Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts On DC's Latest Decision

For those of you who haven't heard...which probably isn't many of you, but I'm recapping anyway...DC has announced that they are going to be unveiling a major difference between the New 52 DC Universe and the old DC Universe. Specifically, one of the major, recognizable figures in that universe will be revealed to be gay in the new version of continuity.

Today, Rich Johnston posted an article suggesting that the new gay character will be Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern. This has not been confirmed yet, and it may yet turn out to be some other character (although I'm pretty sure it's too late for DC to change the character's identity the way they did with Monarch in Armageddon 2001...) But it's worth looking at the news on the assumption that it's true.

The first question is, "Does this pass the 'iconic character' test?" After all, DC made a decision to announce this in a way that risks criticism as a publicity stunt. (I'm still not sure entirely how to feel about the announcement itself in that regard, but suffice to say, I think it's going to be a long while before we see headlines that say, "DC To Announce New Straight White Male Character".) If this is going to be news, it's going to have to be big news to avoid complaints of tokenism and hype.

In that regard, I think it does a reasonably good job. Alan Scott might not be as famous to the general public as some, but in comics terms, he's definitely an elder statesman of the DCU, and one with a long and storied history. This is definitely a better choice than some of the ones rumored (like, say, Vibe.) I still think that the most seamless and most audacious decision would have been to go with Batman, because he doesn't really have a history of strong female relationships--his relationship with Vicki Vale has never had the same kind of iconic status as Superman and Lois Lane, and his girlfriends are frequently shown as "beards" to explain away his late-night disappearances and eccentricities--but I suspect they were concerned about the potential insinuations of child molestation. (Which is a shame, as that's always been one of the nastier and more slanderous accusations directed against gay men--that they "can't be trusted" around straight boys--and it would have been nice to see a character who's not just a role model as a gay man, but as a gay parent. But I can dream.)

Which brings us to the second question, "Does it fit in with the character's history?" Well, certainly people are going to point to Jade and Obsidian, but if having kids disqualifies you from ever being gay, nobody ever told my uncle. Molly Mayne is a bit of a stronger counter-argument, but again, she's not an iconic part of his history in the way that Joan Garrick is with Jay. His relationship with her is something that was added on by noted continuity hound Roy Thomas in the 80s, during the absolute heights of his obsession with connecting all the dots in all the Golden Age characters' histories. I don't think that this should offend DC history obsessives too much. (Although expect most of the homophobes out there to insist that they're mainly bothered by the blatant disregard for continuity!)

And that brings us to the third question, "Does it have potential for good characterization and interesting storytelling?" Well, maybe. I think it would have been a bit more interesting if they'd kept the JSA as rooted in their World War II origins and their pre-reboot roles as elder statesmen of the DCU; a gay character who'd lived through a number of different eras, each with their own views of homosexuality, would have been very illuminating. (Frankly, I just don't think a young JSA is very exciting in general, although I admittedly come to that as someone who didn't pay much attention to DC comics until 'Crisis'.) But really, time will tell. I'm not sure if they handled this well...but I'm certain that they could have done it a lot worse.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Witching Hour

(or "You're Too Big For This One-Page Town, Baby!")

Every time I do one of these anthology series as an entry in the Storytelling Engines series, I feel a tiny tinge of guilt somewhere deep down in my gut. After all, the whole point of a storytelling engine is to put into place stable and predictable story elements that in and of themselves help to generate ideas for future stories ("Clark Kent's a journalist...so maybe he's doing a story and..." "Mary Jane's always hanging out with party types...so maybe she goes to a dance club and..." "The X-Men are always searching for new mutants to teach...so maybe Cerebro finds a new mutant and...")

But there's not really much like that in an anthology series. Once you've settled on the basic tone (sci-fi, Western, horror, romance), you're really kind of on your own. A framing sequence is handy, especially one with an interesting "host", because it helps to ground the tone a bit better (you can ask yourself, "What kinds of stories does Cain seem to enjoy telling the most?") and because it helps to ground the reader into an internally consistent world...instead of spending an issue with three random strangers, you have a friend introducing you to them. But I always wonder how much of a storytelling engine there really is to an anthology series.

Then I read 'The Witching Hour', and found out that the answer can sometimes be, "Too much."

The stories that get told within the series itself are pretty standard horror stuff: Cursed objects, tales of the psychic and paranormal, and ghosts make their almost-formulaic appearances with each issue. But there's also a story told in every framing sequence, as witches Mildred and Mordred (representing, respectively, the Mother and Crone of classical mythology) have to deal with their thoroughly modern stepsister Cynthia (who represents the Maiden, although her behavior in the series suggests that as far as she's concerned, that just means "young".) Cynthia's a witch just like the others, but she's no traditionalist; she whips up her spells on top of an electric oven instead of a boiling cauldron, and she's psychoanalyzing the thing that lives in the swamp to figure out what makes it tick. (Or possibly burble.)

