Friday, February 25, 2011

Eulogy for Dwayne MacDuffie

Dwayne McDuffie, a guy best known for writing for the DC Animated toons and then actually getting to write Justice League, died recently, which is an ugly shock because he was energetic, relatively young, and wasn't obese or anything. He's the kind of guy you figure can go the distance, and his death (due as I understand it, to accident) is the kind that makes you angry.

In his capacity at working at animated DC, particularly Justice League, he created some of the slickest, coolest cartoons ever made, the single best expression of DC superheroes in any medium ever. Dark, smart and old-school cool, Justice League was the first animated DC cartoon to use long-term arcs and is generally considered, along with the early seasons of Batman and Mask of the Phantasm as the high point of superhero animation.

Let me tell you the exact moment I realized Dwayne McDuffie was my kind of guy.

During the DVD of the Justice League episode 3-parter, Dwayne said he was absolutely shocked by the buzzkill, disappointing revelation that Hawkman's wings were some kind of strap on to his cosume and not actually a part of him. So, if you look closely at his Justice League show, at no point do any Thanagarians take their wings off, ever - even when by themselves...and if someone unfamiliar with DC were to, say, draw a conclusion from that...well, that wouldn't be his fault, would it? They don't say the wings are a part of them, they just heavily imply it!

This is such a clever way around outright contradicting canon that I have to give him props for sheer sneakiness.

Also, note that Nth Metal is onl mentioned as an engineering concept totally unrelated to flight.

I thought I was the only one this drove up the wall and it's nice to know I wasn't alone. People that are totally entrenched might wonder what the big deal is, but I started off a Marvel fan, reading Marvel-only as a point of pride. Naturally I got curious about DC because I liked superheroes, and one of the first I wanted to read was Hawkman because he looked so darn cool: he had wings and fought with ancient weapons. He looked like a DC version of one of Frank Miller's Ninja heroes.

Instead, we have a character that is an alien (huh - why is that necessary?), who uses ancient weapons for no reason except an insane whim, whose motive for coming to earth and remaining there is murky at best, and worst of all, his wings aren't a part of him. This final bit removes the element of fantasy and adventure. It makes him a phony, a sham, a a pimply faced, Doritos-smelling teenager pretending to be Santa Claus at a mall. The real Hawkman is a lame character like Wonder Woman, in that he makes absolutely no sense so it's impossible to like him.

Regardless, here's another thing that Dwayne MacDuffie have in common: we're both Englehart fans.

Here's the pudding...the very first story arc after the three-part introductory movie was actually based on Englehart's dramatic splash story in JLA 140-142 featuring the origin of the Manhunters and their attempt to steal the power of the Guardians, the inciting incident of which is framing Green Lantern for murder.

What's more, the two characters that were the best developed in the entire comics run were Hawkgirl and Jon Stewart. It was Englehart's idea to bring Hawkwoman into the JLA with the impressive logic that if Hawkman was a member, why wasn't Hawkwoman, anyway? Though it should be noted that it was Gerry Conway a few years later that had Hawkwoman as a member without her husband.

Finally, it was Englehart who established the character of Jon Stewart as a leading man. When Englehart took over Green Lantern, the expectation was he was going to bring Hal Jordan back. Which he didn't do for at least an entire year, doing to the one thing nobody expects: writing Jon Stewart as such an interesting and competent guy, when he finally got around to Hal Jordan, I didn't want Hal back.

Even one of Englehart's minor stories was adapted by the animated series, including a Batman/Aquaman team up in Legends of the DC Universe.

Thus, Dwayne MacDuffie was a guy on my wavelength. I know he will be missed, and in an era when people who just don't care or know anything about comics characters except campy water cooler jokes (ahem - Brave and the Bold) he was someone that loved the characters and took them seriously. He was a rarity and his enthusiasm will be missed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Fifty State Quarters

The Florida 50-State Quarter is so dull that I think I dozed off when looking at it. A collage of mostly empty space with the space shuttle and what I can only guess is Ponce de Leon's galleon. What, they couldn't do like the ugly Wisconsin quarter and cram in images of our principal products? (I'd love to see a state that's praised as "First in Bauxite!")

