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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #37



The above illustration doesn't precisely represent the memorable crossover story presumably within. The male hero might be a passable visualization of the titular C.L.Moore protagonist "Northwest Smith," except for the fact that he's carrying a rapier rather than his trusty futuristic "heat gun"-- Smith being a space-opera hero who lives in some era when Earth has colonized the planets of this solar system.

The female illustrated, though, could never pass for the other character in the crossover, Moore's currently better-known Jirel of Joiry, an imperious noblewoman who lived in a fictitious medieval French setting.  The original Jirel would never cling like the woman in the picture does: she was a fiery swordswoman who could lead her followers into battle without a second thought and could slay a sorcerer as soon as look at him.

The story "Quest of the Star-Stone" was published in a 1937 issue of WEIRD TALES, some time after both Jirel and Northwest Smith had earned some cachet, though Moore never wrote more than a dozen stories for either character. "Quest" is the only one of these in which Moore collaborated with her husband Henry Kuttner, also a renowned SF-writer, and it may be that they did so in order to let their own personal romance infuse the story.

The "Starstone" of the title, a sort of magical dingus, is what Hitchcock called a "Macguffin" over which the characters could contend.  In medieval Joiry, the warrior-woman breaks into the castle of the warlock Franga to kill him. He escapes, but Jirel takes possession of his valued Starstone. Franga, who has not yet had a chance to tap its powers, can only recover it by either winning the stone from her in battle, or by forcing her to give it up of her own free will.

For no clear reason Franga travels in time to find the one agent who can help him: cosmic troubleshooter Northwest Smith. Smith accepts Franga's commission to recover his stolen property.  When Franga takes Smith into the past, he inadvertently also takes Smith's Venusian buddy Yarol as well; when Yarol tries to stop Smith from going.

As a result of Franga's manipulations, Smith, Yarol and Jirel (whose names are suspiciously similar!) end up in an extradimensional world, and Sniith divines that Franga plans to double-cross his agents and leave them, and Jirel, stranded once the wizard gets the stone.  Thus Jirel and Smith are forced to make common cause despite their differences.

Though Moore and Kuttner certainly don't invent any wheels here, "Starstone" is a heady pulp-action story which is given special resonance by the instantaneous lust experienced by both Smith and Jirel when they see each other. They continually check one another out whenever they're together, and only the exigencies of the narrative keep them from bumping uglies.  Moore and Kuttner also throw a few humorous moments to break the tension, as when Jirel calls Smith by the name "Smeet."

This one's a treat worth seeking out in the few collections where it's appeared.

Monday, November 17, 2014

SING HEIL, SING HELL

I've recently finished all but one of the ten collected volumes of Kouta Hirano's HELLSING. The only one I missed was number nine, and by the time I got to eight, I was pretty sure that I would be able to fill in most of any missing pieces.

HELLSING takes place on a vague future-Earth some time after the end of World War II, but all of the action takes place in Europe and I found no allusions, at least in the English translations, to Japan's role in the war.  It's also a world in which vampires, werewolves and various other freaky phenomena have always existed alongside humanity, though apparently only in recent years have they become allies to a number of warring factions.

The title of the series is one of those factions, an English-based organization named after the original vampire hunter Van Helsing. Van Helsing's victory over the vampire-lord Dracula didn't take quite the same way it did in Bram Stoker's novel. For one thing, the creature once called Dracula still lives, but Van Helsing-- or someone-- chained him in the dungeons beneath Hellsing Institute. When he's released from captivity by the vampire-hunter's descendant, the fearsome female Integra Hellsing, he takes the name "Alucard" and becomes Integra's bondservant, as well as her foremost agent in the defense of Hellsing.

Hellsing Institute has not one but two major factions ranged against them.  One is a group called Millennium, a neo-Nazi group whose leader, the mysterious "Major" (implicitly a holdover from the original Nazi regime), wishes to foment an endless state of war for no reason but for the love of destruction.  The other is the Vatican itself, which sports its own cadre of Catholic commandos and frequently spends more time fighting the English Protestants than the menace of Millennium.

I'm not sure why I didn't like HELLSING better. Hirano's art is good but displays an unfortunate tendency, seen in many manga works, to depict battle-scenes as a jumble of confused activity, with no appreciation for the virtues of white space.  The writing is decent for this sort of fevered adventure-opus, where Alucard, his supports cast and his enemies are all tough enough to cut nails on their tongues.  But Hirano doesn't really give the average reader much reason to identify with any of the characters, so that most of them have a fairly artificial feel.

