Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Death & Marriage, Part I and TV/Movie Tie-Ins, Part VIII: Superman #75 (guest starring Doomsday)

The one that started it all

I've mentioned once before how much hatred I have for the concept of killing popular heroes only to bring them back a year or more later. I feel it panders to the sensationalist elements that lurk within and without the comic book fandom community. It generates whirlwind press and gives books a very temporary sales bump that most are unable to retain any readers from. 

And they do this at the expense of good storytelling.

According to several sources, the death of Superman arc was conceived because the wedding idea the writers had come up with couldn't be implemented due to the TV show Lois & Clark doing the same thing. So the running gag in story meetings was "let's just kill 'im," something longtime Adventures of Superman penciler and scribe Jerry Ordway joked about. The idea took a bit of time to set in and then it unexpectedly gained traction. Dan Jurgens had already wanted to do a 22 page, single panel slugfest, but Mike Carlin wanted this to tie into a much bigger and better story.

So both ideas became one.

The death of Superman is one of the first and most successful of the kill 'em / bring 'em back arcs. So successful that it made everyone sit up and take notice that this ploy generated sales. Lots of sales. Sales that "we could make with our book if we killed someone off"-kind of sales. So for that reason, it gains a lot of ire from me.

That said, there are individual tales of heroes dying/returning that I do think transcend my anger over this trend in storytelling. The death of Superman is one of those tales. The actual story of Superman's fight with Doomsday and death is where this issue concludes. The parts that led to here were fair in my opinion. Each of the final four had a regimented structure: Adventures of Superman #497 had four panels per page, Action Comics #684 had three panels per page and Superman: The Man of Steel #19 had two panels per page.

This issue, done up like Mjolnir's Song - Walt Simonson's Thor vs the Midgard Serpent issue from The Mighty Thor #380, is all one panel per page action shots, attempting to give the man of steel an epic, heroic sendoff. Mostly it succeeds at that, however it is so predictable in its sequencing that I always find it a bit boring to read through. Add to that a few horrible pages of full page art and you end up with an unexciting issue.

So the actual death was kind of boring.

The books that came after redeemed it though.

DC had a plan with Superman's death and replacement. This was more than just a marketing-driven publicity stunt. It was that too, but the stories told after his death were worth telling. And worth reading.

First up was the much better "Funeral for a Friend" series, which dealt with the many forms of public and private grief while still having tales of new defenders (Supergirl, Gangbuster, Thorn and Team Luthor) rising to put down a new wave of crime arising in the wake of his passing. Enjoyable stuff.

The redemptive stroke came in the form of "Reign of the Supermen" where four heroes arose in the place of Superman, all bearing his emblem and utilizing some portion of his power set. Superboy, Steel, Cyborg Superman and the Kryptonian Superman, three of whom set out to prove they were THE Superman, returned from the grave. The ending of this arc was to be the most satisfying return of any hero death I've read.

What I'm saying here is there was a reason this series made money: it got the formula right. Have a good way to bring the guy back. Not magic or wishes or deals with the devil or Superboy Punches or anything crazy. Just good old fashioned solid plotting that takes into account the character in question.

I'll talk about the disbelief beast in just a bit, but first let's deal with this issue, shall we. Before I go any further, I need to state that I think Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding are both fine artists. This book was a monumental effort that should have been told some other way. I'm certain that everyone was clamoring for them to do it like Simonson had done Thor, but let's be honest…Simonson is a one of a kind artist with some kind of sixth sense about design layout. Generating a 22 page book of one page pictures that tells a story and has the lead character on every single page (bar one) is quite an undertaking. They did the best they could.

But occasionally something slipped through. Like this title page.

I find the body language from Superman impossible in some way, the bent leg in the back seems to suggest he is really bowed over in a "U" shape. It just doesn't work for me.

This panel kills me because it looks like Superman is just watching while Doomsday tears things up. He's not even flying anyone to safety. Maybe he is on a rest break?

My most hated panel from the book. It's his neck. You don't turn your face away from the guy you are flying into. It leaves your back exposed. Such a bad panel. 

Superman is driven into the pavement and this is him digging his way back out….but it takes two seconds for my adolescent imagination to see Superman's fist and Doomsday's butt…put two and two together….and commence to giggling. "Super-Fisting".

This is a close third in bad panels. Lois shouldn’t be in this at all and Supes's legs are extended in a very weird way. Lois looks like she is floating or standing on the wall Doomsday is impacting against. In reality, she is supposed to be getting up off the ground.

