Friday, July 17, 2009

The Fifteen Best Comics Characters of All-Time (Part 1, 15-11)

15. Hans von Hammer "The Hammer of Hell"

"The sky is the killer of us all."

A haunted, troubled yet duty-bound man surrounded by war and murder, much of it his own making, Hans von Hammer was a World War I flying ace based on the Red Baron called to kill and kill again, after which new nighmares of death joined the previous ones during his sleeping hours. He once befriended a wolf in the Black Forest, because the both of them are both killers, and that wolf was his only real friend.

In that sense, von Hammer was a tragic and somewhat pitiful person, an example of the very broken people that war creates on the one hand, an honorable man with a strong sense of duty on the other. Hans von Hammer had noble and chivalrous instincts: he saluted enemies even after he killed them, and refused to shoot and kill even an unarmed foe.

Enemy Ace's strip was extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which was the tragic, morally conflicted character of von Hammer himself. It was an American strip featuring a German Ace. It was the first true strip of the Vietnam era: it showed the exhaustion and disgust with war, and none of them had happy endings. It was a dark, evocative strip with art by Gil Kane and featured antagonists like the hideously disfigured French Ace, the Hangman.

BEST COMICS: STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES #148 features the death of a dog, but that's not the only reason to like it. Von Hammer befriends a dog, Schatzi, who dies when he falls out of von Hammer's biplane. In revenge, von Hammer coldly and methodically massacres a platoon of British soldiers. Honor, senseless blood-killing that is shown to the reader not as fun but with disgust, and glimmers of humanity on the part of a lonely and tragic man. All in all, good reading. There was also a wonderful and sentimental Batman and Enemy Ace "meeting" set long after World War I done by Neil Adams in DETECTIVE COMICS #442.

14. Foolkiller

"All the days of their lives have led to this moment. They will be given their chance at succeed or fail! It was ordained long ago in Heaven that this day they would meet...the Foolkiller!"

A religious fanatic with a demented sense of his own great purpose and mission, the Foolkiller was first introduced as seeking to kill the Man-Thing, who he correctly determined was formerly scientist Ted Sallis. "Only I cared enough to investigate his disappearance fully!" His great weapon is the Purification Ray, a nearly unstoppable blaster beam of white light only able to be wielded by the righteous. Naturally, only the Foolkiller himself is worthy of wielding it! The Foolkiller periodically returns to his tractor trailer to converse with his boss, Mike, a grisly corpse of a priest in formaldehyde that the Foolkiller himself murdered.

The Foolkiller murders at the drop of a hat for crimes like scoffing at his mission and denying God. He is a relentless pursuer that never forgets the slightest insult. The Foolkiller is nearly unstoppable and relentless: like the villains in slasher movies, he never stops, and as a fanatic he is truly threatening, ramming a truck through a diner to kill a disk jockey that insulted him.

BEST STORY: His sole appearance was in THE MAN THING #3-4, by Steve Gerber.

WORST STORY: None, as at least the original Foolkiller never appeared again.

13. Madame Hydra/Viper

"I said that we are not walking out of here into the jails of the police! The valiant outlaw called Cobra, the dedicated agent of the Serpent Crown...and the foolhardy agents of oppression...are going to end this story dramatically, as martyrs to the Serpent's Cause. That's all it is, you know, a story! A story to grow with time into a legend. A story not to be told as fact, but as inspiration! A story to breed more like me!"

Quite possibly the most terrifying, shockingly coldblooded female villain in the entire Marvel Universe, a study in the depths of human evil and fanatacism.

A fanatic nihilist, everything to Madame Hydra is meaninglessness instead of happenstance. She has no illusions about the importance of life, and holds her own with just as little value. She has the fanatic martyrdom of a suicide bomber, and like a suicide bomber, she realizes just how powerful martyrs become, as ideas that never die.

BEST STORY: Steve Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON #181-182. The story opes with Viper murdering the original Viper and donning his costume. Then, as she reveals the death of the original to his brother, who she intends to team up with, the Eel breaks down at the loss of the only family he ever had. All the while, Madame Hydra loudly proclaims the original Viper a martyr to their cause.