Vampire myths have become some of the fecund literary myths of the past fifty years, but only once does Hirano excel himself in this sort of mythopoesis. In Book Eight, Alucard has a flashback to his experiences during his years as the Romanian Christian voivode (ruler) Vlad Tepes-- though this name is not used. During a major field-battle between Alucard's Romanian troops and those of the neighboring Turks, Alucard equates the slaughter on both sides with the idea of a holocaust, in the sense of a major sacrifice to deity.

"Fight. Everyone fight. Fighting is prayer itself. At the end of so much prayer [that] it astounds, God will descend. Jerusalem will descend!"




I don't know whether Romanian Christians of the 15th century might have entertained this specific line of thought, but the idea of attracting the attention of God/the gods with a mammoth sacrifice of lives seems characteristic to the nature of early humanity.  As expressed it even holds some resemblance to myths in which mortals may attempt to "bully" the gods into responding to their prayers, not by respectful pleading but by defacing or striking the icons of the deity to elicit a response.

It would seem, though, that Hirano had no deep interest in the metaphysics of worship. The sequence described serves the purpose of establishing Dracula/Alucard's profound alienation, for neither God nor Jerusalem descends in response to the wholesale slaughter.  On the whole HELLSING is a moderately enjoyable balls-to-the-wall example of "horror-adventure," but it fails to touch on the deeper resonance of the modern vampire myth.


Monday, November 10, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #36



Usually, crossovers between franchise characters are structured as one-shots.  However, they can become more ambitious when two different companies agree to cross over their characters. Such is the case with the four Batman/Judge Dredd tales, the result of a collaboration between Britain's Fleetway and DC Comics.
Though the individual stories can stand alone, there are touches by writers Alan Grant and John Wagner that tie them loosely together.

The first, "Judgment on Gotham," is also the best, skillfully alternating between Judge Dredd's futuristic Mega-City domain and its gang of crazies, and Batman's Gotham. Dredd-villains like "Mean Machine" and "the Dark Judges" receive the bulk of the two crimefighters' attention, but the villain Scarecrow is a nice change from some of the more overused Bat-villains.  "Judgment" sports the best art, thanks to Simon Bisley, and begins the fractious association of the two heroes, whose dislike for one another goes beyond the bounds of the average "meet-and-beat" encounter.

"Vendetta in Gotham" is merely fair overall, though it does feature an enjoyably-long, kickass fight-scene between Batman and Dredd.  "The Ultimate Riddle" works Batman, Dredd and the Riddler together in a tedious gladiatorial-combat plotline.

"Die Laughing," however, works almost as well as the opener, even if it does spotlight that most overused of overused Bat-villains, the Joker.  The Glenn Fabry excels Bisley in one respect: Fabry does the best job of depicting the polychromatic yet sleazy world of Mega-City One.

The crossover of Dredd and Batman works as well as it does not simply because the two heroes don't like each other: because Dredd considers Batman a "vigilante" while the Caped Crusader deems the Judge to be a brainless fascist.  It works because they mirror opposing interpretations of the megalopolis as simultaneously a Pleasure-Dome and a City of Dreadful Night.

In the Dredd franchise, the opposition is more extreme: Mega-City is an overcrowded mess filled with discontented citizens, and the non-criminals can be even more dangerous than the criminals to the commonweal.  Dredd and his fellow Judges just barely control the chaos through the use of a justice that recognizes no compromise, but their struggle, while offering the thrills of a straight adventure, is always tainted by a whiff of irony; by the awareness that This is No Way for People to Live.

Batman, of course, inhabits a city where a humanistic approach to law and order is still possible, even though he too has any number of "I Am the Law" moments.  Gotham was not portrayed as especially corrupt until the 1990s, but even in the sunny eras of Sprang and Infantino there always remained some inkling that the city was the place of constant, unfulfilled desires-- symbolized not by the egregious misbehavior of the ordinary citizens but by the repetitive acting-out of Batman's endless array of antagonists.

