Thursday, February 25, 2010

Aaron Allston's "Doc Sidhe"

I should go a little easy when reviewing this book, because it was written in 1996, a year after "The Golden Compass" (published as "The Northern Lights" in Britain) and at the time, there was something very trendy and novel in the idea of alternate worlds that look a lot like a post-industrial past. Nowadays, this trend has been pretty much played out, and the Steampunk craze has run its course. "Doc Sidhe" does have something to offer, however, because the characters are so interesting and Aaron Allston is very good at extremely poignant moments.

In short, "Doc Sidhe" is about a down on his luck kickboxer that discovers a portal to the fairy world, an alternate universe that progressed to the cultural and technological level of the 1930s. The fairy world has human-sized fairies that live in cities with skyscrapers, but with a weirdly fairy tale edge: giant stone chimera and dragons adorn the art deco buildings. "Doc Sidhe" is a wizard/inventor from the fairy world, who befriends Harris.

If you want to make a checklist of steampunk elements this world has, you can take it almost beat by beat:

Airships. Check! I cut them some slack here because airships are cool, so I can understand the fascination.

Referring to things by old fashioned names, so you know it's an alternate universe? Check! One day, someone somewhere will visit an alternate universe where chocolate is called chocolate, but thus far, no dice. Spain is called "Castillan," Britain is "Cretanis." Like the Golden Compass, chocolate is called by a weird, Mesoamerican and historically accurate name, "xioc au lait," or "xioc with milk." Everything in fairy-ruled America is called by British names, like "lift" for elevators and "lorry" for trucks, and people drive on the left side of the road. This is to be expected in British-written fiction, but Anglophilia is one of the most bizarre American characteristics, and one that I unfortunately can't blame the South for, like I usually do with traits in my own country that I don't like (anti-intellectualism).

An aristocracy surviving to modern times? Check! Why do people find this exotic and interesting, anyway? The Star Wars or Dune-style resurrection of noble houses and monarchies in future or alternate societies always struck me as one of the more bizarre choices that writers make, since that particular stage in human development is behind us, even in places that historically had aristocracies like Sweden and Russia.

There are lots of cynical little details that make the world feel a lot less romantic, and thus more interesting, but frankly, not enough for my tastes. Darker-skinned fairies are unfortunately treated as shabbily in the fairy world as they were in the real 1930s for instance.

There are a few really great ideas in the story, among things that feel cliche for readers of industrial fantasy. The first is a superpower that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen anyone use before anywhere. The second is that, as a society becomes more complicated, "magic" becomes something that is technologically harnessed and studied. In the Fairy world, even the term magic itself is a discredited one.

What's more, the single most interesting thing about the plot is the main character, Harris, a down on his luck kickboxer. He's the classic textbook definition of the audience identification protagonist. He actually adds a lot to the story as a point of view character, something many pulp influenced stories are generally missing. When he goes on a mission with Doc's gang and has to plug a criminal, he feels horrible, something that a traditional hardboiled character wouldn't. His relationship with his girlfriend, who dumps him at the very beginning of the book, is the most interesting part of the story. Harris is a really nice guy, which is his problem: he lacks his own needs and wants of his own, and the reason his girlfriend left him is that she felt he wasn't a real person - just putty in the hands of anyone.

The character of Doc Sidhe only really becomes interesting at the very end of the novel, with a shocking twist that comes in the last 20 pages. Doc Savage was a great character, but like Tarzan, he's very distinctive, so anybody that is even slightly influenced by him shows his imprint. The way Aaron Allston created Doc Sidhe was to write him in a way that we think Doc Sidhe is identical to Savage...then, suddenly, have a sharp reversal that has all the more entertainment value because we don't see it coming. For instance, towards the end, we learn to our great surprise that Doc Sidhe has a girlfriend, a sexy Aztec fairy that is crazy, foreign, extroverted and says whatever comes to mind.

Aaron Allston is a supremely gifted writer at characterization. He creates people you like, and everyone had a personality trait, and you could never confuse dialogue from one character with dialogue from another. This book gives the feel of something written in a single draft, and believe it or not I mean that as a compliment: Allston was obviously figuring out who these characters are in the middle of the story, which is interesting to watch. It certainly means that unlike other books, it isn't something that starts off strong and then falls flat at the finish line; the book is "meh" in the middle and then quickly speeds up to a very, very strong finish.

Aaron Allston is extremely skilled at squeezing very powerful emotions. The death of one major character is much more profoundly moving than one would expect. One of the characters is Joseph, a golem-like monster made of clay created by a criminal that is a gentle being that in the past, was compelled to perform murders. Needless to say, his story does not have a happy ending.

In terms of action and adventure, Aaron Allston's characters aren't immortal and assured of victory. You get nervous for them because of their mortality, and how much you find you care about the characters.

In short, I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Crisis on Infinite Earths

With a story as well-read, intimately annotated, written about, and scrutinized as "Crisis on Infinite Earths," I never thought that I would discover something about it that nobody else has yet...but it seems that I have.

With the pervy George Perez art, it's really easy to play a little game that I like to call "spot the nipple." Seriously - once I realized what to look for, I ran into a near dozen. Here's a freebie to get you started: gee, Dolphin, it sure must be drafty on that head ship of Brainiac's...! If Perez applied himself more, he might be able to snatch the title of "perviest artist ever" from John Byrne.

