Friday, June 29, 2018

Star Brand #9

Superhero vs Superhero
Star Brand #9
Star Brand vs. Star Brand!

Part 4 of “Stop Hitting Yourself!”

“Where Walks the True Believer!”
Writer – Cary Bates
Penciler – Keith Giffen
Inkers – Bob Wiacek
Letters – Ken Lopez
Colorist – Andy Yanchus
Editor – Michael Higgins
Editor-in-Chief – Jim Shooter
September 1997

Star Brand and Nightmask, the only two heroes to “survive” the New Universe into the Marvel of today. That is to my limited knowledge, of course. Both characters originated from Marvel’s failed “New Universe” line of books, a series set in a more realistic Earth setting than Marvel’s primary universe with the hook that a mysterious cosmic event gave a select number of individuals super powers.

Star Brand was both the name of the hero and the source of that hero’s powers. Ken Connell was granted the Superman power set (minus heat vision and cold breath) when a mysterious old man showed up at his door and slapped a tattoo on Connell. The tattoo, which Connell dubbed “the star brand,” would wind up being the source of frustration for Ken as the superpowers brought on great responsibility, but not a lot of understanding in how to properly use it.

The story has it that Connell was patterned after writer/editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and when he was ousted from Marvel the book lost much of its appeal. More on that later on in the Crapbox.

Nightmask was one of the more intriguing concepts for a monthly book. The White Event wakes Keith Remsen from a coma caused by a bomb that crippled his sister and killed both his parents. The bomb was planted by Dr. Horst Kleinmann, a dream researcher who found a way through cybernetics to enter people’s dreams. Once out of his coma, Remsen finds he also can enter people’s dreams, but doesn’t need Kleinmann’s cybernetics to do it. After settling the score over his parent’s death, Remsen uses his dream persona “Nightmask” to assist psychologically troubled people.

Sure, it rips off the move Dreamscape quite a bit, but there wasn’t any series quite like this being produced on a monthly basis. While it was cancelled after twelve issues and multiple creative teams, I really thought Nightmask made for a good ongoing. Not certain what Marvel has done with the property since, I know that they have attempted to bring him back a couple of ways. Maybe some of those will wander into my clutches.

As it stands, though, this is the issue we have to deal with. And it starts off with Ken Connell’s nerdy friend Myron being woken up from a peaceful sleep…

We’ve got Giffen doing the look and feel he gave the Legion of Superheroes, which is NOT the normal tone of this book, but with Wiacek on inks, it isn’t too far a cry from John Romita, Jr’s prior issues. Issue number 7 was Shooter’s last on the title and he got an assist out the door by Roy Thomas. Cary Bates picked up writing this issue and the one before it and did a stellar job compared to what would come later. And now that we know our creative team, let’s chit-chat a bit about where we are here.

Ken Connell appears to be having trouble sleeping at night. He complains of having nightmares (see where Nightmask will come into this?). Myron finds himself a counselor to Ken and so he listens dutifully as Ken recounts the prior issue’s contents…

…what we have here is Ken feeling guilt over the death of a boy that superpowers could do nothing to prevent. It will of course begin with the youth figuring out the superhero’s identity or something akin to that followed by the hero discovering that the boy will not survive whatever aliment he suffers from.
Myron is startled by this revelation, but we as comic book fans aren’t. This is “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man” redux.

Ken takes the child out for a flying trip and they travel over the dump that poisoned him, which of course leads to the kid asking Ken to take care of it so no other kids get poisoned. And to add emotional impact to that, the kid then falls into a coma…

But it’s too late for little Tad. That’s right: it’s a tad too late for Tad. Kid dies, leaving lots of guilt and regret on Ken Connell’s mind. We can all see where this is going now with the nightmares. 

And so can Myron who sends Ken over to Ballad’s clinic, a place that specializes in dream therapy and sleep disorders.

