Thursday, February 26, 2015


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."


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


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.