There is an argument that it might require some perviness on my part to notice this, but all I have to say in my defense is to not shoot the messenger. I'm just the one sayin' it, I'm not the one playin' it.

Now it's confession time: I haven't re-read Crisis in years and years, and I really, really wanted to like it.

There was a time when I was history's greatest Crisis critic, and I was skeptical about its ultimate results. Some of you that may not have noticed, but I'm an unapologetic continuity-hound. Suspension of disbelief is like trust: it is never given away. It has to be earned, and it can be broken. Dispensing with continuity tatters and undermines that suspension of disbelief.

More than that, I just plain love the Marvel and DC Universes. I love their history, love the characters inside of them, and love the stories that have been told with them. To ignore any part of that troubles me.

As an unapologetic continuity-hound, Crisis bothered me. Green Lantern was an example of a comic that maintained its history. It's possible today to have a reference to a 1960s issue by John Broome, because almost everything is still in play; there is an unbroken line from Hal Jordan's first appearance in Showcase to today. However, the same can't be said of Hawkman or Aquaman. Previously, both characters had pretty straightforward (if uninteresting) identities, but at least you knew who they were.

It troubles me how absolutely inured DC fans are to this, to the point where they don't realize how wrong or extraordinary this situation is. Every single Marvel comic ever published, going back to the days of Stan Lee, Kirby and others, are a part of Marvel history. The same Spider-Man that was in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1963 is the same Spider-Man that Marvel publishes comics about today. The Thor that first showed up in Journey into Mystery is the same Thor published today, in an unbroken, continuous line, with none of their stories cut, excised or omitted.

There are exceptions ("Teen Tony" comes to mind, who was erased from existence), but they are impossibly rare and easy to discount. The idea of characters being totally different people based on when they're published, or of major alterations to their backstory, or of wholesale reboots that break a character from their past completely, are not normal. They should never be treated as "par the course" for superhero comics.

The person that made me change my mind about Crisis and its effects was Geoff Johns. He saw potential in a single-verse. For instance, if the JSA was on "Earth-1" during World War II, instead of being the JLA of some alternate earth, they became something much grander: elder statesmen. They were the legends that inspired everything, from their time to the era of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Geoff Johns was the first DC guy to treat DC comics like a Marvel-style universe, with consistent continuity. Thanks to Geoff Johns, I realized that what came from the ashes of Crisis was a world that was just as worthy as its predecessor, that remembered its past; not as cheesy throwaway in-joke references to a "Pre-Crisis Batwoman," but as something alive.

So, when reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wanted to like it. If I liked it, it would be a sign of my personal evolution and growth as a human being. It would be a sign of my personal fairness and lack of ability to hold long-term grudges. A lot of the Pre-Crisis fans I know always remind me of people in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia, who are still pissed off over things that happened in 1315.

But unfortunately, as a story, I didn't like the original Crisis. Here's why:

1. The Anti-Monitor is not an interesting villain. Give me one adjective to describe the Anti-Monitor's motive or personality. At the end of the day, Crisis on Infinite Earths was built around a villain that was only half of an idea. The Anti-Monitor had no real well-defined motive for destroying the Infinite Earths, no real personality to speak of, never appeared before Crisis, and never really appeared again afterward. In fact, part of the reason the Anti-Monitor was so threatening was that his powers were so vaguely defined as to be limitless. He was, in short, boring.

This is a huge flaw because in superhero comics, villains are more important than heroes because the actions, personality and motives of villains drive the story. It's possible to have a boring hero with interesting villains (Thor and the Challengers of the Unknown comes to mind) but the converse is never, ever true.

What's more, something as huge-scale and epic as Crisis deserved a huge villain. Imagine if the story was set around a very charismatic, frightening, threatening villain: Darkseid comes right to mind as someone that would be right for a story like this, or the Wolfman revamp of Brainiac as an infinitely intelligent supercomputer who was out to find and replace God.

Lots of people believe Crisis to be superior to Secret Wars, but I don't. The reason is that Secret Wars was a story that was centered around the greatest supervillain of all time, Doctor Doom: how Doom thinks on a totally different level than any other character. Secret Wars had a noble, tormented Magneto that fought on the side of the good guys, a neurotic and underconfident Molecule Man, an Enchantress that finally succeeded in seducing Thor because real feelings were actually shared...and so on. Secret Wars was a story centered around interesting villains who did interesting things.

And while we're at it, with the exception of Pariah, a tormented soul, and the new Dr. Light who was redeemed by other stories, none of the other characters introduced in Crisis were all that interesting either: Alexander Luthor, the Monitor, Harbinger, and so on. All of them fail the "give me one adjective to describe their personality" test.

2. Huge 'disaster movie' plot that ignored the human element. Unfortunately, Crisis glossed over a lot of things, and it never stopped to smell the roses. One might say that's what they were going for: a big disaster movie sort of story. But disaster movies are always terrible. I can't think of a single example to contradict that statement, something I can usually do with most genres. The reason is that there's a difference between an event and a story. An event is something that happens. A story is about people. It's telling the most famous image from disaster movies are of places: the burning building, the White House getting zapped by aliens.