Which leaves Connell flying his way to Georgetown, in sequences that I won’t show, but were always a treat. See Connell had the same problems any of us would have trying to navigate while flying several miles above the Earth, where the vantage point of being above things makes his journeys difficult. This was just one bit of realism that the book added to a Superman archetype to make it stand out a bit more from the common superhero fantasy.

Connell does arrive and he unloads as much as he dares on Doctor Ballad, telling him a partially true tale of Tad and how he died and the guilt Ken feels over it.

And Ballad’s method is to knock Ken out so he can “view his dreams.” Ken has a moment of hesitation given that he might see his Star Brand powers, but then realizes it will seem like part of the dream. As soon as Ken is out, Ballad calls in his associate Keith Remsen to take a stab at what’s going on in his noggin.

And as Remsen turns in and turns into Nightmask, I want to state that the fun parts of his book were that each person’s dreamscape had their own internal logic and consistency. The art in each story was usually head-trip time, a sort of Ditko-esque nightmare landscape. I only wish they had gone farther and made each issue a different secondary art team for the dream sequences. As it was, Nightmask straddled the lines between horror, fantasy, and superhero tale anthology. As a concept, the book was different enough to lure in an audience but failed to keep them. Partially this might be the long shadow cast by other New Universe titles that were sub-sub par, things like Marc Hazard: Merc and Kickers, Inc.

But enough of my musings, we are head down the Ken Connell rabbit hole.

Remsen awakens in a Kirby graphic nightmare, hanging from his heels beside a representation of Tad dressed up like some kind of Silver Age Marvel hero named True Believer. Tad’s name is an obvious call back to both Marvel, Kirby and to the character in the book’s belief that superheroes could solve any problem. This has all the hallmarks of a good Nightmask story right out of the gate.

Tad fills Remsen in: they’ve both been captured by some costumed bad guy named Dr. FOOM! (which us old schoolers would recognize as the name of the club Marvel had back in the late 60’s – early 70’s. FOOM stood for “Friends Of Old Marvel”). And as if on cue, in he Fooshhh’es!

He sounds like old school Lee too, as Bates really does a good job of layering the story with lots of the trappings and tropes of comic book villainy.

There are always hard edges to Nightmask stories however. Places where being in a dream where anything can happen leads to analogies or metaphors for what is going on that cut right to the heart of the matter. Like when True Believer activates his superpower we learn it is “Toxic Waste Breath” which eats at the core of you when you realize that this is Ken dealing with the death of a boy poisoned by toxic waste and desperately trying to find a way to deal with it, to turn it into a happy ending for Tad. 

Which brings up the point of all this: Dr Foom is trying to kill True Believer and in Connell’s mixed up mind Star Brand needs to save him if he is to be any kind of hero. Which means when Dr. Foom moves to active his unnecessarily slow deathtrap he has to bring up that Star Brand can’t save them. Nightmask, of course, doesn’t realize that Connell is superpowered.

And as True Believer rattles on about who exactly Star Brand is while using nearly every tagline associated with a superhero in recent memory, the dream version of Ken Connell shows up as Star Brand and rescues the pair by destroying the hideout and wrecking Dr. Foom’s machines.

Leading to a confrontation between the two…

…a battle that has Dr. Foom declaring it folly that Star Brand thinks he can always arrive in time to save True Believer. To which, Star Brand offers back emphatic denials. It ends with Dr. Foom being blasted into outer space in Kirby-style.

Nightmask gets introduced to Connell’s alter ego but doesn’t grasp just how much of this is real, not about the Star Brand’s power or his origin. He does get a chance to marvel at the world Connell’s mind has concocted to provide as a backdrop.

The depths of which extend to True Believer and his “secret origin”…

…which involves the very same elements that caused real life Tad to contract his heart condition that eventually lead to his death.

Nightmask gets this connection right away…

…and a little investigative digging reveals that this never-ending battle between Dr. Foom and Star Brand centers around saving the life of Tad Soames. Why Foom is the symbol of Soames’ mortality remains a mystery for the moment, but Nightmask has a plan to expose the link.

