Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jerry Ordway's "Power of Shazam" (1995-1999)

One thing that surprised and amused me about the Jerry Ordway "Power of Shazam" series were the surprising number of jokes built around incest-related misunderstandings, to the point it reminded me of a slightly more innocent version of "Arrested Development."

When Mary Broomfield (really Mary Batson) disappeared for days at a time with Billy Batson, there was a joke about how the suspicion is the two eloped and ran away together. And someone points out an entirely logical theory about the Marvel Family the general public might have: it is often assumed Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel are married and Captain Marvel, Jr. is really their son.

Another running gag in "Power of Shazam!" is centered around another squirm-inducing premise that's perfectly in keeping with the "how'd they get away with that?" Arrested Development sense of humor: Captain Marvel, as a boy in the body of an older superhero, has aggressive older women throw themselves at him. This always results in awkwardness on the part of the poor Captain, but the crazy part is, only at first. By the final year of the series…he actually starts to like it!

Gee, I wonder why that could be.

There are a few things I like about the 1995-1999 series.

One desperately needed key difference between CM and Superman: Billy Batson's powers come from the wizard Shazam, and the wizard Shazam can take them away if Batson goofs off with them. Also, Shazam can do things like wake Batson up at four in the morning to take care of a crisis.

It does have a few weaknesses, however. One is plotting, in that a lot of the long-term plot threads have resolutions that I either missed or don't make any sense. A big plot point: Mr. Tawky Tawny is a stuffed tiger doll who is able to come to life and give advice to Mary. The story takes a somewhat mysterious/sinister turn when Tawky Tawny tells Mary the wizard Shazam didn't send him, and that she shouldn't tell Shazam he's able to come to life.

Kids? Never trust an adult who says "let's keep this our little secret." Danger, Will Robinson!

I was very excited by this development, because Tawky Tawny is one of those characters Captain Marvel historians – who in general have a way higher tolerance for Casper/Richie Rich/Wendy Witch type kiddie stuff than I do – specifically finger Tawny as the shark jump point for CM's classic era. The guy is, in short, Captain Marvel's version of Jar-Jar Binks and Scrappy Doo…even by the terrifyingly low standards of occasionally nostalgia-blinded classic Captain Marvel devotees.

I expected them to deconstruct the character a little. Remember how it turned out a megalomaniac Scrappy-Doo was really the villain of the Scooby-Doo movie? To my mind, that's the only way to do something like Alvin and the Chipmunks in live action, have them be malevolent little imps whispering evil thoughts to Dave Seville, and when he isn't around they assume their "true forms."

Alas, the resolution to this plot makes no sense, because when you ultimately learn exactly what Tawny is, there's no real reason for him to have hidden his identity from Shazam.

Another plot thread resolved to absolute confusion is Ebenezer Batson's son, who, if I'm keeping track correctly, was mind-controlled simultaneously by Sivana, the Devil, space invader worms, and a Dick Tracy crime queen (not making this up).

I do appreciate the attempts to try to connect the Marvel Family with DC's continuity, and the other Fawcett heroes specifically. For instance, remember the long-standing Superman enemies Blaze and Satanus going all the way back to Marv Wolfman's tenure on the book in the early eighties? The ones who played a big role in, among other things, Death of Superman? Well, turns out they're actually demonic twin children of the wizard Shazam!

It was a treat to see an old school talent as enormous like Curt Swan doing the flashback stories to World War II with Spysmasher and Bulletman fighting Captain Nazi. Nobody paid attention to this series because Ordway only did the covers; the interior pencils were done by Guy-With-A-Familiar-Name.

It was even more of a delight to see all these Fawcett guys show up in a book as supporting cast. It made the Marvel book feel bigger and more peopled, and gave the book a stronger sense of identity. "Power of Shazam" was about the entire Fawcett corner of the DC Universe.

At one point, the wizard Shazam even briefly retires, leaving his duties in the hand of Fawcett character Ibis the Invincible. Incidentally, Ibis happens to be the only Golden Age character I can think of who has after his original appearances, was since presented as a non-Caucasian.

Another big problem with the series? There was no "Sivana" story. In 46 issues, there was really no tale where Sivana was the main villain where we see why the guy's an interesting baddie. Considering there was a whole story arc around Mr. Atom, I have a hard time believing this.

