Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zipping Off

Just a quick note to say that I'll be heading out to DragonCon tomorrow afternoon. There may or may not be a Thursday post, depending on the Net access situation at the con. Either way, normal service should resume by Tuesday of next week. (Which probably does mean a slight delay on the Storytelling Engines post, as I'll be in transit on Monday.)

If for some reason you're actually interested in meeting me at the con, I'll try (again, depending on Net access) to update this post with a list of where I'll be...but in general, assume that any kind of panel relating to Doctor Who, Firefly, or MST3K, there's at least a chance you'll bump into me.

And remember, if you plan to punch me for the 'How To Save Marvel Comics' entries, I just ask for a five-second head start.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Storytelling Engines: House of Secrets

(or "Imperfect Pitch")

When I wrote about 'House of Mystery' for this column, back in April of last year, I wasn't quite sure if I was doing the right thing. After all, 'House of Mystery' is an anthology series, right? Sure, it has a framing sequence with recurring characters, but the actual tales within each issue are pretty much interchangeable with those of any other horror comic, right? How much difference does Cain's existence as a narrator actually make to the enjoyment of the stories within? How much were those framing sequences helping the writers come up with story ideas?

And lucky me, I actually get to find out. Because DC has finally gotten around to putting 'House of Secrets' out in Showcase Presents format, so I have 500 pages of material with which to compare Cain to Abel. (This, of course, was back before first Alan Moore and then Neil Gaiman turned them into avant-garde cultural icons.)

The truth of the matter is, it's surprising just how much the framing sequences alter the tone of the stories within. Horror comics had to walk a pretty tricky tightrope in the 1970s, the period these volumes reprint; even though a lot of the anti-comics paranoia of the 1950s had lessened, and the Comics Code revised to allow moderate horror stories, it was still hard to pack the same punch that 'Tales From the Crypt' and the other EC classics had. The horror stories in 'House of Mystery' and 'House of Secrets' had to rely as much on implication and insinuation as they did on big shock moments, in fact moreso.

And while 'House of Mystery' host Cain was a sinister, cynical, arch student of human nature who could be relied on to twist the knife at the end of every story, Abel, his 'House of Secrets' counterpart, is a timid, nervous character who seems intent on trying to reassure us that things weren't as bad as they seemed at the end of the story, or at the very least to apologize for telling us about something so gruesome. Instead of amplifying the effect of the scares, Abel's framing sequences actually neuter them. Even the other DC horror hosts seem to agree; Cain mocks Abel's storytelling abilities, while the witches from 'The Witching Hour' pop up on a few occasions to deride Abel as being unfit for his duties. Heck, look at Abel's companion as opposed to Cain's--Cain gets a giant, cute/terrifying gargoyle, while Abel's stuck with an imaginary friend.

Eventually, as the first volume goes on, Abel's presence becomes less and less noticeable with each issue. It's as though editor Joe Orlando is aware that Abel is pulling against the tone of the stories, and is trying to make sure he doesn't get in the way of some good scares. At that point, of course, you're not really dealing with a storytelling engine at all, because there's nothing to help the writer to generate stories beyond his/her imagination. And it seems that Cain gave writers a bit more help in that regard than Abel--which is probably one reason why 'House of Mystery' lasted longer than 'House of Secrets'.

Just think about it--Cain even managed to kill his brother's series.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Video Game Museum

So try to follow along with my reasoning on this one. I was thinking about video games the other day, and about how many people see them as a valid form of artistic expression, just like prose, poetry, sculpture, or film. They're not just a game, they are a legitimate cultural phenomenon.

"That's true," I told myself (yes, I do argue with myself. I have a very solitary job, and sometimes I'm my own best company.) "But that makes it sadder that there's no real archival tradition in video games the way there is in other forms of art. People work to preserve old books, old sculptures, and old movies, but because video games are reliant on hardware as well as software, and because hardware progresses so rapidly, there's no real way for a new generation to rediscover old classics."