All this becomes all the more shocking when one considers all the great imagery that could have been used for the Florida quarter, like an image of the dead rising from the grave to vote in elections. Amelia Earhart leaving Hialeah and then crashing to her doom. Perhaps images of a few of Florida's real natural treasures, humorists like Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry, or maybe one of those ultra-tacky Daytona mermaids.

The trouble with the state quarters was they were predictable. Try to guess what was on the Maine quarter. Go on...guess.

The single two best quarters were those with unexpected themes. For instance, New Jersey's quarter was dedicated to the state's military history as the site of many Revolutionary War battles. It's easy to forget that Jersey, all spray tanner jokes aside, was the site of many turning-point battles during that conflict.

When you think of New Jersey, do you think of military history and the Revolutionary War? No, but it's great to see Jersey get a shout-out.

And my all-time favorite was Alabama.

When you think of Alabama, do you think of Helen Keller? Not really, and that's why there's something genius about it. It shows there's a lot more to that state than college football and Martin Luther King.

It's worth noting that recently a dollar coin was unveiled to celebrate 200 years of the birth of Louis Braille, a coin that actually features Braille on the front!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Star Wars Comics Reviews Part 2: Tales of the Jedi

When Obi-Wan Kenobi said that the lightsaber was an elegant weapon from a more civilized time, the era of “Tales of the Jedi” was what he was talking about.

“Tales of the Jedi” is an extraordinary comic because it shows us a part of Star Wars we’ve never seen before: the era of the Old Republic, when Jedi Knights were numerous. If the time of the original Star Wars movies is comparable to the gritty and rough 1930s, these comics are set in 17th Century France; in fact, Ulic Qel Droma’s Samurai-inspired armor aside, the Jedi Knights have more the feel of the Musketeers, and it’s telling our main Jedi heroes are three young, hotshot male characters out to prove themselves.

The Krath

The principal villains of the story are the main attraction because they’re so gleefully well developed and wicked: the Krath, a society of cruel and decadent young aristocrats who dabble in the Dark Side and evil sorcery to alleviate their incredible boredom, who are not entirely aware of the evil they’ve unleashed on the universe. The Krath murder their parents and tutors in creative and sadistic ways, laughing all the way: murder and the macabre is a sport for them. They torture for the fun of it. The Krath are the super-rich equivalent of the kid in the neighborhood that used to place firecrackers up the assholes of stray cats.

There’s a definite Edgar Allen Poe vibe from these guys; Poe loved twisted young aristocrats, warped by boredom, parental inattentiveness, a society that never told them “no” or set boundaries, and their own origins as bad seeds. The narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart evilly implored them to understand his awful murder done out of insanity:

“You who are rich and whose worries are few; might come around to see my point of view.”

The Krath are so horrifyingly decadent and evil they are absolutely fascinating, and their illusion powers are so chilling, turning swords into serpents. One thing that bothered me about the Sith in the godawful Star Wars prequel trilogy was the lack of imagination in Sith abilities, based on recycling imagery from the original movies like lightning bolts and lightsabers. The Sith here don’t use lightning, and certainly don’t use lightsabers. In fact one weapon that’s distinctively theirs is the Sith Sword, a monster thing that’s curved and evil.

Earlier I said the era of Tales of the Jedi was like the 17th Century. Just like the camaraderie of the Jedi was inspired by the Musketeers, it’s obvious the Krath were inspired by L’affaire des poisons (The Affair of the Poisons), a famous scandal where members of the aristocracy of France were found guilty of witchcraft, where in addition to crimes like convincing a lover to poison her parents, the society of aristocrats were fascinated by the Occult: fortune tellers, astrology and devil-worship.

