Thursday, February 26, 2015

SHORT TOLKIEN COMPLAINT

I don't remember when I last re-read THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but it's definitely been over twenty years.  I've finished the first two volumes and have begun RETURN OF THE KING, but as I read the books, I find myself calling to mind my original reaction from the 1960s:

A lot of Tolkien's characters are BLOODY BORING!

The Oxford don does come up with a number of good touches for his main characters, and those touches are the reason why the book has remained popular these many decades.  But a lot of his subordinate characters are dullards. Yes, Theoden and Denethor serve different plot-purposes, and enjoy different character-arcs-- but as characters, one is no more developed than the other. Many Tolkien-fans despite the film-adaptation by Peter Jackson, but at least I didn't have trouble distinguishing one king from the other.

I remember thinking back in the 1960s that this was the one thing that kept LORD OF THE RINGS from greatness: that so many of the characters were dull ciphers, no more alive than figures in a history-book. I wished that someday someone--maybe even me-- might write an epic fantasy in which even the subordinate characters were intensely alive, were individuals as developed as fictional characters can be.

And yet, on some occasions, I've seen Tolkien attacked for his lackluster characters-- and I usually find myself coming to his defense, possibly because there is a special art to fantasy-characterization that isn't identical with the world of "realistic literature."

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #44



This is the only crossover that I'll feature where the story-line was not finished as planned, because the titular character was intended to "cross over" with an unacceptable guest star; i.e., Jesus of Nazareth.

The title SWAMP THING was born from the melting-pot of 1970s comics, at a time when the 1960s dominance of superheroes had waned somewhat and the industry was still actively seeking other genres that might pay off at the newsstand. Most non-superheroes, however, did not last past the 1980s unless they already established their popularity in earlier decades, as with DC's perennial war-hero Sergeant Rock, or had established bonafides outside comics, as with the Robert E. Howard character who became one of Marvel's longest success-stories.  Swamp Thing's original 1972-1976 run was not especially successful, even in comparison to other protagonists in 1970s horror-themed comics. However. its popularity with hardcore comics-fans led to the 1982 film, which in turn to the reborn series in the same year. During Alan Moore's groundbreaking tenure on the series, Swamp Thing's universe, which had featured only minimal ties to the greater DC Universe, began to feature crossovers far more liberally. This liberality may have stemmed from an editorial mandate, given that eighties comics became increasingly concerned with playing to the direct market, but I cannot explore those issues here.

Though Moore had his swamp-monster encounter a number of "offbeat" DC characters like the Demon and Adam Strange, Rick Veitch's time-travel story, featured in SWAMP THING #80-87, arguably provided a fresh angle. Instead of meeting heroes within his own timeline-- at least some of whom might boost the title's sales, as with Superman and Batman-- Veitch allowed his plant-protagonist to exclusively interact with characters who neither had their own series nor much chance of getting new ones. These crossover-characters included the aforementioned Sergeant Rock (whose regular title had died the year before he appeared in SWAMP THING #82), Enemy Ace, Tomahawk, the Shining Knight, and a gaggle of DC's western heroes, ranging from the sober-sided (Johnny Thunder), the humorous (Bat Lash), and the demonstrably weird (El Diablo, Super Chief).  For long-time fans of DC Comics, it was a blast from a long-dead past; of a time when comics companies could publish successful titles based in periods other than the present or the far future.

It's also occurred to me that some of the "non-superhero" genres spotlighted by Veitch's sequence tended toward a harder-edged "blood and thunder" approach than DC was known for in its superhero titles. This wasn't invariably the case. The short-lived Native American hero Super Chief was indistinguishable from a regular superhero yarn of the period, and for most of Tomahawk's career since his debut in 1947, the frontiersman enjoyed adventures just as vanilla as those of the Man of Steel; only in the last years of the Tomahawk feature did the hero's adventures assume a tougher outlook.  Still, it was largely in the non-superhero genres that DC pushed the envelope in the "blood and thunder" department, which might be viewed as a stepping-stone to later, more adult-flavored features-- not least SWAMP THING itself.

As most fans know, the Swamp Thing time-travel opus was never completed. Veitch had received approval from DC to finish the series by having Swamp Thing encounter Jesus Christ (as well as a considerably more obscure DC hero, The Golden Gladiator). DC Comics then reversed itself, apparently fearing negative publicity. Veitch resigned and the opus was completed by a new writer Doug Wheeler. Though SWAMP THING #88 technically finished the plot-threads of the time-travel story, I for one don't regard it as part of the whole-- not just because it wasn't Veitch's original story, but because it failed to follow through on the themes established-- particularly that of the wonky "DC history lesson."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #43



Just as I did with the comic-book BRAVE AND BOLD last post, I wanted to find a representative episode of the 2008-2011 Cartoon Network teleseries BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD.

To the lover of DC Comics esoterica, B:TBATB was a cornucopia of daffy pleasures. The writers went out of their way to stress the wild, campy elements of superhero comics, though with a very different approach to "camp" than that of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries.

But of all the series' many strong entries, it was never better-- or "campier"-- than the 2009 episode "Mayhem of the Music Meister."  The plot is fairly simple: Music Meister (cunningly voiced by Neil Patrick Harris), a criminal able to enthrall others with his singing, plots to use a special broadcasting device to gain control over everyone in the world.  But the simplicity allows Batman and his guest heroes, Black Canary and Green Arrow, the freedom to indulge in all the deliberate artificiality of musical theater. In fact, the artificiality of such musical tropes as non-diegetic tunes can be fairly compared to a superhero trope like the "villain puts the heroes into a death trap but doesn't stick around and watch them die."

The songs are all fun doggerel-style tunes, and there's a cool subplot in which Black Canary's affection for Batman finally turns to Green Arrow, which any fan worth his salt should appreciate.

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.