Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Read This--X-MEN 2099 Vol. 1

 One of the big problems with superhero comics, I've found, is that all too often, a really idiotic idea will slip through, despite a number of gatekeepers whose job it is to prevent that very thing. In our Age Of The Eternal Crossover, this is a much more pronounced problem as ever, as scads of valuable time and precious trees have been wasted in tortured PATRIOT Act allegory, an invasion that succeeds only by the willing suspension of intelligence of the planet being invaded, or even interminable months of America putting its trust in the hands of a man with a daft haircut who once tried to commit a human sacrifice to appeal to some magic goblin people.

 I'd mention Norse gods trying to destroy the world with cursed hardware, but I think I've made my point.

 Things happen for what could best be termed "no good damn reason," is what I'm getting at here. None of these ideas were all that ill-conceived, and from their respective poor starts, they stumbled in the middle, and ended in a muddled mess that entirely justified the deep misgivings of slaving an entire publishing line to one idea.

 The 2099 line is not one of those. It's an utterly pointless subset of Marvel's output that happened to come along at just the right time in the early 90's boom to stumble around for years for little to no reason, working diligently under the radar and never once letting on that it had only the most wafer-thin premise to stand on. Year in and year out, 2099 books remained on the stands, buoyed by Spider-Man 2099 (which was good less because the premise worked, but more because they put good writers and artists on it and gave them their heads) and Doom 2099 (featuring Warren Ellis doing realpoitik-esaue stuff with superheroes back before that was every single Ellis story ever) the rest . . .well. You had Punisher 2099 and Ravage 2099, whose big selling point was that it was Stan Lee's triumphant return to writing comics. The question of whether Stan Lee had realised that writing comics had changed in terms of craft in the interregnum is left to the reader to decide.

 Anyways, creatively, the line was a little wanting. But this is the early 90's, when anything, even Boof and the Bruise Crew, is doing 100,000 copies at least, and so 2099 gets extended with two more books--Ghost Rider 2099, which features Chris Bachalo drawing a cyberpunk book with all that implies, and X-Men 2099, a book which is poised to do huge numbers because anything with an X on it until about 1998 is a guaranteed money-spinner.

 Which is a good thing, because X-Men 2099 has a number of flaws. It was a bold choice, I thought, to launch an X-Men book divorced of its utterly mad future history (which had really blown up to this insane future chronology that would never ever actually happen because superhero comics only deal in the perpetual now) and that could only prove to be a much needed access point for a franchise that was rapidly collapsing into a singularity not seen since the 5 Years Later era Legion of Superheroes.

 I found it less artistically justified that the book is basically one group of generic characters fighting another group of generic characters with either the opening credits of Blade Runner or the middle part of The Road Warrior in the background. Seriously--it's either Megatokyo or post-nuclear Australia in every single scene. There are, according to the back of the book, 9 issues of X-Men 2099 included in this collection. By the end of it, I could safely say I really had no interest or desire to read more about any of these characters, they were just . . .there.

 Moreover,  the X-Men are virtually indistinguishable from the other characters they fight (and the addition of some ersatz X-Men later on doesn't help any) and even with a few subplots simmering along, a character death that happens immediately Just To Show We Mean Business, and the nominal leader of the X-Men is slowly losing his mind and going evil and really, none of it means a damn thing, really.

 And no disrespect to anyone who worked on the book (John Francis Moore and Ron Lim work well with what they have) but shit, at least I had some idea of who some of the Youngblood characters were after issue #2. By nine issues of X-Men 2099, I didn't really hate any of the characters, I actually felt nothing at all one way or the other.

 So, why, if this book is such a non-entity, did I 1) pay money for it and 2) feel the need to write about it? Well, I think I paid maybe $5 for the trade (bless Marvel's out-of-print closeout sales!) and 2) well . . .more often than not, the 90's get pared down into this narrative that it was all stuff like Youngblood or Shadowhawk, or Razor or Witchblade--that from the years of 1992-1995 there was nothing but crass, shiny crap that made the comic industry crash and then Kingdom Come came along and redeemed superheroes again and everything slowly got back to "normal." (no, really--people actually believe that's what happened) when the truth of the matter is what it's always been in superhero comics--good ones everyone can hold up and admire, bad ones that make you want to hide your face in shame, and a whole bunch of books in the middle which are just. . .empty calories. X-Men 2099 is empty calories.

Friday, July 27, 2012


 Well, as of this Thursday, as friend of the Prattle Kelly Thompson has now posted the entirety of the first part of her forthcoming book, The Girl Who Would Be King, I figured now was a splendid time to look at the entirety of the first part in a more complete form and treat it more as an analysis rather than a plug.

 Why do that, you may ask? Because The Girl Who Would Be King (hereafter referred to as Girl in the name of staving off carpal tunnel one more day) is quite worthy of a closer look, even in its incomplete form, it's a very interesting book that manages to juggle it's main plot with several layers of metatextual commentary on the nature of superheroes, the symbiotic relationship between superhero and super villain, the duality of superheroes, the different phases of superheroes that have been in vogue  over the generations, some meditation on gruesome violence in the name of "realism," and even adds in a few metaphors for growing up and becoming an adult.

 You're lucky if you can get one of those layers in a story, and usually writing that tries to do so much usually suffers in one department or another, but what makes Girl such a great read is that for the most part, all of this is happening invisibly around you as you read the story. At no time is a metaphor dropped on one and the entire story grinds to a halt so we can say "oooh, look at that metaphor." The plotting is handled with a style I have called "deft"--it doesn't feel very heavy-handed as one would expect superhero stories of this style would tend to be. Moreover, this doesn't feel like a deconstruction of superhero tropes as much as it is playing with them--seeing how they might work in different contexts, both metaphorical and literal. The different levels are there for people who know this stuff, but the story can be enjoyed on its own merits just as well. It's very rare for someone's fifth novel to work as well as all that, never mind their first.

 So let's talk about the plot, and we'll try to touch on the themes as we go. I'd like to be as comprehensive as I can, but I will inevitably miss some things, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because if I did, this might be longer than the actual book, and partly because it behooves you to read the thing and get some of this stuff for yourself. Our story begins with two events-- seven years ago in Pennsylvania, Bonnie Braverman is the sole survivor of a car wreck that kills her parents. In present-day Nevada, Lola LeFever is putting the finishing touches on making her mother's death look like an accident in the early beginnings of a quest for power.  Bonnie spends the next few years of her life in an orphanage, so traumatized by the experience that she never talks for the next seven years. Lola, meanwhile, seems to think that the world is hers for the taking, and as we'll see, she has reason to think so, even if there's a nagging feeling this might all be part of a cycle older than both of them . . .

 From the beginning, each chapter alternates--Bonnie's story, then Lola's. This plays up the duality of the two characters and their symbiotic relationship with each other (as characters in the main story as well as protagonist/antagonist) which given us plenty of time to get to know them as characters and gives Thomspon some time to play around with various tropes of superheroes.

 Bonnie is as superheroic as you can get, but she's more a gestalt of different superhero types. There's the super-powerful wish-fulfillment hero who only wants to Do Good Deeds and help people. When that turns out to be less simple than she imagines, she becomes a early Marvel-esque hero with feet of clay, forever trying to be normal, but what ever purpose she has makes that difficult, if not outright impossible. Through her, one of the themes of the story (trying to live the life you want vs. what responsibilities and other things oblige you to do) becomes clear.