The one downside to the Krath is the energy circle that surrounds their eyes when they use their evil sorcery. It’s so…well, X-Men, like something Psylocke would do.

(See if you can guess which is the Krath villainess and which is Psylocke.)

Exar Kun, “Our Villain”

I find it amazing that the least interesting villain in the comics is the one who keeps on getting referenced over and over in Star Wars. For instance, Exar Kun’s evil ghost was the main bad guy in the Jedi Academy trilogy. Like Lumiya and Lord Cronal (“Blackhole”), Exar Kun was one of the few expanded universe bad guys to have their origin in the comics.

It’s a shame his story is so predictable, so there’s no real drama in it. For heaven’s sake, just LOOK at the guy! He’s got scars and black hair and evil black robes and looks like Count Dracula. Doesn’t he just scream bad guy? The first time we see him he attacks his own master and is obsessed with evil knowledge. Gee, I wonder if this dick will turn to the Dark Side…

The Republic

The Republic is a little less like any governing body in Star Wars, and a lot more like the Federation from Star Trek: entrance in it is possible only for civilized worlds that have reached a certain level of development – that have “grown up,” basically. In fact, the primary plot of the first arc of Tales of the Jedi, “Ulic Qel-Droma and the Beast Wars of Onderon,” feels a little like one of the many Star Trek first contact episodes. The fact the Republic was such a surprisingly benevolent society in this era is really interesting because…what’s the point of decadence and decay if there was never anything better?

Ulic Qel-Droma, “Our Hero”

Of all the heroes in Star Wars, Jedi Knight Ulic Qel-Droma is the most like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, at least on the surface, anyway, and at least at first: he’s got a clefted chin and big muscles, a throwback to the fifties when Americans liked their heroes like they liked their steaks: beefy and All-American. Like Luke Skywalker, Qel-Droma’s a youth out to prove himself, and he’s way too arrogant and cocky for his own good, bold and without fear. Come to think of it, Tales of the Jedi has tons of Flash Gordon and pulp references, though as usual they’re subdued and not gaudy, like one alien is from the planet “Vultan.”

However, when Ulic’s master is murdered by a droid, the character’s arc takes a turn for the worst. His belief in his own invincibility becomes a liability when he suggests infiltrating the Krath to avenge his master’s death. Here we actually see how someone could fall to the Dark Side: filled with the best intentions, yet an absolute certainty and cockiness that nothing can happen to him, motivated by fear and loss. The moment he leaves is the most powerful part of Tales of the Jedi by far: it has the feeling of irrevocable loss. Everyone feels they’ll never see Ulic ever again, from his brother to Nomi Sunrider, the woman Ulic loves.

Our Heroine, Nomi Sunrider

Nomi Sunrider has the distinction of having her hair change more times than any other science fiction female except maybe Dr. Crusher. Take a look at this, and bear in mind these are sequential panels:

Her hair changes color constantly. This is probably because Nomi Sunrider, in her early appearances, has the most bizarre case of female pattern baldness I’ve ever seen. I think what they wanted to do was give her an unique and distinctive “Star Wars” hairstyle, much like Princess Leia’s Mexican peasant woman buns, but while Leia looked memorable this just looked icky and weird. If I tried to go for a Star Wars equivalent of a No-Prize, the explanation for the weird on/off hair may be that Nomi Sunrider has female pattern baldness (yes, it happens – ask any dermatologist) and occasionally wears a hairpiece.

Incidentally, I had to scan a lot of these images myself because when I did a Google image search for Nomi Sunrider for images to accompany this review, almost every single image – every one - that turned up was of Nomi Sunrider holding someone and crying!

The Continuity

The most amazing thing about Tales of the Jedi is that despite the fact it’s set in an inconceivably ancient era (4,000 years before the Star Wars movies) you get the feeling we’re midway into civilization, that even this time has a lengthy past behind it. When Obi-Wan said the Jedi had been protectors of the Republic for a thousand generations (that’s 20,000 years, give or take) he wasn’t exaggerating for effect.

