

The idea was filed away, however, and now it's time has come around again. However, it had been a few years, and Batman: Brave and the Bold had already done a pretty awesome two-part Crime Syndicate episode, so the question remained--was there room for two takes on the same concept?

Sure. While JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS doesn't exactly hide it's origins as a Justice League finale/JLU continuation (seriously--it doesn't take a lot of finessing to see where this slots in, despite the different voice cast and animation style) it does exactly what it says on the box--you get the Crime Syndicate vs the Justice League, and a pretty decently-told story in between all the fights as well.

It all starts with Lex Luthor and the Joker of an alternate Earth (who are the good guys this time out) stealing the macguffin from a heavily guarded fortress and getting the evil versions of Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter (who Edgar Rice Burroughs fans will quite enjoy) the Joker blows up those two and just in time for the main Crime Syndicate to show up, Lex vanishes to another Earth. Cue credits.

Things move pretty briskly from here on in--there's only 75 minutes in the movie, after all-- and the battles lines are swiftly drawn. The Crime Syndicate has risen to such power on Luthor's Earth that the governments of the world have basically taken a hands-off approach and lives in fear of the Syndicate. Luthor needs the League's muscle to take down the Crime Syndicate in such a way as to inspire the people of his earth to stand up for them--it's a pretty subtle but well thought-out idea that gives the notion that one ass-kicking isn't going to solve everything.

There's little clever touches all through the movie, actually--for one, the notion that the Crime Syndicate is actually a syndicate, wherein the five main baddies control legions of associated baddies (Superwoman leads an evil and suspiciously Marvelman-like Marvel Family, Owlman leads warped versions of the Outsiders) Deathstroke is the President of the United States, Ultraman, the leader of the Crime Syndicate sounds suspiciously like he's from North Jersey (not that I'm implying anything) and in an utterly throwaway recurring bit Wonder Woman gets her Invisible Jet.

None of these things, mercifully detract from the main point of the story--Luthor's discovery of parallel worlds has an unintended ripple effect. Owlman's built a bomb capable of destroying their Earth to use as leverage against world governments and finally take full control. However, with the discovery of travel to parallel Earths, Owlman has decided, as every decision one way or another is played out over an infinite number of universe, that the only decision that would matter, would be to find the Earth that started everything (Earth-Prime) detonate the bomb there and cause the whole thing to collapse.

So that's the basic plot in place, all that's left are the fights, and they're pretty tremendous. You don't want for action in any of them and they're clever enough twists in each of them (Batman vs. Superwoman and Green lantern vs. Halo come to mind) that it doesn't get monotonous.

In short, it's an effective Justice League story--with enough enduring elements to be classic, but with enough fresh spins on the familiar to be contemporary at one and the same time. Of course, this does raise the question of why comics, its native medium, can't seem to manage stories like this anymore.

Bottom line, y'all--for $20 at most, you get an awesome lead feature, the aforementioned "A Better World" and a handful of previews. If you lament the current mess that comics, and Justice League comics in particular have become--and you're certainly not alone there--well, here's something you'll really enjoy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


While it's become somewhat fashionable to slag off the artist-driven explosion in comics in the early 90's and grit our teeth at the . . .uh, gritted teeth, pouches, big guns, and other wretched excesses of comics during that time, there are those rare moments when we must admit that the 90's weren't all bad.

For one thing, it saved Uncanny X-Men from utter creative collapse. The X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee trade paperback gives us an excellent cross-section of what that transition looked like.

Not in terms of sales--Uncanny X-Men was still Marvel's top seller, more or less--but creatively they ended the 80's in a right awful state. Chris Claremont, now a decade and change as writer of the comic seemed to either be burning out or hell-bent on dragging the title into the most turgid boring long-term plot seen up to that point.

Basically, after Fall of the Mutants, the X-Men are considered "dead" and have relocated to Australia because, well . . .we're not sure, exactly. The general notion seems to be that the X-Men will ride in, save the day, and leave before they can be thanked (not unlike the Lone Ranger, I guess--that's the metaphor they keep using) they vanish and everyone thinks of them in hushed tones as this awesome group of strangers who totally rocked the faces of the bad guys.