 Lola is all ambition, and her hunger for power drives her arc relentlessly. Much like Bonnie, Lola goes through a journey through the various stages of supervillainy (not unlike the seven ages of man, in a sense) beginning as a thrillseeker, becoming a street-level criminal, running with a gang, trying to run the gang, and ultimately metamorphoses into something a lot more ambitious and a lot more deadly--a villainess on Lex Luthor's level, who is so dedicated to proving her superiority that material gain is secondary to all other goals. It's this final turn towards god-tier super-villainy (well, close to. For all I know in part 2 she could get to Thanos level and start declaring war on personified abstract concepts. It wouldn't surprise me.) which ultimately sets up part 2, leaving things at a place where confrontation is all but inevitable and the stored up potential energy of the story promises an explosive conclusion.

The episodic nature of Part 1 gives us a chance to know these characters as people, to spend some time learning what drives them and what they respond to, which grounds things in reality, but in a way that makes the extraordinary doings of the characters that much more. Bonnie learns about loss and rejection, Lola finds love momentarily, but it all goes wrong in a horrible way. There's a subtle thread through this bit that while we follow their stories, we're also following the changing mood of superhero comics, from youthful innocence, to grim adolescence, to darker adulthood, which makes for an interesting parallel to the whole "their journey is a metaphor for growing up" subtext in the book as well.

 Speaking of being a reflection about the darkening of superhero comics in our time, I should point out that Thompson pulls no punches with the violence in the book, however, she equally pulls no punches with the consequences of said violence, which elevates it above the usual arm-ripping gorefest  that modern superhero comics can sometimes be. While Bonnie and Lola are essentially indestructible and able to heal from wounds that would kill an ordinary person--it's a very unpleasant process, and it's played as such. None of this "Wolverine gets a spear through his chest, gets Jubilee to yank it out, and is fine for the rest of the issue" stuff here. I think by playing it out with that kind of conscientiousness, it elevates it past being merely exploitative.

 Now, you may think I'm laying it on a bit thick here, but no--the book really has that level of density to it. What makes it such a notable achievement is that with all these levels, density, and metaphors, the story moves like greased lighting. I am in awe of the efficiency and speed that this thing moves at--you're at the end of the first book before you know it and you absorb all this stuff without it being overt--it's all there in the background and as you follow the trail more and more it clicks into place in the back of your mind. It doesn't feel leaden or decompressed at all, and that alone is a testament to Thompson's skills as a writer. For all the hillion jillion words I've slung in Girl's direction, there's not a lot of fat on it, texturally. I never felt like there was a scene that was self-indulgent or spinning its wheels--she keeps the plot moving at a very fast pace, which probably makes the finish of part 1 even more effective.

 This is shaping up to be something special. It's intelligent, has compelling characters, a fascinating mystery at the heart of it, works on multiple levels, and balances its formal tricks with a relentless pacing and never lets up. I eagerly anticipate reading part 2 when I get my copy of the complete book, wherein I'll probably complete my analysis. For now, I'll merely say this is one of the most promising starts I've seen and I've very eager to see what Thompson does in the second half of this and in her works yet to come.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just Sayin'--Words of Congratulation

Just want to say huge ups to friend of the Prattle Kelly Thompson for not only hitting her initial goal of $8,000 to fund publication of her book, The Girl Who Would Be King, but with 14 hours (at this writing) to go, hit her stretch goal of $25,000, all at her Kickstarter page.

It's great when things come together for you, and it's great when people rally around you and believe in something you've put a lot of work in. When they believe three times as much as you thought they would it has to feel beyond good, and we here at the Prattle salute her and wish her the best.

 I hope partying was/is involved. Lord knows, wins like this should be enjoyed to the hilt. In writing her novel, it seems Ms. Thomspon has also penned a success story.

This is, I should also point out, not our final check-in with the inimitable Ms. Thompson's book, as to commemorate the positing in full of the first book of it over at her blog as of Thursday, I intend to do a full write-up of what I've read so far. Partly because it's a great work full of dozens of layers and metaphors, and commentary on a multitude of subjects while being a cracking good story in the bargain. That it's done with such assurance and a deft hand and this is her first novel is no mean feat in and of itself.

And also because I buried the initial plug under a lot of cussing about the current dreary state of comics and I felt I could do better. So look for that later in the week, and once again--Congratulations, Kelly!

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Yes, well.

 It's got some real story problems, as things happen in the first act because the need to more than because there's logic underlying them, the nods to political issues of the day are a bit eye-rolling and nowhere near as integrated as well as in The Dark Knight, Catwoman shifts alliances in whatever direction is most convenient to move the plot along (and this is a problem, as she's the best character in the movie) the villains are weak, as they're thinly drawn for the sake of a third act shocker, it's a bit too long and slack in the middle and there are a couple twists there at the end too many for the film's own good.

 But on the whole, it's entertaining enough. It's more like Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, with all the problems that involves (there are many McGuffins like Begins' microwave train in this movie) and I didn't have as good a time as I did with The Avengers, nor did I feel like things were raised to a new level as I did with The Dark Knight (which is easily the best of the three) but it was serviceable enough and provided a fitting, if problematic end to things.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Just Sayin'--The 31st Century's Yesterday

 I was recently engaged in a discussion with someone elsewhere about comics, and the subject of the Legion of Superheroes came up, and it became, as all Legion discussions have since 1986, a rumination of how to "fix" the Legion and how to "make it work" for a broader audience.

 And strangely enough, though I was never what you call a hardcore fan of the Legion (and even if I was, the past 25 years have surely taught hardcore Legion fans the error of their ways, I expect) I spoke up and made what I felt was a modest proposal, which I'm going to tease out a bit longer before we get to it.

 A lot of approaches have been tried--shifting the status quo ahead to leap over the continuity problems and move relentlessly forward (whilst codifying fanfiction) making the Legion into a youth movement, or just saying "hang it all" and stating over from scratch, re-telling the classic stories with whatever character shook out from the last continuity fix.

 I'm not the first person to weigh in the comics blogging game to weigh in on this (certainly not the most famous) but I will share with you my idea. The main thrust of it is this:

 1. You don't need Superboy

 2. You don't need R.J. Brande as the driving mechanism behind the formation of the Legion, because it's silly and not needed.

 3. That firewall of superheroes between the present DC time and the future is where you should focus.

 So! In Legion-time, mankind has colonised the stars, and thanks to special adaptations, you now have entire planets full of superhumans. And yet, for at least a millennium, the concept of superheroes has been forgotten about.

 Why? Maybe in a society where everyone's super, no one is (a la The Incredibles) Maybe there's just been an exceedingly peaceful period of time (unlikely) maybe there was some great singularity point concurrent with humans migrating to space that shook up society so much that it fell away from the public consciousness.

 They've kind of fallen into the same level of common myth that Robin Hood or the Knights of the Round Table have in our day and age--everyone knows the story, but no one really believes them all that much. This serves the purpose of setting the stage and also hopefully satiates those tedious tits who write that superheroes are the modern myth all the damn time.

 And so, you set the stage for a group of young and old idealists from all the worlds of the galaxy banding together in the style of the Justice League or the Justice Society, or more appropos, the Teen Titans, and are equal parts the wave of the future and an echo of the distant past (or present) This would, I'd think, open things up to be able to tell superhero stories and build in the mythology worth using without it becoming this inscrutable mess that appeals only to the dwindling part of a dwindling whole.