3. Crisis didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. Crisis was an incredibly ambitious story. It dealt with the beginnings of the universe, the beginning of the Guardians, the creation of the multiverse and the antimatter universe of Qward. This story could have wrestled with profound questions and revealed surprising truths, even answered questions as deep as the existence (or nonexistence) of God. Okay, so it didn't have to go that far, but it was surprising that Crisis didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. It showed the creation of Qward and Krona's experiment, things that all long-term Green Lantern fans already know.

Avengers Forever was another ambitious story: it sought to tie together all of Avengers history into one big story. It told us tons of things we didn't know before, including some things that change everything: for instance, Immortus was responsible for the Avengers discovering Captain America frozen in ice. AF even showed us how Immortus was created, and even dealt with a really profound idea: the ability of human beings to one day become like gods and channel the Destiny Force, the way Rick Jones did.

4. Marv Wolfman's 'Pollyanna' narration. Whenever Marv Wolfman wants a moment to be poignant and powerful, he writes in this weird cross between 'Pollyanna' narration and baby talk. He did this all the time in Teen Titans and it drives me crazy. "They they go, the greatest, bravest beings ever known!" or "Supergirl is more selfless than...most anyone!" Groan. Wolfman is the absolute last person tapped to pen a death. Speaking of which...

5. The deaths were gutless, and there wasn't enough of them. Okay, this is going to strike people as a very novel angle of attack here, but it's a little gutless that all the deaths in Crisis are of expendable characters. Yes, I would include Supergirl and the Flash as expendable characters. The Flash was the lowest-selling of DC's heroes, with a cancelled comic, who received a Happily Ever After and was placed on a bus away from the rest of the universe. I hate to say this, because I think Kara's best stories were her Superman Family backups, but Kara, come 1985, was likewise a has-been who's top-selling heyday was back in the 1960s.

Besides those two, who else died in the Crisis? Actually, surprisingly few people: the Bug-Eyed Bandit, Prince Ra-Man, Kid Psycho, Aquagirl, Earth-2 Green Arrow. This is what I mean when I say the deaths in Crisis were gutless and didn't take risks. Earth-1 Green Arrow is a character. Earth-2 Green Arrow was the answer to a trivia question. This is going to surprise people that think of Crisis as a bloodbath, but nobody really important actually died and the casualty list was astonishingly short. Two deaths that stand as especially gutless are Kole (who was created just for the purpose of having a Titan dying in Crisis) and Nighthawk, who hadn't appeared in a DC comic since the 1950s and was brought back for the sole purpose of killing him off.

Personally, I find it amazing that Tomahawk lived to the end! I figured he was a dead man walking for sure.

(Incidentally, as my cousin, Eddie Michigan, once pointed out, no one ever saw the Golden Age Speedy die. So he could be out there somewhere...)

Now, there were a few things I liked about Crisis.

I have to say, Crisis was an opportunity, and they took full advantage of that opportunity, in the sense that it could allow characters that would otherwise never see each other to interact. What does Hawk say when he's on a mission with the Communist superhero, the original Starfire, for instance?

Kamandi's friendship with King Solovar of Gorilla City. That was the best part of Crisis for me. It showed Kamandi, distrustful of talking animals, who was befriended by a character as unlikely as Solovar: a wise, kindly, aged being, saintly, fatherly and benevolent. To have Kamandi lose someone like him was really touching.

I loved the story with all the super-villains, under the command of Luthor and Brainiac, taking over three of the earths. This was when the story started to really get good: this actually had a lot of promise, especially with the contrast between Luthor and Brainiac, two characters with whom it should be said, Wolfman can write in their voices very well. Why couldn't this have been the A-plot of Crisis, instead of all the boring stuff with the boring Anti-Monitor? This was a comprehensible story with villains that have comprehensible motivations.

There was one story that did right what Crisis did wrong. It was, believe it or not, Underworld Unleashed.

Neron was a strong villain, one of the few examples of a crossover villain that was interesting enough to become a regular part of the DC Universe and used after the crossover ended. He is also one of the few examples of a DC character that is more interesting than his Marvel equivalent.

Mephisto, his demonic Marvel counterpart, for instance, is dressed as something in red tights: a cliche take on the Devil. Neron is more unique: he is massively muscled and physically perfect in an eerie way. Neron was enigmatic, powerful, and extremely threatening. Mephisto on the other hand, is a textbook example of villain decay: he's been beaten by nearly everybody, so it's impossible to take him seriously anymore.

There was one very bittersweet thing about Crisis: it was the last, great hurrah of the Pre-Crisis DC Universe, made by people for whom a story like this is obviously a calling instead of just a job. For that reason, I can't find it in me to truly dislike Crisis. From the Frightful Five, to Angle Man, it was the last celebration of the Pre-Crisis universe.

...until the coming of Geoff Johns. :-) Nothing ever really ends, does it?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Marvel Swimsuit Spectaculars

I always liked the Marvel Swimsuit Spectaculars, though not for the reasons you think!

They were fun because they showed the Marvel Universe at play, in a "chilled out" moment. I always really liked "Day of the Life" stories that didn't necessarily feature supervillains but showed what the characters are like "after hours." It always made their lives seem real.

Plus there was some great art, by guys like Joe Sinnott. This particular image gets me misty-eyed because it shows what Thor would have looked like if it'd been inked by a polished pro like him and not the sloppy Vince Colletta. I've always suspected that part of the reason that the Thor Silver Age stories, despite their importance, have never been seen as "required reading" is because of how godawful the art looked under Vinnie.

