Monday, January 1, 2018

Totems



New Year’s Day 2018
Totems




Wasting a crossover’s potential


"Untitled”
Written – Tom Peyer
Illustrators – Duncan Fegredo, Richard Case, and Dean Ormston
Letters – Ellie de Ville
Color and Separation – Alex Sinclair
Editor-in-chief – Jenette Kahn
February 2000

We are back to start the new year with a second helping of Vertigo’s fifth week V2K event books. This time our targets are the characters of Vertigo’s ongoing universe back in 1999. Those individuals being Animal Man, Swamp Thing, John Constantine, Shade the Changing Man, and Robot Man of the Doom Patrol. Notice that Sandman and Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic are not included, so there are a few folks in “DC Mature” sitting this one out.

And with good reason.

Time’s a wasting so how about we sift through this mess that Tom Peyer cobbled together. Peyer worked as editor at one time or another on all of these titles, so you’d think this book would meld together into a good story. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. 

The core of any muli-hero story is to get these characters together in an organic way that illustrates their relationships and then provide them with an obstacle for them to overcome that would challenge them individually, thus creating the need for a temporary “team-up”.

Simple, right?

Peyer fumbles around with that ball quite a bit, missing the initial catch with a why-are-they-here ham-fisted party invite. Then he continues to bobble the ball while running the field toward a touchdown with a plot that you think is leading somewhere only for it to end up being nonsense. The characters create the menace and then quickly dispose of the menace, leaving an ending that feels like Peyer finally got a firm grasp on the pigskin right as he entered the end zone only to find it was the opposing team's.

Sorry about that. One of my readers said I don’t use enough sport analogies and he had trouble keeping up. I hope that helped.

Anywho! We open with a “wall of weird” newspaper clippings featuring our cast of characters minus Constantine. In the bottom right is a family photo of a couple with an pre-teen girl child. Quick word about the art throughout – not certain which artist of the trio is responsible for what pages, but the art in this is decent. The story on the other hand... 



We next move to a divorcee breaking into to his ex’s house on the morning of January 1, 2000. This is Bernie Madden, the central character of our story and this is also our wrapper around which the events of the previous evening will be told. We need to like Bernie for the story to work, and unfortunately that’s Peyer’s first problem. 



Bernie, as presented, isn’t really a likeable character. Aside from the immoral implications of breaking into his ex’s house, Bernie is also the collector of all those news clippings. This implies he struggles to come to grips with the elements in DC’s mature take on their main universe. His concern is supposed to be our concern, but we’re never really shown enough about Bernie’s journey to feel sympathy for him or grow to understand him as a character.

And sure, he may check in to see his kid is okay…



…but he’s doing it right before threatening his wife and her new boyfriend with a gun. So, not much sympathy for him from this reader’s perspective. The book presents a moral conundrum and asks that you suspend judgement of this character until you have all the facts surrounding his decent to this act of waving a lethal weapon around…and then produces only a story that doesn’t redeem the character at all. 



He begins trying to sell this to us via a flashback to the prior night. Cue up New Year’s Eve 1999, with the intro being that all of the crazy conspiracy nut theories came true…




This page introduces our main characters. Zatanna has a couple of walk on lines later on, so she gets some face time with the camera here. And here we have Bernie working as a waiter at this off-the-scale weird New Year’s Eve party somewhere atop New York’s Times Square.



Bernie’s loving it because he gets to rub elbows with the objects of he conspiracy nut theories. We, the audience, should love it because it shows interactions between this diverse set of characters. For both of us however, things are a bit … not as we expected.



On Bernie’s side, he is saddled with a drunk off his ass John Constantine. On our side, we aren’t given a real good reason why all these characters are together. I mean, Cliff Steele shows up because he’s looking to connect with a less weird crowd than the current team making up the Doom Patrol, and that makes a good deal of sense.



But Buddy Baker? Animal Man? He’s a family man. Why is he at some high-class shindig without the Misses and the kids? It’s out of character to say the least, and unfortunately that breaks my suspension of disbelief. Not JUST that Buddy’s there, but that the writer didn’t come up with a good enough reason for all of the characters to gather. John Constantine supposedly won a huge purse off the Kentucky Derby and used the proceeds to bankroll this party inviting half his supernatural buddies. I don’t buy it.

But you see everyone has to be there so this waiter, Bernie, can tell them his freaked out story of all the things he feels are lining up for the stroke of midnight and the coming of the new year.



And while Black Orchid makes John start puking his guts out with a whiff of her pheromones, Bernie makes friends with Rac Shade, which is fine given that both of them are off their rockers.


Constantine passes out just a Swamp Thing joins the crowd and that’s when things get really messy. Because Bernie goes to work on the muck monster with his crazy ideas…



…and everyone ignores Shade talking sense. They attempt to use their powers together to look at the state of the world. Unfortunately, worried that they will see something he would need to combat, Shade sneaks a touch too adding the power of his Madness Vest along with Bernie’s actual madness…



…with rather explosive results.



As the countdown approaches, Bernie looks from hero to hero for confirmation that all this wild, crazy stuff is about to happen, but no one believes him anymore. 