 And maybe we should also stop calling everyone "lad" and "lass," now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Just Sayin'--HARBINGER (2012) #1 and #2

 So today was, for me, new comic day and the first two issues of Harbinger were in this month's haul.

 I was a fan of the early Valiant stuff back in the 1990s, and Harbinger was one of my favourite books--generally a slightly darker take on the X-Men paradigm wherein everything was inverted, more or less, and Professor X was recast as Toyo Harada, benign would-be ruler of the next generation of humanity. It was an interesting book, and I was quite impressed with it, especially given my surprise that Jim Shooter could actually write younger people in a slightly more natural style than I would have guessed from what he'd written previous.

 For its 2012 iteration, Joshua Dysart doesn't really reinvent the wheel--the story is still primarily occupied with keeping our heroes "on the run," though he's a good deal more ready to make the book's lead character, Peter Stanchek, a more morally ambiguous character earlier on than Shooter did, which allows him to highlight a few more realistic notions of what being an immensely powerful telepath might be like--namely, constantly doping yourself to shut out the multitude of voices being broadcast to you.

 There was some concern I noticed when the first Valiant book--X-O Manowar--launched, namely that it was decompressed all to hell. Harbinger . . .isn't, exactly, at least not in comparison to the original, because the original wasn't really a "team book," as much as an opportunity to throw a number of disparate characters together and let them play off each other while the larger conflict hummed along in the background. With regards to pacing, it's hard to compare Harbinger now with Harbinger then, because they're both kind of deliberately paced.

 There's also an effort to tie new-era Valiant continuity in a bit tighter than they did twenty years ago (Valiant books tended to gradually link up only after establishing their own identity--it's when they reversed that they got in a mess) and that's not bad, per se. Just. . .different.

 Khari Evans does a great job with the pencilling, and the whole package feels like it was worth the 4 bucks per issue. So far, it's a worthy successor to the original that adapts the best ideas but adds in enough shading to make it feel very much now.

 This was a pleasant surprise--I'm intrigued to see where this goes from here.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I Read This--EMPOWERED Vol. 7

 Man, was it two years ago that I reviewed Empowered Volume 6? Yes, it certainly seems so. Looking back, I found it really troubling, full of a lot of spinning of wheels and larding on more subplots without really wrapping up the 4 or 5 he still had going in the main. So, with a substantial bit of time off, is Volume 7 the return to form I was hoping it'd be?

 Well, yes and no. Empowered Vol. 7 is a return to form in that we stick a bit closer to our main characters, advance one of the subplots began wayyyyy back in Volume 3, and get a slight advancement on some others in-between, but . . .

 I am under no illusion that Adam Warren would read anything I have to say on the subject of his work and do not presume influence that I do not and will never have. That said, that whole gimmick of having something major happen in the book only turn turn the page and have the legend "END COUNTER-FACTUAL SCENARIO" and find out it was all a fantasy or hallucination or something? That's really fucking annoying. You could probably get away with it once, but there's 3-4 of them in this volume and after the first couple, one feels like they're being jerked around to no good purpose.

 However, apart from that irritating stylistic noodling, this issue is quite solid (even if the title character is, for the most part, a spectator) featuring Ninjette, Empowered's best friend and drinking buddy, getting bloody revenge on the Ayakami ninja clan who nearly maimed her in Volume 3. It's good in that we move this along somewhat, have some time to get a sense of Ninjette's character (which raises some intriguing questions and explains a lot about why she's as screwed up as she is) and we even get an interesting bit (if slightly dubious, as Warren is so determined to continually deal in SHOCKING SWERVES (which, if you do it enough times, guarantees that no one really cares about anything that's happening anymore, which is the final death of your story) that he immediately walks back that one ends up not really trusting if any of this will count by the middle of the book) with the Caged Demonwolf, whose Kirbyesque long-windedness got way overused in previous volumes to the point where what had previously been a funny bit, I cringed and made my way through as it went on . . .and on . . .

 But this time, he drops the highfalutin' narration for a section of this volume and talks with Ninjette about mortality and how an infinite godlike being views time and memory. And it is fucking golden, completely subverting all expectations for the story, but in a way that feels totally in-character and natural and doesn't bullshit around with that "END COUNTER-FACTUAL SCENARIO" stuff--it's just a moment between two characters that we've come to care about and that we invest some emotion in it. Had Volume 6 had more of this, I would have liked it more.

 So the spine of Volume 7 is basically one big and bloody ninja-fight (hence this review is not a long one), punctuated with flashbacks, Counter-Factual Scenarios (grrrr . . .) Ninjette's rather irritating sidekick Oyuki-Chan, and a few bits and bobs that touch on various subplots that have been ticking over. And your tolerance of this will depend on how much you're invested in the characters and how much you like bloody ninja fights. I kinda do, but you probably might have guessed that by now.

 In all, this feels like a stronger volume than the previous one did, annoying Counter-Factual Bullshit aside, because the characters are foregrounded and the stories teased out in the earlier volumes feel like they might be moving toward some resolution, and the stakes are such that the fate of the characters are in some sort of doubt. If Warren can resist the temptation to continue swerving the readers and spinning his wheels, we'll get back to Empowered at its best--a superhero story that plays with the subtext and text of superheroes in interesting ways with very real, and very identifiable characters. I really hope Volume 8 is an even more definitive return to form.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Just Sayin'--Wrath Of Con

I have to say, I found Abhay Koshla's run-down of ComicCon far more hilarious than anything that has happened or will happened at this year's Comicon:

"SATURDAY — 2 pm to 5 pm– PRESS CONFERENCE: Excitedly declare to bored, cow-eyed onlookers that the fact that people with bad taste have enough money to purchase art of questionable merit produced by dull people with limited ambition for the benefit of sinister corporations means that the “nerds have won.” When asked what has been won, pause, stare off into the distance, until finally whispering “t-he pennant… yeah… the pennant… wildcat… Wild….cat….. I’m going to go.” Reasonably assume that nerds having won means that someone else will be responsible for my laundry. End up wearing dirty clothes.

SATURDAY — 5 pm to 6 pm — PANEL: HOUSE OF IDEAS: Invite area youths to ask me questions, but answer every question with hostility, sarcasm, and condescension, suggesting an out of control ego wildly inconsistent with any of my actual accomplishments.

SATURDAY — 6 pm to 7 pm — UTA/ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY/TWILIGHT/TAMPAX PARTY: Stand outside party thrown for the benefit of beautiful, rich people. Whisper, “But I thought the nerds had won. W-what about Obama?” into tree trunk.

SATURDAY — 7pm to 12 pm– EISNER AWARDS: Named for famed third-grade classmate Doug “D-Dog” Eisner, the Eisner awards are the most prestigious award in my apartment. Win in every category. Deliver moving, yet boldly subversive acceptance speech to empty apartment. Halfway through speech, slowly realize that the only winner is the only person nominated. Award ceremony still lasts five hours out of obligation to remember elderly cartoonists who have died in auto-erotic accidents within the last six weeks. End In Memorium section by screaming, “We’ll miss you most of all, guy who inked two issues of SCAMP AND THE MUFFIN back in 1932, you crotchety old pervert.” Scream that loud enough that God finally stops ignoring my screams. Finally. Finally."