I pointed out to myself that this wasn't entirely true, because many video games are re-released for new systems and new formats. "Yes," I thought, "but that's reliant on the goodwill and commercial interests of the video game developers. Sure, they might reissue some 'classic' games, maybe even remaster and remake them. But still, the vast majority of classic games will fall through the cracks. You can't play a Super Nintendo game on a Wii, is what it boils down to. Without access to the older systems, the older games and the cultural traditions behind them can really only be passed down from gamer to gamer orally. There's no museum to--"

And then I pictured it in my head. A museum devoted entirely to video games. Starting with the first primitive Pong machines, developing through the years to the branching of genres into FPS, platformers, RPGs, MMOs, puzzle games...and the best part is, it could be made interactive so easily! You wouldn't just see an exhibit on Tetris, you'd be able to sit down and play a game! You wouldn't just see pictures of 'Resident Evil', you'd be able to see the classic cut-scenes playing out right in front of you, and understand exactly why older gamers crack up at the phrase, "the master of unlocking"! The cultural phenomenon that is video games might finally get the respect it deserves!

It'd have to involve corporate sponsorship, of course. Not only is it expensive to build and maintain the kind of museum I'm talking about, but the major video game companies have archival material that the museum would pretty much have to have, by necessity. But I think that any sane company would jump at the chance to help sponsor a museum that would promote their medium to this degree--wouldn't Nintendo love to help out with an "Evolution of Mario" exhibit, for example? Heck, even the gift shop would have synergy. Tour the museum, check out the classic games, then buy reissued editions to take home with you!

It's a huge, daunting task to even consider, and I'll admit I don't know the first thing about how you start a museum. But I think it's an idea with real commercial potential, a solid concept with an eager fanbase willing to support it, and a cool idea for a tourist destination. Anyone out there who does know how to start a museum agree with me?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Angel

(or "You Knew The Job Was Dangerous When You Took It")

At some point during Season Two of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', it became obvious to the show's producers that they had a spin-off on their hands. Angel, Buffy's boyfriend on the show, was also a fairly complex protagonist in his own right, with a story that could easily become its own series. The idea of a (say it with me now) "vampire with a soul", fighting for his own personal redemption by doing good deeds...it's clever, it's got roots in popular culture ('Forever Knight' and 'Dark Shadows', for example) and it didn't hurt that David Boreanaz has some serious screen presence.

But if there's one thing that the eighty-three columns in this series has taught us, it's that a good protagonist is only the starting point for an ongoing series. Angel needed a setting, a modus operandi, a supporting cast, and some good antagonists...and they needed to give him all that without seriously disrupting the parent series. So what did they have for him? Cordelia, Buffy's sidekick's ex-girlfriend (who serves as comic relief and a damsel in distress, early on), and Whistler, a minor character introduced as Angel's old mentor. Then they found out that they didn't actually have Whistler after all.

As a result, the first season of 'Angel' does feel like a succession of false starts. Doyle is introduced as a Whistler-surrogate, then killed off (possibly due to problems with Glenn Quinn, the actor who portrayed him, although details are murky.) Cordelia then becomes the Doyle-surrogate, and Wesley, who was the Giles-surrogate for a while on 'Buffy', becomes the Cordelia-surrogate. (It's a running trend on both series that they introduce characters to act as the helpless victim who needs rescuing every week...then slowly make them more powerful and competent as they grow progressively fonder of the character, and introduce a new character to take their role of potential victim. So Giles is replaced by Wesley, Willow is replaced by Dawn, Cordelia is replaced by Wesley on 'Angel', and Wesley is, in turn, replaced by Fred. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) About the only thing that really seems to work right off the bat is Angel's nemesis, a law firm with a never-ending supply of evil called 'Wolfram and Hart'. This is a stroke of casual brilliance--by making the enemy a faceless corporation, they can establish individual villains, then dispose of them once they're no longer useful, all without getting rid of the central antagonist.

Other supporting characters show up as Season One progresses, but some find places on the series while others don't. Kate Lockley, a cop who discovers Angel's vampiric nature, never seems to really gel as a romantic interest and fades away, while Gunn, a street-smart vampire hunter, fits in quite well as a competent sidekick. By Season Two (and the arrival of fan-favorite Lorne, a demon with a nightclub and a karaoke obsession), you can see that the pieces are beginning to fall into place. More importantly, by Season Two, the writers seem to understand exactly what they're writing about, and what the concept of "fighting for his own personal redemption" means, and Season Two's storyarc is arguably the series' finest hour. (Well, it's more than an hour, but you know what I mean.)