In short, she's the perfect catalyst for an excellent black comedy. All too often, you find yourself skimming through the actual stories to get to the next part of the framing sequence, which is not exactly what you want in your horror anthology. The hosts shouldn't be non-existent (or actively detracting from the atmosphere), but at the same time, hosts whose stories are so interesting that you pay more attention to them than to whatever it is they're introducing are hosts that are probably wasted on a horror anthology. Mildred, Mordred and Cynthia would make great protagonists for their own series; their setup suggests countless tales about the youngest of the witches perpetually trying to modernize her older sisters, only to find that their attempts to fit in (or their stubborn resistance to same) cause mayhem and magic wherever they go. Once you've got an idea like that, why do you need to break it up every couple of pages to tell another ghost story?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Wisdom of Odin (and his lawyers)

Earlier this year, my daughter requested a "Thor hammer" for her sixth birthday, along with a matching helmet. She got her request, and has been happily playing with it, but it was only recently that I noticed that there were actually words written on it. I thought that was an excellent touch, showing clever attention to detail, and I picked up the hammer to read the words written on the side of Mjolnir. Mjolnir Giant-Killer, forged by the dwarves under the mountains. Mjolnir, blessed by Odin himself. What wisdom did Odin carve into the mystic uru metal? I had to know.

Apparently, Odin wrote:

"CAUTION: Do not poke or swing at people or animals. Use away from breakable objects."

"CAUTION: Do not aim at eyes or face."

"TO AVOID INJURY: Use only missiles designed for this product. Do not modify missiles or blaster."

This tells me two things. One, Odin inexplicably failed to account for the possibility of Spanish speakers lifting the mystic uru hammer. And two, Thor's been doing it really wrong all these years...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

We Are Living in the Future


Oh my God this.

At first, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. You watch it, and it seems entirely normal and natural...and then it hits you that it's not a special effect. It was not digitally inserted in post-production, there is not someone off-screen with a joystick or a mouse faking it, that is absolutely 100% someone controlling a robot arm with their thoughts. Prototype, yes; primitive, yes; but that moment where you realize that somewhere along the line your life has become a science-fiction movie and the things that writers once dreamed up are now being tested in labs...it's almost vertiginous. You don't quite know what to think.

And then you see the woman at the end, feeding herself for the first time in fifteen years and smiling as people clap for her, and you do. You think, "This is wonderful."

If this is the future, I can't wait to see more of it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Losers

(or "Trust Me--Do NOT Play The 'Losers' Drinking Game")

In comics, there are really only two kinds of team books, regardless of genre--the kind where the whole team is created just for that series, and the kind where a group of prevously-established solo characters join forces. The former generally requires a lot more work than the latter (which may be why the latter is a lot more common than the former) but when it comes to getting a group of existing characters to coalesce into a team, a lot of thought has to go into the rationale for the team and the chemistry between its members. You can't just slap a bunch of people together into a group and assume they'll all want to hang out for no readily discernable reason. (Which is why we're not still seeing the adventures of the New Fantastic Four.)

Most of the time, people think of "team-up" teams as being the exclusive province of superhero comics; it's hard to imagine a bunch of soldiers meeting each other and deciding to form a unit. And for the most part, that's true. But there is one notable exception: The Losers, a 70s war comic that was formed by putting together Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace (from 'All-American Men of War'), Gunner and Sarge and "Pooch, the Fighting Devil Dog" (from 'Our Fighting Forces') and Captain Storm (from 'Captain Storm', which ran for about twenty issues in the mid-sixties.) Unlike Sergeants Rock and Fury, this group of soldiers started out in their own separate units...and branches of the service...until Fate threw them together. (And apparently, none of the characters' superior officers ever thought to countermand Fate's orders.)

Again, the important elements of a "team-up" ensemble are the rationale and the chemistry, and 'The Losers' focused on the idea that these soldiers were all in some way "jinxed" in a manner that led to the deaths of their units, and that the four hung together in the belief that this way, they wouldn't spread their bad luck around. It's an interesting idea for a series, and the team does have good chemistry together; instead of downplaying the unlikely grouping of Navy officers, Air Force pilots and Marines as a group of commandos, the book goes out of its way to show how their different skill sets give them surprising advantages in combat.