By the bye, the volume collecting all four also includes a Lobo/Judge Dredd crossover, but this particular crossover is far from exceptional.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #35

For the final six episodes of the 1966 SPACE GHOST teleseries, the show featured what might be called a "limited crossover"-- limited because the titular hero only interacted very briefly with his heroic guest-stars.  These interactions come very close to being cameos, and I said earlier that I wouldn't consider cameo-crossovers that fit this definition:

Also not considered here are "cameo crossovers," where characters have no interaction with a developed plot, but merely appear as "walk-ons," usually for the purpose of a quick joke. 


However, the "Council of Doom" episodes are slightly more developed than the "quick joke" example I provided in my earlier essay.

The main plot of the mini-saga goes like this: six of Space Ghost's most vicious enemies team up-- becoming the "council" of the title-- and then take turns trying to destroy the spacefaring hero. The six of them, seen blow, are (going clockwise from the well-known Zorak) are Zorak, Creature King, Metallis, Spider Woman, Brak, and Moltar.




In four of the encounters, the villains zap Space Ghost into some other cosmos. The hero is then set upon by hostile forces in that universe, only to be saved by one of four heroes native to said universe: respectively Shazzan, the Herculoids, Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor. (Note: the first two had their own shows, while the latter two shared one cartoon-berth.)




Thus, Space Ghost never interacts with any of the other heroes for more than a minute, if that. However, I find that these brief encounters-- patently intended to advertise the new cartoon-kids on the block-- are still important to the "Council of Doom" plot, at least more so than you would get with a throwaway joke.  And in at least one case, there's a good "science vs. magic" vibe. In the Shazzan segment, Space Ghost's powers are useless against the sorcery of the evil "Sultan of Flame," while the heroic genie's abilities easily trump those of the mystic evildoer.

A later 1980s cartoon had Space Ghost and the Herculoids cross paths off-and-on. But as limited as these crossovers were, they captured perfectly the pure fun of the 1960s era, whereas the 1980s show seemed a pale spectre of the originals.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #34



This one-shot novel is a conceptual kissing cousin to H.P. Lovecraft's THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, insofar as it brings together over a dozen characters or milieus created by a single author. But these creations were all spawned by Edgar Allan Poe, while the two authors bringing them all together for this Poe-pastiche are Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen.

The viewpoint character of the story is one Edgar Allan Perry, who exists in our world but shares a telepathic relationship with his other-dimensional counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe and with a young woman named Annie. Both men are somewhat in love with her, which is enough to motive Perry when he's shunted into a dimension where Poe's literary creations and finds Annie in peril there. I think-- but am not sure-- that Annie is a native of this dimension, while Poe is hurled into Perry's world, which seems to be "our" world, in that Poe will then live out a doleful life in which he never feels at home.  Perry, having lived in a time approximate to Poe's, does not recognize any of the people or situations that he meets as being literary creations. The authors devote zero time to explaining why they have independent existence, to say nothing of the fact that their stories are conflated. Dirk Peters, one of the protagonists of Poe's CONFESSIONS OF A. GORDON PYM, not only becomes an aide to Perry, he's altered into being both (1) the sailor who owns the ourang-outang from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and (2) the vengeful dwarf from HOP-FROG, who in turn works his devilment on the court of Prince Prospero from THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

I presume that Perry's imperiled romantic partner Annie is named for the character from the poem "Annabel Lee." Annie is a powerful psychic who's kidnapped by a threesome of conspirators who want to use her talents to help them obtain an alchemical gold-making process. Two of the conspirators are named for Poe characters, while the third is named for Rufus Griswold, a real-life acquaintance of Poe's who defamed the author after his death. Perry, given the command of a ship by yet another Poe-character ("Seabright Ellison" from THE DOMAIN OF ARNHEIM), undertakes to pursue the villains and liberate Annie.

Although there are a few quotes from Poe's works that contribute to the reader's sense of what Poe accomplished, the simplistic quest-narrative doesn't lend itself to much complexity. It's moderately fun to see Zelazny and Saberhagen bring together so many "centric crossovers," as I've termed them. Aside from those already mentioned, the duo also work in Ligeia, Hans Pfall and his balloon, King Pest and his court, Montressor and Fortunato, the living corpse M. Valdemar, the detective Dupin, a maelstrom, a gold-bug, the pit and the pendulum, and the asylum of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. And yet, I found that after a while one crossover seemed much like another, and that Perry's quest for Annie took a back seat to all of these witty references.

Still, BLACK THRONE is an exceptional crossover-work even if it's far from perfect as a novel.