The dramatic effect of all this is lost on the reader, perhaps because the X-Men at this point consist of Dazzler, Longshot, Havok, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue, Psylocke and Paul Roma--wait, not him. It's not one of the more awe-inspiring lineups to be sure.

Anyways, in the background of all this is the return of the X-Men's oldest and most feared foe The Shadow King.

Yeah. It was news to me as well. The Shadow King originally showed up in a flashback story in wherein Professor X busted Storm for nicking his wallet and fought a dangerously-close-to-racist-caricature Big Fat Egyptian Telepath Guy who illustrated to Xavier the inherent danger of mutant powers used for evil.

It was an OK done-in-one, but he came back anyways. The Shadow King returned in New Mutants a few years later because Bill Sinkiewicz really enjoyed drawing evil fat people that day or something. It involved mind control and slavery because hey, Chris Claremont, right?

Anyways, somehow the Shadow King comes back to life as a result of Polaris getting her powers taken away (in a story that, itself is so damned ridiculous I refuse to waste precious time recounting it) and becomes a living battery for negative emotions and spends a number of back pages stirring the pot on this plot. It never becomes interesting.

Jim Lee arrives on Uncanny X-Men #248 as a deputy penciller (as Marc Silvestri is on the way out) after a well-regarded Punisher War Journal run and his first big break embarrassing himself at the tail end of Bill Mantlo's Alpha Flight run (but then, who didn't?) His first issue is, naturally in the midst of several dangling plotlines, one involving the Reavers (Nearly the bottom of the barrel of the X-Men's rogue's gallery) and Nanny and the Orphan-Maker (Under the barrel itself and digging deeper still) The issue itself is well-drawn and generally action packed. It is also, however, dangerously insane and incoherent, as it covers Longshot leaving because an aborigine told him to and the X-Men getting taken to school by an evil robot egg (not that one) and their own intense personal stupidity. Oh yes, and Storm dies--again, for frighteningly little reason.

This is, as a reader of the title for the entirety of my life, undoubtedly the X-Men's low point (yes even Chuck Austen was better than this). From here, the team angsts, angsts some more, gets killed off yet some more, goes through the Siege Perilous in an issue that aspires and fails to reach the general coherence of a Rob Liefeld comic about an Ultimate Warrior promo and the title begins running twice-monthly because good Christ, once a month of this utter tripe wasn't enough, I guess.

The overall goal is this, I suppose--the X-Men are scattered all over the globe, living different lives with no memory of their past as X-Men. The plot of the X-Men coming together again will parallel the rise of the Shadow King, culminating in a big fight between the two in Uncanny X-Men #300 and it will be a Crowning Moment of Awesome. Whether anyone will give a shit by this point is left up to the individual reader to decide.

Oh yes, and some issues will be drawn by Bill Jaaska, which if it isn't a violation of the Geneva Convention, damn well ought to be.

Anyways, thankfully, little of that makes the book, because we pick back up with the three-parts of Acts of Vengeance crossover from Uncanny #256-258, wherein Wolverine fights the Mandarin. I am totally OK with this instead of him stinking up Iron Man again, I should add. While this has only superficial things in common with the Acts of Vengeance crossover proper, it does give us a pretty sound installment of the overriding X-Men plot of the late 200s--that of getting the band back together. Wolverine with Jubilee (who is absolutely, positively not Carrie Kelly in Asian drag) encounter Psylocke, who, upon going through the Siege Perilous ended up with those wacky ninjas the Hand, who are presently working for the Mandarin (The Mandarin, looking very Shredder-ish in this arc, brings to mind the other appendage-named ninja clan) Being that ninjas are stealthy assassins who kill silently and leave no trace, naturally Psylocke runs around with purple hair and a skimpy swimsuit stabbing people with her new psychic knife which at this point is only "the ultimate focus of her psi-powers." Because Female Empowerment, that's why.