It that wasn't enough, in the very next issue, King Cobra, a guy just in it for the money, is trapped in a burning building where Viper intends for both of them to make their last stand. Cobra starts to go mad as he realizes the horror of being trapped with this madman, and the Viper's soul-chilling response is printed in its entirety at the quote section at the top above.

WORST STORY: As he did with other female characters, Chris Claremont formed a fascination with Madame Hydra, and from her chilling beginnings wasted her as just another femme fatale.

12. Magneto

If the Hulk was based on the blueprint of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Magneto owes his inspiration to one of the most magnetic characters of the literature of the 19th century, Captain Nemo. Like Nemo, Magneto sufered a terrible loss that caused him to reject the idea of the goodness of the human race and turns his back on it in disgust. Motivated by a great inner nobility, Magneto looks angrily at how human vices usurp our capacity for good: how much more we spend on weapons than on feeding the hungry, for instance. At the same time, he's motivated by anger and grief that has poisoned his soul that makes his guilty of terrible crimes.

BEST STORY: UNCANNY X-MEN #150. The ultimate, definitive Magneto story. Magneto issues an ultimatum to the world: give total power to him, which he would use for enlightened purposes while they wasted their energy on greed, or face destruction. In the end, Magneto is confronted by the X-Men and he snaps, loses his temper, and kills a child (Kitty Pride, since you wonder I loved this comic!). Realizing the horror of what he did, and what he intended to do, Magneto surrenders and abandoned his scheme.

Also, read X-MEN #1-3. Everyone remembers it as a Jim Lee artpalooza that sold a trillion copies, but few people remember that it was actually a very well-made Magneto story, where Magneto was drawn from his self-imposed exile by "acolytes" that worship him.

WORST STORY: This one undoubtedly goes to that appalling dimwit Grant Morrison and his lengthy rampage on the X-Books, where he had Magneto smash half of New York and toss humans into ovens. It is every bit as unintentionally funny as it sounds. Another dishonorable mention (and boy, does it hurt to type this) would be Steve Englehart in an early Avengers issue, where he featured Magneto as a cackling Hanna-Barbara supervillain in the weakest story of his entire career, centered around that most riveting of mysteries, "Why is Magneto wearing the Angel's costume?"

And speaking of the Angel...

11. Candy Southern

Possibly one of the best-realized of all "hero girlfriends," Candy Southern was much, much more than just the "love interest" for a hero that pouted when he went on dangerous missions. There were occasions when we saw Candy Southern running Warren Industries, and she often joked that Southern International, her own company, would buy him out. She was someone that was able to actually lead a hero's team when her man was knocked out, a heroic story with a tragic ending. In one comic, Candy Southern actually accompanied the X-Men when her love, Warren Worthington was in danger!

Almost all hero's girlfriends are said to be independent and competent women, but Candy Southern actually was all those things the others were said to be, but never really were.

BEST STORY: In NEW DEFENDERS #138 Candy Southern had the chutzpah to (and I can't believe I'm typing this) take charge of the Defenders. In NEW DEFENDERS #145, when the others were considering leaving in the wake of the Angel's blindness and other events, Candy Southern convinced the Defenders to stay and not disband. And most incredibly of all, she remained in charge of the team for nearly the rest of the comic's run, proclaimed by the rest as Team Leader and Chief Executive Officer of the group, having final power over who was and wasn't in the group. She even built a new security system for the team's base and recruited new members, with total control over who came in and didn't.

Others might be upset by the inclusion of Candy Southern and would prefer another supporting cast member, like J. Jonah Jameson or Lois Lane. To them, I ask this: could you possibly imagine Lois Lane doing something similar for the Justice League? Did any other hero's love interest ever do anything that significant?

Another example of a good Candy Southern story would be her first posthumous appearance in UNCANNY X-MEN #306. She was merged with the same techno-organic being as Cameron Hodge and she tore apart her own form rather than let Hodge harm the X-Men. In her last, dying moments she confessed her love for Warren Worthington.

WORST STORY: NEW DEFENDERS #130, with Candy Southern taken hostage. She's not that kind of hero's girlfriend.

More to come! Stay tuned for 10-6!

What I love and hate about the Golden Age of Comics

An undead ghoul colossus towers like a god over a nightmare world at war, strutting over a battlefield and gazing on the misery, disease, genocide and corpses.