DC never did anything similar to my knowledge, but I always liked that Paul Levitz and others, very skilled plotters, realized that you can't have Mordru or some other worldbeating menace show up all the time - it's frankly, exhausting, so after some major story arcs, they did stories that dealt with nontraditional challenges and character moments, where often a single punch isn't thrown or a proton beam isn't fired. The best example would be the issues after Great Darkness, which dealt with Mon-El and the horrible scars done to the planet Daxam, which was in essence laid waste by Darkseid. Another good example would be the wedding of Donna Troy.

One of the problems I have with the Grant Morrison run on JLA in the 1990s was that the pace of it was exhausting. Every single arc, everything in the universe as you know it is threatened. The source of the superthreat differed, but it was pretty much the same kind of story over and over - and even usually had the same kind of resolution, with either Batman or Superman saving the day at the 11th Hour.

Kurt Busiek's Astro City is one of those comics where, you read and it makes you think very differently about comics afterward. I think what Busiek was trying to do with that book is to show that what is so interesting about superhero comics isn't the battle and the asskicking or even the epic conflicts against villains, but the personal stories. So he wrote a comic that has almost an inverse relationship to the focus: battles are often covered in a single panel, whereas stories that are usually ignored in other books become the central theme.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Greatest Comics Characters Ever Part II: 10-5

Part 1 of this list can be found here.

10. Green Arrow

There’s such a thing as being the right character at the right time.

Take for instance my least favorite superteam of all time, the Justice League of America. In the early days, the Justice League members were all identical alpha male, confident chisel-jawed father figures. They had the exact same personality. In fact, in early JLA comics, you can rearrange the word bubbles so that they connect to different characters, and nobody would even notice. Imagine doing the same thing for the Fantastic Four, with Reed getting Ben’s dialogue and Sue talking with Johnny’s voice!

The single most irritating thing about the JLA was that all of its members were right, all the frickin’ time. Their view was always presented to the audience as the ‘correct’ one.

Now, into all this comes Green Arrow – particularly when Len Wein was writing JLA. He had a personality: he was loudmouthed, impulsive, hotheaded, opinionated, and prone to alienating other people. He played Dr. McCoy to a room full of Spocks. He was actually allowed to be wrong. What an absolute breath of fresh air. He changed the chemical equation of the entire JLA, and made it more of a real superteam as opposed to just a gimmick book.

BEST STORY: As much as I enjoyed Maggin’s run with Ollie, for all of the above reasons, I have to give this to Green Arrow’s memorable JLA stories, particularly under Len Wein. In fact, if you go through all the really memorable JLA stories, developments or subplots, they all somehow involve Green Arrow: the story where Black Canary chooses to stay on Earth-1 because she fell in love with Green Arrow; the Hawkman and Green Arrow repartee, introduced by Len Wein, which reached a crescendo with the Englehart issue where the two actually went out drinking together (and walked back drunk together – take that, comics code!).

WORST STORY: I hate to say this, because I liked it, but as important as Green Lantern/Green Arrow was, it really wasn’t that significant to comics history and its importance is overstated. The only reason anyone found it historically significant and shocking was because it was a book published by stodgy old DC (which, as we all know, stands for “Dad’s Comics”). If it came out at Marvel around the same time, nobody would have cared, because in 1972 Marvel did stories like that all the time.

9. Super-Skrull

One of the great hidden surprises awaiting those that delve deeply into the Marvel Universe, is the unexpected complexity of the character of Super-Skrull. The Super-Skrull is an example of how there’s a difference between being an enemy, as opposed to a villain.

When we’re first introduced to the Super-Skrull by Stan Lee and Kirby in early Fantastic Four, the Super-Skrull was an arrogant warrior from a technologically superior civilization. It’s only later that he acquired more of a character.

The Super-Skrull is a little like Colin Powell, or the antagonist Samurai in the Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress: a good soldier that obeys orders, who is loyal to treacherous and petty people that are unworthy of that loyalty. Because he’s a person with a lot of integrity, he concentrates on his duty and is unaware that people above him despise him and are jealous of him.

The Super-Skrull was always about the Skrullian equivalent of Mom, Apple Pie, and the picket fence in the suburbs: he had a wife, and various children and was apparently something of a good father.

BEST STORY: The single greatest I can think of was Young Avengers #7-12. (CAUTION: Spoilers!) The young Hulkling was revealed to have been the son of the Skrull Princess Anelle, who was in love with the Kree Captain Marvel. At first it was believed that the Super-Skrull was there to capture the Hulkling for the Kree, but it is later revealed that Super-Skrull is actually there to protect him from both the Kree and Skrulls. It was Super-Skrull, who by impersonating Captain Marvel allowed him to escape from the Skrull Throneworld – though he refused to go with him and Anelle as he was a soldier and it was his duty to remain. The Super-Skrull took an oath to protect the young lad, as he did when he was born.

WORST STORY: At first I’d say the John Byrne Alpha Flight (!) story where the Super-Skrull gets space-cancer (I’m serious!), but even if the Super-Skrull was shown as an uncomplicated shade of evil black, at least he was played as appropriately frightening, unconquerable and grandiose. To be frank, Super-Skrull has been in more bad stories than good ones.