There are already ruins and long-dead legendary figures like the Sith Tombs of Korriban (inspired by the Valley of the Kings) and Empress Teta (an Alexander the Great-esque military leader). As this is our only window into this era, every single mention of continuity here is overdeveloped and pounced on by the few other works set in this era like the Old Republic video game. An offhand mention in one line of dialogue of “a great droid revolution” was the basis for tons of lore, for instance.

By the way, Empress Teta has a really funny name to Spanish speakers because a Teta in Spanish is a slang term for giant breasts. There hasn’t been a funnier cross-linguistic accident in Star Wars since it was discovered “Panaka” is Portuguese for “douchebag.”

With a better special effects budget, it’s ironic the Jedi somehow became less interesting and had less mystique once they became ridiculous supermen who threw giant rocks around with mind powers, able to destroy armies. Also, the Jedi in this comic actually get married and have sex, as opposed to the emotionless and creepy monks they were in the prequel movies. Jedi in this era were great swordsmen, acrobats and martial artists with often unusual abilities to counteract sorcery, but for the most part their powers were subtle and not silly. As budgets improved, the Jedi got so invulnerable that there was no suspense or danger; ironically they became boring. Not so here. Andur Sunrider was killed by a gang of criminals and even a mighty Jedi Master was killed by a droid.

One character from this era I find amazing is the Cathay “animal Jedi” Sylvar, who at first is seen as this terrible feral cat monster that was roughly the series’s equivalent of Chewbacca, but gradually gets more and more sexed up and human looking for no reason. Lots of characters started off homely but got better looking and slimmer as time went on before anyone knew what was happening: Miss Piggy, Pepper Potts, the Wicked Witch of the West, and so on, but never to such an extreme from such bizarre and grotesque beginnings.

In the last “Tales of the Jedi” series, she’s gotten much more human and a lot better looking, inexplicably.

Finally, when she’s seen again in the 2005 video game Knights of the Old Republic, only little hints of her animal nature can be seen and she became a dead ringer for Cheetara from Thundercats, perfect masturbation fodder for nerds.

Incidentally, I have a few theories about some of the alien races from this era that vanished. The cat race of the Cathay had so much genetic diversity that eventually they speciated like Darwin’s finches, becoming the many cat-races in present day Star Wars like Atuarre’s race from “Han Solo at Star’s End.”

Also, here’s another fan theory of mine: the Noghri, Darth Vader’s personal assassins, are the last survivors of the original Sith species along with the Massassi on Yavin IV. It would explain their veneration for Darth Vader (an instinctive worship of evil fallen Jedi), and the assassin weaponry used by the Noghri is similar to the primitive weapons used by the Massassi: knives and throwing objects.

The Art and Design – or, “Why are there so many lines on the face? Why?”

“Tales of the Jedi” is one of the few comics I can think of that was a giant success despite the fact it didn’t have slick art. In fact the art is downright ugly, especially during the Nomi Sunrider arc. It’s laughably dated and borrows from Frank Miller in ways that are unintentionally funny. There's no greater contrast between the painted and photorealistic covers than the often amateurish interior art. It reminds me of Gold Key comics, who used painted covers as a selling point to make their books stand out on the shelves.

I mean, look at other big hit top sellers: “The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones” had John Byrne at the height of his fame and power, the Marvel Star Wars comics had possibly the best art of Walt Simonson’s career, Teen Titans was a superhit more due to the fact George Perez did the pencils than anything in the scripts, and I highly doubt anyone would have cared about Kingdom Come if George Tuska or Sal Buscema did the art instead of Alex Ross.

Why this comic so successful if the art was was so bad? Well, to start with, people were really hungry at this time for Star Wars: there hadn’t been any prequels yet to compromise Star Wars’s coolness and there hadn’t been any new Star Wars movies for going on 12 years.

