Friday, June 29, 2007

Insane Comic Moments, Part 2

After reading as many Silver Age comics as I have lately, I could probably make this a weekly series in and of itself, but this one I read just a few hours ago, and it's the sort of thing that sticks in your head. (An appropriate phrase, as you'll soon see.)

In the original 'X-Men' #1, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, we open with a sequence of Professor X running the team through their training regimen. Beast has to do a difficult acrobatic routine, Angel must fly an obstacle course...then the young sixteen-year old Iceman gets a turn, but Professor X is "going easy" on him by merely requiring him to display his powers. Iceman frosts himself over with snow...and Professor X telepathically tells the Beast to chuck a bowling ball at his head while he's distracted, to "test his reflexes".

Three thoughts on that:

1) Best argument against vouchers EVER.

2) Anyone who doubts Xavier could ever become Onslaught, this is Exhibit A for the prosecution.

3) I think we know why the students all wanted a Danger Room. It was that, or Xavier just had them whip heavy objects at each other.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Silver Surfer

(or "Before and After")

The nice thing about writing this week's column, on the Silver Surfer, is that Steve Englehart basically wrote it already and was even nice enough to ensure that it got collected in 'The Essential Silver Surfer', Volume Two, for me to read. Since I'm a shameless plagarist, I'm going to cannibalize it, summarize it, add a few token thoughts of my own, and then pass the whole thing off as original work! (Note to self: Delete opening paragraph before passing whole thing off as original work.)

In all seriousness, Volume Two does include a nice set of essays by Steve Englehart, writer of the second Silver Surfer series, on why the original Lee/Buscema series only made it to issue #18, and what changes he'd be making to the storytelling engine (even if he didn't term it as such) to make the Surfer a more viable title. Some of the reasons were marketplace-related, such as the price and the use of fewer panels per page (which let Buscema's artwork show, but which made it harder to tell a complete story in one issue.) But the third reason Englehart cites is the big difference between the two series, and time proved him right when he suggested that it was an important factor in the failure of the old comic and the success of the new.

In the original Silver Surfer series (and, indeed, all appearances of the Silver Surfer prior to the beginning of the new series), the Surfer was trapped on Earth, behind a barrier placed there by Galactus as punishment for defying him. Shalla Bal, his one true love, was out there in space, and he was stuck on Earth with the crazy ape-people.

Why didn't this last? Because it's our old friend, the "false status quo". Every issue has to revolve around the Silver Surfer trying to leave Earth, because it's his all-consuming obsession. But he can't leave Earth, because that's where his comic is set, so we're stuck with an endless repetition of his being doomed to failure, which is no fun for anyone concerned. (There's also the small problem that the Surfer is so powerful, it's hard to find good opponents for him on Earth, something Englehart didn't touch on but I think is worth mentioning--Mephisto was created solely to give the Surfer someone to face off against, and is really the only opponent for most of the series.)

Englehart, who you can tell put a lot of thought into the storytelling engine of his series, cut through the Gordian Knot and resolved the false status quo in the very first issue of the new series. By giving the Surfer a way off of Earth and dealing with Galactus, then (in the second issue) finishing his relationship with Shalla Bal, he sets up the Surfer to no longer be a character constantly trying to achieve an unachievable goal. Which does leave the question, "What do you do with him?", but by bringing him out into space, Englehart found that question quickly resolved itself. The Surfer is an immensely powerful being whose favor or disfavor can be the equivalent of a fleet of alien spaceships; a guy like that keeps busy, one way or another.

So suddenly, a Silver Surfer story goes from being, "The Surfer tries to escape Earth to be with Shalla Bal...and fails", month in and month out, to "The Surfer investigates the heart of a black hole with Reed and Sue Richards," or "The Silver Surfer gets caught up in the Second Kree/Skrull War", or "The Silver Surfer battles the machinations of the Elders of the Universe." Much more potential for stories, a much better storytelling engine, and sure enough, a much longer-lasting series (146 issues, a respectable run by any standards.) Interestingly enough, Volume Two also includes Englehart's first attempt, which has the Surfer remaining trapped on Earth but giving him a new purpose as protector of a human/plant hybrid (one of Englehart's recurring characters). It's an intriguing curiousity, but you can see why he stuck to his guns and convinced Jim Shooter to go with a more open-ended engine.