That plan first involves kidnapping Tad Soames…

…having him change into True Believer and then wait to get captured by Dr. Foom. All of which happens in no time flat.

As they are carted off in the metal scoop of doom,…er, Foom…Nightmask has Tad alert Star Brand of their predicament and then uses his dream power to take over True Believer.

He uses that to get close enough to Dr. Foom to remove the helmet covering the villain’s face. Dr. Foom turns out to be…

…Ken Connell. The real one. Or at least one more aligned with our world than this fantasy. Throughout the dream we though the Star Brand character was symbolic of our hero’s psyche, but this turns the tables on things. Then who is Star Brand, you might ask?

And he might ask it too. And does.

Which makes for a great explanation: Ken is trying to reconcile Tad’s death with his own inadequacies. Perhaps this is the anti-Spider-Man message. That sometimes with great powers comes the still inevitable realization that some things you just can’t change or fix no matter how hard you try, and that’s just life. Nihilistic? Maybe. But also much more in line with New Universe’s theme of having great powers doesn’t automatically make you able to defeat all problems with them.

Nightmask notes there might be more going on here than meets the eye. However, even he realizes that facing this truth might not be the end of Connell’s problems. Ken is going to have to go through the five stages of grief. One of which is clearly Anger…

   And as Nightmask retreats out of Connell’s subconscious, the knowledge that Real Ken Connell can impart about that portion of his mind that is still in Denial over Tad’s death, the part that is still Bargaining, finally gives way to Acceptance and the end of his chain of repetitive nightmares.

And thus when Connell wakes he knows the problem has been solved although it is Dr. Ballad that he thanks for it. Remsen watches from a backroom and the feeling that these two met and yet didn’t meet is one part a shame and another part understandable. It’s not like they could tackle problems together.

…at least not until Marvel gave them other powers, made them teenagers, imported them into the 616 Marvel universe and inducted them into the Avengers or some crap.

I’ll get to that much later. For right now I’m just happy with these first 9 issues of Star Brand. Shooter had a unique idea and even if it was tanking on the store shelves, the New Universe was interesting and Star Brand an intriguing character. At least until Byrne got his hands on him and…

Well, as I said. That’s a story for another time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Superboy #8

Superhero vs Superhero
Superboy #8
Superboy vs. Superboy!

Part 3 of “Stop Hitting Yourself!”

“Big Trouble in Smallville!”
Writer – Karl Kesel
Penciler – Tom Grummett
Inkers – Doug Hazelwood and Dan Davis
Letters – Starkings / Comicraft
Colorist – Tom McCraw
Editor – Frank Pittarese
December 1994

You couldn’t ask for a more complicated roadmap to a 'person fighting themselves" plot than this issue of Superboy. Between this version of Superboy being an experimental clone of Superman and his doppelganger in this issue being caused by a crossover with the reality warping event known as Zero Hour there is a lot here to unpack.

Superboy should go first, as it is his name on that bannerhead. This is Kon-El or Conner Kent, a clone created with human and Kryptonian DNA. Made to mimic Superman’s power set as closely as technology was able, Kon-El was vat born in secret by the super-science laboratory outside of Metropolis called Project Cadmus. Due to his mixed human/Kryptonian DNA, Kon-El get some but not all of Superman’s powers.

Following the Death of Superman storyline, the clone was released from his growing tube early by unknown story elements (Tampering? Sabotage? Accident? Magical plot coincidence?), thus he only got a portion of Cadmus’ mental conditioning. It also left him younger than the intended age Cadmus expected him to be, as Kon-El starts out at 13 years old.

Kon-El got a really good growth arc with some neat surprises along the way, beginning with his own title after Superman came back from the dead and worming his way though Young Justice under Peter David and Teen Titans by Geoff Johns. Not to mention being one of the better parts of Infinite Crisis (teardrop).