My second most hated panel. The action around the two figures is done really well, but the fact that every panel has to show both faces means that Superman just punched Doomsday in the armpit. And the arm placement is so goofy. Come on DC editorial, do they have to show both faces on EVERY page? I would have loved to see the back of Supes head in many of these.

Last one on my list. This gets a mention because of an episode I saw on a TV sitcom that I can't remember. It had a couple getting married and their friend begging to do the pictures. They didn't want them to because the friend was a little strange and the wedding pictures would come out really bad looking. In the end they HAD to use the strange person, and the strange friend took pictures of them holding up silver platters and photographing their reflections in it. This is that kind of panel. Reaction shot or action shot, but not both. Let their faces show us what has happened. No need to try to do both simultaneously.

And that's it. From here the story gets better. Oh, and so does Superman.

One thing it did feed was the "disbelief beast." John Byrne was quoted as saying that after Jean Grey/Phoenix's death but before her resurrection he would be regularly approached at conventions by X-Men fans who did not believe she was really dead. They would pull out elaborate theories as to how one of their favorite founding members was actually still alive even when the guy who wrote the story confirmed that, no indeed, she was dead as a doornail. The death / return of Superman, occurring six years after Jean Grey's reappearance (surprise!) alive, was the alarm bell that showed just how much money could be made from making the alive/dead condition of a hero something controlled by a lightswitch.

And that confirmed what many fans thought: death in the comic book universe NEVER has any consequences. It is always just a temporary inconvenience. 

And while technically Jean Grey was first, her death was never meant to be reversed. It was to be a permanent thing. Death and Return of Superman was a planned "event" and it showed that good planning amounted to big sales revenue. 

I don't like what it created. I don't like adding to audience disbelief that these heroes can never die and don't face that ultimate jeopardy. In my head I know they don't ALREADY. I know they HAVE to come out okay at the end of each story arc. It just seems that giving them this ultimate get-out-of-jail card cheapens the effect of ANY character death and/or the impact in story terms of any sacrifices they do make.

Jean Grey
Bucky Barnes
Barry Allen
Captain America
Hal Jordan
Ted Kord (what? Not yet? Fine, but we all know he'll be back soon) 

And so many others. They can never truly die again and have the same impact for this generation. We've seen them face death and beat it. So what enemy can hold any dread for them? 

A. Sherman Barros explores all of this in much better detail than I bring to it over at Crack! Pow! Wham! I URGE you to go give him a read.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, Part IV: Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #4

Proof that in the Joe Q era Marvel had no idea what to do with their most marketable superhero

Everyone knows Spider-Man's origin. He was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained a host of the spider's abilities. It is one of the very first Marvel comics minted and since that time very little has been done to revise it. The story is pretty much perfect the way it is. Scratch that – it IS perfect. It is an iconic origin story.

At the early end of 2001, one of the writers of the Spider books decided it needed updating.

J. Michael Straczynski, oh he of Babylon-5 fame and writer at the time of Amazing Spider-Man, started the ball rolling by setting up this idea that there was more than one person in the world with spider-powers. Each of these people were "spider-totems," people imbued with magical connections to a primal spider god or spirit or something. Peter was the pinnacle of the spider-totems.

And that the accident that gave him his spider powers was no accident at all. He was chosen. Chosen to be a "spider-totem". It was what I would term a "midi-chlorian moment" for the series, with all the eye-rolling, shark jumpage that such an inauspicious event would create.

Peter learned this information from Ezekiel, a rich, elderly businessman also possessing spider-powers and with complete knowledge of Parker's secret identity. The spider-totem plotline meandered in and out of Straczynski's run on the book and there were some good moments with Ezekiel.

However good Straczynski is at creating great characters and dialogue, messing with a perfect origin is sure to have some blowback. It didn't help matters that he was such a big name that no one wanted to put the brakes on this plotline. Fans took up sides and did what they always do – argued. Up until months ago, the spider-totem thing had been shoved into the equivalent of the bottom drawer of your desk where old post-it notes go to die. Then suddenly the spider-totem idea spawned this entire multi-spider-verse storyline and about a bazillion Spider-men (and women). And as cool as that idea might sound and look, I still hate the spider-totem idea.

I detest anything that jacks with the origin of Spider-Man that much.

Call me an old man or whatever but I just don't like it. And I clearly don't like the changes it made to Peter Parker. Most of which didn't stick beyond this 12-issue-crossover-storyline.

There was one thing that came out of this no writer during or afterwards thought was a good idea. At least, if you take into account how quickly they shied away from using it after "The Other" storyline wrapped up.

They gave Spider-Man, the loveable quipster with a code-versus-killing, a pair of lethal, retractable wrist-spikes.