I always had the feeling Mary Marvel makes a heck of a lot more sense in the Spanish-speaking world, where, considering how common the name "Maria" is, a "Maria Marvel" would hardly be a dead giveaway as to her identity. The name Mary isn't as common as it used to be, at least among the non-Irish. These days, if she wanted to be incognito, she'd have to be called "Jennifer Marvel."

There was a lot of resistance to the idea of Mary Marvel's corruption by Black Adam a couple years back. Actually I think it's a rather interesting idea, and one that can actually make Mary grow and be a different character at the start than at the end.

And this was also the greatest gift ever given to cosplay girls.

I don't agree with the objections but I understand why people make them. In fact, the writers should have anticipated that very reaction, if they were at all in tune with how fans think: the fan-boy overprotectiveness of female characters.

Here's an example of what I mean: remember that slimy creep Terry Long, an older chest hair and gold chain wearing community college professor divorcee who oozed and sleazed his way into the heart of Wonder Girl with Saturday Night Live quotes?

Reading Teen Titans, I kept on waiting for a plot twist that just never came.

I can totally understand why they felt the urge to have someone like Terry Long in Teen Titans, who is just a regular guy. One of my problems with X-Men is, nobody anywhere is ever really "normal." Even Nightcrawler's girlfriend turned out to be some kind of sorceress.

But fans didn't like Terry Long because he was not only an annoying creep, he was marrying Wonder Girl. This kind of reaction didn't happen when the Vision and the Scarlet Witch or Green Arrow and Black Canary got married, since both the Vision and Ollie were heroes, worthy of their respective women. Notice Steve Trevor hasn't really returned in Wonder Woman continuity.

And look at how Spider-Fans get ludicrously jumpy about the virginity of Gwen Stacy. We care more about the guys she's dated than her father probably did!

Thus, a savvy editor should have shut the idea down, even if it might have resulted in a great story, the same way editors shut down interesting but problematic proposed stories like the one where Daredevil became mayor of New York or Bill Mantlo's idea in the 1980s for Spider-Man to have an illegitimate baby.

Here's another piece of advice I have for writers who want to do Captain Marvel in the future: don't listen to the Captain Marvel die-hards like Erik Larsen. What, you think they'll be grateful to you for doing anything with Captain Marvel? Ha!

The reason it's pointless is this: Captain Marvel, unlike Superman and Batman, was denied continuous publication. If you look at the stories told in say, Superman in the late 1940s, they were very similar to Captain Marvel stories, with Superman fighting bad guys who were practical joke themed. However, Superman was continually published, and eventually the practical joke baddies disappeared, replaced by a kind of science fiction epic grandeur that drew from space opera which reached a high point in the Schwartz years.

The Legion of Super-Heroes started off as an Otto Binder-style cute gimmick story. Would you have believed it if I were to tell you they'd one day be the subjects of grandiose, epic space stories like Earthwar and Great Darkness?

Because the only image we have of CM is from the Bad Old Days, unlike Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, our very definition of what makes CM who he is comes with the demand his stories be "wacky."

What's more, since the 1960s and Marvel comics (the other Marvel comics), there's been the requirement characterization and consistent continuity will be a part of any comic, just like there's the requirement every movie made since the 1920s will have sound and every movie made since the 1950s will be made in color and widescreen: these things are a non-negotiable expectation.

Ask any comics fan you want, or even members of the general public on the street, what the appeal is in Captain Marvel, and they'll tell you it's all about a kid who gets to be an adult superhero by saying the magic word. It's the "hook" the entire character is built around.

But ask die-hards like Erik Larsen and he'll tell you a different answer. Captain Marvel is a totally different person from Billy Batson! And anyone who says he's a kid in the body of an adult doesn't understand the idea at all!

Do hardcore Captain Marvel fans think it's really that important that CM be a different person from Billy? Consider the disturbing implications of that. It means when not summoned the Captain really exists in some negative zone. What if Captain Marvel wants to stay on earth, or falls in love? He's entitled to a life. It also means Billy is not really important at all: he's just a "bottle" Captain Marvel is stored in. Captain Marvel's heroism, courage and resourcefulness doesn't really come from Billy because they're different people. Anybody could be Captain Marvel.