For the other side of this title card, we have to look to the reality-altering event known as Zero Hour, another of DC’s “our backstory is too convoluted, so lets have an event across all the books that makes it MORE convoluted” events. Zero Hour concerned Hal Jordon, who went mad after the city he was supposed to defend was destroyed in the Death/Rebirth of Superman series, and who decides to remake the DC universe in his own image. What that means is he basically starts erasing time. Thus, it is full of time paradoxes. There are entire futures and pasts being erased and re-written throughout the DC titles that instead of clearing things up, tend to muddy the waters further.

One of those is this Superboy title, where the Superboy from a time bubble created by the Time Trapper so the Legion could interact with and be inspired by said Superboy BUT was poofed out of existence when it became inconvenient story-wise taking said Superboy with it …COMES BACK …

And yeah, LESS complicated is something DC doesn’t do well.

Anyway, so there you have the setup. Kon-El Superboy with his rad-90’s style verses the Superboy from a pocket timeline who mirrors the classic silver-age character. No matter how we got here, the match up between these two should prove…interesting.

Kon-El matured into an amazing leader and a really respectable Superboy, but when they started the character out in the 90’s…

…he was all about hip leather jackets, fade haircuts, boy band shades and plenty of attitude. While I might make fun of him for it, I did enjoy the change in trends for Superboy. At his core he was still a force for good, even if his every though was “babes”. 

Make that every other thought. Here we have him, Dubbilex, some military types, and Krypto the non-powered wonder dog flying over Kansas as they make their way back to Hawaii.

And while Superboy taunts the pooch Disaster looms for the aircraft as a sudden storm appears from out of the clear blue sky and a bolt of lightning takes out an engine.

As Superboy rushes to right the careening airliner, a time anomaly poofs itself into existence. A very familiar-looking time anomaly. In his haste to get to the falling airliner, Superboy fails to notice that company’s here.

And that company happens to be the Classic Superboy, who we are going to abbreviate to Classicboy for this review. He arrived from a prior Zero Hour that had him working with a legion in the future and I think that issue had weird time anomaly things going on too. 

Whatever mess he came from, after he clears his head, Classicboy rushes to help the falling aircraft while failing to notice Superboy is just arriving there. That means while Superboy takes one wing on the side of the airplane not hit…

…Classicboy takes the other, each thinking they are acting alone. I kind of love this page. The panel split at the bottom, the full view of plane with both of them doing their part at saving the day, and the reaction shots on top. I have to hand it to Grummett that this issue has some really well thought out graphics.

As the plane is brought safely to the ground by the two super-youths, it passes over a billboard sign familiar to old-schooler comic readers proclaiming that they are landing in “Smallville, home of Superboy” while showing the character in his familiar red and blues.

No one on board the plane appears to notice, just like they don’t notice Classicboy zooming away to check in on Ma and Pa. As for present-day Superboy, he and Dubblex have a chat because the latter’s mental powers picked up strange thoughts coming from someone like Superboy…but also not!

While the pilots work on fixing the blown engine, Superboy decides to hang out in Smallville and give the people an unexpected thrill.

Meanwhile Classicboy heads “home,” but at first it seems like the entrance to his secret tunnel leading into the Kent farmhouse isn’t there. And then suddenly it is, almost as if it just appeared due to Classicboy’s presence.

Once inside, he finds no one at home and this leads him to believe they must be in town working at the Kent’s store, another relic of the classic Superboy stories. He puts on his Clark Kent duds and walks over, musing how the old houses down the Smallville street never seem to change. But change, things most certainly have…

And if bumping into your old flame all grown up isn’t enough of a shock…

But we’ll come back to that in a moment. First we have Superboy performing a feat of strength to impress the locals (and to feed his massive, teenage ego. The Kon-El era might have its detractors, as the writers did seek to give an emphasis on the “boy” part while paying particular attention to the emotional immaturities common among adolescents and the coping mechanisms they use to overcome that awkward stage in his beginnings. But this also allowed the character a chance to naturally mature into a worthy addition to the mythos once he reached young adulthood and developed responsibility. I like the Kon-El arc and frankly miss the character he eventually became.