 Read the whole thing here, and be sure to stay for Tucker Stone's hilarious evisceration of this week's comics. Is the Stone/Khosla team my favourite way to spend Friday? It sure is, other Kazekage, it sure is.


Monday, July 9, 2012


 So, hey, I know I have constantly said that I have read pretty much all the Batman stories I felt like I needed to read. That's not to say anything bad against Batman or the creators who, I am told, do great work on it, I just kinda reached a point where I'd read a pretty good cross-section and moved on to something else. The same thing happened with Wolverine and the Punisher, actually. Some characters you just outgrow.

 But let's you and I turn the clock back to a time, aided by DC's reprinting of the issues in question (based on some rather tenuous link to The Dark Knight Rises, or so it is said) to a time when I reading a LOT of Batman. It was just after the first Batman film (never mind how damn long ago it was) and DC decided to take advantage of the buzz by launching an all-new Batman title: Legends of the Dark Knight.

 But this was no ordinary book, nossir (that was Shadow of the Bat, and that came later) Legends had a specific remit--all the stories would take place in some nebulous time after Batman: Year One, and every story was a 3-5 issue arc by rotating creative teams. Sometimes they were good (Grant Morrison's "Gothic," while completely mad, is pretty powerful and has some great Klaus Janson art) sometimes they were bad (Bart Sears' "Faith" arc was . . .well, it was short, at least)  but they were always exciting because you never quite knew what you were going to get--sure, it would be a Batman story, but sometimes Batman would be taking 'roids, or acting crazy, or fighting the bastard son of a thousand maniacs . . .you weren't really getting this stuff in the main books. Yet.

 And that brings us to Prey, Doug Moench (he of one of my favourite Batman arcs of all time, an utterly insane custody battle between Batman and Nocturna over the custody of Jason Todd which included, but was not limited to, lasers, balloons, suggestions of incest, and a character alternately called "The Slayer of Night" and "Night-Slayer," the latter of which sounds like the most epically terrible metal band ever.) and Paul Gulacy, who made their reps on Marvel's Master of Kung Fu back in the day unite to tell a story of the Batman's first encounter with Hugo Strange.

 It's . . .well, it's an interesting story, and it's failures are as interesting as its successes. Let's start with the strengths, first--Monech and Gulacy keep the story going with a real fevered intensity, helped a lot by Gulacy's ultra-tight linework (Which I know people either love or hate) that's "realistic" but not "photorealistic." He's assisted ably by Terry Austin's inks, who of course is the gold standard for inkers.

 The Year One-ish milieu also helps give the story some of its edge. Batman is new and not entirely trusted by the Gotham Police. Gordon trusts him based on what happened at the end of Year One.  Batman is a political hot potato, and unique in that, apart from Catwoman, he hasn't caused his rogue's gallery to be created as a response yet.

 Hugo Strange is the first outlier of what's to come, as his obsessed with Batman as a "dark archetype," and soon goes from pop psychologist on TV pontificating at length about exactly what and how much of a weirdo that Batman must be, to a dangerous adversary who cracks Batman's secret identity and pushes him to the breaking point, while simultaneously  alienating him from the public by brainwashing a cop into becoming the "Night Scourge" (no, really!) a vigilante who murders criminals and manages to make everyone think the Batman's snapped and gone over the edge.

 And Batman . . .well, he's not BATMAN yet, and so he's prone to make mistakes. He hasn't figured it all out yet, so he's vulnerable to a psychological attack like this. Of course he wins, because Batman ain't gonna job to a dude who had sex with mannequins or anything. Andrew McCarthy better watch his ass.

 I don't want to say too much about the overall plot of Prey, because it's more effective if you read it. It's five issues, but it never drags, the plot threatens to collapse into a big Gordian Knot and manages just not to do that, and it's pretty action-packed.


 Moench is an acquired taste, and he comes from that late 70's/early 80's school of writing everything in really heightened melodramatic style, which means you have stuff like Catwoman saying "And the dawn shall find you new. . .relieved of burdens," which is . . .well, it's hard for me to imagine Year One Catwoman saying that, but it's easier for me than the narrative caption in which Batman says he "needs something hot in his belly," which, because I am a terrible beast of a human being, makes me think of this:

 [Please, my 21 peeps--make "Batman's Smoove Belly" one of my top searches. I so want this to be a thing.]

 There's also the added problem of, well, I've read this story a number of times and I'll be damned if I can really figure out why Catwoman is really in this story. I mean, she was in Year One, she does something plot-critical at the 11th hour, but beyond that? She's just kinda futzing around the fringes (in fairness, she figures in a bit more directly in the sequel story to this, which is also included in this volume) and not doing much. Then again, Gulacy does seem to enjoy himself when he's drawing her, so maybe that is what that is about . . .

 As alluded to before, Moench & Gulacy returned later on for a sequel to "Prey," "Terror." Terry Austin is replaced on inks by Jim Palmiotti, and the intensity of the work is a little blunted for something more glossy, but that was pretty much the style of the time anyway, and it does little harm, except for a few panels wherein Catwoman has this horrible grin that haunts the edges of my nightmares on nights when fear is thick in the air and the wolf is at the door.

 "Terror" takes pace awhile after "Prey," long enough for Batman's more familiar rogue's gallery of bad guys, specifically the Scarecrow, who is employed by a returning Hugo Strange (complete with ridiculous toupee) who decides the smartest way to get back at Batman for beating him is to make the Scarecrow even crazier.

 Strange soon learns this is a bad idea and falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book, and Scarecrow builds himself a saw-like house of tortures, scheming to get back at all the people who wronged him. I should point out here that the Scarecrow declares himself a master of "Crane-style fighting," which is just some very funny shit to me.

 Meanwhile, Batman and Catwoman finally fight for the first time, and it's done with the usual taste and conscience you expect from superhero comics--namely, lots of ass shots of Catwoman (expect disappointment from comics and you will, paradoxically, never be disappointed). Their particular meet-cute eventually gets them drawn into the Scarecrow's rampage, which means Batman gets a snootful of fear gas and trips balls in such a way that forces him to holler out clues to his identity, which forces Catwoman to help him out, with plenty of sexual tension and a whole bunch of Freudian hooh-ah about Catwoman "penetrating" Batman with her claws.

 I'd be lying if I said that "Terror" worked as well as "Prey" did. True, it's a bit more coherent, and Catwoman actually has a reason to be in the damn story this time, but the various twists and turns (there is one in the final part that will probably make you say "OH COME ON" out loud) don't quite make sense, and it seems to lack the "punch" that "Prey" had.

 But in all, it's a decent package, I suppose, and an interesting snapshot of a time when different books featuring the same character were really allowed to have different approaches and voices. It's well worth a read if you dig Batman, I suppose. How else will you appreciate the majesty of the sensational new meme find of 2012--"Batman's Smoove Belly?"

Saturday, July 7, 2012


 Well, this made a nice set of bookends, didn't it? No sooner did we get done talking about the other big loss of Innocence Moment for Superhero Comics in the 1980s, than here we are looking at DC's counterpart to Marvel's overwrought superhero melodrama. Because what the Dark Phoenix Saga was to Marvel, so is The Judas Contract to DC, and just like it's other-company counterpart, many horrible sins have been done its name.