Season Three seems to continue that trend, with Winnifred "Fred" Burkle added to the cast to replace Wesley as the smart-but-vulnerable one, but then they make a mistake that many a continuing series has made...they introduce a baby. Connor, Angel's son, is an interesting idea...but the problem with it is that creating a truly great storytelling engine is all about finding a point of balance, a setting that can generate ideas for stories without having to change the engine itself. And anyone who's spent any time around a child knows that they grow up at visible speeds. One day they're not walking, the next they are. One day they're cooing and gurgling, the next, it's "Mommy, give me milk!" A child can't be held in any kind of stability, not without making the series unbelievable.

'Angel' tries the time-tested trick all sci-fi/fantasy series pull, sooner or later, when a kid gets involved. Connor goes to a parallel dimension (the details of this handwave change, but the next bit is constant) and comes back all grown up and ready to become a regular supporting character. And that's when everything goes off the rails. Connor proves to be an unpopular addition to the cast, and Charisma Carpenter (the actress playing Cordelia) decides to leave the series to raise her own real-life infant (her pregnancy was worked into the series, but she can't send her child into a parallel dimension and pick him back up when he's seventeen.) Plus, parent series 'Buffy' is coming to a close, and 'Angel' is drawn into the events surrounding that whole mess. (And it doesn't help that many of the series' writers and producers are a bit busy trying to give 'Buffy' the send-off it deserves, and can't spare a lot of attention to 'Angel'.) The engine gets gummed up, and seems to stall completely as Season Four never quite takes off.

For the final season, they completely revamped the status quo, in ways that can best be described as "risky". Angel takes over Wolfram and Hart, trying to redeem it from within. Spike wanders over from the end of 'Buffy', which causes a problem as his character's spent the last three seasons becoming more and more like Angel (to the point where he also has a soul. As Angel put it, "I was doing that before it was cool.") There's a sense, almost from the beginning, that this isn't going to last. Sure enough, Season Five was the last season, and they go out in a blaze of glory, with many of the characters dying, and the survivors confronting the literal armies of Hell in one last, apocalyptic battle for the soul of the human race. The final line of the series..."Let's go to work."

And then they do. Remember the 'Buffy Season Eight' comics? The concept proved so popular that IDW decided to do an Angel Season Six in the medium as well. But unlike Buffy, Angel's finale didn't leave a storytelling engine there to work with, not even a radically altered one. 'Angel' ended with the Apocalypse. It's a little tricky to have a status quo after that, and sure enough, 'Angel: After the Fall' has so far been an exercise in picking up the pieces of the shattered engine and trying to put them together into a recognizable shape. Perhaps, once that's done, they can tell stories with the character again...but some finales are more final than others.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Observational Humor, Olympic Edition

Rough transcript of an actual conversation I had with a friend/co-worker last night:

HIM: So have you heard about the big controversy over China's gymnasts yet? They're taking shots at them, saying that they've faked their birth certificates and they're not really sixteen.

ME: No, I've missed most of the Olympics so far. So are they supposed to be secretly younger, or secretly older?

HIM: Younger. The idea is that hitting puberty changes their bodies, and that a lot of gymnasts never recover from that.

ME: Gotcha. So sixteen is the "age of consent" for gymnasts...

HIM: Right.

ME: And they're worried China might be engaging in a little "statutory gymnastics"?

HIM: Yeah--

ME: So do you suppose the gymnastics coaches keep track of the minimum age to enter different competitions, and they're all like, "Oh, sure, for the Olympics it's sixteen, but I hear there's a competition in Canada where she only has to be thirteen..."?

HIM: Uh-huh, yeah--

ME: And they've got up posters of their favorite gymnasts, with little calendars marking off the number of days left until they turn sixteen and they can coach them legally?

HIM: Yes, yes--

ME: And 'Dateline NBC' has this segment where they get people to enter chat rooms, posing as underage gymnasts, and then when the coach goes to their house, they've got cameras and the International Olympic Committee there waiting for them.

HIM: Done now?

ME: Yeah, I don't think I can top that last one.

