Monday, April 13, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #48




PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD...

While a lot of the crossovers I've covered here have elements of hand-to-hand conflict, here's one based in "foot vs. foot."

FLASH #175 was published as a follow-up to a similar set-up in SUPERMAN #199, which had only seen publication about three months earlier. The Superman story is a good read, but it has a somewhat "kiddie-level" feel to it. Superman and the Flash race one another for charity, but have to deal with illegal gamblers trying to sabotage the race for their own benefit.

As the cover above shows, the FLASH version of this conflict hinges more on the hero's pathos in contention with DC's premiere hero. The script by E. Nelson Bridwell shows a little more concern with overall continuity than was typical of DC comics in 1967.

In short, Superman and the Flash are forced to run across the galaxy in a competition managed by two alien gamblers, Rokk and Sorban, who had appeared in an earlier Superman story. The aliens also hold the whole Justice League hostage and threaten to destroy the home city of whichever hero loses the race. Refreshingly, Bridwell does manage to find ways for three of the Justice Leaguers to provide aid to the racing heroes, so that they're not simply confined to sitting around playing cheerleaders.

The story doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Since Flash can't breathe in space, the alien betting on him promises to supply him with a force-field of breathable air throughout the race. However, you learn by story's end that the aliens are actually two of Flash's old foes, Professor Zoom and Abra Kadabra, who have only instigated the race in order to lure the Flash into various death-traps. When one of the villains says that he cancelled the force-field so that Flash should have died in space, Superman advances the absurd explanation that he provided the Flash with enough air to breathe via his "super-breath." Hmm, so Superman can expel pure oxygen from his lungs, rather than carbon dioxide? Still, I didn't really worry about such niceties as a kid reading this comic.

Ross Andru's art puts a lot of verve into the galaxy-spanning race, and the two heroes are seen to be somewhat distrustful of one another, possibly in response to the pervasive influence of Marvel Comics during the period.


A VERNIAN VERTIGO

Though like most fantasy-fans I've been entertained by the films based on the works of Jules Verne, I've been somewhat more ambivalent about the author's fiction. I have sampled more of his oeuvre than many modern readers, largely the "usual suspects" like JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, though I also have sampled some obscurities like OFF ON A COMET and THE CARPATHIAN CASTLE. But I had never come across the two novels that gave rise to his character Robur the Conqueror, entitled ROBUR THE CONQUEROR and MASTER OF THE WORLD. Elements from these novels were used in their most famous cinematic adaptation, 1961's MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring the redoubtable Vincent Price.



Recently I was able to correct that situation, as I came across an Ace combination of both novels, originally issued to take advantage of the then-current movie.  I crossed my fingers before reading them, for although I'd enjoyed some sections of both LEAGUES and EARTH when I recently re-read them, I found that Verne's tended to be over-indulgent with his copious research of places and physical phenomena, often at the expense of his characters.

The first of the two novels, "Robur" (published 1886), was a heady surprise. Verne starts slow, with a lot of detail about the state of manned flight-craft in his era, and introduces a whole society of balloon-specialists. Two members of this society, young hero Evans and his mentor Uncle Prudent, become the novel's heroes as they encounter the arrogant engineer Robur, who predicts that "heavier-than-air" flight will soon eclipse the "lighter-than-air" type. When the balloonists reject his claim, Robur kidnaps both men and their Negro valet (more on whom later). He takes them aboard his fantastic craft, the Albatross, and shows them how easily he can confound the military resources of every nation by simply sailing beyond their reach.

Verne is never great with characterization, so it's not clear what Robur gains from the kidnapping beyond a big "told you so," nor is it clear as to why he wants to keep the three men prisoners once he's accomplished this. Robur is clearly in the mold of Verne's earlier Captain Nemo, but Robur is more arrogant, in contrast to the way Nemo is mostly minding his own business when he's forced to take Professor Arronax and his companions aboard the Nautilus. While Nemo and Arronax enjoy each other's company as men of science, Robur does not socialize with his captives, though Verne may have meant to suggest that down deep, Robur wanted from them some validation of his accomplishment. Yet the fact that Evans and Prudent are unremittingly hostile toward Robur endows the novel with more tension than I found in LEAGUES: I read ROBUR with the same excitement I get from the best adventure-pulp.

Robur is in some ways a more compelling character than moody Captain Nemo, but unfortunately he's also more inconsistent. Sometimes he goes about mocking the authority of the European countries, but he also goes out of his way to prevent an African tribe committing a mass ritual murder of several innocent subjects. Evans and Prudent succeed in escaping the Albatross, and they also damage it with an explosive charge. However, when the two men and their crew are in danger during the test-flight of one of their balloons, Robur brings in the Albatross to rescue his rebellious guests, and then sets them free. He then issues another mocking declaration of the inevitable superiority of "heavier-than-air" flight, and vanishes into the sky. It's as if Robur, like his author, was just keeping Evans and Prudent in his company just to build tension, when his long-range aim was actually to catch the balloonists in an embarrassing situation, the better to prove publicly the superiority of his concept-- and indeed, the last we hear of the novel's protagonists is that the citizens of the U.S. are mocking them for their craft's failure.