Anyways, she beats up Wolverine and tries to turn him into the Hand's master assassin (another dropped plot thread that an enormous amount of time was sunk into only to be abandoned, then picked up ten years later for something else) This doesn't work, and upon defeating the Mandarin, Psylocke joins the party and Jubilee goes up a level, learning a new heal-spell and becoming +10 against Chaotic Evil.

While this story is more concerned with beating up ninjas than answering serious questions, it's still an important story, and not just because Psylocke is finally worth a damn after poncing around in pink and being mostly useless since she joined up, having been granted the formerly unheard of for telepathic characters ability to kick people's asses physically. For one thing, things seem like they're finally going in some kind of forward direction instead of just approaching the Angst Event Horizon--this is the first time the "band getting back together" subplot moves forward (Banshee and Forge's utterly pathetic Muir Island X-men don't count, as that's feeble window dressing for the Shadow King plot and it's utterly stupid anyways) and we're not just dicking around in stupid vignettes where Dazzler gets stalked by an obsessed fan or Colossus becomes an artist and finds Callisto's inner beauty or crap like that. Things are actually happening in Uncanny X-Men again, and thank God, too.

Despite the utterly silly plot that completely falls in on itself (and the Psylocke makeover, which ultimately requires two retcons a couple years down the road before it collapses under its own turgid convolution and everyone just pretends they never brought it up) when you think about it for more than two minutes, Lee brings an incredible energy and detail to the proceedings, ably assisted by Scott Williams (the Terry Austin to his John Byrne) in parts 1 and 3. Josef Rubinstein inks him on the middle chapter and while their styles don't consistently mesh quite as well, it gives the proceedings a darker, almost Kevin Nowlan-ish kinda vibe to them, which is an interesting effect.

The book then skips ahead to the late #260s, wherein Marvel gets a clue and put Jim Lee on the book full-time. They also decide to pull their finger out and get moving on the whole "getting the band back together business." But there's still time for a detour or two, as Uncanny X-Men #268 features an extended flashback with Captain America teaming up with Wolverine to beat up Nazis in a flashback story constructed with such care and precision it veritably screams that Jim Lee just felt like drawing Cap kicking ninja ass that month, plot be damned. We're still dealing with the fallout of the whole Psylocke/Hand business, as Matsuo and Fenris (or "who?" and "who, now?") team up in a moment so dramatic one can't stop scratching their heads and/or shrugging (for all they tried, did anyone manage to make Fenris interesting? I never saw anyone who managed it) It's a sound enough issue and Cap demonstrating the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu is exciting enough, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not much.

#269 (yes! Consecutive issues!) features the return of Rogue, who was killed off awhile back in a rather pointless exercise that is best left unexplained. Why she doesn't instantly return when everyone else did is never properly explained, as the main point of the issue seems to be the following:

1. Rogue is back, and a little disorientated by everything that's happened since she's been gone.

2. She doesn't have her powers and can touch people again. Of course, as befitting a character whose entire raison d'etre had heretofore been that she covered herself from head to toe to keep anyone from touching her lest she be further traumatised, decides to run around more or less fully or partially naked the rest of the issue. Because Female Empowerment, that's why.

3. Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel has somehow split off from Rogue (not that they were ever merged to begin with, but if Claremont doesn't care about this vaguely important story point, why should you?) gets taken over by the Shadow King and starts turning into a zombie, except when Rogue turns into a zombie. It's all very muddled, and really only exists to get Rogue into the Savage Land with Magneto, who is . . .down there doing stuff for . . .some reason. It doesn't flow logically from the last time we saw him in Uncanny, but . . .whatever.

It's an OK issue, and I suspect probably birthed the "Rogue fetish" some comics fans have to this very day, and it keeps that bloody Shadow King plot ticking over (which is finally going to end in about ten issues after going this side of forever) and sets up the Rogue/Magneto story which is actually (and I say this rather unironically) a very well-told story, free of a lot of Claremont's more annoying writerly tics, and not bloated to the point of ricidulousness.