8. Steve Rogers

I say “Steve Rogers” instead of Captain America, because what is interesting about him isn’t his costume or powers, but who he is as a person: a sometimes flawed figure, a man of flesh and blood that has to live up to the awesome responsibility of being a living legend. He’s a larger than life, unconquerable leader with infinite experience and resolve…but only when everyone else is watching. When he’s by himself, he questions his actions, and is at times a very lonely, flawed, and dysfunctional person.

Captain America isn’t a shallow superpatriot as pop culture labels him. He was created at a time when the American dream, the American promise was threatened to be destroyed by outside forces (namely World War II). This means that after that conflict he’s had a much harder time because the country isn’t united anymore. What does it mean to be Captain America, a symbol for America?

BEST STORY: The single greatest Captain America story, the one that cuts right to the heart of his character, is the Englehart “Man Without a Country.” When cynics say that superheroes never really grow and change as characters, I’d point to this story to refute them: Steve Rogers was different at the start of the story than at the end. Like the political movie Bob Roberts, “Man Without A Country” is about how America can be manipulated and misled politically by slick ad campaigns and publicity, a foe that Captain America is totally unequipped to fight, as he believes his record stands on its own. The one person that an honest man can’t really fight are liars. When Captain America discovers the head of the campaign to discredit him was a highly placed member of Washington (supposedly, Nixon) Captain America realizes how much America has changed and gone wrong, and rejects his role as standing in for America. In the final note, Captain America realizes that his role as Captain America is to protect America from all enemies – including domestic ones, that he stands for a vision of America instead of any specific government, and vows to be more aware from now on. “Man Without a Country” starts off with supervillains with ray guns, which makes the immersion into the real-life spirit of Watergate all the more shocking and surprising.

WORST STORY: Though it gave us the gift of Arnim Zola, it was really an unpleasant shock to go from Englehart’s Captain America stories, which explored how complicated he was as a character, to the rah-rah mindlessness and dumb action plots of the Jack Kirby Captain America, which could have been written for any other character and been the same. Brimming to the gills with excruciating dialogue, appalling out of character behaviors, and just plain weird nonsense like the Doughboy, these stories explain why in the seventies, Kirby was known as “Jack the Hack.”

7. The Black Panther

Cryptic, poker-faced, and always with a plan, the Panther is so supercompetent that he’s one of the few fictional characters where I find myself wishing I was him (along with Robert E. Howard’s puritan hero Solomon Kane). Dignified and regal, he speaks softly and never raises his voice. The Panther is a strong-willed, idealistic ruler, and for that reason he alienates nearly everyone because he insists on doing things his own way.

A lot has been made of the fact that the Panther is a black superhero, but unlike other black characters, like Luke Cage or Black Lightning, who appeal to black comic book readers out of identification with their experience, the solution to making the Panther interesting to a wider audience was to make him so darn cool that his appeal transcended race.

BEST STORY: Hands down, Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther in the 1990s. These stories took the Panther seriously as a competent, intense strategist and superwarrior. They had the genius idea of making the Panther seem cryptic and remote by having the narrating character be the Panther’s CIA liason, an Alex P. Keaton-type young Republican that was the world’s whitest white guy. People read that book just to see what Everett K. Ross would say about it. A special mention should go to Jungle Action stories by Don MacGregor, which actually explored the Panther and his world for the first time and gave him the chops to be the kind of guy that can carry a book by himself.

(Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why Christopher Priest’s team book, the Crew, didn’t work out. I’ve come to the conclusion it was sold all wrong: because of the name, and because it’s Priest, it was labeled a “street” book, and if you’re not cool, coolness is a very threatening thing.)

WORST STORY: This particular dishonor has to go to the Jack Kirby issues of Black Panther. The Black Panther is a guest-star in his own stories, pushed aside in favor of dubious Kirby concepts that had nothing to do with the hero, like a secret society of evil collectors and the usual 1920s lost race business with a Samurai city with the secret of eternal life. Move along, nothing to see here. Everything about Reginald Hudlin’s Panther is insufferable. It’s also interesting to note that the Panther is wasted in the context of the Avengers. I can’t think of a single story where he did something something cool. I suppose it may be because the Panther is both a scientist and engineer as well as a costumed athlete. In the first, he’s on the team with characters like Hank Pym and Iron Man, and so he was never allowed to be distinctive with that skill suite…and the Avengers are choked to the gills with costumed athletes (Captain America, Hawkeye) so he was never allowed to be distinctive that way either.

6. The Joker

Lots of villains, like Magneto, Namor and Doctor Doom, are dramatic and powerful because their motives are easily understood and they are compelling because of their ability to create sympathy as well as revulsion.

The Joker is the exact opposite: he’s frightening and terrible because he’s absolutely crackers and his crimes only make sense to himself. He’s extremely remote from the audience and becomes very frightening for that reason. His sense of humor is psychotic and violent: he paint smiley faces on rocket-propelled grenades and uses joy buzzers that use murderous amounts of current. He becomes terrifying because of his irrational unpredictability.

The Joker is a master strategist just because of his insane randomness. Many of his stories are rather like Fu Manchu mysteries in that they involve Batman racing, in an almost futile manner, to stop a crime the Joker has announced.

BEST STORY: Steve Englehart’s “The Laughing Fish” is the blueprint for most modern Joker stories, including the Dark Knight movie. In it, the Joker figures if he puts his face on fish, he can patent them and get a cut of fish profits. When the Joker’s claim is refused because fish are a natural resource and can’t be copyrighted, he goes on a rampage and vows to kill unimportant clerks at the patent office.