They made him into "Spider-Wolverine."

A mistake so big that it was only used in this run and then abandoned.

Of course I don't have enough of those intervening issues to prove any of that, so I sought help from two certain-someones who definitely would.

In a first, I'd like to welcome two very special guest stars to the Crapbox: Mark Ginocchio of Chasing Amazing and Dan Gvozden of Superior Spider-Talk. Between these two men is an amassed spider-knowledge so vast that it raised the hackles of my arachnophobia worse than a whole spinner rack of Sectaurs comics.

From them, I was able to ascertain that these stingers were temporary. Very temporary.

Dan Gvozden from Superior Spider-Talk explains:

The stingers came about as part of “The Other” storyline and were pretty much forgotten immediately after the reboot with Brand New Day, along with his other powers. The writers and editors of the Brand New Day era always asserted that the stingers and other powers weren’t gone but would resurface at a later time. Readers knew better and the powers have never resurfaced ever since. That said, for some reason Kaine seems to have at least retained the stinger powers despite being a clone of the original Peter Parker and not the reborn “other” Peter that was born at the end of "The Other.”

The way it was retconned was essentially that Kaine either retained them from his transformation into a Tarantula after the “Grim Hunt” story and/or that “The Other” was attracted to Kaine’s violent nature and saw him as a more viable candidate as a host than Peter. This story played out in the pages of Scarlet Spider, a short-lived but fan-beloved (well, for some) series from a couple years ago. In some ways, a large part of that series was spent clarifying the results of “The Other” and trying to make sense of what happened to those powers, characters, and parts of canon in the wake of Brand New Day.
So after The Other, the combined creative staffs of all the spider-books walked away from Parker ever using this violent and totally-against-character superpower again.

But the honest question is how bad is this particular issue of The Other? That is far more problematic. If we define it by the long term character building aspects, it sucks in all ways that something flying in the face of so much history can. There is nothing that twerks my inner-fanboy off than flipping the bird on the really GREAT pieces of comic book history for a cheap toss-off story or retcon that isn't near as clever as it thinks it is.

On the other hand, this is Peter David writing and he's at the top of his game with this one. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is involved and is his witty, charming self in this, and we all know I'm a huge nut for all things Iron Man. Peter is written with that clear sense of fun and energy that we all know and love. Aunt May and MJ have cameos both in character and appropriate.

I want to hate it. I do. All of it is a dumb, dumb idea.

But the parts are better than the whole and it is quite easy to see why at least a few Spidey-fans gave Straczynski, David and Reginald Hudlin a wide margin to adapt the spider mythos. Want to see what I mean?

Take how our story opens, with Peter undergoing a full physical because in the preceding issues he apparently died. He came back though, after first discarding his dead body like a chrysalis and then building a cocoon under the Brooklyn Bridge. Peter emerged from it unhurt, which is saying something since in the battle he lost a frick'n EYE, but everyone is a bit skeptical of him and his powers.

David can work wonders with these simple interactions. It is great to see the chemistry that developed between Peter and Tony during the New Avengers period. It is a shame that, instead of allowing the comradery to continue on for a decade of great stories, we were instead subjected to the nonsense of Civil War and subsequent decline.

While some interesting interplay continues between Peter, Tony, Reed Richards and Hank Pym, we check in on his body to find that the scientists studying it should seriously think about calling the Orkin man. All these critters will play into the issue in just a few, but for now David sets up a Flash Thompson sub-plot and then dives back in to Peter's return with this neat bit of interplay from MJ, Logan and Jarvis.

Understanding characters and motivation. Deft touches of emotion and humor. Is it any wonder why I love Peter David's writing so much?

Meanwhile, Peter's spider-sense is now turned up to eleven and directly wired into his reflexes, one of the changes that I might have been okay with. It is in keeping with the character and more of just an enhancement of existing powers. I could deal with The Other if it was just this and no wrist spikes or messing with the roots of his origin or whatever.
Especially when we get neat moments with Aunt May owning Reed, Hank and Tony, like we do here. "We're sorry, Mrs. Cleaver."

And as Peter and MJ go out for a night swinging around, Peter's body is consumed fully by spiders who have nicely webbed up the science team examining it.

So far things are progressing nicely. We have the build up to a mysterious villain, ominous goings on, and some inventive dialogue. Everything is humming right along, when all of a sudden Spidey feels a trembling in the spider-force.

Yes, he now has a literal "spider sense" in that he can sense something is wrong with actual spiders. I don't want to know more. I assume this means you slap one with a shoe or a rolled up newspaper and Peter Parker will know about it.

