Saturday, January 24, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #42


DC Comics' THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD holds pride of place as the first of the "alternating crossover" titles. The title technically began teaming up its heroes in issue #50, but a few "spotlight" features showed up to interrupt this pattern. Batman, the hero whose presence defined the team-up title, debuted in the title alongside Green Lantern in issue #59-- dated April-May 1965. But the Caped Crusader did not become the dominantly featured character until after the January 1966 BATMAN teleseries had debuted as a runaway success-- and the first of these new "Batman-centric" issues is the one on which I focus, BATMAN #64 (February-March 1966). However, that's not the main reason I chose it to be representative of the feature, which lasted until 1983.

Like the Marvel team-up features that followed later, BRAVE AND BOLD was not known for consistent quality. The dominant gimmick-- that the Darknight Detective would be teamed up with very nearly every starring character in the DC universe-- meant that there was no consistent tone: Batman could have a grim-and-gritty urban adventure with Wildcat or Black Canary in one issue, and then jet off to Rann to meet Adam Strange or have magical misadventures with the Spectre or the Phantom Stranger.  Similarly, though there's some very good art in the feature at times-- Jim Aparo, Nick Cardy, and Neal Adams (who debuted his very influential version of Batman in this feature)-- even good artists could do little with workmanlike scripts.  

However, for some devotees the feature's lack of consistency, its tendency to favor wild, attention-getting gimmicks over slick, streamlined storytelling, is BRAVE AND BOLD's greatest strength. And it's a virtue most fans associated with Bob Haney, who wrote the most BRAVE AND BOLD scripts, though he certainly was not the only contributor,

Haney's scripts fall into two main categories: the workmanlike formula stories and the wild gimmick-stories. The latter are the ones that most fans remember with affection, and I tend to agree with that preference. When forming this list I decided that I only wanted to represent each of the "alternating crossover" comics with just one selection. I might have chosen the crazy story in which both Wonder Woman and Batgirl break away from their normal characterizations and spontaneously fall in love with Batman, or the one where Batman and Sergeant Rock must keep a terrorist from killing Jim Aparo, the artist drawing their team-up tale. But I chose #64 because the Batman-Eclipso crossover is one of Aparo's daffiest Bat-outings.

The opening deals with Batman encountering an old flame, a rich girl named Marcia Monroe. In his flashback Batman reveals that he almost gave up being Batman in order to marry Marcia, until she did a "Casablanca" on him and left without explanation.  If that by itself sounds rather uncharacteristic for Batman, it should, because Haney tended to write the Caped Crusader as if he was some latter-day derivation of Mickey Spillane's PI, Mike Hammer.

However, in some adventures Haney's Hammer-esque Batman is so dumb that he ought to have been called "Mike Dumb-as-a-Bag-of-Hammers." Marcia feeds the crimefighter a story about how a fabulous stolen emerald came into her hands, and she wants Batman to help her return to the museum so that her dead boyfriend, the original thief, won't be implicated. Batman buys the whole story, hook-line-and-sinker, and he sneaks the jewel back into the museum. But it's a set-up: Marcia has Batman photographed so that it looks like he stole the gem, and then she re-steals it, so that the Dumbass Detective is arrested.  While Batman's in jail, it's revealed that Marcia is actually a costumed villain, the Queen Bee, and the head of an international crime syndicate named Cyclops.  One of her first acts after jailing Batman is to liberate Eclipso, the demonic other-self of altruistic scientist Bruce Gordon. Gordon's secret self was not a subject of public knowledge, but apparently during one of Eclipso's earlier peregrinations outside his Jekyll-side's body, he had something to do with instituting Cyclops-- though Haney's script is far from clear on this.