 We'll get to those in a minute. First, a word about this particular Omnibus. While Volume One (which we discussed here recently) was a complete snapshot of the New Teen Titans' first year, the second volume of the Omnibus actually omits an issue--#38, the "Who Is Donna Troy" issue. I've heard various reasons why it was omitted--would have made the book too big, DC wanted the entirety of The Judas Contract in this volume, being held for Volume 3 which is more Donna Troy-centric, whatever, but it annoys, for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which that "omnibus," by definition, means "includes everything." For another, thew narrative flow of New Teen Titans builds specifically to that point, and pulling it out leaves a noticeable gap in the storylines of the book.

 Because in its third and fourth year (and Marv Wolfman says as much in the introduction) New Teen Titans pretty much abandons single-issue storylines and becomes geared towards being a soap opera-esque book wherein all the characters are doing something and the main plot is rotated out amongst the characters. It's not a bad approach really--it's what made Claremont's Uncanny X-Men such a big seller through the 80's, and DC's other big seller, Legion of Superheroes, had done it to such a degree, the actual storylines of who was fighting whom were secondary to the soapy "who's sleeping with who" stuff.

 So I can see why they did it--it was a doctor tested and proven effective way of using the monthly serial fiction concept to created a dedicated readership that was invested in the characters to such a degree where they were locked into the continuing story, even if by its very nature said story would have no end point.

 The "no end point," becomes a problem, however. Because people get tired of the Titans (or the Legion, of the X-Men) always getting hammered by misery and angst and never getting anywhere or only progressing when the plot decides they must. While it's true that conflict generates drama, at some point the conflict must be resolved, or the reader is just bled white by the relentless conflict.

 The other problem is, and this happened in all cases (and soap operas too, not that I think about it) the casual fans were driven off for that reason (and more--if the idea target audience for superhero comics is 12 and very soon after one drifts away from that kind of melodrama and it becomes a bit embarrassing and silly. Did for me, anyways) the audience dwindles down to the die-hards, and then, things get bad, because writing specifically for the die-hard audience leads to excruciating stories that are less about telling good stories and more about enshrining fan theories or revisiting the glories of the past and not moving forward.

 Or, if you prefer, The New Teen Titans: Games.

 But we're not there yet. Volume Two covers the years of 1982-1984, The Titans as a book is at the peak of it's popularity, the DC Universe is humming along, blissfully unaware of teething problems to come, and the words "Baxter Paper" are not yet spoken with dread and resentment.

 The book opens with the two-issue intro of longtime Titans foe Brother Blood, and . . .damn, I don't want to be too negative right out of the gate, but Brother Blood is one of the most god-damned annoying Titans villains in the whole canon. Visually, he's pretty impressive (Perez kept his design simple and tight, which can be a problem with his costume designs otherwise) but conceptually, I have problems, so many problems.

 Brother Blood is meant to be an indictment of the mania for kids going to cults and being brainwashed, which was a thing people were scared shitless about in the 1980s, and since Titans paid lip-service to being right on with the now times, naturally that was a way to go on it, and that's fine as far as it goes.

 The problem is, as a recurring villain, Brother Blood is kind of crap--he's a lot of ill-defined motivations and writer fiat in a white cloak. Much like the later Mister Sinister over in X-Men, Brother Blood has some barely coherent and utterly convoluted agenda that is never made clear, no personality to speak of, and an obnoxious habit of winning against the Titans even when he loses. And since we're given no reason to care about Blood beyond that (apart from the fact he runs a ker-azy creepy cult) this only succeeds in making the Titans (our nominal lead characters) look like schmucks.

 And this happens a LOT in this volume.

 On the other hand, there's quite a few pages of Robin getting stripped down and tortured by Blood's goons, which makes me think George Perez enjoyed himself that day (something for tha ladiez, y'all!) and makes me wonder what would have happened if Perez and Claremont ever collaborated on an adaptation of like, The Story of O, or something? Maybe the planet would explode.

 Speaking of bondage, would it shock you that the next Titans storyline was an epic wherein Starfire's sister keeps her in bondage for three whole issues and an annual? It really shouldn't. Basically, picking up on a thread from New Teen Titans #1, the slavers who captured Starfire return under the command of her sister, Blackfire, who spirits her back to the Vega system for her masters in the Citadel (no, not that one) The Titans give chase in partnership with the Omega Men, not because the Omega Men are any great help (more on that in a sec) but more because once New Teen Titans got hot as a book, DC launched damn near every book they could from it, hoping that the Titans heat would rub off on them.

 One of the days, I will die. On that day, when I meet God in Heaven, I will ask him "What was the deal with the Omega Men?" There's like 90 of them, none of whom are terribly interesting, their backstory would make your head explode, and they're idiots, helped only slightly by the fact that their enemies, the Citadel, are even stupider than they are.

 My proof is the character of Demonia. Demonia, much like Starrscream, is constantly working to undermine the Omega Men and gain control of the Vega system. Also like Starscream, Demonia does this in in the stupidest way possible, loudly announcing her plans and her intentions out loud as though she comes from a society that knows not of thought balloons or narrative captions.

 Even stranger is that Changeling calls her on this and . . .teams up with her anyways. I didn't say she was the only idiot around, did I?

 Anyways, one thing leads to another and while this is supposed to draw a line under Starfire's pre-issue #1 stuff, ultimately, the Titans are swallowed up in this whole business (kinda like what happens to the X-Men whenever they pile off into space) and really it all ends up reading like a hard sell for the Omega Men, which in my own case, failed utterly.

 We get back to Earth (in all ways) for two issues wherein we catch up on various subplots and, in a demonstration of the Titans as the "right on with the right now!" deal with the scourge of teenage runaways. It's . . .not bad, but your tolerance for this depends greatly on how well you can tolerate Wolfman's prose, which can be a bit . . .much, at times. I understand it's coming from a good place, but this is a Very Special Episode Of New Teen Titans, all right.

 Two things--Terra shows up (a couple issues before she's "officially" introduced) and oh lordy, I forgot how insane Terra's first costume was, with the fake brown ponytail and the antlers. She totally clowns Changeling (no hard task that) and vanishes in time for her "official" intro in #28. Since we're in a lull and Terra will drive the stories in the remainder of this volume, let's talk about Terra for a little.

 The 1980s were all about divisions--Lakers vs. Celtics, Coke vs. Pepsi, Michael Jackson vs. Prince, and New Teen Titans vs. Uncanny X-Men. There was a constant knock against the New Teen Titans when it came out and began to get popular because it was seen as "copying" the X-Men, which both Wolfman and Claremont both countered, rightly, by saying all they'd done was take two cult-hit books and make them wildly popular. However, they both did share the same model of soap-opera book, which may or may not have been the indentifier.

 Nevertheless, as a clever way of tweaking the fandom, Wolfman decided to take it head-on. Two years ago, the X-Men added a new member, Kitty Pryde, a charming, adorable little teen moppet who caught on like wildfire and became so many prepubescent reader's first crushes, it's glaringly easy to see why comics are in the state they're in today. Wolfman created Terra, an adorable teen moppet who . . .well, actually, she wasn't adorable at all. Her personality was like being massaged with a belt-sander, she lied to the Titans constantly (and badly--again, Demonia is not the only gross idiot in this book), and at times, she came off as dangerously unstable, which, when you consider her power set, made her something of a weapon of mass destruction.