We skip of the X-Tinction Agenda, because why include three issues that won't make much sense when you can get the trade of the whole crossover and enjoy the three top artists on the top X-Books--Jim Lee! Rob Liefeld! Jon Bogdanove!--and give Marvel more of your money? Just as well again, as X-Men vs Genosha round 2 just makes it more and more plain why every time Genosha comes up, creators seem to want to kill it.

We do, however, get Uncanny #273, the big "artists jam" issue, which is generally a "well, whatever shall we do now?" issue wherein everyone sits around and tries to figure out what next for the X-Men post X-Tinction Agenda and Cable challenges everyone to be all 90's and proactive because JUUUUSSSSSSSSTICE! (Thank god we learned our lesson and don't do stories like that anymore, eh?) There's a certain metatextual fun to be had with Claremont fretting over the challenge artist-driven books that characters like Cable headline and embody throw down to his more writer-driven comics and we check in with the Shadow King yet again who shows up, scares the hell out of everyone, and leaves. Naturally, everyone forgets to mention anything about it to anyone else because comparing notes is for losers. One of the things that bothers me about the Shadow King stuff is that it makes the X-Men look really stupid, and when you consider that they started this volume jobbing to a damn egg, that's really saying something.

But no time for that--we're off to space, as the X-Men don the blue and yellow uniforms for some reason and putter off to space at the end of this issue. We pick back up with them in the last few pages of Uncanny #274, having schlepped off to the Shi'ar empire for some light bondage and also to pick up Professor X.

The bulk of Uncanny #274 is taken up with Magneto and Rogue in the Savage Land, with Ka-Zar, fighting Zaladane. Zaladane is the mistress of magnetism after stealing Polaris' powers in the that story I alluded to earlier. Zaladane is probably far more famous for being the boss of the first level of Sega's X-Men game than for any impact she made on the comics, and this story will do nothing to disprove that.

She's basically in the story to be a raving loony super villain with magnetic powers and provide a contrast with Magneto, who spends most of this issue contrasting her behavior with his own in bygone days when he was a raving loony super villain with magnetic powers. These two issues do a really good job of giving some structure to the breadth of Magneto's character and makes a game effort to reconcile Claremont's vision of Magneto as an anti-villian/anti-hero with his depiction elsewhere as a fairly straightforward villain. Haunted by the choices that brought him here and those he knows he will soon make, it's a really strong story, despite the rather shaky track it runs on.

Oh and there's some sizzling sexual tension with Rogue because Claremont knew the Internet would one day be full of fanfic about the two of them or something. It's not made too much of--we're just supposed to feel Rogue gets close enough to be bitterly let down by the path Magneto ultimately chooses.

#275 brings us two parallel stories--one involving the X-Men kicking Shi'ar ass which is there so Jim Lee can draw vibrant, exciting crazy fight scenes that burst off the page. Oh yes, and Deathbird seems to be the nominal villainess and in what should come as no surprise to anyone, she looks extra slutty because Female Empowerment, that's why.

The B-story--the resolution of the Magneto/Zaladane stuff--plays a bit better. While it's generally a dust-up in the Savage Land (supposedly it has global implications, but that's never really successfully sold to us) and oh look Rogue has her powers kick back in thanks to the miracle of Plot Convenience, the whole business is generally there to get us to the climax of the story:

Magneto, his powers fully restored, has Zaladane at his mercy. If he closes his hand, a dozen pieces of metal shrapnel turn her into a pincushion. When entreaties to his sense of honor and his humanity from Rogue and outright threats from Nick Fury fail to budge him, Magneto declares his intentions, partially quoted below:

"The New Mutants were left in my charge and they suffered for it because I tried to pattern myself after Charles Xavier. I am not Charles Xavier, I will never be Charles Xavier. I was a fool to try. As he was, for believing I could succeed."

[Zaladane gets pincushioned here]

"My people are in danger--more so than ever before . . .and a kinder, gentler, Magneto cannot save them."