Batman breaks out of jail and seems to get killed by police bullets. However, he survives and tracks one of Cyclops' agents to the villains' HQ. Artist Win Mortimer wasn't the most dynamic artist ever to work on the BRAVE AND BOLD feature, but Haney gives a fast-paced pulp-tale full of wild incident: desks that spring up and hit people, flying bee-men, Eclipso's black-diamond death-rays, and Batman pretending to be a Cyclops assassin for no good reason whatever.  But the stand-out moment is when the Queen Bee helps the Bat-dude out of a jam because she really still loves him; she just put him in jail so that she wouldn't be forced to have him killed.  By story's end the Cyclops HQ has been raided by police and Eclipso has been returned to Bruce Gordon's body without anyone, including Batman, knowing of the phenomenon. Marcia gets away, leaving behind her Queen Bee costume, while Batman manfully swears to bring her in despite his tortured feelings. Happily, to the best of my knowledge neither Haney nor anyone else ever brought Marcia back, and that's the way I like it: having her disappear forever into Haney's dopey, lovably corny Haney-verse. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

WOMAN IN WHITE: THE ANTI-DETECTIVE STORY



I've recently finished Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE, often cited as one of the first novels that cemented the European mystery-detective genre. I didn't find it nearly as salutary an experience as his arguably more famous novel THE MOONSTONE, which boasts not only a better plot but an exciting pace and more rounded characters.

That said, THE WOMAN IN WHITE has one thing going for it that MOONSTONE did not: a story that totally invalidates one of the major tropes of the detective genre, so much so that I view it as being "anti-detective," at least in theme.

One of the most enduring themes of the straightforward detective story is the reader's experience of salvation when the clever detective sees the solution to some puzzle that has confounded all others. I don't know whether literary pundits still deem Edgar Allan Poe to be the creator of the detective story, but in at least two of his Dupin stories, Poe concretized the idea of the detective as the solver of great puzzles, both in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter."

As in many such detective stories, the 1860 novel WOMAN IN WHITE does present the audience with a very convoluted scheme involving certain villains' attempts to despoil an heiress of her inheritance, And two of the principal witnesses to the scheme-- main characters Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe-- become amateur detectives in order to figure out what has been done and what they can do about it.

Without detailing that scheme, though, I will say that Collins structures the novel so that even when the heroes find out the truth, the villains have arranged things so thoroughly to their advantage that the detectives can't DO anything with their knowledge. At the very time when a Dupin or Holmes would unveil the secret that solves the whole difficulty, Walter and Marian find themselves helpless to make that revelation, because they know that no one will believe them.

Collins, in other words, has no faith that society will listen to the detective once he reveals the truth.  Early in the novel the main villain Count Fosco pokes fun at one character's belief that "murder will out," claiming that only stupid criminals are easily found out, and he does arrange things so that it takes advantage of both the inertia of society and the straightjacketing effects of the legal system. On a side-note Collins' father nagged the author into studying law, so that Collins might have some more profitable employment than being a writer. Collins, in showing in his novel that the law hampers more than it helps, may be demonstrating his extreme dislike for the legal profession in THE WOMAN IN WHITE-- though to be sure, Collins' friend and collaborator Charles Dickens had provided an even greater excoriation of the law in 1852's BLEAK HOUSE.

The undoing of the novel's villains takes place not because of any great revelation, but simply because Walter, by sheer coincidence, lucks into making contact with an enemy of Fosco, and that enemy is key to tearing down Fosco's tapestry of deception.  And thus, though THE WOMAN IN WHITE still qualifies as a "detective novel" in terms of content, in terms of theme it rejects one of the main emotional satisfactions of the genre.

Monday, January 5, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #41



On my original "top 100 crossovers" list-- which has been revised several times since I started posting entries here-- I included DC's BRAVE AND THE BOLD #63, which had the distinction of being the only crossover of two starring female characters without any other heroes participating in the main plot (though Superman does make a very brief appearance). But when I recently reread the story, I found it pretty disappointing. Though it was written by Bob Haney, who produced many enjoyably daffy stories for B&B, the winsomely titled "Revolt of the Super Chicks" proved fairly workmanlike, despite a few inspired moments. (For instance, the story begins with Supergirl deciding to chuck her superheroine career-- and when Superman tries to lecture her on her responsibilities, his cousin intimates that his obsession with responsibility has made him a stick-in-the-mud in the romance department.)