 We'll get to the punchline with this in a minute, but for her early appearances, Terra is just a wild card, obviously hiding something, we're just not sure what. While the Terra stuff is going on, the Titans are caught in the middle of a fight between Brother Blood and the Brotherhood of Evil (and for all I know the Brothers in Arms, the Bruise Brothers, the Brotherhood of the Fist, and the Beverly Brothers) the latter of whom decide to drag in Raven, make her flip out, and nearly kill Kid Flash. In short, the usual slow Thursday at Titans' Tower.

 Meanwhile, in Subplots Theatre, Donna Troy meets Terry Long's ex-wife, and I find my reaction to Terry Long is a lot like my reaction to Ayn Rand--at first blush, it's merely obnoxious, but upon prolongued contact, I find both loathsome and foolhardy.

 Robin also starts acting like an asshole for reasons never clearly spelled out. This is supposed to lead to a plot point paid off later on, wherein, with a new Robin (Jason Todd, in his red-headed, Dick-Grayson-in-all-but-name-incarnation) forces Dick Grayson to question who he is in relation to Batman, however, since we're never clued in from Grayson's point of view why he's a grumpy asshole in a way we might relate to, we just get him growling at Donna to leave him alone and treating Starfire like shit.

 Terra changes costumes and joins the Titans officially as various other subplots like Cyborg's would-be girlfriend's psycho ex and the Robin's uneasy partnership with Adrian Chase burble along. Kid Flash is debating leaving the team because he's got the hots for Raven, but Raven is batshit crazy and can't allow herself to love or whatever Star Trek bullshit.

Terry Long proposes to Donna, and Brother Blood also manages to make the Titans look like idiots again. In other news, water is wet, and fire is hot.

 Thunder and Lightning show up in issue #32, and, uhm . . .well. They're a bit thinly drawn, aren't they? Thunder and Lightning are half-American/half-Vietnamese (because it was like, the times, man) Siamese twins (OK, the Geography's a bit wonky already) who get separated in a magic city and get super powers which are killing them, and they need their father to help. Naturally, they decide the best way to get help is to stand in the middle of a city blowing up shit and threatening everyone rather than, you know, asking a question directly. Thunder and Lightning, ladies and gentlemen: when superpowers deny you the concept of an "inside voice." The Titans pledge to help them, then forget about them for four issues. In their defence, Thunder and Lighting are pretty boring, so it's easy to do.

 The utterly loopy done in one "Who Killed Trident?" (by the end, you won't care either!) follows, which is just a blind to keep Subplot Theatre humming along, specifically the Adrian Chase storyline which begins to come to a head. You may or may not be wondering whether it is a good use of time and space to devote so much to a character who has a very thin connection to the Titans (indeed, most of Chase's appearances are him saying something Punisher-esque and Robin going "uh," or words to that effect over and over again) and then the Terminator shows up looking for Sarah Conn-er, wait, wrong Terminator, this is Deathstroke. This finally pays off Terra's evasiveness because surprise surprise, y'all! She's working for Deathstroke!

 Meanwhile, Cyborg's girlfriend's psycho ex gets more psycho, Donna accepts Terry Long's proposal (even more psycho) and Adrian Chase blows up.

 We finally pay off the Adrian Chase business in New Teen Titans Annual #2, wherein, we learn that Adrian Chase survived the explosion and became the Vigilante, who is not at all DC's answer to the Punisher, because Vigilante wears ski goggles and totally sucks at "Death Wish"-esque crime-ighting, getting himself shot two pages after he appears on panel.

 Oh, yeah, and there's some guy in a satellite hiring super-villains for the Mob, too. This plot goes absolutely nowhere and is only highlighted here as a footnote for what happens when certain plotlines are stopped at the starting line, and any memories you may have to the contrary are merely the products of a disordered mind.

 This is, obviously, less a Titans story (though the usual Titans subplots are gurgling along in the background) and more a pilot for the forthcoming Vigilante series, which, if you remember it at all, you're either remembering the Alan Moore two-part story (wherein,naturally, Vigilante is a non-factor) the fact that his main villains, Cannon and Sabre, were  DC's first openly gay couple, or the fact that Vigilante blew his head off in the last issue of his series. That these are the three main takeaways from Vigilante's run in his own series should tell you all you need to know about the viability of Adrian Chase as a long-running character.

 Back to the series proper, as we pay off Cyborg's plotline in issue #35 and remember that oh yeah, Thunder and Lightning need our help, which gives Wolfman and Perez an opportunity to re-introduce the H.I.V.E. for reasons that will become clearer later on. Then we have a crossover with Batman and the Outsiders, wherein Robin's Batman adequacy issues are raised, we find out that Terra is Geo-Force's sister and Mike W. Barr writes everyone generally out of character because if New Teen Titans is DC's Uncanny X-Men, Batman and the Outsiders was DC's Steve Gerber-era Defenders where he just wrapped his characters around whatever crazy idea he had that month--the Nuclear Family is actually my favourite.

 But now it's time for The Judas Contract, the saga that defined the Titans and . . .you know, actually before we get to it, let me hit on something. In the book, Give My Regards To The Atomsmashers, Brad Meltzer writes a long and rather embarrassing essay about The Judas Contract in general and Terra specifically, and it becomes rather apparent that he saw Terra as more of a broken widdle bird than the raging psycho she was. As this essay ground on, I began to wonder had Metlzer and I read the same story, and then I began to wonder had I fallen into some parallel Earth. Even Marv Wolfman made it plain that Terra was always a traitor with no redeeming value who'd always lied to the Titans and never waved in her goal of bringing them down, and this notion that Terra was some kind of fallen creature who needed to be redeemed (which Metlzer tried mightily to do--why do you think Geo-Force was in his Justice League run?--and was prevented from finally doing) is, it must be clearly under stood, merely the product's of Meltzer's disordered mind.

 That said, as The Judas Contract was the thing that made Brad Meltzer want to write superhero comics, I think a case could be made that Wolfman and Perez unleashed a monster worse than Terra on the world.

 Anyhow, The Judas Contract opens with the Titans attacking Brother blood, and if you've never read this issue, you kinda might have anyways, as Rob Liefeld ripped off the first few pages wholesale for X-Force #1. Given that Liefeld's early fan work owed a huge debt to Perez, pretend I re-did the above paragraph and did a find-and-replace for "Brad Meltzer" on there if you so wish. This thing is long enough already.

 Naturally, this leads to Brother Blood making the Titans look like dim-bulbs, but we should probably take that as written by now. It's all a backdrop for the biggest deal, which is that the Titans decide to reveal their secret identities to Terra (not that they had been terribly careful before) Kid Flash leaves the team, and Dick Grayson stops being Robin.

 Oh, and we also find out that Deathstroke is banging Terra, which is really gross, but when you consider that Terra's template was also getting jailbated by someone a good deal older, it's not really surprising/appalling as it maybe should be.

 Also, the book's title changes to Tales of the Teen Titans, and the beginning of the end is here at last--the Baxter Era looms before us, gathering its power, waiting for the day when it will alienate its readership, destroy reader goodwill, and leave an insular coterie of anoraks as the last ones standing. But more on that when/if there's a volume 3.