That Steve Englehart was a pretty smart guy. I hope he doesn't find out I stole his column...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Hilton Family

Some have noticed that Paris Hilton shares a lot of interesting similarities with her namesake (no, no, not Hilton--although I'm sure she's had almost as many guys staying overnight...) Like Paris, she is exotic and famous. Like Paris, she is decadent and at times tempestuous. Like Paris, she is a popular tourist destination for hundreds of college students every year. (Two promiscuity jokes in the same paragraph. Am I on fire or what?) But what you don't know is that she is but one of a large brood of Hiltons, and they all share this same bizarre geographical congruity. Like who, you ask?

Berlin Hilton: Very strict, upright, and humorless, he's utterly shocked at his sister's antics. Admittedly, he has had his share of scandals in the past; he loves his beer, he likes to dress up in lederhosen, and there was the time that he wandered into Poland and refused to leave...

Brussels Hilton: Paris' little sister, she's much less famous and doesn't have the reputation, but she's just as glamourous, just as beautiful, and much less crowded with admirers. Oh, and she has a strange obsession with statuesque young boys urinating in public.

Siberia Hilton: The "unfortunate" sister of the family, she's much larger than any of the others, colder, remote, and more distant, and the only people who ever visit her are convicts. (And she's barren, but that's probably saying too much.)

Sydney Hilton: He's also been visited by convicts in the past, but he's gotten to the point where they're right at home with him. Oh, and he loves the Opera. The tabloids are salivating already...

Washington Hilton: He's got a huge, towering monument that stands proudly erect at all times. Oh, and he's willing to do just about anything for money.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Fantastic Four

(or "The Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing")

It's the subject of a lot of good-natured debate among comics fans and creators (and a lot of not-so-good-natured debate as well); how much of the credit should Stan Lee get for the Fantastic Four and how much should go to Jack Kirby?

Myself, I beg the question. Comics is an inherently collaborative medium, and to assign credit to either gentleman neglects the contribution of the other. Kirby did his best work with Stan Lee, and Lee did his best work with Jack Kirby. (Although you could make an argument for Steve Ditko, as well.) But there's one area you can definitively give credit to Stan Lee for, and it happens to be the area that we're looking at this week, and the Fantastic Four happens to be the best example of it, so let's take a moment and look at dialogue.

You don't normally think about dialogue as something that opens up storytelling opportunities (which is, after all, the definition of a storytelling engine--an element of the status quo that opens up storytelling opportunities.) But go back and look at the classic Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. The team dynamic that Lee and Kirby set up provided tons of stories; each team member had a strong personality that caused them to go out and do things that moved the story along. In turn, each strong personality came out of the dialogue that Stan Lee wrote in after seeing Kirby's art; as Kirby, in turn, worked on the characters after reading their dialogue, he found himself able to flesh out the characters' actions and devote more of the story to them. Which, in turn, helped Lee define them more...

Obviously, this works better with a concrete example, and the idol of millions, Benjamin J. Grimm, provides the best case. In early issues, the Thing is just a "surly" character, no different from Rocky in 'Challengers of the Unknown' or the Hulk. But within the first twenty issues, Lee begins to give him a distinct flourish to his dialogue, a mocking self-aggrandizement that helps to counterpoint his brutish appearance. His dialogue with the Human Torch becomes less sniping and more banter, as the Torch's own speech becomes more distinct.

As Kirby takes note of this change, you start to see more scenes with the Thing and the Torch simply interacting, trading barbs and sparring in what has become a trademark of the Fantastic Four to this day. Even in this microcosmic level of filling pages instead of issues, adding scenes instead of storylines, the dialogue defines the characters and the characters generate the stories.