I'll never get over the contrast between that image and the peppy title, MORE FUN COMICS.

That's why I love the Golden Age: startling, evocative and dark covers that rival the luridness of the weirder pulp magazines.

On the other hand...well, the second image needs some introduction.

I love superheroes. There are only two that I actually hate, one of them is Kitty Pryde and the other is Captain Fucking Marvel. His disgusting adventures are the worst ever written in the entire genre, an embarassment and shame, a permanent black eye in the entire industry.

In case anyone wonders if the above scene is taken out of context, take it from someone that has read a few CM books in my time: every moment in Captain Marvel is like this. Every. Single. One.

The experience of reading CM comics can best be described as dying, going to hell, and discovering the devil is Austin Powers and he's trapping you forever in one of his movies.

No reason is given for why CM is even at a Beauty Pageant as a judge.

No reason is given why Captain Marvel has to measure a woman's forearm at a Beauty Pageant.

Finally, in order for a woman to have a forearm 29 inches long, she would have to be over seven feet tall.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

The coming of the Arockalypse

Like lots of angry loners and fire-obsessed American youth, I went through a phase where I was into Heavy Metal. The angry, industrial sound expressed my state of mind, and the dark, supernatural and nightmarish themes delighted me as much as the guitar solos.

Eventually I stopped being a metal fan. Nothing happened, I just grew up.

But imagine my great joy to find the Finnish metal band Lordi, who can best be described as Gwar, except not a joke. They're like a time travel trip back to the eighties; for one thing, they're actually accused of worshipping the devil! (Ahhh, memories.)

Check out their "Hard Rock Hallelujah." It actually features such words as "On the Day of Rockening" and "the Arockalypse." I defy you to watch it and not end up pumping your fist righteously at the chant of "Hard. Rock. Hallelujah."

This is one of the few songs I'd actually like to see live: to experience their righteous pump-notes with an audience has to be something, even if it means the usual perils of experiencing a metal show live: some asshole doing a chicken dance in giant tracked boots and avoiding vomit-covered curbs and leathery, tattoo-covered white trash gorgons that just touching is enough to give a lethal STD.

The sheer, hilarious chutzpah of another one of their songs is worth listening to, if only for the lyric, "The Devil is a loser and he's my bitch."

Check it out:

By the way, the one great thing about Finnish metal bands is, considering that country's history, it's the only kind of metal band that you know won't give you a concept album centered around their love of all things Tsarist Russia.

If you've seen one Lordi video, you've pretty much seen them all, incidentally: they end up terrorizing some place with someone commanding armies of zombies.

By the way, speaking of Finnish metal bands, am I the only one that's noticed how much better the "new" Nightwish is, now that they've gotten rid of Tarja?

Have a look at their first video, Tarja-less:

Boy, more than anything else I've ever said on this blog, I know I'm going to catch hell for saying that Nightwish is better off without Tarja. For many, Tarja IS Nightwish. But I've always hated her: here was this righteous guitar and drum sound, and there was this spectral ghost diva yodeling over all of it.

"Symphonic Metal." Doesn't roll off the tongue, does it? The very name itself contains exactly what the problem was. It's like when I heard about the bombing of the Islamabad Mariott. The very nature of the problem could be expressed by the fact they blew up the Islamabad Mariott.

Incidentally, I've always found it amusing that Nightwish is the only metal band I've encountered where nearly all the fans of it I know are gay men and female. It's like they're attempting to steal the coveted title of "Official Artist of all Broken People Everywhere" from Enya.

It's not that I have a problem with metal that has a melodic component. Quite the contrary, favorite group always was the melody-heavy Judas Priest. Metal is always better at the two ends of the extreme: melodic groups like Judas Priest, and then percussion heavy groups like Slayer. The groups that try to strike a balance usually suck, much like post-Master of Puppets Metallica.

So, the problem isn't melody. The problem is, as long as Nightwish had Tarja, they always ended up sounding like New Age crap. This is inarguably true; you could play Nightwish's Gethsemane over the loudspeakers at a craft store and I guarantee nobody would notice. It would fit right in!