 Meanwhile, various subplots ensue, and Terra nearly screws everything up by going psycho on Changeling, and Deathstroke finally puts his plan into motion, capturing all the Titans by the end of Part 1. This leaves Dick Grayson roaming free trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, and wouldn't you know it, Deathstroke's wife and his younger son Joesph drop by for a heapin' helpin' of exposition. It's a testament to the skill of Wolfman and Perez that despite the fact that the entire story stops dead for this, things don't really drag that much.

 Dick Grayson finally decides on an identity and pops the fuck out of his collar, becoming Nightwing. Joesph is also a superhero and calls himself Jericho. Jericho is one of those characters who really belongs to a specific creator, but who in everyone else's hands has a lot of problems (not least is the plain an unalterable truth of our times--blond dudes shouldn't have man-fros and muttonchops. Did Dennis DeYoung teach us nothing about this?) and really . . .history will prove that out. But Jericho joins the party here, is the big takeaway from that.

 It all comes to a head in Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3, wherein Deathstroke, Terra, The Titans, and the H.I.V.E. get into a big fights and Terra finally flips her shit for good and kills herself trying to kill everyone. Wolfman pretty well comes down hard on her in her final moments, declaring that "due to the fault of no one but herself, she is insane" and lamenting that he powers could have done so much good, but all she ever really wanted to use them for was destruction.

 It's an appropriately grim and tragic finale and is a very effective story, building on the four years of internal history the title had been building for the final payoff. The key word in that last sentence is "payoff," as storylines from here on in will skip the "payoff" part and just mine past history over and over again to generate misery for the Titans. That The Judas Contract has the impact it does is that it ends, and the book is forever changed afterwards, which is all you can really do in these "never really end" superhero comics, and is appallingly rarely tried.

 Terra is left dead . . .mostly. Titans readers had to deal with more than a few fake-outs over the years, made into torturous continuity pretzels by the fact that even the people writing the comics were unable to make up their damn minds about who the "new" Terra was (Another, later, Terra sidestepped that mostly by being as far away from that continuity snarl as possible) but it was so much a "have your cake and eat it too" way of mining the past without actually doing anything, that it was just Titans the series contemplating its own navel and should be looked at as such.

 In all, The New Teen Titans Omnibus is an instructive snapshot of a period in time, even with all the troubling storytelling trends and questionable decisions that begin to crop up as the wild originality of the early years settles into the familiar and finally into formula. It ultimately wasn't a sustainable model of storytelling, for various reasons, but again, this stuff read like the deepest stuff you could imagine when you were nine, and while (ideally) one grows out of that notion that "melodrama=real life," there's still some value to be had in studying it now.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Well, just like sometimes you just have to buy a tea-towel, there comes a time in any readers life where, one way or another he or she gets a copy of The Dark Phoenix Saga, also known as The Defining Moment Of Blah Blah Blah Superhero Comics Lost Innocence Blah Blah., or that time when X-Men cemented itself as one of the tastemakers in superhero comics after five years of dutifully building up its buzz, this was the flashpoint that took it from "cult hit" to "smash hit."

 Like Watchmen, the Dark Phoenix Saga has been collected in trade and kept in print what one can only term a mind-boggling amount of times (one of the more amusing bits of back-matter in my copy has a copy of every cover of every version, and man are they ever a lot. Also, like Watchmen, they're picking over the corpse and seeing if there's any more flesh on it this summer, so why not consider it?

 Anyways, I'm using the Marvel Masterworks trade, which is a bit like getting the Criterion version of the whole thing, as it contains X-Men #132-140, a Phoenix story from Bizarre Adventures (and never was a title more appropriate . . .) and the content of Phoenix: The Untold Story, perhaps the thing that really made me decide to write about this. We'll try to get to them all in turn, and, being that everyone knows the story pretty well, it shouldn't take long.

 Okay! So, Chris Claremont, that guarantor of female empowerment gave Jean Grey god-tier powers (not unlike how she was in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3) which had the notable side effect of making the X-Men in general somewhat superfluous and Cyclops even more useless than he is generally. Because she was the most empowered female to ever power the power, she soon gets the hoodoo put on her, turns evil, and loves it and put into bondage gear because ain't no fetish like a Claremont fetish ('cause a Claremont fetish don't stop)

 While all that's going on, the X-Men are fighting the Hellfire Club for the first time. Hey, did you know each of the Hellfire Club members are based on real actors? You'd never be able to tell, the way John Byrne does likenesses! This goes about as well as you'd expect--namely, the X-Men get the shit kicked out of them for two issues until Cyclops remembers that he's like, a good leader, and turns it around, stomping the Hellfire Club. In wrestling, they call this "Playing Ricky Morton."

 Then Phoenix turns evil and--you guessed it--kicks the shit out of them for two issues as well, then takes a break to go roast the planet of the asparagus people, who were having a bad year anyway and then goes to act possessed to her folks, which causes her father to say "I DENY YOU! I CAST YOU OUT!" which is . . .yeah. There are Asgardians in Thor comics who talk more natural than Jean Grey's father. The X-Men slow her down, then don't, then Professor X shows up to fix everything and nerfs her powers so she's solidly middle-tier (like she was in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3).

 Only he doesn't really, it's a fakeout so the Shi'ar can teleport them to the moon and they can have a big fight with the Legion of Superheroes to determine what's gonna happen to Phoenix. Shockingly, this causes Jean to flip out and turn into Phoenix again, because the X-Men deal in two things, and two things only--angst and bad decisions.

  Phoenix, clearly the only one thinking here, zaps herself with a Plot Convenient Weapon and suicides herself. Cyclops then vomits of a bewildering amount of exposition when he's supposed to be crippled by grief because this is Chris Claremont, who was wronged by a letterer once and spent the rest of his career making every letterer everywhere suffer under the weight of Rapidiograph-annihilating verbiage.

 We take a break for a bit so Cyclops can recount the entire history of the X-Men up to this point (I have to be fair, this bit was pretty cool at the time, because you really didn't have easy access to that stuff back in the day) and leave to collapse into a mighty ball of angst.

 Things trail off for a bit after that--there's an X-Men Annual where The X-Men go to hell and Storm gets debased and turned into a snake (because of course she does) and it's all to do with Nightcrawler and his girlfriend and his girlfriend's mom and their ridiculous hats. We then close with a two-parter wherein Wolverine (wearing a new costume which is revealed thus: "Wolverine, are you wearing a new costume?" "Yes, yes I am.") and Nightcrawler go fight the Wendigo with half of Alpha Flight.

 When I was much younger, I thoughts these comics were awesome, and naturally enough, because I was like, six or seven, and for all I knew, this was how people really acted, and this kind of relentless melodramatic tragedy, since it wasn't all smiles and laughs, read to me like it must be grown-up stuff, because grown-ups were never happy and always seemed to be reading or watching stuff about people not being happy.

 Nowadays, I'm glad this happened, because I loved that issue of Crazy where Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest re-wrote all the dialogue and made it into this long piss-take on the whole thing wherein the X-Men were like the Maharaishis and Phoenix was singing Rod Stewart songs.

 I mean, I recognise that it's a major thing for its time, and no one was doing this kind of thing (though ultimately, everyone would soon be doing this exact same thing) and at the time, it was a major deal because very few characters got offed for real, even fewer committed suicide on-panel, and very few walked it through to such an extent that the reader was "sold" that this was The One That Would Stick.

 Ah, to be young and foolish again.