(Addendum: Tonight, he mentioned that China's now being asked to provide more evidence of the gymnasts' ages. I said China was going to be all like, "No, really, she told me she was eighteen!")

Monday, August 11, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(or "Can't Stop The Changes")

So, now that we've discussed Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Man-Thing, the Flash, the Martian Manhunter, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Captain Marvel (both of them), Thor, Captain America, and Daredevil, let's see what's on TV, shall we?

Of course, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' isn't on TV anymore, except in reruns. It started out as a movie, then became a TV series (with ancillary books and comics), and now continues on exclusively as a comic book. Why? Why not keep going with the TV show indefinitely? The answer to that question provides a valuable insight into why it is that even the best of TV series don't last as long as a comic or book series. It's all down to the storytelling engine...and those pesky, fickle beasts known as actors.

'Buffy', of course, has one of the all-time great high concept storytelling engines. Sunnydale High is sitting, quite literally, on the mouth of Hell, and all sorts of demons, vampires, and long-leggedy beasties crawl out every week to menace the student body...opposed only by Buffy Summers, who wants to be popular and academically successful, but who has this side job that keeps getting in the way, and her loyal band of friends. Xander and Willow fill the roles of kid sidekicks, providing valuable sources of exposition and convenient sources of peril for Buffy to rescue, and Giles works well both as her mentor, and as a further source of exposition. The series also rounds out with Angel as a love interest/secondary hero, Cordelia as comic relief, and a wide range of good tertiary supporting characters. Heck, it's even got a good rogue's gallery. The Mayor, for example, is an absolutely brilliant villain.

"High school is hell." It's an idea that sells itself. Nobody was ever so popular that the traumas of high school don't have a little hold on their soul, and everyone has some sort of horror story about their teenage years. And all they need to do is ramp that horror story up with a little supernatural horror, and voila! Instant Buffy story, just add vampires.

And if this was where they stayed, it would be a perfect storytelling engine. Indeed, the Buffy comics released by Dark Horse tended to do exactly that. With the exception of a few stories written to fill obvious continuity gaps (how did Giles become Buffy's Watcher, how did the move to Sunnydale go, et cetera), most of the Dark Horse comic series tended to be set during Season Three, the period where the storytelling engine was most stable. Even the proposed animated series was going to be set during the group's high school era. So why didn't they just keep them in high school?

Because actors, unlike pen-and-ink drawings, have an annoying tendency to age. Sarah Michelle Gellar was already playing a character four years younger than her; trying to stretch her high school years out over seven seasons simply wasn't an option. So, three years into the series, Buffy and the gang graduate...and things are never quite the same after that. Which isn't unusual for a series set around a high school environment; high school works because it's universal, but we all go on to do different things after graduation. 'Dawson's Creek' never recovered from having its characters graduate, nor did 'Beverly Hills 90210'...could Buffy break that curse?

It started, in Season Four, by setting up the new storytelling engine for the series. Most of the cast went to the local college...with the exception of Cordelia and Angel, who got their own spin-off series and left big "Cordy and Angel" shaped holes in the storytelling engine. Cordy's role was filled by snarky ex-demon Anya, while Angel's part was filled by an amiable lug by the name of Riley Finn, who also happened to be a part of the secret military conspiracy on campus. The series quickly reshaped itself as a college drama with monsters, instead of a high school drama with monsters...

And then, in Season Five, abruptly dropped the concept. Over the next two seasons, they set up a new storytelling engine revolving around Buffy as caretaker of her family as her mother sickened and died and the writers introduced a new little sister (Magic. Don't ask.) Riley was ditched in favor of promoting Spike, a series villain-turned-reluctant-hero, as a new love interest (and gradually sanding off Spike's edges until he fit into that Angel-shaped hole), the supporting cast changed (Oz, Giles, and Oz-replacement Tara all left during this period), and suddenly the show was a bleak, depressing coming-of-age drama with monsters. The writers seemed to have difficulty coping with the changes to cast, the need to devote time and energy to the 'Angel' spin-off, and fundamentally, with the lack of the high school setting that was the key to the whole series concept.