So I began hunting in earnest, to find if the DC Comic was actually the first time comic book characters in any genre had assumed co-starring roles in a story. Frankly, I didn't confine my search only to comic books, but I was pretty sure that I'd find a big goose-egg in such media as films, radio, and comic strips. All three lacked the sort of unitary business model found in American commercial coniic books, the sort of approach that has made crossovers particularly viable. I found some suggestions that various female characters in comic books had crossed paths in the Golden Age. most notably Timely teen-humor character Patsy Walker and Madeline Joyce, a.k.a. "Miss America," though apparently Madeline did not appear in her costumed identity.

A few other comedy-characters met one another, but most of the adventure-oriented genres-- superheroes, space opera, westerns, and jungle-stories-- very few writers seemed to have given a second thought to the pleasures of having female characters meet one another. Granted, pound for pound there aren't that many male/male crossovers in the Golden Age if you discount regularly occurring teams. Still, even publishing giant DC Comics seems to have only one story comparable to the 1965 team-up of Supergirl and Wonder Woman: 1943's ALL-STAR COMICS #15, in which several girlfriends of the Justice Society meet one another and don the costumes of their male counterparts in order to save the main heroes from a villain. This is a cool little story, which James Robinson re-wrote for a sequence in his STARMAN title, but it doesn't satisfy my criterion for a crossover of featured characters.

Happily, in 1943 another story appeared from Fawcett Comics, which keeps the 1965 BRAVE AND BOLD from holding the honor of being the first crossover of two female superheroines.  The story "Mary Marvel and the Riddles of Death" from MARY MARVEL #8 may not be the first time Mary Marvel and Bulletgirl met, whether on the comics-page or behind-the-scenes. But both heroines know one another's identities at the start of this story, as Susan "Bulletgirl" Kent attends the high-school graduation of Mary "Mary Marvel" Bromfield-- a graduation attended by no one else in Mary's circle, not even her brother Billy Batson. Still, the absence of other supporting characters indicates that the writer wanted to have no distractions from the central plot: showing two female crimefighters taking on a pair of murderous crooks.

One can read the full story here at this January 2013 post at THE TIME BULLET.  While the 1965 B&B story seemed predictable in a bad way, the MARY MARVEL tale is formulaic in a good way: a way that suggests the basic appeal of the formula rather than its limitations. Susan Kent is attacked by two previous antagonists of the Bulletman-Bulletgirl team: the Weeper-- technically, the son of the Weeper, since the original character died-- and Doctor Riddle, who had perfected the schtick of leaving riddle-clues a good five years before the birth of Batman's Riddler.  It's not a momentous tale, but it's perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, though one might wonder why the villains don't cause Susan trouble by simply revealing her real identity to the world. But had they done that, it would have read more like a standard DC tale, instead of a good little rock-'em, sock''em story that lets the ladies deal out distaff justice.

One quick notation: while Mary Marvel did maintain her own feature, Bulletgirl shared feature-status with the hero after whom the feature was titled, Bulletman. Bulletman did initiate the feature without a female co-star, but by the time this story was published, Bulletgirl was an integral co-star, not merely a supporting character-- and so she satisfies my "featured character" criterion.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #40




Though Robert E. Howard's Conan stories were revived for 1960s paperbacks, my first exposure to the battling Cimmerian was in Marvel's 1970 adaptation of the character to comic books, written by Roy Thomas and delinated by Barry Windsor-Smith.Within the first year, it seems that Marvel knew that it had a hit, for in issues #14 and #15 the barbarian played host to a renowned sword-and-sorcery hero created for the decade of the sixties: Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. I've never read any behind-the-scenes stories regarding how Moorcock-- who owned his character outright-- came to allow Marvel to adapt Elric. It would seem plausible that both Moorcock and Marvel were "testing the waters" to see whether or not Elric would resonate with enough Marvel-readers to make more adaptations profitable for both parties. .
But Elric would not be adapted by Marvel until much later.