You might say the Pretty Young Thing they got to replace Tarja (and who looks a lot like her - gives me a real Single White Female vibe!) doesn't have that much vocal range, and you'd be right. But that's missing the whole point. The dirty little secret of rock is that the vocalist isn't that important. In fact, I'm having trouble thinking of really standout hard rock vocalists, except maybe the obvious choice of Freddie Mercury, who was louder than the group itself. They got a robot that won't outsing the band, and that's ultimately for the best.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Star Trek aliens I'd like to see more of

As a result of the fact Star Trek is a television show, a low information density medium, we often end up not learning much about any of the alien races and their culture. Sure, the Klingons got their "Heart of Glory," where we learned exactly how they thought, how they looked at the world and behaved, but there are many other races that didn't receive that kind of characterization or development. For instance, despite their regular and persistent use, I don't think the Romulans have ever received their "Heart of Glory." This, despite the fact they have been a part of the Star Trek universe from the beginning (they've actually been around slightly longer than the Klingons!) and were the main villains of two movies.

1. Deltans

It's easy to overlook the Deltans, because they never made any appearances beyond their initial one. For one thing, the idea was modified and became the Betazoids for TNG. Second, they are associated with "The Motion Picture," a very unpopular part of Trek lore.

But the Deltans are interesting and shouldn't be discarded. For one thing, they are a culture that considers humans to be "sexually immature." What exactly does this mean? What would a "sexually mature" society, one that has "grown up" about sex, actually be like?

Consider: there are a ton of euphemisms in our language for sex and sexual body parts (penises, breasts), and also for death. This isn't a coincidence, since cultures always create a myriad of terms to not directly discuss something they're not comfortable with.

As fundamentally sensual beings, the Deltans were actually very different from Betazoids. For one thing, according to the Gene Roddenberry novelization, Kirk always periodically imagined Ilia naked uncontrollably, for instance. No wonder they had to take a vow of celibacy!

2. Zakdorn

We first see the Zakdorn in "Peak Performance," and we learn almost everything we know about them from that episode: they're considered the greatest natural tactical minds in the universe, yet they haven't been in an actual combat for a very long time, because their reputation prevents possible aggressors from attacking them.

Mr. Worf contemptuously said, "If it isn't tested, their reputation is meaningless." Perhaps Worf is right, but I would have liked to see.

It's hard to say what the Zakdorn are actually like, or what a "garden variety" Zakdorn temperment is, as we've only really seen two: one was the swishy, excitable, arrogant Kolrami from "Peak Performance," and the other was a completely heterosexual junkyard owner in "Unification" that seemed like he was perpetually on Valium. Kolrami was able to defeat Data at a game like Stratagema because there were only a limited number of moves possible and Kolrami could antipate them all...however, when Data redefined his objective (to just fight to a draw) the game continued perpetually because Kolrami couldn't figure out his opponent's intentions.

This seems to be the way to defeat the Zakdorn, despite their very scary tactical edge: their weakness isn't so much that they are startled by unexpected tactics, which doesn't seem like a problem they'd have, but rather, their ability to out-think enemies comes from understanding their motives. If you can "fake out" a Zakdorn, or make them think you want something other than what you really want, you could probably out-think them.

One possible opportunity to use the Zakdorn emerged during Deep Space Nine: what if the Zakdorn, like the Breen and Cardassians, defected to become members of the Dominion? Now that would have been terrifying, to have the Dominion charging into battle led by the greatest strategic minds. For that matter, where were the Zakdorn, anyway? You'd imagine the Federation would have asked for their help in the greatest military problem in Federation history.

One thing I loved about Deep Space Nine was the feeling that during the Dominion War, there was a feeling a million things were going on at the same time. For the first time, the Trek universe acquired scope. This was in contrast to Voyager, where I never really believed in the Delta Quadrant; it was like the space Voyager passed through ceased to exist after they left!

One of the more impressive opportunities not pursued was the conquest of Betazed. I mean, here's a famous planet known for being sensualist and sexy, and they've been taken over by a group as ruthless as the Dominion. Surely there's a story there...