Also, never underestimate the power of the international comics market. One of the things that strikes me about the letters pages from Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics is how the postscripts on the letters come from all over the world: Japan, Denmark, and Latin America. I love superhero comics a lot, but in many ways the popularity of superheroes are a strictly American phenomenon. Star Wars on the other hand, has more of a global audience.

The Nebulon Ranger is one of the worst designed starships I’ve ever seen; it looks like something Wreck-Gar would assemble on the Planet of Junk. In fact, nearly every starship looks like this in this era; asymmetrical, pointed, craggy junkers. The ships don’t have the personality and memorable design that the supercool Milennium Falcon did. Also…I don’t work for Lockheed-Martin or Boeing, so take my sense of the laws of avionics with a grain of salt…but wouldn’t having thrusters just on one side of the ship make it go around in circles? The only piece of technology that has any distinctiveness are the lightsabers: they almost always have this weird four-prong “castle” design. In fact, this design for lightsabers was maintained in things like the Old Republic video games.

In the end, while I liked Tales of the Jedi a lot, I got an overwhelming feeling this was produced by a writer that never worked for comics before, which is, to an extent, true: Kevin J. Anderson was principally a novelist. The stories, like wrongly-paced DC comics of the 1960s, relied on the captions for transition and to express action. Comics have a rhythm to them and a language used to express ideas; sometimes some things can be expressed in art; for instance, you can't have the captions say "everyone's heart was heavy when they were forced to abandon Ulic Qel-Droma," and then have the panels just be everyone sitting and talking with normal expressions.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Star Wars Comics Reviews Part 1: Russ Manning's Star Wars Daily Strip

Back in the Old Days, if you were an artist that worked in comics, you didn’t want to do a comic book: you wanted the high profile, prestige and visibility of a daily newspaper strip as opposed to the toiling obscurity of comic books. One of my favorite details in “Kavalier and Clay” is that doing comic books was a step above being a pornographer…but only barely! Strips were the ticket to the big time.

So color me surprised to discover the Star Wars daily comic strip in the late 1970s was plotted and drawn by old-school comic book guy and Korean war vet Russ Manning, creator of Magnus: Robot Fighter. Apparenty he was going to retire but instead went back to comics simply because he loved the movie Star Wars that much. Now that’s passion!

And what can I say? It’s gorgeous alright, classy and old-school cool, Russ Manning brought his A-Game. He’s the only comics artist I can think of that draws Darth Vader in a way that feels “right” to me, that draws Storm Troopers in a frightening way. He’s a master of monsters and machines. As for his Luke Skywalker and Leia, his drawings look like Luke and Leia, though they look nothing like Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher! If that makes sense.

However, I can’t help but shake the feeling that Manning should have worked with a plotter on this, someone that understands Star Wars, like Archie Goodwin. For one thing, Star Wars is so lively because of the characters. I can’t think of one line of dialogue that Han Solo would say, with his distinct swagger and smarminess. Luke was a hero and audience identification figure, but he was also reckless, “fast and bumpy,” and was always spoiling for action. I can't think of one time in the daily those characteristics were on display.

I guess that’s my overall verdict: Russ Manning was a godlike artist at the top of his game who may have been the most beautiful Star Wars comics artist except for maybe Walt Simonson or Duursema, but in terms of plotting and character he was past his prime, developing as a writer in an era that didn’t value characterization or unpredictability. In that sense he reminds me of Otto Binder and yes, even Jack Kirby and Chris Claremont these days anyway: once-great creators who stopped being relevant when comics changed and they didn’t. Though to his credit, Manning always kept his dignity and didn’t descend into Otto Binder foolishness; Manning’s plots were predictable but clean and correct.