In any event, the whole thing has an added gravitas, because it wasn't supposed to happen at all. No, the plan was that Phoenix would get depowered and sit there as a ticking bomb until about issue #150, wherein we would be teased a little more, and heaven knows what woulda happened then. This is an interesting thing to learn in the Untold Story bits, because the traditional knock against Claremont was that he shot his bolt after Dark Phoenix, and everything after that was just glumly trying to keep the plates spinning. Now we know: No, he was always doing that.

 Anyways, in the one exception that proves the rule, Jim Shooter said, "No way, if she destroyed a whole planet, you can't pretend it didn't happen," and forced them on short notice to come up with an alternative to the original ending wherein the punishment fit the crime.

 And the revised ending is the better one, because the original is. . .geez, not good at all. For one thing, did Cyclops really need to crib the end of "City on the Edge of Forever" at the end of the book? It seems a bit. . .ehhh. The other reason it doesn't work is that WE SAW PROFESSOR X DO THE SAME DAMN THING THE ISSUE BEFORE. They basically. . .lock down her powers again, which is like when he locked them down only different in that this one will now work for 13 issues (supposedly) or whatever. We knew it wouldn't take the first time, and you did it again just to make sure we knew it was bullshit?

 It doesn't feel appropriately final. We're expected to react like Jean Grey is getting a lobotomy against her will, and the essence of who she is being sacrificed for the Greater Good, but 1) we've already seen that she can't be running around blowing up planets--Thanos and Galactus will be on her ass for gimmick infringement. and 2) It's OK when Professor X does it, but not OK when the Bird Aliens from Planet Shi'Ar do it, because of reasons.

 But the real reason the Phoenix: The Untold Story is worth it is the round-table interview they give where they try to chart the process by which they came to the decision, and the bit I kept zeroing in on was when terry Austin said he wasn't crazy about the story because Phoenix comes off like a victim in it, and. . .man, has he ever got a point there. Through the whole run-up to Phoenix going Dark, she's basically played for a sucker and manipulated at every turn, which kinda knocks hell out of the idea that she's some cosmically powerful mind-reader.

 Even after going evil, Phoenix is at the mercy of her own desires, further undercutting any agency she has. She's argued over like the MacGuffin that she is, until finally she's allowed one moment to call the shots, and that's to ray-beam herself.

 Female Empowerment the Chris Claremont Way.

 Which is why it comes as absolutely no surprise that the final story in the collection has Phoenix and her sister Sara get kidnapped by D-list Sub-Mariner bad guy Attuma and put in kinky slave-girl outfits. The John Buscema art is wonderful, but seeing Claremont's id run amuck and actually write a story about bondage and mind control with no blinkers is troubling. But thanks Marvel, for laying the book out in such a way as to make my point for me or something.

 So . . .yeah. That's the Dark Phoenix Saga in a nutshell--while it's Claremont's X-Men at the peak of his powers, it's also everything that would eventually make people turn on his work. It's calcified so much with distance that it's really kind of criticism-proof--much like Miller's Daredevil, it's bored so deep into the canon that it's above examination--but I thought it was worth having a look at and seeing what reaction I have to it now, given that I'm not six anymore.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Just Sayin'--News of the Weird

 Hey y'all. Apologies for the lack of updates but honestly, I've found that the more I talk about comics the more I find the whole thing a loathsome, depressing waste of time and years for the days when I was still doing Mad Men reviews and could languish in the happy optimism that was it's existential depression, sexual degradation, self-destruction and promises of suicide. You know, the good old days.

 It's almost not even anger any more so much as it is an awful, sobering epiphany that what you hoped for is never going to come and you are alone in the universe, only since this is superhero comics, there's really no need for Claremontian highfalutin' bullshit like that. It's just this general annoyance and irritation about superhero comics that I can't shake. Nevertheless, I am here to entertain you, so let's look at the news, shall we?

 Did anyone actually like Before Watchmen? It's out now, so I guess we're past the "preliminary debates" to the "so how bad does it stink" phase now. I've been reading the reviews--not because I give a shit about the reviews (I know what happens before Watchmen, possibly because I read Watchmen), but because it's an interesting psychological study. The few sites that have review it so far seemed to be doing a sterling job of apologising for its existence, and I'm amazed so many can hold their nose and type, but after a few weeks, one imagines someone who is not me would have brought up the singular burning question about Before Watchmen (besides the "where the fuck did all these experts on Charlton comics come from all of a sudden?") namely, WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT OF DOING A PREQUEL THAT IS COMPRISED OF FLASHBACKS WHEN THE ORIGINAL BOOK WAS 60% FLASHBACKS ALREADY?

 I know the reason, of course. Money. Obviously. I remember Bill Hicks, after lambasting Hulk Hogan as a "pituary retard," followed it up with the observation that "that retard makes more money than you" and suddenly snapped, "IS THAT ALL IT IS--FUCKING MONEY?"

 Guess so. Sorry Bill.

 And today comes word of Marvel Now We Put 2012 on the Cover And Hope You Don't Realise It's The Same Shit By The Same People (Now With Musical Chairs!) I think, after a certain point, if you've rebooted and relaunched and rolled back and fuck I'm out of euphemisms this much, you really might as well not bother pretending that comics should be in any way shape or form sequential any more, so just cram whatever random bullshit you want in there. You know--one month every word balloon is just "potzrebie" over and over again, the next issue is just a big foldout of a stick figure with enormous genitals with the and arrow pointing to "MY NUTS" Marvel has all but declared war on logic, common sense, and the notion of respecting anyone's intelligence, why not go all the way?

 But guys, it's not all terrible. Nope. I refuse to drown and froth in rage--we're gonna finish on a high note. The estimable Kelly Thompson has been sharing excerpts of her future book (and current Kickstarter success story), The Girl Who Would Be King at her blog, and I've been reading along and I must say . . .it's great stuff y'all. There's a little bit of Unbreakable in it, what with how she's grounding the tropes of superhero comics in a real-world setting (while still using to the tropes of superhero comics to shape the perceptions of what having superpowers would be like) but without the dour joylessness that Unbreakable had. No, the characters who get superpowers in this book think it's really damn cool to have them and have a bit of fun with them, even as they try to grapple with the real-word downsides of things like super-strength (namely hitting someone without super-strength might actually kill them)

 It manages to do the exact reverse of what injecting "realism" into comics generally does--bog them down into grim blatherskite and general impotence, and show up the self-consciousness that seems to drive most superhero books nowadays. With The Girl Who Would Be King, the real world refracted through the superhero prism is a place of hope, danger, heightened possibilities. It's exciting.

 I don't wanna say too much because I don;t want to spoil it. I will say this--it doesn't feel like the glum "deconstruction of superheroes/OMG what if superheroes were like, real?" stories that we've been living in the black shadow of lo these many years. It feels like--and I apologise if this is a really silly metaphor, like someone took the Lego blocks of superhero comics and concepts and instead of building the 747 that was pictured on the box--built this cool otherworldly spaceship that looks really sleek and badass. Both could fly, but one takes the past and makes something interesting and makes you excited about what may come next. The other's just a 747.

 It does not feel like Watchmen leftovers, or Johnsian devotion to a past that never really existed, or Bendisian homogenization--it's got some real thought in it, some heart to it, and a lot of fun in it. It's well worth a read, and I highly recommend checking it out.