So in Season Seven, it was back to the high school! Which you'd think would be tricky, since everyone graduated four years ago and the whole thing was blown up, but Buffy returns this time not as a rebellious kid, but as a guidance counselor for wayward teens. This new concept inverts the original paradigm; instead of being about how nobody understands teenagers, it's a show about how adults understand teenagers all too well, having been teenagers themselves. But by this time, Gellar wasn't interested in doing a Season Eight, and so the series finale blew up not just the rebuilt high school but the entire town, while turning hundreds of women into new Slayers.

Which is where the comic picks up. The original concept, "high school is hell", has been left completely behind for Buffy Summers as the leader of a strike team of superhuman women, dedicated to traveling the globe and wiping out supernatural evil wherever it may hide. It's a good storytelling engine, but it does lack some of the universal charm of the original series...but by this point, there's really no going back. That's the thing about changing a storytelling engine. It can be awfully hard to change back if you make a mistake. The only thing you can really do is keep moving forward, and hope you eventually find a new destination as attractive as the place you left behind.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review: Cabin Fever

Someday, I hope to find myself in Hollywood. (Perhaps just visiting, the way my career's going as a writer...) But when I'm there, I hope to meet Eli Roth and shake his hand. I'll ask him, "You're Eli Roth, aren't you? The writer and director of 'Cabin Fever'?" And he'll say that yes, yes he is. And then I'll punch him in the stomach as hard as I can, and as he collapses to the ground, whimpering and clutching at his stomach, I'll say, "There. Now we're even." Then I'll kick him square in the testicles, and say, "Actually, we're not, but I don't have the stamina to keep doing this for 92 more minutes."

'Cabin Fever' is a horror movie that has the fundamental flaw of not having enough to do to justify its running time. It's very clearly a movie that was built around a couple of ideas Roth had for "really cool gory bits, like this chick is shaving her legs and the skin starts coming right off", but since each of those bits is about a minute or two long, and he doesn't have more than three or four of them, he must have realized at some point that his potential movie was about eighty minutes short of the running time of a theatrical release motion picture.

Roth solved this dilemma through a technique I like to call "pointless, rambling bullshit," in which the director films unlikeable characters saying random things and walking around deserted locations, while playing "spooky" music in the background and hoping that you'll be fooled into believing something might be happening. If you're not, those eighty minutes are excruciating torment. (Hint: I wasn't.)

And by the way, when I say "unlikeable"...wow. I'll give Roth some credit, I actually think that the lead characters were intended to be unsympathetic. I think it was a bold tack, making a horror movie in which you actually root for the death sequences, inverting the usual horror paradigm so that instead of hoping a particular character survives to the end, you'll be hoping a particular character dies a well-deserved horrible death. The problem is, he does his job too well. I found myself wanting to fast-forward the movie through to the point where everyone was dead, and I don't just mean the characters.

I'll give it some points: The special effects are excellent, Roth the director does his best to take the weak, watery gruel that Roth the writer has given him and play it out for suspense, but fundamentally, it's the bloated corpse of a 20-minute short film, made by someone who decided that 20-minute short films don't make very much money. If you're a film editor who wants to practice his/her technique by slicing out all the padding, go ahead and watch. Otherwise, avoid avoid avoid.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The "50 Things I Love About Comics" Meme

Saw this post up at Brad Bird's website, and I liked the thought of it, so without further ado, and in no particular order...