The Marvel Age of Comics, it could be argued, was built on the back of its characters; characters who had personalities, who went out looking for stories instead of waiting for stories to find them. And those characters came, in no small part, out of Stan Lee's scripting; even now, you can tell without needing the pictures whether a line of dialogue came from Ben Grimm, Peter Parker, or the Mighty Thor. That kind of scripting helps both sides of the collaboration.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Norse Gods: Masters of the Obvious

So back in 'Thor' #119, many years ago, Odin decides to send Loki and Thor on a quest together to see if he can get them to get along. (Which doesn't seem bright to me, but hey, I'm not the All-Father.) Thor lets Loki pick the crew (speaking of "not too bright"...) and we get a long scene introducing all the different people they'll be sailing with.

The list is long, but includes "Hogun the Grim," "Fandral the Dashing", "Kroda the Duellist", and finishes up with "Magrat the Schemer." At which Thor's first mate says, "I trust them not, mighty Thor!" don't trust "Magrat the Schemer"? And he's got such a good reputation! Next you'll be telling me that "Backstabbing Pete", "Pandak the Befouler of the Precious Water Supplies", and "Timfor the Locker-Looter" don't meet your approval!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Challengers of the Unknown

(or "The Dry Run")

It's interesting to read 'Challengers of the Unknown', some fifty years since its initial debut (in fact, the anniversary of the series came at the beginning of the year) and look at the early work of one Jack "King" Kirby. This was some six years prior to his fruitful collaboration with writer Stan Lee, and their subsequent fame as chroniclers of the Fantastic Four (and the X-Men, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, et cetera, et cetera et cetera.) The Challengers were co-written by Dave Wood, and it's worth recapping their origin, if for no other reason than it doesn't take very long.

Four men, "Ace" Morgan (fearless jetpilot), "Prof" Haley (master skindiver), "Red" Ryan (circus daredevil) and "Rocky" Davis (olympic wrestling champion), all board a plane together. The plane crashes, but they're all miraculously unharmed--Red's watch didn't even stop. The four men decide that as, in a sense, they're all living on borrowed time, they should use their individual abilities as a team to help mankind by exploring and seeking out dangerous adventures.

So we have a central concept...but you can almost sense, as the series went on, that Kirby and Wood were thinking of ways to improve the engine. The four Challengers didn't have much personality or a team dynamic, but over time, Rocky and Red developed a bantering mock-abuse friendship with Rocky as the gruff-but-loveable tough guy and Red as the impetuous-but-brave hothead. They added a female member, June Robbins, who served as a technical boffin and advisor (a rarity in the early Silver Age.) They tinkered with the team dynamic, with the details great and small...

One has to wonder exactly when Jack Kirby decided to add in "super powers". The series' similarity to the Fantastic Four is so undeniable that during the 'Amalgam' crossover of the mid-90s, the two teams were combined into a single entity with nary a hiccup (the Challengers of the Fantastic, natch.) The rocket ship survival, the pledge to form a team of adventurers, even the personalities--although Ace and Prof were combined to form Reed Richards, Rocky and Red are practically indistinguishable from Ben and Johnny. It's certainly worth wondering just how much of the creation of the FF was Kirby bringing his old ideas to a new collaborator and how much was Stan Lee showing admiration for his partner's older work.