WORST STORY: The Joker is an extraordinary character, but he is just plain overused. Any appearance where he’s just plain superfluous should go here.

More to come! Stay tuned for 5-1!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

As a student of education and a former teacher, I frequently read children's books to understand them and their content. least that's what I tell people that see me reading something like Phillip Pullman's I Was A Rat! at Starbucks. The truth is, I read them because I actually like young adult series.

I've always struggled to articulate exactly why I liked the young adult series Percy Jackson and the Olympians better than Harry Potter, and I didn't understand why until I saw the movie, and it left out everything that made PJ&O unique.

I really, really, really hate to be that guy that complains about how the book was better...since I love movies and I look forward to movie adaptations, so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I think it's appropriate in this case.

The truth is, it's painfully obvious Percy Jackson is based on the blueprint of Harry Potter. The difference is that the author of Percy Jackson, Rick Riordan, a western and mystery novelist, was already really experienced and came to write a Potter-esque series very much as his own man, with his own perspective.

(A caveat here: I read only the first two Harry Potter books on a flight to Athens. Amazingly, I have trouble remembering concrete things about them!)

The major difference between Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Harry Potter is in the villains. My biggest problem with Harry Potter is that your initial impression of every character turns out to ultimately be the correct one. Someone introduced as an evil asshole remains an evil asshole.

One of the most complicated and interesting characters in Percy Jackson and the Olympians is Clarisse - a major character that was cut out of the movie entirely - and not just in that her scenes were cut, but that her role was given to other characters. We're introduced to Clarisse as Percy's rival at camp. She wears flannel, loves to armwrestle boys, and listens to speed metal at a loud volume. She's a bully and a brute with a sadistic streak.

Later on, we learn that Clarisse is the daughter of Ares, god of war - and he was physically abusive, insanely exacting as to what kind of toughness and strength he expected from his children, and withheld love unless his children were successful. Suddenly, Clarisse went from being a bully you hated to being a person. You understood why she was the way she was, and she became complex and sympathetic. Clarisse was by far my favorite character in the series for that reason.

Likewise, Hades, god of the underworld, was presented as a very interesting character. He was creepy and weird, but was not evil: he was a very overworked person who was very good at a job that he hates. The story leads you to believe that Hades is responsible for the theft of Zeus's master bolt so as to cause war between Zeus and Poseidon. In the book, it is something of a surprise to see Hades wasn't responsible. The film version portrays Hades as a straight-up villain - which not only eliminates one of the strongest unexpected reversals of the story, but also paints a complex character a deep shade of black.

That leads me to the greatest problem with the movie version: the plot went on these weird, un-needed divergences.

When the film versions of intricately plotted books like James Clavell's Tai-Pan or Herbert's Dune cut out side plots or side characters, you're inclined to give the film version some slack because of how complicated and hard to film the book is. Likewise, with superhero movies, it's understandable if changes are made to the original comic book story because of how hard it is to streamline a character's history into something with an information density as low as a movie.

This is the exact opposite situation of The Lightning Thief, a book that has an extremely clear, linear, easy to follow, impossible to screw up "A then B then C then D" plot. Translating this plot to screen ought to have been a cinch.

Amazingly, they screwed up the absolutely easiest thing about bringing a book like The Lightning Thief to screen: the progression of events in the story, how one event leads to another - the plot, in other words. I still can't believe it!

In the book, Percy Jackson is believed to have stolen Zeus's lightning bolt (a weapon with the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs) on behalf of his father, who turns out to be Poseidon, who is Zeus's brother and rival. To clear his name and prevent universal armageddon that would destroy Western Civilization, Percy Jackson has to head to the underworld (hidden, amusingly enough, under Los Angeles) in order to get the bolt back from Hades. Because Zeus hates Percy and believes he's the thief, flying is an extremely unwise course of action, so Percy and his sidekicks have to hoof it across country in road-trip fashion, where they run into dangers and monsters all over America.

What is so unclear about this story, that there needs to be this weird detour with magical power pearls and the goddess Persephone?

The second characteristic that I believe separates Percy Jackson and the Olympians from Harry Potter is the irreverent sense of humor, this weird juxtaposition between Ancient Greek and modern things. There was really only one scene in the movie that actually captured the humor of the books: Percy Jackson has to kill Medusa by looking at her reflection on the back of an iPod. In the books, Harpies are described as "bird women with faces like evil cafeteria ladies." The summer camp director was a punished Dionysos, who was portrayed as a Hawaiian shirt wearing sleazeball. The humor wasn't there in the was all played so straight.

A lot of the humor in the book series came from "Star Trek Three" jokes. By that I mean, in Star Trek, to remind you that you were in the future, they list two ordinary things and a third weird one. For instance, "Great scientists like Newton, Einstein, and Surak." Or "Evil tyrants like Napoleon, Hitler, and Khan Singh." The central idea behind the world of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is that, as Western Civilization never died, the gods of Greece present at its birth never did either, and so they follow the West wherever it goes. As, like it or not, America is the center of the Western World right now, the gods live in the United States - Mt. Olympus is the 500th Floor of the Empire State Building. Because of this unbroken chain of mythic heroes to the present, a lot of humor comes from "Star Trek Three" jokes. As in, "there have been lots of female heroes, like Atalanta, Medea, and Harriet Tubman."