It's a great moment, and it's that rare face/heel turn that feels earned. It also--despite this not necessarily being the intent--sets up Magneto's return in X-Men #1-3, wherein he's more completely in villain mode. Read back to back they form a neat little arc that gets him into place without it feeling so very forced.

Meanwhile, the X-Men have overthrown Deathbird, met up with Professor X again and generally everything seems to be going swell. Except for the little detail that Professor X seems to be evil as hell and none of their familiar Shi'Ar chums seem to be behaving quite like themselves. #276-277 give the reason for this is--most of them are replaced by Skrulls, which might have had a bit more impact had they been willing to make that a little more explicit in the dialogue and also had Jim Lee done a better job of making the Skrulls look like Skrulls.

But this is an action romp, so such finer story points are glossed over in the name of action and spectacular set piece fights, and credit where it's due, it looks amazing. At this moment in time, his style is fairly clean and shiny and doesn't have the heavy crosshatching of his later Hush-era stuff. It pops off the page. This is, I should mention, within that short honeymoon period wherein Gambit was somewhat more tolerable a character (your mileage may vary) and he has some great moments in these two issues--taking on the Skrull-Starjammers and blasting Gladiator with his entire deck of cards point-blank are my favourites (I am always up for Gladiator getting his ass kicked, I should mention ) and things kind of stop rather than resolve neatly because upon being rescued, Professor X is like "Oh crap. The Shadow King. Maybe I better go back and fix that. Of course had I just told someone in the first damn place none of this would be necessary but as I am both the most powerful mutant mind on Earth and a goddamn idiot, I forgot to do that." and we're finally on the way to the end of this Shadow King nonsense. There were plans afoot to revisit the whole Skrull thing, but they came to naught more than a pinup in X-Men #1.

#277 is the end of the book proper, but we get a back-up strip from Classic X-Men, which is a perfectly rubbish story on its own merits, but it's Lee's first take on the X-Men, and so it's included. It's not very good and the whole thing turns on Storm being an utter bitch to the one complete stranger in New York City who can fire disintegrator beams from his hands (really, what are the odds?), and, well . . Storm ends up being more of an utter bitch again and really, I've spent far too much time on this than it's worth.

Anyways, if you wanted to see what the 90's were all about and see the flip from writer driven comic to artist-driven comics actually happen, this trade is a way to get a feel for it in one sitting. You also get to experience the X-Men's low point as a franchise and its rebirth all in the same go (Uncanny was a deeply schizophrenic comic during this time, and those times when Claremont was off his meds were teeth-bleedingly brutal) and, if you have fond memories of that time, this will be an excellent rush of nostalgia, good and bad, as another evolution of the X-men franchise doesn't happen until the Morrison era.

Hm . . .wonder if my appreciation for this early 90's stuff will erode my "cred" as a blogger? Nahh--that presupposes I had any to begin with.

I Would Be Remiss . . .

. . .if I didn't post to MightyGodKing's epic and wholly deserved takedown of JUSTICE LEAGUE: GAY FOR JUSTICE (which, yes, apparently finished. I was rather surprised myself. Amazing how when all these supposedly world-changing events get stacked on on top of the other and start getting later and later they get lost in the shuffle) I've excerpted some of it below:

"I mean, I know there are going to be some fanboys who are all “no I want gritty and realistic comics about people in tights who fight crime,” and sure, those have their place I guess, but seriously, this is a comic where they kill off a five-year-old girl for added drama. Who the fuck writes that comic? Who the fuck even thinks that comic is a good idea? How many people at DC must have gotten hit in the head with a sledgehammer to have them all think “gosh, this superhero comic isn’t exciting enough… let’s kill off the cute little girl!” Was it a really fucking big sledgehammer? Because I can literally not think of a single person on the entire planet, who, when asked to tell a story, goes to the “let’s kill a little girl” well. They avoid killing children in slasher movies because they think that it’s tasteless. That’s what Cry for Justice is: it’s the comic book for people who think that slasher flicks aren’t edgy enough."

It's well worth a read.