At the time of the two-parter's publication I was captivated by both heroes as presented by Thomas and Smith, and I didn't lose any time reading the prose adventures of both-- though I would always find Howard the writer much more appealing than Moorcock. The two-part story favors the mythic complexity of Moorcock's world, hurling a variety of sorcerous characters seen and unseen at the reader-- and at the barbarian, who says that his head spins "with names I have no faces for." But the strength of Conan's character still holds its own, even when he only has two support-characters with him: Zukala, a wizard whose name was plundered from a REH poem, and his daughter Zephra, created entirely for the comic.

There's nothing special about the "two heroes meet, then become allies" plot, but Thomas' script is chock full of good characterization moments, and Smith's pre-Raphaeleite visuals are consistently excellent.  It's sad to recall how far Marvel's Conan titles fell with respect to this initial high point.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE MURK OF AVALON




I'm usually a sucker for fiction about Arthurian Britain, particularly when they delve into the conflicts between pagan lore and Christian doctrine during that not-strictly-historical period. I'd heard nothing but good things about Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1982 novel, THE MISTS OF AVALON, and finally chose to crack this massive 800-page tome.

I knew before reading that MISTS was a feminist rendition of the Arthurian tradition, which emphasized the male agency of King Arthur and his knights, but did, in contrast to some comparable traditions of other cultures, allow for some agency on the part of female characters. The most famous of these are generally Guinevere, queen to Arthur and lover to Lancelot, and Morgan LeFay, sometimes represented as half-sister to Arthur, and the mother to Modred, the child of their mutual incestuous encounter. I also knew in advance that MISTS' focus was the character Morgaine, Bradley's take on the evil, magic-wielding sorceress LeFay. The traditional Morgan was not invariably associated with the magical isle of Avalon, but in MISTS Morgaine is not just a sorceress, but an iniatiate into the mysteries of matrifocal British paganism. Avalon, a domain perpetually shrouded in mists, is in some ways a perfect visual symbol for what some have called "the mystery of womanhood," at least as compared to the blunt, obvious preoccupations of the male gender-- few of whom, in Bradley's cosmos, are particularly sharp blades.

Unfortunately, Bradley reveals more than she conceals through having most of her characters chew the fat endlessly about who's sleeping with whom and whose parents brought about what psychological traumas. I have no objection to a latter-day author transporting some modern-day psychological observations into the matrix of Arthurian myth; indeed, as every writer is a child of his or her time, it's well nigh impossible not to do so. What I found egregious in Bradley's MISTS is the repetitiveness of many of her tropes regarding character makeup and ongoing plot-conflicts. This authorial inability to know when "less would be more" may have come about simply because during the majority of her career Bradley did not work in such lengths.

As I commented in my only other blog-comments on a Bradley book here, I've read twenty or more of Bradley's SF-fantasy works. She came to prominence in a period when almost the only publishing outlet for SF-fantasy was in the format of the paperback novel, usually not much beyond 100,000 words in length. I've rarely retained strong memories of those Bradley novels that I've read: whether written in the 1960s or the 1980s, I've found them to be efficiently plotted stories told in a simple "meat-and-potatoes" style. Obviously, given the strong popularity of her ongoing "Darkover" series and MISTS itself, it's possible that I'm simply not destined to be one of Bradley's bigger fans.

Nevertheless, even though MISTS by design is meant to be a long, generation-spanning work, the book's substance could have been boiled down to a more comfortable 500 pages without losing anything but repetitious character-and-plot tropes. Another culprit may be the fact that any author attempting to do a "big novel" on the Arthurian theme has a prodigious number of stories from which to choose. Naturally, Bradley gives preference to stories focused on the Morgan character, providing quasi-realistic takes on stories  like this one from Thomas Malory in which Morgan forces Arthur to fight a warrior named Accolon.  A minor consequence of this focus as that male-focused tropes, such as Arthur drawing the sword Excalibur from a stone or a tree, are substantially altered, and downplayed save when they are relevant to the novel's main conflict: the fading of the pagan and matrifocal way of life before that of all conquering Christianity.