(In fact, I always thought of Jack Kirby after Marvel as very similar to George Lucas: he receives more than his fair share of credit for something that was a collaborative effort and when he works on his own and calls the shots, he delivers something weird and ugly. In fact, the Fourth World was Kirby’s Episode I: highly anticipated like nothing else. There was even talk the Fourth World was going to be a “Marvel-Killer.” Ultimately, it was a giant Episode I-esque creative disappointment. Episode I words like “disappointment” and “shock” can describe practically everything Kirby did during and after the 1970s. His much-touted return to Captain America without Simon or Lee featured weird and ugly stuff like the doughboy and the madbomb.)

Russ Manning also broke the one great unspoken no-no of Star Wars when he made some insufferable little kid a part of the story, for which I want to choke the life out of him with my bare hands. The greatest thing about Star Wars was there were no little kids running around. Little kids are unfortunately common in adventure comics prior to 1950, and they’re all terrible. Not some of them…all of them. It’s unfortunate Manning had to export the bad habit of little kids to a comic like Star Wars where it doesn’t belong. I’ve never understood the reasoning behind making a kid a part of something aimed at kids. Imaginations don’t work that way. Kids dream about and pretend to be heroes like Batman or Han Solo, or bad guys of a grand and terrible type like Darth Vader or the Joker, precisely because they’re not kids. I have no idea what went into the decision to make kids the main characters of Star Wars phenomena like the forgettable Jedi Prince books and the various Ewok TV specials.

Star Wars was something kids loved, but precisely because it was never childish. People were killed in Star Wars, something the movies never covered up. This, by the way, is why people were so offended by “Greedo shot first.” So it blows my mind to see Manning’s strip actually do Comics Code stuff like have the bad guy get “accidentally killed by a ricochet.” What, he couldn’t have “tripped and fallen into his own deathtrap,” the preferred ironic means of death for Doc Savage villains? Bad guys have to die because of poetic justice for the awful things they’ve done, but the “fall into your own deathtrap” accident leaves the good guys’ hands lily-white. Somehow, I don’t think Han Solo would either a) have any qualms about blasting a lowlife Imperial officer Nazi type, or b) miss.

The Bad Guys

The Star Wars strips were responsible for giving us a bad guy that became a big figure in the expanded universe: Blackhole, a creepy, memorable villain that moved like a shadow. There were some other bad guys too. One of the more surprising was an Imperial Officer who was a sort of snake-alien. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Imperial Officer other than Thrawn to be a non-human. A big part of Star Wars lore is that the Empire was racist and classist, and officers were from the aristocratic classes and were never derived from the rabble of the enlisted men. This was probably due to the fact that as the Star Wars movies were all filmed in England, most of the non-principal cast brought from the States were English actors. Anyway, it’s an old Hollywood habit to hire Brits to play Nazis in war movies, which Star Wars kept, since it was all basically World War II in space.

I always thought this was one of the more unusual things about Star Wars: the bad guys were white and upper-class, as opposed to villains that are malevolent because they’re vaguely ethnic. Offhand I can’t think of any other science fiction group were this was done. Even the Klingons in the otherwise progressive Star Trek were swarthy types, typically played by Greek, Jewish or Italian actors (and black actors in the Next Generation on).

Russ Manning’s Cheesecake

The Star Wars expanded universe operates under the hilarious conceit that Luke Skywalker would get more female action than the cooler Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, and the Manning comics are no exception to that unbelievable rule. All of the girls teamed up with Luke and “liked him.”

Science fiction comics have always been sold under the va-va-voom factor, and pay no attention to Calvinist hypocrites that say otherwise. Heck, to anyone that tries to argue that comics fandom has gotten hornier and dumber over the years, I’d offer as my rebuttal pretty much any given lettercol for the original Planet Comics: all the letters pages talked about was who the hottest space babe in the book. I’m not kidding, read them for yourself. They’re as unpredictable as a stable-hand’s hidden passions.

In fact, Russ Manning even used a G-rated version of one of Star Wars’s favorite plots: the Star Wars “It Girl,” Princess Leia, becomes a slave girl. They did this in a much more famous way with the slave bikini in “Return of the Jedi,” which got a cover in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and was also a plot point in Alan Dean Foster’s novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.”