Something wildly imaginative as Camp Half-Blood felt cheap and small. In the books it was wondrous and weird, a summer camp with orange t-shirts that you practiced riding winged horses and climbed a wall that periodically sprayed lava down at you, where if you were caught late at night, the harpies would devour you alive. Here, it felt small and very Greco-Roman: people wear cheeseball leather armor right out of a Sam Raimi series. I can understand why they didn't devote any screen-time to background characters like Silena Beauregard, Ethan Nakamura, the Stoll Brothers or Charlie Beckendorf...but not even to put them in the background was typical of a bigger problem, how small and unambitious the world of the adaptation felt. The movie feels cheap and low-budget.

What I find surprising is that the story was made self-contained, like they knew they weren't going to make much money and get a sequel. This results in the removal of very important plot details: the search for the vanished god Pan, and shockingly of all...the central villain of the entire series (the Titan God Kronos, Lord of Time) wasn't even mentioned in the movie. In fact, they deliberately rewrote the story to exclude him entirely. I couldn't even believe it, that's like doing a Harry Potter movie without mentioning Voldemort.

One of the most astonishing things that was eliminated was the prophecy: by age 16, one of the children of the Big Three gods (Zeus, Poseidon and Hades) would make a choice to end or continue the reign of the gods, and for this reason, all three refused to have any more mortal children. This is a shocking omission because it explains why Percy Jackson was the obvious suspect as the Lightning Thief. As it is, the finished film never explains why Percy was even suspected at all, and it unintentionally makes Zeus look Ivan-the-Terrible style paranoid.

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a book report on Julie of the Wolves. The amazing part is, I had only read half of the book. So, while writing the book report, I decided to make up the entire back half of the plot. The amazing thing was, I actually got an A! Now that I've experienced education from the other side, I understand why: reading 120 identical book reports is a recipe for a nervous breakdown, so if it looks right and is from a known smart kid, there's no need to scrutinize it that heavily if the first few pages look right. (I take my job seriously, so I don't do this. But I can see why others would.)

The movie version of Percy Jackson, ultimately, feels a lot like my sixth grade book report. It feels like they read half of the book and made up the entire second half. For this reason, things that only have a payoff in the end are omitted entirely or used in bizarre ways, like the flying shoes.

I suppose I should end by saying what they did right. The first was the character of Percy Jackson himself. The actor was spot-on as Percy Jackson, a sarcastic chronic underachiever, underdog and outsider. Percy Jackson himself is yet another reason I like this book better than Harry Potter: he felt a lot like real kids, a dyslexic ADHD sufferer labeled a troublemaker, who is easily given up on by teachers that just don't care. The second thing I liked was the casting choice of Sean Bean as Zeus. He was awesome as ever - he plays and approaches scenes in a way that means asking, "how can I do this differently?" For instance, in the scene where he threatens Poseidon with war in the beginning, he plays Zeus as vulnerable and afraid instead of with braggadocio and godly overconfidence.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Avatar, Fringe, and the Pulps

“Do not duplicate the masters, but seek what they sought.”
- Basho

My review of both "Avatar" and "Fringe" is linked by a single thread: if something was truly done in the true style and spirit of pulp fiction, it would be absolutely unrecognizable as “pulp” unless you really look deeply.

Things that duplicate the accoutrements of pulp – slouched fedoras, wisecracking private dicks, leggy dames, (and on the pulp science fiction side of the fence) water-cooler robots, Ming the Merciless style bwa-ha-ha Saturday afternoon serial foes, (and on the hero pulp side of the fence) over the top doomsday devices and square jawed he-men – if these were done today they’d be camp, a joke…it would compromise the very sincerity, the very real seriousness that is the strongest element of the true pulps. Something that takes pulp seriously wouldn’t have these elements, so it would be hard to identify them as truly in the pulp spirit.

Here’s the extraordinary thing about pulps I don’t think people realize: 1) they were very state of the art to the point where viewing the most crucial thing about them as period anachronisms does them a disservice; and 2) unlike with the comics, there was an emphasis on plausibility. Doc Savage’s world was exaggerated and “bigger than life,” but most of his stories could have really happened. It’s easy to get a cheap chuckle out of the sheer ludicrousness Doc Savage defeating a polar bear with his bare fists (at least if you hear about it out of context), and forget that The Polar Treasure actually explained how he could do it in a way that made me go, “a-ha! That…actually makes sense. That could happen in real life.” What’s more, it’s worth pointing out that all of Doc Savage’s gadgets…all of them…either existed at the time the stories were written, or came into existence 10-20 years later. I minored in Geology, and after reading “The Man Who Shook the Earth,” I really wonder why that earthshaking device didn’t work in reality.

Even the Shadow, easily the most over the top and weird of the pulp heroes, had extremely subtle, muted abilities, to the point that (and I know how this flies in the face of common wisdom but I’m being dead serious here) I have never been entirely, 100% convinced that the Shadow even had any real powers at all. Some of his abilities were pretty weird, but the most interesting thing about the Shadow is how opaque he is to the reader, and so this gives everything he does some ambiguity. Ordinary hypnotism, gadgetry, sleight of hand and stage magic may do just as well to explain his headscratching feats. After all, there are some people that think David Blaine and Houdini had real powers.