He arrives just in time to get in a scuffle with this vaguely humanoid pile of spiders and that's when it happens. The second appearance of the "spider-stingers."

Now I'm not one to ask for scientific accuracy in my comic books. I mean we've all seen what would happen if we asked for that in a Spider-Man comic (NSFW). But these stingers bug me.
I mean, spiders don't have stingers. That's wasps, bees and hornets the writers are thinking of. Spiders have fangs and venom glands. But I suppose if he had grown fangs and sucked all the energy from Morlun it would have turned readers off the character. He would be like a vampire Spider-Man or something. Still…there is no reason to give him retractable arm spikes unless you want him to be "Wolverine with webshooters."

The human-shaped mound of arachnids ends up escaping and we are left with no answers to any of this mess in this particular issue.

An entire story arc over five years and the culmination of which is so despised that it is rejected by the very fan base it was created to awe. I haven't seen something like this happen since the Star Wars prequels.

Anyway, this change DID occur. Marvel doesn't like to admit it and quite frankly have shifted these to another character, but I hold in my hand the proof. Proof that even good writing and an enjoyable issue can still be filled with a major misguided change to an established hero.

For a GREAT but totally different take on this, check out Dan Gvozden's piece on The Other HERE!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Fairer Sex, Part XI: Black Eyed Susan #1

Martian bug-soldiers attacking post apocalyptic future dwellers? Count me in!

Black Eyed Susan started out with a few problems. Yes, that cover price is something to get over. For a book produced in 2004, that was a bit above average. The nice thing is the story is 46 pages long with no ads. Additionally the book was scheduled to come out bi-monthly, so if you got absorbed in the story you’d be shelling out that price and then waiting. If you’re worried about your wallet or your patience then it’s lucky for you the comic bit the dust after issue 2.

Unfortunately it’s not lucky for comic readers in general. Mad Yak Press, the company that produced this book and several others was the joint effort of writer Patrick Neighly, Kereth Cowe-Spigai and Anne Marie Horne. Mad Yak produced a handful of comics, graphic novels and one guide to Grant Morrision’s The Invisibles before folding up tents. Their website lists no reason for the dissolution, but does state that each of the principals have gone their separate ways.

BES was written by Patrick Neighly and drawn by an artist named Donny Hadiwidjaja. Hadiwidjaja is an Asian manga artist that Neighly found while doing his full-time job as a journalist focusing on Asia Pacific technology and culture. While Neighly is an interesting case study of a modern renaissance man, what with his journalism, comic writing, experimental filmmaking and manga adaptation work, the person that really intrigues me is Hadiwidjaja. His artwork in BES is nothing short of amazing. The book is very light on words and uses images to convey much of the action, character and emotion. Hadiwidjaja’s talent carries the book so well, it is a shame that it was discontinued before the first story arc could be completed (I had to track down issue 2 after reading issue 1. Sadly it was in the same quarter bin.). I can find absolutely no information on Hadiwidjaja except for the brief mention by Neighly of where his artist lives. Hadiwidjaja also did work with Neighly on the books Texarkana and The Supernaturals. Damn shame there isn’t more of his stuff around. Just look at this opening panel sequence and tell me it doesn’t leave you begging for more.

This is the way our story begins. We get a minimum of explanation as to our Martian invasion or how the war is going. Heck, we don’t even know if what we are seeing is taking place on Earth. Neighly keeps things on a very personal level, which does wonders for developing our main character/supporting cast. It also leaves much of the rest of the book vague and keeps you intrigued about how everything got this way.
Say hello to Melanie McDonaugh, our central character in Black Eyed Susan. What? You thought she would be named Susan? Silly, a Black Eyed Susan is a type of sunflower. Like the one she’s holding on the cover. Melanie is a mechanic. She’s been drafted by the military to fight off a Martian invasion. Her assignment is aboard the Tigerlilly, some kind of floating aircraft carrier.

You now know something the reader won’t for the next 16 pages. Not that any of that matters because what does matter over those pages is the complete unveiling of the character of Mel with nary a hint of dialogue. To show you how it all unfolds, it starts with that annoying AROOGA sound that is filling the Tigerlilly.

 Mel proceeds to the aircraft hanger looking to see who’s alarm clock is going off. After checking a few of the planes she realizes two things. First, she is completely along on the Tigerlilly. How this has occurred is unknown as there appears to be a full compliment of planes stored there. Secondly that’s no alarm clock. It’s a proximity sensor that’s detected an incoming wave of Martian attack craft.