1) Reading 'V for Vendetta' at midnight on December 31st, 1999.
2) Ralph and Sue Dibny solving mysteries as a couple.
3) Carl Barks.
4) The Silver Age story where Superman gets in trouble with the IRS for never having paid taxes.
5) "Stupid stupid rat creatures!"
6) Spider-Man's black costume.
7) Calvin and Hobbes.
8) Flash #50, in its entirety. "You've lost the advantage of surprise!" "I've replaced it with something better. Fear."
9) Stan Lee.
10) Spider Jerusalem.
11) Ego the Living Planet hitting on Earth.
12) Steve Ditko.
13) "In loudest din, in hush profound, my ears catch evil's slightest sound..."
14) The fact that some of the people reading this just finished that variation of the Green Lantern oath.
15) The Far Side.
16) Captain America back in the 1960s, when he used to trash-talk his opponents. "My grandmother could see that punch coming!"
17) The Essentials and Showcase Presents programs from Marvel and DC, respectively, for allowing me to read just about every single classic story they ever produced.
18) Jack Kirby, for drawing and co-writing just about every single classic story Marvel and DC ever produced.
19) Watchmen.
20) "I owe you pissant white trash sons of bitches all the hurt in the motherfucking world. So who wants to get his ass kicked first?"
21) All of Stan Lee's goofy nicknames for the writers and artists. Stan "The Man" Lee, "Gentleman" Gene Colan, Jack "The King" Kirby, "Dandy" Don Heck...
22) "I can think of fourteen different ways to keep you from firing that gun. Six are painful."
23) The ending of 'DC One Million'.
24) "I'm Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. And these are my toasters."
25) Crisis on Infinite Earths.
26) 'The Anatomy Lesson'.
27) Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed idol o' millions.
28) Bullpen Bulletins.
29) The Guardians of the Galaxy.
30) The story where Superman introduced Supergirl to the world.
31) Peter Parker in prison (in Web of Spider-Man #18), getting rid of a group of prison toughs by squeezing one of the struts of his bunk hard enough to leave fingerprints.
32) The Heckler.
33) Kurt Busiek's run on Thunderbolts, which single-handedly kept me from quitting comics one day.
34) Don Rosa.
35) Fred Hembeck.
36) Astro City, which has never had even a single bad issue.
37) MAD Magazine. (I could probably do a sub-listing of "50 Things I Love About MAD Magazine".)
38) The final issue of Marvel's 'Godzilla' comic, which featured the FF and the Avengers fighting Godzilla in New York City.
39) The Hobgoblin's true identity. Roger Stern is one of the quiet geniuses of comics today.
40) Spider-Man.
41) The final panel of Uncanny X-Men #132.
42) The first meeting of Power Man and Iron Fist, illustrated so wonderfully by John Byrne. "Mr. Cage...turn around."
43) Barry Ween.
44) Thor and Hulk's dialog back before Marvel writers got self-conscious about writing their dialog. "Hulk SMASH!"
45) MODOK.
46) Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's run on 'Tomb of Dracula'.
47) The letter columns that were answered "in character" by different X-Men.
48) "Oh, my stars and garters..."
49) The Absolute Edition of the Sandman.
50) Writing a letter about an imaginary issue of an imaginary comic called 'The Tomorrow Syndicate', only to have it published in 1963 #6 and answered by Alan Moore with specific details about the characters I made up and the story I pretended existed.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Metamorpho

(or "Nobody Gets What They Want Except The Audience")

I've talked from time to time in this column about something I call the "false status quo". The rough idea of a false status quo is that it's a set-up for a series in which the central concept involves something that the protagonist is trying to resolve, something that would result in a dramatic change to the series' set-up if they ever did manage to fix whatever was wrong. (The classic example is 'The Fugitive', a series that revolved entirely around the hero's hunt for the one-armed man who killed his wife. Every week, he almost finds him, and every week, he fails, because the second he finds him, the series ends.)

In general, I've talked about false stati quo as something to avoid. This is simply because putting a false status quo into your story makes an implicit promise to your audience that it will be resolved, and that's not always something that you can follow through on. (All too many series have floundered after finally resolving their false status quo, and a few--'X-Files', I'm looking at you--faltered when the audience got sick of never getting their resolution.)

But comedy has a slightly different set of rules, and 'Metamorpho' provides a great example of that. All the great comedies revolve around a false status quo, because the secret ingredient of all the greatest comedies is frustration. Not failure, because that's depressing, but that tiny gap of frustration between failure and success. Basil Fawlty never manages to make his hotel into a vista of taste and sophistication, Fozzie Bear can never quite polish his stand-up routines, Dobie Gillis never gets the girl, and David and Maddie never sleep together (remember what I said about series floundering after resolving their false status quo?)

And Metamorpho is truly one of the great comedy storytelling engines, a screwball superhero epic full of comedy frustration. Rex Mason, aka Metamorpho wants to be human again so he can get the girl, Sapphire Stagg, but Sapphire's old man, Simon Stagg, keeps putting him off with one promise or another. Simon, meanwhile, wants Metamorpho out of the way--dead, or at least the heck away from his daughter--but the crazy supervillains he keeps bumping into require an on-staff superhero to fight, and Metamorpho works cheap. Sapphire just loves Metamorpho, and doesn't care what he looks like, but she can't get him to accept that. And Java, Simon Stagg's manservant and an actual reanimated anthropoid, thinks that if Metamorpho dies, Sapphire will have no choice but to fall madly in love with him. Needless to say, he's doomed to frustration on both counts.