Back to our meeting between Classicboy Clark and Lana, though…and boy is it a doozy. The revelations come fast and furious for our time-and-dimension displaced superyouth. First that Lana knows his secret identity and second that their paths diverged in a way he hadn’t expected over the years.

So while Superboy finishes helping the local with their truck repair, Lana rushes after Classicboy Clark offering apologies…

…and she also notes that a young version of her first crush being in town isn’t the only odd thing happening here today.

As it just so happens, this is all taking place within earshot of Superboy, who decides to investigate instead of continuing to chit-chat with the town record store clerk…

Now we have Boy meeting Boy for the first time, an event that is just too much for Classicboy. Seeing the leather jacket and the screwy hair cut on this version of Superboy so soon after losing the love of his life is too much for him. Classicboy storms off to change and take his frustrations out on Kon-El.

This works out to be no real contest. For all Kon-El’s heart, he’s facing a true Kryptonian here, and possibly one from the Silver Age as well. And we all know the Silver Age characters could perform feats of unbelievable power when the plot required it. Kon-El’s clock starts to get cleaned…

…and we get why he’s doing it a bit too. Classicboy has returned to find himself completely displaced and being pulled back into the Zero Hour nothingspace. No family, no friends, no love…and now someone else taking his place in a very literal sense. Classicboy needs a connection, someone who remembers him. In a flash, he thinks it will be the Kents, but Lana worries that won’t be true and sends Kon-El after him.

Superboy willingly complies, looking perhaps for a little payback for getting his butt handed to him. He sucker-punches Classicboy in the back and drives the young man of steel behind the Kent’s barn. Clark’s parents take a notice of the commotion.

While they are on their way out to see what caused the ruckus, Classicboy has already recovered, while Kon-El looks a bit worse for wear. Not to say he’s down for the count. At least not so long as he still can fall back on the surprise power of his tactile telekinesis.

Unfortunately a few dozen hurled fireplace logs mean very little to Classicboy.

In fact, Kon-El is completely out of his league here. Classicboy has had years of training and tons of experience working alone and with the Legion of Super Heroes. Superboy just isn’t in the same power class. But speaking of the Legion, that reminds Classicboy of where he just came back from and how there were two versions of the Legion due to the havoc wrecking events of Zero Hour in the 31st Century.

And that small detail leads the pair of heroes to uncover which of them is the time anomaly.

Classicboy takes this as well as can be expected. In a way, you get that same choked up feeling as when the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant, regenerated into Matt Smith’s number 11: A profound sense of sadness. 

Superboy really shoulders in at this moment and vows to carry on a fight that we’ve assumed since issue one was more about self-aggrandizing ego than anything else. However, as this torch passes we see a more grown-up side to Kon-El, something the character needed from time-to-time. He wasn’t the Superboy of old. He wasn’t Superboy Classic. But he might rise to their greatness, given the chance.

And with that, Classicboy fades away along with the strange weather pattern, just as the Kents round the side of the barn.

…with his statement to the Kents, we see that Kon-El may have the makings of a hero, but he also has a long way to go before he gets there.

Superboy heads back to Dubbilex after a short visit with the Kents. They state that he reminds them of their son, and all this has made Kon-El wonder who his genetic “father” actually was. Dubbilex has little time to ponder on the answer as Superman’s image appears.

As Superman’s image fades, Kon-El takes to the sky, vowing to not miss out on an opportunity to do his part in the coming conflict. It is a sure sign he has taken Classicboy’s message to heart and is fit to serve as this reality’s Superboy.

Love this issue, all the callbacks and the feel of Classic Superboy was right on. His exit from continuity was tastefully handled and at the same time gave us hope that we would have a Superboy worthy of the title in Kon-El. History proved us right on that front. All around a stellar issue.