Alan Moore's Miracleman showed the horror potential in very powerful heroes, and even used the notion of separate people to create chills. Miracleman had a contempt for his ordinary identity and said "I don't trust Mike Moran in a crisis." If you want to make Captain Marvel creepy, this is the perfect way to do it.

Why do types like Larsen say something like this? As a Superman fan, and someone with experience with the worst kind of Superman fan, I can provide an answer. A lot of Superman fans, in opposition to the now-undone Byrne/Helfer reboot of 1986, made a big point about how in every past version of the character, is actually Superman that is the true identity and Clark Kent that is the disguise.

That was just never true, though, even before the reboot: many writers had different opinions on the matter, and one famous Maggin/Bates story insisted triumphantly and explicitly Superman was both Superman and Clark Kent. Heck, Schwartz-writer Len Wein even insisted that it was Superman who was the put-up job, not Kent.

The reason classic Superman fans say this is not because it's true or accurate, but because of contrariness that leads them to misrepresent what they're defending. Know how lots of Superman fans demand the return of Super-Pets? Then you have the emphasis on the Lieutenant Marvels, who only had appearances that could be counted on the one hand of a wood shop teacher who raises piranha. This isn't nostalgia, because nostalgia is something you feel for something remembered fondly, impossible in the case of such negligible nonentities. The reason they're big on the pets is because they piss off what they imagine modern age fans are like. In short, contrarianism.

I must admit, I've seen fans be contrary, but to negate the entire hook of a character just to be oppositional to the modern age is really breathtaking.

Get it? They will literally never be satisfied ever with anything you do for all these reasons. There is no point in second-guessing yourself, no point in wondering if you might produce something that would please older classic Captain Marvel fans. Their voices can be ignored and discounted because their demands are not reasonable.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens died – it's gloating time!

This has been a truly terrible year for comics fans. Living legends of the Golden Age like Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon and Eduardo Barretto have passed on, leaving with their tremendous talent and connection to our history. It's natural to be a little depressed as a result, and I sure am.

I thought nothing could take me out of this funk, but I was wrong. Vile Iraq War cheerleader and Bush toady bootlicker Christopher Hitchens just croaked from throat cancer.

This video should about summarize my reaction to the news.

This has truly been a great day. I feel like tap dancing. I'm more cheerful than when Bin Laden died.

Even in death it's impossible to muster sympathy for this bloated toad because his death was so obviously his own damn fault (constant cigarette use = throat cancer) so it's impossible to cough up the obligatory crocodile tears. It has a beautiful note of poetic justice. At least cancer got the guy to shut up.

Why does Christopher Hitchens deserve this kind of ire? Lots of pundits argued delusionally that Iraq was a clear and obvious danger connected to international terror with terrifying weapons ready to use at a moment's notice and any possible invasion and occupation would be one-sided, brief and cheap. He tirelessly suckered the public into a war I said from the beginning would be a giant clusterfuck…but a lot of other members of the scumsucker pundit class did what he did, too.

Why does Hitchens merit so much scorn?

Chris Hitchens wasn't just another arrogant talking head who was totally wrong about Iraq.

He was a self-appointed "leftist radical" (because he said he is one, not because of anything he'd done or views he's held, in that respect similar to his hero George Orwell) and because of that self-description he had a lot of credibility with hardcore liberals and moderates, and he lent that credibility to bootlick Cheney's scheme. Chris Hitchens made it possible for moderates and liberals to support the Iraq War. He was the sole example that could be pointed to in order to show all sides of the political spectrum supported invading Iraq. And finally, he demonstrated it was possible to be an "intellectual" and support the conflict.

His tireless support, in short, created the illusion of broad consensus, an illusion that made the Iraq War both possible and inevitable.

And Hitch has never apologized or admitted error for the bloody history his arrogance helped author.

I sincerely hope Hitchens is wrong, and there is a God, because the idea of a supreme being who holds human beings totally accountable for deeds they escaped punishment for in life is an extremely appealing one right about now. Did any neocon toady ever suffer even slightly for supporting Iraq? Have any of them lost any credibility for being totally wrong about everything?

I'm a patriot, not a sucker. Learn the difference, huh?