This isn't just a column about how 'Challengers of the Unknown' can be seen as a prototype for the Fantastic Four, though. It's an example of how external events can influence the creation of these engines. It'd be difficult to argue that the Challengers have worked as well as the FF--certainly, this Friday doesn't see the release of a second big-budget Challengers movie, and sadly, there's never been an animated series featuring Rocky, Prof and Ace (with Red being replaced by a cute robot, of course.) Kirby and Wood might even have been aware that turning the four adventurers into four super-heroes might have made the series more exciting and dynamic. But at the time, super-heroes didn't sell. The Flash had only re-debuted a few months earlier. The Silver Age wasn't quite under way, and the Challengers retained far more of the old pulp influence than their successors. It took six years for the comic-book reading audience to be ready for a larger-than-life group of adventuring daredevils. And, as we'll see next time, a very different collaborator to bring them to larger-than-life...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Fun Comics Trivia

Comic book villains the Eel, the Plantman, the Trapster, the Beetle, and the Wizard have all been floating around the Marvel Universe for a long time now as "B-list" or "C-list" villains--really more nuisances than serious threats--and have fought heroes like Daredevil, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Avengers. But all five originally started out as nemeses of the same character...the Human Torch. They all originally debuted in 'Strange Tales', which was at the time a split book featuring the Torch and Doctor Strange, and once the Torch lost his own solo series, they became sort of "fair game" for other heroes and comics to use. (Which is also, incidentally, why the Wizard and the Trapster wound up being one half of the Frightful Four.)

So the lesson for the day? If you can't beat the Human Torch your first time out, just go ahead and retire. Because you don't have a big future in super-villainy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Power Man and Iron Fist

(or "No, You Got Your Martial Artist In My Blaxploitation Comic!")

As we've looked at a variety of different storytelling engines over the last several weeks in this series, we've come to be a bit familiar with some of them. (Or, at least, I hope you have. I have no doubt that I care about this stuff more than many of the members of my audience.) Thus, when I bring up the two storytelling engines that comprised the 'Power Man' and 'Iron Fist' stati quo, I feel reasonably confident that regular readers of this column will recognize them. But I bring them up because I think that they both received a treatment that is virtually unprecedented in comics--they got mooshed together.

'Power Man' was, of course, another Marvel pop-culture comic, cashing in on the 70s "blaxploitation" trend with the story of a hard-luck black hero who gained super-powers while in prison for a crime he didn't commit, escaped, and set himself up as a private detective/bodyguard for people who needed a little more help than the law could give. It's a solid set-up that gave the comic legs long after the blaxploitation trend faded, and various writers like Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, and Bill Mantlo gave him a fun supporting cast (although his rogue's gallery was never anything to write home about. "Senor Muerte" was the best of the lot, and he died his first time out.)

'Iron Fist', meanwhile, was another one of Roy Thomas' pulp-inspired heroes, this one a martial artist who seeks vengeance for the death of his father after spending ten years training in a Shangri-La-esque kingdom called K'Un L'Un. It probably also qualifies as a pop-culture comic, coming as it did right around the middle of the big 70s kung-fu craze, but despite featuring some excellent writing by Chris Claremont and art by John Byrne, the series never caught on and was cancelled after only fifteen issues.

But as we (again, may or may not) all remember from our discussion of Ms. Marvel, Chris Claremont had a habit (sometimes good, sometimes bad) of bringing back characters and plotlines from cancelled series. So when he was assigned the job of writing 'Power Man', immediately after the cancellation of 'Iron Fist', well...he decided to fold the character of Iron Fist right into the 'Power Man' series. The two of them simply met, and after the traditional super-hero fight, teamed up to battle with their common enemy...and just kept hanging out together. (Which, on thinking about it, more super-heroes should do. "We make a great team!" "Yeah! Now let's go our separate ways forever!")

What's surprising is that the two storytelling engines needed so little modification to fit together. Iron Fist was already at a loose end after the defeat of the man who killed his father (and the organization that employed that man, and the ninja demon they were looking for, and...revenge quests in comics are never simple), so he simply joined Luke Cage's "Heroes For Hire" agency. Cage, apart from adjusting to a partner, needed no changes at all. Despite the immense disparity in their characters and origins, the storytelling engines meshed perfectly. In fact, the series lasted another 100 issues as 'Power Man and Iron Fist' (sadly awaiting collection by Marvel), and even today, both characters continue to operate as members of the New Avengers, a series written by Brian Michael Bendis, who continues Claremont's tradition of looking to the past for characters that still have life in them.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Diabolical Ingenuity