It's been said that the classic comedy formula is two people who don't like each other stuck in a room together. Here, we have two people who don't like each other caught in a partnership.
Rex and Simon hate each other's guts, but they both need each other just enough to force them into adventure after adventure (and the adventures are classic Silver Age craziness from Bob Haney, a trippy mix of pop-culture and pop-culture parody that effortlessly encourages you to laugh both with it and at it.) Even the addition of a frankly unnecessary "Element Girl", a female Metamorpho, just enhances the atmosphere as she adds a bizarre fifth side to a Freudian love quadrangle.

Ultimately, the series ended (as series are wont to do, even classic ones.) Metamorpho has continued on as a second banana to various teams in the DC Universe, but he's never managed to once again reach those same heights of popularity--and I think part of that has to do with the fact that Simon and Sapphire Stagg haven't returned when he has. Bringing back Metamorpho without his supporting cast misses many of the wonderful elements that his storytelling engine provides...and those are elements that the Element Man desperately needs.

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode Six

Sorry for the delay, the reasons behind it were a little...complex.

(Well, strictly speaking they were a combination of laziness and absent-mindedness, but working out the exact formula of how the two mixed together is quite, quite complex.)

So when we last left our alternate version of the Star Wars sextet, we'd left it pretty much like the classics you remember, with just a minor difference. Luke already has confirmed with Yoda that Vader is his father, but on the whole, Han is still frozen in carbonite, stolen by Jabba the Hutt, and headed for Tatooine, while Luke recuperates from impromptu surgery at the hands of his own father. We open with Luke getting ready to return to action and join Lando and Chewie in the hunt for Han, when he and Leia receive news from the Rebel leader of a major offensive--in fact, it might just be the end of the Empire. The secret clone factories of the Emperor have finally been located.

(This, by the way, is the reason for the emphasis on the "undisclosed" location of the final battle against the clonemasters of Mandalor in Episode Three. Despite the fact that I have a certain fondness for the Emperor's plan in 'Return'--"My ultimate weapon has been destroyed, due to a tiny, fatal flaw that I overlooked when creating it! You know what? Rather than just abandon that plan, I'm going to do it all over again, only this time without the fatal flaw..." I would, in fact, go with something different. And let's face it, the stormtroopers really are the big advantage the Empire has over the Rebels. Seemingly endless numbers of troops indoctrinated to be loyal unto death to the Emperor? Yeah, that's something you want to take out.)

The ground defenses of the factories are formidable, simply due to the sheer number of troops the Empire is cranking out--but the space defenses are light, since the stormtroopers are ground-pounders and the Emperor doesn't want to station a ton of troops there (due to the need for secrecy.) He instead relies on a deflection shield generated from a nearby forest moon. A sufficiently concentrated Rebel assault could smash the clone factories, and with the Mandalorians exterminated years ago, it's anyone's guess whether he could even repair them. Either way, it would be a major blow to the Empire if the Rebels could succeed. Best of all, the Emperor frequently journeys to the cloneworld, since it's the most secure location in the galaxy apart from the Imperial Palace.

But Luke and Leia want to rescue their friend. Mon Mothma, in a touching scene, lets them go--after all, one ship more or less won't mean much at the battle, but it will make all the difference in saving Han Solo. They head off to Tatooine to rescue Han.

When they get there, they find that Jabba's palace is surprisingly lightly defended--he has his Gamorrean guards, and Boba Fett, but his hordes of mercenaries and bounty hunters have been all hired away. Even so, a good deal of strategy and subterfuge is needed to get into the palace (ie, most of the opening sequence of 'Jedi' would be cannibalized here, leading up to the Sarlacc sequence.) The key difference? Leia finds out, as Jabba's concubine, exactly where those mercenaries have gone--the Emperor has hired every gun he can find, creating a secret army whose movements won't show up when Rebel spies analyze Imperial troop movements. This secret army is lying in wait to ambush the Rebels--it's all part of a trap, you see, to crush the Rebel Alliance once and for all...