I fully understand why Bradley chose to focus on the domestic world of women in her feminist re-writing of Arthurian themes. Although Arthur's Camelot did not exist as such in recorded history, Bradley must model her version of that world upon the medieval society of the time, with its extremely bifurcated gender-roles (though she does mention in passing that the older Celtic tribes harbored women who took up arms upon the battlefield). Yet for all the talk of rival religious traditions, Bradley's world is one in which both God and the gods are silent.  Any fans of Arthurian fantasy will find that the only magic in MISTS can be explained by the evocation of various psychic powers that have simply been interpreted as magic. Oh, and there's one "dragon," never seen "on-camera" as it were, but Bradley implies that it's nothing more than some prehistoric venom-spitting worm.

These rationalizations of mythic material are standard enough in what I tend to deem "bestseller fiction," and indeed Bradley's MISTS may have been successful with audiences precisely because it did not require those readers to believe in dragons and enchanted swords.  Still, bestseller fiction is capable of providing some philosophical discourse on certain topics, like what makes one religion different from one another. Bradley, no philosopher, placates possible Christian readers by having many of her pagans assure the Christians that "all gods are one." Yet clearly all religions are not one, given that so much of the novel is devoted to showing how feminine agency is reduced and downgraded with the encroachment of patrifocal Christian beliefs.  But I will admit that since most of Bradley's characters don't have the intellectual background conducive to long religious debates, such discourse would have been difficult to render credible.

Morgaine, the center of the novel, is fascinating in the novel's first half, as we see her caught in the machinations of the king-making pagan priests who plot to bring about the birth of Arthur. Yet while I admire the complexity with which Bradley lays out her vision of familial relations between dozens of Arthurian figures, some of them result in the aforementioned repetitiveness. As a young woman Morgaine falls in love with Lancelet (the novel's version of Lancelot), with the result that she and the novel's version of Guinevere are rivals for the knight's charms. This could have been a sound plot-idea, but Bradley returns to it again and again, rarely saying anything new beyond another chorus of Morgaine singing "Poor Poor Pitiful Me."

I'll note in conclusion that just as the Morgan-Arthur relationship is sometimes incestuous in certain stories, Bradley uses incest-motifs frequently throughout MISTS: for instance, Lancelet is Morgaine's cousin, the son of the woman who initiates Morgaine into the mysteries and who is more of a mother to Morgaine that the woman who births her.  In my other essay I commented that THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE is replete with such motifs, though only a more thorough reading of her corpus of works would reveal whether or not it's a repeated theme.





Saturday, December 6, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #39




FLASH/ARROW may not be the ideal crossover of live-action TV superheroes, but it'll do until a better one comes along.

The crossover owes its entire aesthetic to John Byrne. In the 1980s Byrne, whose pronouncements carried enormous clout with both the fan community and professional comics-editors, stated that Superman and Batman, given their polarized outlooks, should never have been friends. much less that they would have teamed up with one another often enough to spawn a regular feature about their joined adventures. Byrne's direct influence on Superman and Batman ended when his tenure on the 1980s SUPERMAN feature concluded, but his indirect influence went on for years. Many though not all raconteurs agreed that Superman's niceness would set Batman's teeth on edge, while Batman's questionable practices would raise the Kryptonian's eyebrows.

FLASH/ARROW borrows this basic schema of light vs. dark, innocence vs. experience, and so on. In ARROW's previous season the hero and this support-cast take police scientist Barry Allen into their confidence regarding their clandestine mission. This season, Barry receives the blessing of super-speed powers for his own brand-new series, precipitating this two-way crossover.

Of the two episodes themselves, the FLASH story was a bit stronger. Arrow and his crew visit Central City on separate business, but the archer and his team can't help getting involved with Flash's new meta-villain, TV's version of the Rainbow Raider. The Raider unleashes nice-guy Barry's buried hostilities and aggressions, so that he begins to flip out in the workplace. Then the Flash goes on a super-speed rampage against the boyfriend of Barry's sort-of adoptive sister Iris-- a rage-fest that's been building for some time in the regular series.  The ensuing battle between Flash and Arrow can't hope to duplicate the kinetic antics of the comics page, but for television, it's pretty good.