But Bernie does. As he points out what the new year’s bell has tolled for, we swap back to New Year’s Day and his captives. He doesn’t let them see for themselves what awaits them outside. Sara and her new lover get into a fight over Bernie being this unstable. Sara defends herself by stating he never accomplished anything so how could she have known he might go this crazy. Bernie does a bit of soul searching when accused of not loving his daughter, not being there for her.



And Sara’s remembrances of how horrid it was to go shopping with him dazed out of skull dreaming of UFO’s instead of taking care of his family are the last straw for her. She weeps openly while Bernie continues on with his end-of-the-world story.





…which turns out to be a real doozy. You’ve got nature overrunning the entire city and alien pyramids mixing with giant space bees in an environment that clearly isn’t going to be hospitable to modern society. The heroes are horrified by all this, but not Bernie. Oh no, Bernie is freaking ecstatic to see all of his doom and gloom tales come true.
 
As the heroes rush out to confront the dangers and save people Swamp Thing gets the idea that Bernie appears too happy at all this. 

Alec gives him a telepathic spore, but before it can take effect Shade an the others pull him along with them since he seems somehow involved. Though the link, Bernie sees all the trouble that’s brewing around the world and watches as Swamp Thing becomes poisoned by the events that have suddenly popped into existence. He notifies Black Orchid and the heroes spring into action to find Alec and save him.

Robotman is caught between cultists, aliens and laser wielding ancient Egyptians. The first blows of the conflict cost Cliff his arm.

 
One of the jumbotrons shows that Congress has voted to end all life on Earth, including the population of the United States. Rioters appear as do secret advance-tech police who try to capture everyone. Animal Man and Orchid race to find Swamp Thing. It’s all a bloody mess.

To save time I'll sum up the next few pages: When Buddy and Orchid do find Alec, he’s too weak to move. The environment has turned lethal to large parts of the green and his connection is killing him. Buddy comes up with the idea that the overgrowing plants in the area must be immune as are the animals and that if Orchid and Swamp Thing bond once more, Alec can hitch a ride out of his dying body and into an inoculated one. The do that thing, but it ends up driving Animal Man crazy because the animals in the area are full of mind altering chemicals. Orchid is forced to put him under…and all this is just a silly waste of pages.




Even this bit where Rac Shade is caught in the flying police people-scooper and he uses the Madness Vest to absorb everyone around him, becoming a giant police officer.




While this silliness is going on, the other three have figured out the puzzle. 



And the last piece is Bernie, a sad, bored loser so desperate for a change in his dull existence that he longed for a world screwed up by every conceivable conspiracy-nuts worst nightmares. BERNIE is the villain of the piece. Well, we knew that from the very first really.

Bernie takes a gun for self defence…



…and is promptly nabbed by Cliff and then Buddy. Orchid and Alec arrive in time to stop Buddy from choking Bernie out and they arrive at a plan to set things right.



Opposing that plan is Bernie, and he’s mutated into something that literally is spewing out all of the crazy paranoid fantasies he’s been dreaming of for years.




That’s an image I won’t get out of my head for days.

While Cliff fights off everything single-handed, the other four merge consciousnesses and set reality back to normal. While they do so, Bernie is still clinging to the idea that his vision of the world is somehow “growth” and inevitable. What a nut-job.



Cliff finds himself alone with Bernie and angrily abandons him. Bernie finds the gun he once held and that leads us full circle back to his ex and her boyfriend at gunpoint.



A glance out the window confirms there is nothing amiss. And then Bernie makes a confession. 



Which goes over as good as any other empty promise. People never seem to understand that you don’t ask for a second chance without making a change first. At least this book gets that part right, even if it is full of silly pointless action that doesn’t really mean much to the audience. Oh, and Bernie goes to end it all, as Constantine predicted.



But even that doesn’t go as expected. And this asskicking? If feel Bernie TOTALLY deserves it. 



Also, he deserves a ride to the booby hatch in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser. Bernie dodges that fate by the mercy of Sara and her boyfriend. Instead he wakes up bruised and bloodied on Sara’s lawn, incredulous that he pointed a gun at them with his kid in the room next door. He finds one other thing too.



Instead of swallowing them, Bernie decides to embrace his mediocre existence, which is presented as him opening his arms to SaleMart.



That was exceedingly dumb. And pointless to read. The message that we have to cut wonder out of our lives, existing solely in the “real world” at all times is so disenchanting that I wanted to toss the book in the trash.

Sure, all of us have to “take care of business” and be there for our families and loved ones. But Bernie’s sudden reversal at the end, while perhaps earned, is done for the wrong reasons. Bernie doesn’t see the wonder and amazing things that being a good father and husband can be. He doesn’t find that the joys of passing on knowledge and sharing the passion of someone else could be more exciting and rewarding than all of the messed-up conspiracy theories in the entire world. Not to mention the book kind of advocates that dreaming big is a bad thing, showing that it will eventually consume a person.

And the book’s solution? Change just for change’s sake. Which is just as wrong. Life isn’t about one or the other choices. It’s about balance and finding time to do a little of everything, not to throw yourself into only one thing. If the latter is its message, it does a poor job of relating it.

However, that is my message to each of you this New Year’s Day. Life is out there. And it IS about balance. About finding that perfect mix of all things in moderation. Today is the first day of 2018 and if anything, we should all commit to living a life where we balance out our wishes and goals with those of our friends and families. 

Be good out there, everyone! And Happy New Year’s!

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