This is why I think a lot of efforts to reproduce the pulps have been monstrously insincere. Too much attention has been paid to making worlds that look like Frank R. Paul Amazing Stories covers, and too little attention has been paid to the crucial fact that what was important here wasn’t the design sense, but that people actually thought this is what the future would really be like. Wouldn’t it be more in the spirit of the science fiction pulps and their sense of wonder to try to honestly conjecture what the future would really be like based on state of the art information we have now, and it would violate their spirit to just copy the pulps’ outdated penis-rocket designs for nostalgia purposes?

A while back, I was a member of an internet forum about Pre-Crisis Superman comics, a character that I have always been a fan of. Here’s the link, since they were cool enough to link to my blog. The major reason I eventually stopped posting there was because of the creeping realization that what defined Pre-Crisis Superman for these people wasn’t a certain style of storytelling, characterization or continuity, but superficial, nostalgic irrelevancies – unimportant and at times embarrassing elements they defend to the death. Why? Because for them, Superman is in fact, all about the wrapping paper, not the package: Super-Pets, and goofy duels between Superman and Hercules for the hand of Lois Lane.

(Dave - I know you read this, and I don't mean you, because of your capacity for critical thinking.)

I didn’t get the appeal of barely-there non-elements like Beppo the Super-Monkey, embraced by others for the same smarmy reason fans of the 80s decade get misty-eyed about the “Superbowl Shuffle,” so consequently there was an extremely unfair attitude that I failed the purity test and therefore did not "really" like Pre-Crisis Superman. (That, and the fact I'm really not crazy about Al Plastino.) What I think was wonderful about the first Superman film, and what made it so groundbreaking, is that that movie was totally convinced it could happen. The first line in the film was, intentionally, “this is no fantasy.” The tagline was “You will believe a man can fly.”

Incidentally, I also expect to have someone say that since I don't care for rockets shaped like dicks or Ming the Merciless, that I'm not a "real" pulp science fiction fan either.

With the science fiction pulps, only the bad stories were formulaic. When we think of pulp science fiction, we think of the same wish-fulfillment John Carter of Mars/Flash Gordon story over and over. In fact, the science fiction pulps were very innovative and unpredictable. Take A. Bertram Chandler’s “Giant Killer,” published in 1945. You don’t realize at first that the story is told from the perspective of rats inside a spaceship that have acquired intelligence. Then you have arguably the greatest novel of the Golden Age, Jack Williamson’s “Humanoids,” which is all the more frightening because the evil robots actually win in the end – no comfortable, cheeseball Hollywood victory here. My favorite science fiction novel of all time, A. E. van Vogt’s 1940 “Slan,” did have a lot in common with the traditional yarn about the Wesley Crusher-esque boy genius that saved the day with gadgets, but it is still read today because it is an anti-prejudice story told from the perspective of a persecuted outsider. Who the hell today reads formulaic tripe like Gernsback’s “Ralph 124C41+?” Even the Lensmen, at one point considered the greatest science fiction serial of all time, have been mostly forgotten!

The ultimate point here is this: if the pulp spirit is innovation, wouldn’t it (ironically) kill that spirit, to try and excruciatingly duplicate the typical pulp clich├ęs like the wisecracking two-fisted scientist and the breathtakingly beautiful native Chieftain’s Daughter?

Here’s the thing I think needs to be remembered about things that drew on the movie serials: Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were actually nothing at all like the Saturday afternoon serials. They made an effort to create unique and fleshed out characters, tell unique stories, and they strove to be unpredictable as much as possible. The Star Wars universe was made with the thought it could actually exist. They were hardly throwback or “retro” projects. There was a sincerity behind them that wasn’t found in other serial-inspired work, and there is a reason “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is nowhere near as beloved as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Nostalgia is the enemy of real creativity.

All of this (finally!) brings me to Avatar and Fringe.

“Fringe” is a pulp series and nobody even knows it – it eschews the fedoras for the things that actually made the pulps “pulp.” The first episode begins with a horrifying and mysteriously unexplained infection on an airplane that turns people into fleshless skeletons. This, by the way, is the beginning of something like 30 Doc Savage novels. Fringe is about G-Men, the most pulp of all professions, who investigate cases of science misuse so lurid and horrific I keep expecting the Spider to pop up somewhere. “Fringe” goes for bleeding-edge science developments to justify their unusual cases, another example of the pulp era’s main tools to suspend disbelief: cutting-edge technology and the appeal to plausibility. One of the main characters is a mad scientist, another pulp staple, but in the tradition of the pulps, who tried to be innovative, the series shows what a real-life mad scientist would actually be like.

“Avatar” excited me because James Cameron obviously read the same science fiction I did and was inspired by very much the same things. This is John Carter of Mars, but a story that ditched the reactionary and backward attitudes and actually embraced a conscience. It embraced scientific plausibility and actually gave an explanation for why giant flying monsters are possible (short answer: low gravity and a thick atmosphere) and created a realistic ecosystem. It’s the smartest science movie since “Jurassic Park.” The irony here is that when they actually do make “John Carter of Mars,” people are going to say what a rip off it is of Avatar!

At the end of the day, the pulp tradition is alive and well: not as fossilized and ossified “retro” or nostalgic material, but as a living, breathing thing that continually adapts and changes to its environment and context. Changing to one’s environment doesn’t destroy pulp: it IS pulp and always has been.