MASTER OF THE WORLD (1904) lacks any of the virtues of the previous novel. Wikipedia notes that Verne's health was failing when he wrote MASTER, and indeed he passed in 1905, so one can understand if this was something less than a triumph.

However, this doesn't make MASTER any more fun to read. It's outrageously padded with tourist-like descriptions as the protagonist John Strock investigated strange phenomena in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Strock eventually finds out that Robur has holed up in one of the mountains while perfecting a new device: a triple-threat vehicle, "The Terror," which can convert from an air-craft to a land-vehicle to a submersible. Toward the short novel's end Robur captures Strock but never gives any reason as to why he chose to convert his Albatross into this new "Transformer-style" vehicle. Whereas a character named John Strock is instrumental to Robur's defeat in the 1961 film, here Verne takes the lazy way out and has Robur's craft struck by lightning. Strock survives the debacle but Robur's body is never found in his miracle-craft's wreckage.

I said that I would comment on Verne's character of Uncle Prudent's Negro valet, who goes by the name "Frycollin." I haven't read enough Verne to know of his general attitude toward characters of color, but Frycollin has got to be one of the worst minstrel-show Negroes of all time. In my commentary on the first two Tarzan books, I remarked that although Edgar Rice Burroughs was somewhat ambivalent on African Blacks, he found it expedient to heap cruel humor on a Black African-American character, a maid named Esmerelda. But at least once or twice Esmerelda seems like a human being, while Frycollin is just a concatenation of every minstrel-show trope in existence: he's witless, he eats like a pig, and he's a complete coward-- so much so that even when Prudent and Evans lay plans to escape, they know they can't confide in Frycollin or he'd reveal their plans, either out of stupidity or cowardice.  For that matter, given the unimaginative way Verne uses the tropes, I can't imagine them being even modestly funny to those who like racist humor.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #47

I've finished a lengthier analysis of DC Comics' CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS here. but that essay doesn't discuss the series from the POV of crossover aesthetics.

First, I should note that this type of crossover is the one I defined here as the STATIC CROSSOVER:

In such works, the author assumes an overall cosmos in which all of the myth-characters he invokes are capable of encountering one another at any time.

The first example of the static type that I cited on this blog was FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #3, Marvel Comics' first large-scale assemblage of most of their 20th-century characters in one story. CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS-- "COIE" for short-- has many of the same faults and virtues of this annual. On the one hand, the seasoned fan enjoys the experience of seeing characters mixed together that did not typically meet, be it Mr. Hyde and Hawkeye, or Swamp Thing and the Losers. On the other hand, the meetings are so short that there's often a sense of frustration in such brief encounters.

A lot of COIE consists of characters looking up at the sky in apprehension or laying plans to deal with the Anti-Monitor, and these don't exactly give artist George Perez the chance to excel with his mastery of superhero kinetics.

The best issues to seek out for heroic action in the Mighty Perez Manner are COIE #6, in which the DC heroes contend with characters from other publishers, including Fawcett and Charlton:




And COIE #9, which puts the heroes in conflict with a contingent of DC's best villains, plus a tiny handful of Fawcett villains.



Thursday, April 2, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #46



I've already discussed the two best Stan Lee-Steve Ditko crossover stories of the Silver Age, here and here,  and the one Stan Lee-written comic that wasn't a collaboration with either Ditko or Jack Kirby  here. But Ditko also did one other notable crossover in the Silver Age. Given Ditko's contrarian nature, though, it's significant that he refuses to give the casual reader what he might expect. "Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes," the lead story of BLUE BEETLE #5, does have the hero of the titular feature cross paths twice with the hero of the same comic's backup strip, The Question. However, the heroes do not meet with both in costume.

First, Vic Sage (aka the Question) crosses paths with Ted Kord (aka the Blue Beetle) when both happen to be at a museum. They stand together to prevent some scuzzy hippies from assaulting one of the Greek artworks on display, but they part ways thereafter and don't so much as shake hands.



Later, one of the hippies takes it into his head to don a costume based on a sculpture that represents absurdity and pointlessness, and to break into the museum to finish what his buddies started: destroying images of heroism and purpose.  While Blue Beetle is fighting the costumed kook atop the museum's roof, on the street below one of the hippies grabs a cop's gun and tries to shoot the Beetle. Vic Sage happens to be around, and he disarms and clouts the bum, perhaps saving the Beetle's life. The Beetle then goes looking for his opponent, and never pauses to find out who shot at him or who saved him from being shot.