The ARROW episode, naturally, had to be considerably darker, as a murderous version of Captain Boomerang comes to Starling City, intent on killing Lyla, ex-wife of Ollie Queen's buddy John Diggle.  While I 'm glad that the producers gave the loony-looking captain a grittier aspect for the purposes of this story, I think they hyped up his skill-set too much when they had him single-handedly invade an ARGUS stronghold, where his boomerangs really shouldn't have been very effective against multiple guns. This time Flash and his crew visit Arrow and his "Arrowcave," as FLASH-regular Cisco calls it: all of these scenes are a virtual treasure-trove of the embarrassing aspects of superhero gimmickery to any self-respecting "dark hero," even if he does use gimmicky arrows himself.

But, as the characters themselves say-- perhaps a little too self-reflexively-- the worlds of the Superman-type, Flash, and the Batman-type, the Arrow, don't merge very well. Arrow, who has already vowed to clean up some of the dirtier aspects of his crusade, must be made to don the hairshirt of regret once again, simply because Barry and his buddies come to visit. This forces the episode to go over old ground once more, partly with the use of flashbacks hearkening back to Oliver's service with Amanda Waller-- a plot-thread I for one am not in love with. Since Boomerang is not capable of taking on both heroes, the script is forced to find a way to employ the talents of Barry and Ollie separately. It's an efficient enough contrivance, but overall the story doesn't do much to enhance the reputations of the speedster or the archer. It's a small blessing that their friendly-but-testy relationship feels indebted less to John Byrne's simplifications tand more to the more artful meditations of Frank Miller on the subject.

Since the crossover was a ratings success, I imagine there will be another one some time in the future. I for one would rather leave the respective heroes in their own bailwicks for the foreseeable future.

Monday, December 1, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #38



The best compliment I can pay to THE GAMBLER RETURNS; THE LUCK OF THE DRAW is to say that its salute to the television westerns of yesteryear is good enough to make it worth sitting through Kenny Rogers' artless performance as the titular character. The supporting actors accompanying him on his quest-- Rick Rossovich, Park Overall, and even fellow singer Reba McIntire-- do yeoman service in distracting the audience from Rogers' tone-deaf line-deliveries. The script is serviceable, involving the Gambler's quest to participate in one last great poker-game-- though, as it happened, this was not the last of the GAMBLER TV-flicks.

The one thing that makes this telemovie palatable is its status as a crossover-work. It might be seen as an inversion of the type of crossover seen in the SPACE GHOST/"Council of Doom" episode. The purpose of the crossovers in that episode was to create viewer interest in Hanna-Barbera's new offerings, but LUCK OF THE DRAW is about saluting series-characters who were now only revived in the spirit of nostalgia.

DRAW is replete with many references to both real western history and that of the "fake West," none of which go very deep. In some cases, the film's producers didn't secure permission to reference certain characters. Thus Doug McClure and James Drury appear, but are not playing their VIRGINIAN characters. Neither the Lone Ranger nor Tonto appear, but a horse that looks like Silver shows up, accompanied by the William Tell Overture. None of these "doppelganger characters" count as genuine crossovers, but fortunately, DRAW does bring in such luminaries as:

*Bart Maverick, played by Jack Kelly
*The Rifleman, played by Chuck Connors
*Wyatt Earp, played by Hugh O'Brien
*Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine
*Dave Blassingame, played by Brian Keith
*Cheyenne, played by Clint Walker
*Bat Masterson, played by Gene Barry



In addition, the story also works in various actors with strong western associations, such as Linda "Big Valley" Evans and Dub "Wild Bunch" Taylor.  And Paladin of WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE is referenced as having passed on, in deference to the passing of the actor who played him, Richard Boone.

Though the main characters have some interesting if low-key adventures, the story is clearly an excuse for the guest-stars to show up, do their turn, and then gracefully bow out. One's enjoyment of these scenes probably does depend on some familiarity with the original series. Possibly, though, even the trivia-happy Internet Generation could appreciate the soliloquy of Paul Brinegar, reprising a not-named version of "Wishbone" from RAWHIDE-- for in said soliloquy, Brinegar managed to work in the titles of about a dozen TV westerns.