At that point, Luke springs his trap, capturing the skiff and duking it out with Jabba's guards. He and Boba Fett battle--the last of the Jedi against the last of the Mandalorians, a brutal coda to the Clone Wars, but Boba's lost a step over the years. In the end, he's just a little too slow to face a Jedi in his prime, and Luke dispatches him to the Sarlacc. (Note the lack of blind guys with sticks in this battle.) They destroy Jabba, rescue Han, and now are faced with the fact that they're the only ones who know the Rebels are heading into a trap...

Contacting the fleet at this point would be difficult at best--they've maneuvered into a secure position, and can only be contacted with a pinpoint-burst coded transmitter. Flying there would give them away, and the only people who have the proper coded transmitter are the commando team on the forest moon whose job it is to take out the shield generator...and needless to say, the Empire won't just let them through that shield to talk to their buddies on Endor, Han points out. Luke, though, has a plan.

A few hours later, the Millennium Falcon arrives at the forest moon of Endor. While the others hide in the smuggling compartments, Luke contacts the garrison on the forest moon. "This is Luke Skywalker," he says, "son of Darth Vader. I have come alone to speak with my father and the Emperor." Within moments, the shield dissolves and the ship is allowed to land.

From there, the two groups split up. Luke goes to the cloneworld, to meet with the Emperor. The others sneak out of the ship into the forest, to try to find the commando group. Instead, they run headlong into a group of cute, furry little aliens (I love the Ewoks. I'd make a slight redesign to them, so that they look more sinuous and otter-like, and less teddy-bear-esque, but the whole "cute" factor would remain...because that was what was so awesome about the Ewoks, that they looked cute and fuzzy and adorably sweet and nice and friendly...and then they turned out to be this vicious, savage, cannibalistic race of guerilla warriors who fearlessly charged stormtrooper detachments and beat them to death with heavy rocks. And then ate the corpses, probably.)

The cute aliens only look cute until they smile, revealing a mouth of needle-sharp teeth, and they quickly surround Han, Chewie, Leia, Lando, R2, and 3P0. They've made necklaces and decorations out of the remains of the commando group, and it looks pretty clear that they plan to do the same with Han and company...until C-3P0 begins to talk to them. He explains their story, the plight of the Empire and the Rebellion, describing the entire situation to the chief of the tribe, and swaying the Ewoks to their cause. (Yes, it's Threepio for the win, here.) The Ewoks agree to help. Han, of course, is a little skeptical of just how much help a few cute fuzzballs can be against a whole garrison of stormtroopers...until he sees the hordes and hordes of silent, vicious Ewok warriors, their siege engines, their cunningly designed traps, and their collection of empty stormtrooper helmets (not even stormtroopers venture into the forest at night on Endor.)

As Luke prepares to face the Emperor, he is met by Yoda and Ben. Or rather, their blue ghost bodies. Yoda has died. Luke is truly the last of the Jedi...but yet, there is another hope. Yoda never told Luke, but he has a sister. If he fails, she will be the last hope of the Jedi Knights. But only by letting go of his attachment to his father and destroying Vader can Luke survive this final trial. Luke refuses. Surely, the three of them together can redeem Vader? Yoda shakes his head sadly. They cannot go into the presence of the Emperor, lest he destroy them. Luke will truly be all alone.

And here we go. Luke battles Vader, with the Emperor and thousands of stormtroopers looking on. Han and the gang attack the shield generator, with an Ewok army backing them up. The Rebel Alliance, led by Wedge, fight an army of bounty hunters, mercenaries, and the scum of the galaxy. The shields come down, the factories get bombed, Luke redeems Vader, who dies stopping the Emperor as the bombs begin to rain down upon them. Luke barely escapes the carnage, the Rebels send the bounty hunters packing, everyone returns for a celebration on Endor where Luke lets Leia know that they're family, which neatly skirts the issue of who she's going to start dating. And with the Emperor lost and the clone factories destroyed, the Empire seems to be finally on the run.

(Until the endless parade of tie-in novels, that is...)