The "Blue Beetle" story also introduces a character who is featured as the villain in the "Question" backup, but this second story is not a crossover as such.


It's doubtful that "Destroyer of Heroes" made much impact on its dominantly juvenile audience at the time. However, many hardcore fans of the period still regard "Destroyer" as one of the most important stories of the decade.  Though philosophical concerns did sometimes pop up as side-issues in the Silver Age stories of, say, Superman and the Fantastic Four, BLUE BEETLE #5 is arguably the first mainstream comic book to devote an entire issue to exploring its author's philosophical outlook. (It's rivaled only by MYSTERIOUS SUSPENSE #1, but this full-length comic was also authored by Steve Ditko, and bears the same cover date, October 1968, as BLUE BEETLE #5.)

Of course one can argue with many aspects of Ditko's Ayn Rand-flavored meritocracy, but the story remains one of Ditko's best dramatizations of his concerns. Later, Blue Beetle and Question teamed up "for real" in another story from Charlton, one from Americomics, and finally from DC Comics. This established the trope of a bond of friendship between the two heroes that never existed in the original Ditko crossover, a bond referenced in Alan Moore's WATCHMEN, where the Ditko characters are transformed into Rorschach and Nite Owl.

Monday, March 23, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #45




Silver Age Marvel's western line quickly followed the pattern established by the superhero line of the early sixties. Thus mundane cowboy protagonists began meeting costumed crooks with names like the Red Raven and Iron Mask, and many of the characters began crossing over into each other's adventures. Usually the crossovers were limited to Marvel's Big Three-- the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt-- though even in the early 1970s, when the western line was petering out, one could still come across oddball meetings like the Ghost Rider and the Gunhawk.

Unfortunately, though Marvel's western riders had their share of good-to-fair solo adventures, the crossovers were never as epic as one might have wished. All too often, the writers seemed to spend all their energies finding some excuse to have Kid Colt and Rawhide-- the two most frequent crossover-subjects-- to meet one another. But they usually only encountered mediocre villains-- routine owlhoots or rampaging Indians. On one occasion, the two Kids met a disguise-using criminal named the Masquerader, but I for one would rather have seen some variation on the old "rogues' galleries of different heroes band together" to fight the heroes. Unfortunately, the closest fans ever got to this setup occurred long after the western heroes had all been reduced to reprint status, when they guested in AVENGERS #142. That story bring together the three above named Kids, the 1960s Ghost Rider (under the new sobriquet "Night Rider"), and the Ringo Kid, who hadn't appeared in a comic book since the late 1950s. For good measure the story also included a handful of Western super-villains like the aforementioned Iron Mask and Red Raven. For fans of the colorful, entirely escapist cowboy crusaders, this would be the closest thing they would get to an "epic western crossover."



The 2000 four-issue miniseries BLAZE OF GLORY. while it substantially rewrites several character-histories, does succeed in putting across the aura of western epic. The small town of Wonderment, founded by black ex-slaves who fled the South, is besieged by masked bandits called "Nightriders," who are determined to scatter the town's inhabitants to the four winds. One of the inhabitants, however, has his own heroic history, for he is Reno Jones, who co-starred in Marvel's first "salt-and-pepper" team-title, GUNHAWKS (1972-73). Jones goes looking for his own "magnificent seven" and manages to corral three fighting cowboys--the Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, and the Outlaw Kid. In addition Reno's ally, a fellow named Fournier, attempts to get the Two-Gun Kid to come out of retirement, and eventually succeeds. However, Colt is being pursued by the bounty hunter Gunhawk and the Pinkerton enforcer Caleb Hammer. The Gunhawk was, as mentioned above, a short-lived hero of the early 1970s, while Hammer enjoyed just one spotlighted appearance in a 1980 issue of MARVEL PREMIERE.  In addition, the Indian hero Red Wolf, another 1970s creation, is hanging about, as is what appears to be a reborn version of the Ghost Rider.

The story by John Ostrander is at least bracing if not strikingly original, but its primary virtue is in bringing together so many of Marvel's cowpoke crusaders, even though Ostrander and artist Leonardo Manco re-imagine all of the old clean-cut heroes as scruffy "spaghetti western" types. I like spaghetti westerns as much as the next western fan, but despite copious references to racial injustice, the script doesn't manage to sell its concept of "the Real Wild West," and Manco's rendition of western action is entirely too painterly. Still, BLAZE OF GLORY remains a pleasing salute to Marvel's history with the western genre, whose moribund state is perhaps signified by the fact that two of the oldest Marvel heroes end up on Boot Hill.

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."