Oh yeah, atheism – the real reason faux liberals are crying crocodile tears over this sycophantic warmonger. Hasn't it even occurred to anyone else the two main targets of Hitchens' ire were the Catholic Church and Islam? Hitchens' atheism was nothing more than every petty hundred year old prejudice learned by the English in the nursery room, hatred of the Pope and the Irish, and hatred of immigrant groups.

His atheism wasn't Star Trek-style rational clearmindedness. All he did was drag rationalists into a long-standing, picayune tribal gang knife fight.

If all the shameful and disgusting eulogies have got you down, try reading this one. It was written a year before his death...but why wait?

I wonder…were Hitch's final moments rather like the death scene of the bad guy in the 1990 movie "Ghost?"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Heinlein's "Rocket Ship Galileo"

Rocket Ship Galileo was written in 1947 and yet it spoke to me for many reasons.

The book is about some American kids who, with traditional Yankee know-how, develop a rocketship in their own backyard to travel to the Moon. As astounding as that premise is, Heinlein makes you believe in it and here's why:

The boys are shaped by a defining event that changed their entire worldview. A couple years before, they heard about the atomic weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The boys are "bitten by mathematics, science and engineering like it's a bug," with a rapacious, devouring hunger and greed for knowledge. As a person with a science background I've never heard it put better.

The boys have clueless parents that just don't get it, though. It's not that their parents are stupid, it's that they don't understand how the world changed in 1945 with the power of the atom and still have that old way of thinking that means they just don't "get" the boys.

The book was written in 1947 but it's easy to see how a lot of people today can identify with it. I certainly can. I have absolute genius and brilliant parents with PhDs…but who need help plugging in their wifi network and they think everyone on the internet is some kind of rapist. People that are older and younger than myself probably had and (are having) similar epiphanies about science and technology those more set in their ways don't get.

In fact, when I went to visit older relatives for Thanksgiving, I remembered it's been a while since I've seen anybody with actual DVDs in their home. The technology seems so old fashioned. Not because it's been superseded by some other format like HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, which are just steps sideways and equally old-fashioned. But because of streaming, technology like the iPod, and online software purchases, it seems downright retro to require a physical format at all to "own" some media.

Reading Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein's first novel ever, is a little shocking because it's hard to imagine Heinlein as a young person. I'm so used to him being the dignified, classy old man of science fiction not unlike his wise old man characters. For one thing, it's one of the few stories of Heinlein's to show the energetic fan-boy enthusiasm and influence of E. E. Smith, with the plot having some similarities to Smith's Skylark of Space, another novel about All-American amateurs who build their own rocket ship.

Smith had a lot of passion but he was very amateurish – Skylark was an awkwardly written adventure story. "Rocket Ship Galileo," even at that early stage of Heinlein's career, was about something.

(Interesting side note: Smith published "Skylark of Space" in the same issue of Amazing Stories as Phillip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419," the first Buck Rogers novel. In fact, Buck Rogers even got the cover over Skylark!)

Even Heinlein's usual stock character of the wise old man the hero bonds with and learns from was (are you ready?) a recent college graduate, a cool, hip younger relative who "gets it." You know how they say old age is always 15 years older than you are now?

The main plot comes when arriving on the Moon, where there are Nazis who used advanced rocketry and went to the Moon to plot their return and revenge, which isn't farfetched considering how advanced Nazi rocketry was towards the end.

Recently, I saw the proof-of-concept special effects reel trailer for "Iron Sky," a low budget movie about the Nazis returning from space, a project the creators are trying to get money to fund. This reminds me a little of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another big budget movie that started as a five minute special effects reel, a film that was tragically overshadowed by the release of Sin City a few months later.

I'm withholding an opinion on Iron Sky because…how can you have an opinion based on nothing? A special effects/proof of concept reel, even a viral one, is just that.

Still, a few warning signs jump out at me from the trailer. One of which is, there aren't any characters in it. Who's the main character, the hero we're supposed to root for? His girlfriend? Is there like a main Nazi leader, like a "Darth Vader" type?

We don't see that, and that tells me the people making this are too much in love with the idea of the story (Nazis from the Moon, an idea which was cribbed from Rocket Ship Galileo anyway) as opposed to the stuff you need when something becomes an actual movie as opposed to a demo reel.