The attack is so violent that the Tigerlilly is holed, causing Mel and a fighter jet to be bounced out. The good news is that she’s in the jet as it goes winging its way into the sky. The bad news is that the jet is not powered up. Mel gives her best at getting it started up before she becomes street pizza.
I love the effortless way all that is conveyed with a minimum of word balloons. Hadiwidjaja really knows his stuff. The fighter in that last panel takes one final potshot at Mel then peels off. Mel gets the jet started and the nose up enough to soft land in the desert. She tries contacting the Tigerlilly a few times with no response and then proceeds to wait for a pickup.

Again a simple series of panels tells us a lot both plot-wise and about our main character. Mel breaks out the survival kit and goes to work. She doesn’t panic and she is methodical about signaling her position. Mel waits patiently for a pickup without changing location for as long as it is safe to do so. The panels also show the passage of time. This is the type of art that makes you slow down and absorb it.
The next morning Mel begins work on the jet. Her efforts are rewarded with a working airplane. She takes off for the nearest city. What she finds is a desolate lifeless husk of a cityscape.

Mel hurries off to find out what is making that noise. Her investigations lead her to follow the sound she hears out into the street. Unsurprisingly it’s an alien. Surprisingly it’s a very well rendered giant cockroach-like alien.

Very neat invader design. It’s menacing and unique. I do get a bit of the “Starship Troopers” vibe from it, but that’s okay. Bugs were good enemies there and I don’t see why remaking them into Martians isn’t a good idea here.

I also don’t have a problem with introducing another character at this point, even if that character is one-third Newt from Aliens, one-third the Feral Kid from The Road Warrior and one-third Rambo. This is our mute wunderkind weapons master, who just so happens to arrive in time to save Mel. Sure, we’ve all seen his type before. However the book manages to yet again take something old and do something interesting with it.

What follows is Mel following the young man around asking him questions while he restocks his supplies. He doesn’t speak a word and after he’s done raiding stores, jumps on this sail-motorbike that looks like something out of Star Wars Episode One crossed with One Piece. When it doesn’t start right up, Mel puts her skills to work and fixes it for him while filling in the holes in her own back story.

These two pages create a relationship for how these two will interact. They are equals, if different from one another. The boy is all business but Mel has a more maternal instinct tempered by cautious optimism. Next she asks him for a ride back to her jet. Parked beside it is the alien’s spaceship. Mel tells our kid that she’ll follow him home. The kid meanwhile shows shrewd thinking and destroys the ship before taking off. Note how Hadiwidjaja pulls this panel off.

It’s neat to have such a role reversal between these two. The kid takes care of the “mother figure” and is more versed in military tactics than the solider. I like the dichotomy created but feel it needs something more. That something comes in the form of another solider who rushes in to save our pair just as a Martian tripod (YEEESSS! What’s a book with attacking Martians if they don’t have giant tripod war machines?) destroys the kid’s home and almost does them both in. Here he is watching the melee between the pair and their mechanical attacker.

Meet Gus, the last surviving member of the Seventy-Sevens. Gus saves Mel and the kid’s bacon. After none of their ordinance dents the invader’s craft (and Mel displays how she can’t hit the broad side of a barn), Gus takes it out with a rocket powered grenade from behind. Mel is ecstatic to see another human and the audience is happy for some additional dialogue. It’s a credit to Hadiwidjaja that he got 30 pages with only one character talking without the book being an epic fail. He’s done a great job, but now we the audience really need some verbal interaction. Neighly does a nice job of filling those word balloons up.

The end results of these newfangled “dialog boxes” are three fold. First our trio decide the kid’s home is marked so they move out following Gus to find a better hidey-hole. Second is a deepening mystery of just what is occurring with this alien invasion. Mel and Gus’s clocks are off – by three weeks. And Gus informs Mel that her ship that she was on a couple of days ago had been destroyed weeks ago. I’m wondering if the Martians aren’t screwing with these guys heads at this point. Lastly Gus finds out that Mel isn’t a going to winning any sharp-shooting medals anytime soon. Not to worry though, he has an answer for that.

Youch! That’s an idea I don’t see eye-to-eye with him on. The eyeballs are “invasive ocular enhancements" that will turn anyone into a sharpshooter in about ninety seconds. After insertion, all their new owner has to do is look to aim while using a special gun. The technology does the rest. Unfortunately Mel has the procedure forced on her because the group finds themselves targeted by a couple of alien jets. The results are quite impressive.

And that’s where we end, our group is formed, the enemy has been defined and we have an ever unfolding mystery as to how they and the world got into this predicament. It’s sad that BES didn’t last longer. Issue 2 was just as good as this one, but something tells me that high dollar charge (even for a double-sized book) was the killer. Too bad, too. I would have loved to see where this ended up.