I read issue #3 of 'New Avengers: Illuminati' on Thursday. The series, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a sort of "secret history" of the Marvel Universe, in which it is revealed that Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Professor X, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and Black Bolt of the Inhumans have had a secret cabal for decades that's been doing the "dirty work" that keeps the Marvel Universe ticking along nicely. Every issue has focused on a major Marvel event, and has proceeded to retcon in a behind-the-scenes explanation of how the Illuminati made it happen.

After reading issue #3, I found myself wondering what exactly the point of the series was. Because I really could not, for the life of me, think of one. It wasn't just that the comic was terrible (although it was.) It's that it was so genuinely pointless a story, designed around a comics plotline from twenty years ago that only continuity-obsessed fanboys remember, written solely to retcon out certain elements of the story that the writer apparently didn't like, that I could not for the life of me imagine who it was written for. Nobody but the most rabid, continuity-minded fanboy could possibly be interested in this comic, and every single one of them hates it with an absolute passion because the retroactive continuity that they're employing is so slipshod, nonsensical, and hamfisted that it'll take years to explain the new explanations.

(I've resisted explaining the issue because thinking about it makes my head hurt and because it involves explaining a ton of Marvel continuity, but here goes: 'Secret Wars' introduced the Beyonder, a nebulous omnipotent being from outside of the known universe who wanted to "understand" humanity, so he kidnapped a bunch of super-heroes and super-villains, promised them their heart's desire if they defeated their enemies, and watched the ensuing battle. The series proved popular, so they did a sequel, 'Secret Wars II', in which the Beyonder continued his studies by coming to Earth, taking human form, and interacting with Earth's super-heroes. At the end of the series, he apparently died, having taken "being human" a bit too literally, but his power flowed back into his home universe where it became a new Big Bang, creating this new universe in the image of our own. Still later, in 'Fantastic Four' #319, it was revealed that the Beyonder's consciousness survived with his power, and that it was by his will that the new universe became what it did--he found happiness by becoming a god. But he found out that the reason he could never be happy and was never complete was that he was actually part of a larger cosmic artifact called a Cosmic Cube, the other part of which was "lodged" in the Molecule Man and was responsible for him having super-powers. The Beyonder and the Molecule Man merged to form the Cube, which in later FF issues became a being known as Kosmos, who has been seen periodically since.)

(Except that this issue of Illuminati reveals that no, the Beyonder was actually an Inhuman--one of Black Bolt's species--who was also a mutant, and that he actually made a duplicate Manhattan out near the asteroid belt and interacted with elaborate mock-ups of Earth's super-people. So all of Secret Wars II, which was a crossover that ran to 42 issues and involved every single title Marvel published, in which the Beyonder resurrected Doctor Doom and cured Rick Jones of cancer...never happened. And neither did the issue where he found out he was a Cosmic Cube. Nor did any of his appearances after that.)

As I say, this left me wondering what the purpose of this comic was. If you're not a rabid fanboy, you won't care about any of this. And if you are, you will have a brain seizure and die from the sheer number of convolutions fitting this issue into continuity will require. So why...?

Then it hit me. That was the purpose of the series. Marvel has finally gotten sick of all the fanboys writing in and pointing out how they must have forgotten about issue #255 of Uncanny X-Men, in which we see Psylocke before the plastic surgery, so she can't be Kwannon, et cetera et cetera et cetera. They're tired of people pointing out their continuity errors, so they've decided to kill them all off by producing a comic whose retcons are so audaciously incompetent that comics fans will die of apopleptic fits of rage when they read them. 'New Avengers: Illuminati' is, in fact, a brilliantly conceived murder weapon, and all of fandom is the target.

So remember: Read this comic only under the influence of powerful sedatives. After all, if the writer was on drugs, you should be too.