3. Tholians

The Tholians, like the Breen, were mentioned far more than they actually appeared. Which is a shame, because they're a fascinating opportunity, a "villain" race with a pedigree going back to the Original Series. This is extremely rare, because the overwhelming number of recurring alien races the original Trek gave us were usually pretty ridiculous looking, to the point where later incarnations of Trek went out of their way to not use or even mention them.

Take the Andorians, for instance. The writers of TNG deliberately stated in no uncertain terms on a number of occasions that there were no Andorians on the Galaxy-class Enterprise. There was even an interview with a head writer on TNG, when asked if any Andorians would show up on TNG, "Sorry, we don't do antennae on this show." I certainly don't mourn the loss of the Andorians, and in fact I'm a little baffled by their use in Enterprise. No matter how much goodwill one has towards the original series, no matter how much fondness or admiration, it will not change the fact that the Andorians look absolutely silly. A lesson on the dangers of nostalgia that many members of other fandoms have yet to learn, but I digress.

As for the Tholians, not only did they have a great look (or at least they were suggested to look really strange), they were sincerely menacing and mysterious, and had the good luck to appear in one of the most memorable episodes of the original series. The Tholians are, further, something very, very rare in Star Trek: an alien race that truly is alien. At times it seems that the "alien races" are just substitute human cultures. One critique of the Star Trek universe is, like the universes of Foundation or Dune, it could be rewritten so that all the alien races are different human civilizations spread across the universe, and very little of the Trek universe would have to be changed.

Often, real-world human cultures were used as the basis for Star Trek aliens: the Klingons are equal parts Japanese and Norse, and the Ferengi are even explicitly compared to 19th Century Yankee traders. While the Romulans derive their names from Rome, their culture is more like the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th Century, a world ruled in equal parts by the military and the secret police.

The exception are the Borg, who have a radically different basis that is only possible by science fiction, who are much more what alien races are like in written, serious science fiction.

One of my favorite ideas for the Tholians came from Peter David's New Frontier Trek novels. The Tholians experience time in a nonlinear fashion, radically different from other species. For instance, when the Tholians attack a ship without obvious provocation, it may be not be because of something they have done, but something that they are going to do in the future.

Incidentally, I always thought the "updated" makeup designs in Enterprise looked silly. The CGI "Jurassic Park" Gorn, for instance, looked especially laughable. But in the case of Tholians, they was nothing short of spectacular. My reaction was "oh, so that's what they looked like, all along!"

4. Nausicaans

The Nausicaans made quite an impression when they showed up in "Tapestry" as the silent, brooding bruisers that stabbed Picard from the back and caused him to need his artificial heart. They were something that few Trek villains often become: truly intimidating, able to arouse fear. It would be fascinating to see them again. It was often mentioned in later series that the Nausicaans were used as hired thugs, bodyguards and muscle for criminal operations, a role that somehow suits them perfectly.

In fact, it's really very strange we haven't seen these guys much, considering how powerful their debut was, and how hard-up TNG was for new enemies. All but one of their appearances (just let me get to that) featured the same Nausicaan hardcore mystique: my personal favorite was the scene in Quark's bar where the Nausicaans amused themselves by throwing darts at the chest of one of their own (who it should be said, took it like a champ)!

Yes, I am aware there was an episode of Enterprise that featured the Nausicaans, but like everything Enterprise, it took the potential of these new villains and squandered it. For one thing, they colored the Nausicaans pink and made them much smaller! Even the makeup was different; they looked much more like ridiculous parrotmen.

5. Bynars

What was really amazing was, the Bynars were pushed forward in a lot of early TNG promotional material as one of the new aliens created for the series, along with the Betazoids and Ferengi.

This makes their absence all the more puzzling from every episode except their debut. I mean, they couldn't just have a few Bynar pairs running around in a toolbelt fixing things in corridor shots, on starbases or ships? They couldn't put a couple Bynars in a Federation Council chamber or diplomacy room? (Yes, I'm aware it was never technically stated the Bynars were Federation members, but still.)

The reason I like the Bynars is because they have a truly alien culture and biology as opposed to just being Japanese Samurai or Communists in outer space. They view all information in terms of 0 or 1. All of them are linked to a massive computer network on their planet, and they live as identical pairs that complete each other's sentences, and even their names are in binary code. Surely something can be done with a race that unique.