However, it does take a while for the concept to fully gel in the mind of Bob Kanigher. (Which isn't surprising; to borrow a military metaphor, writing a comic book series is something of a "live fire exercise", with elements that don't work jettisoned on the fly, and new elements added as they come into the writer's imagination.) The early issues focus less on the emotional aspects of a group of lone survivors learning to rely on their teammates again, and more on the team's fatalistic acceptance of their status as "losers" performing impossible missions. (And just in case you're not clear about their luck, Kanigher makes sure to work in the word "loser" at least twice a page to remind you. I initially thought about doing a "Losers Drinking Game", but I realized that my readership is too small to risk anyone dying of alcohol poisoning.)

As the series goes on, and Kanigher begins to work with extended storylines, we start to get more of a sense of the bizarre, hard-luck heroes he had in mind; a Norwegian guerilla joins the team, and they go on an extended mission that sees them stranded in Africa for long stretches of the book. For every triumph they earn, they wind up seeing an equal setback that prevents them from seeing home; the mission that was to be their last before their furlough turns out to be a series of Odysseyan ordeals.

Unlike his fictional creations, Kanigher had a bit of luck on his side. Not every writer gets a chance to work out the bugs in their concept before the book gets canceled. But 'The Losers' demonstrates that almost no series starts out perfect, and it's worth taking a while to get to know a series before walking away. Because any comic book series is a work in progress, and the first issue is rarely more than a glimmer of what the story will be. Or, as Gunner and Sarge might have put it in the early issues of 'The Losers', "Losing losers like us only get a loser's break. Isn't that right, losers?"

(That's four shots right there, but I really don't recommend it.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

When Does Ashton Kutcher Tell Obama He Got Punk'd?

So who among us seriously thought that Mitt Romney would turn out to be a more toxic candidate than Newt Gingrich? I mean, it's only May, and we've already got stories circulating about him attacking gay teenagers with scissors. If 'The Onion' had written that headline, we'd all snort at its unbelievability. And this is after him talking about how he "loves to fire people", "[isn't] concerned about poor people", and that he doesn't watch NASCAR, but he knows lots of the people who own the teams. It's like he's running a bizarre piece of performance art in which he tries to see if conservatives will still vote for him even after he straps a dog to the roof of his car and goes for a drive.

At this rate, I'm just wondering where we'll go next...

June: "Breaking News: Romney Had Two 'Underperforming' Children Sold Off'

July: 'Three Additional Wives Found Imprisoned In Basement Of Romney Mansion'

August: 'Romney Admits To Third Horcrux, But Refuses To Disclose Its Location'

September: 'Romney Selects Davros For Veep'

October: 'Romney Discusses Plans To Strap Dog To Roof Of Air Force One'

November: 'Romney Takes Infant Hostage, Vows To Devour It If Not Elected'

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Our Army At War

(or "A Cast Of Millions")

Looking at 'Our Army At War', as collected in the 'Showcase Presents' line of trade paperbacks, is a little unfair in some ways when trying to analyze the storytelling engine of the book. The comic was always an anthology, a mix of recurring features like "Sergeant Rock" (who eventually took over the book entirely, a few hundred issues down the line) and a collection of unrelated short stories about various different individuals in various different wars throughout history. Since DC has already cannibalized most of the recurring features from 'Our Army at War' (and, for that matter, from its war comics in general) and presented them out of context, seeing this single volume of stories from the very beginning of the series' run gives an impression that might not represent the series as a whole. We don't see any recurring characters. For that matter, we don't even necessarily spend all our time in the same war; 'Our Army' jumps around from Korea to WWII to the Civil War to the Revolutionary War, even if it does spend most of its time centered around the Axis powers. It's worth beginning with that as a caveat, because remembering that the series will eventually get around to having a cast of semi-regular characters tells us a lot about the stories we see here.

Because the whole point of a cast of recurring characters--indeed, the whole point of a storytelling engine--is that it makes coming up with ideas easier. Having to come up with a new group of soldiers every single time you tell a story is exhausting. It consumes the time and energy that the writer could be using to do other things. If he already knows Hans von Hammer inside and out, and if the Enemy Ace is an interesting enough character to spark ideas simply by reading his character bible, then he can get stories done quicker and easier. Which, when you're writing four stories an issue on something like three titles a month, is a very useful thing.

But in a large, sprawling story like World War II (or an even larger, even more sprawling story like the history of warfare) you can't always work a cast of recurring characters in. Sergeant Rock fights in the European theatre of World War II. Just getting him over to the Pacific for a story you've wanted to tell about Okinawa is a difficult enough task, let alone working him into a story about Korea or World War I. Sometimes, you expend less energy by coming up with a new character than you do by working the old ones into your existing story. Which is where it's useful to have an anthology series. The war itself sparks so many ideas that one character can't possibly tell all of its stories. Mailmen and cooks have stories to tell just the same way that World War I fighter pilots do...even if they don't have quite so many.

And of course, there's one type of story that simply can't be told easily by a cast of recurring characters, and it's one that crops up quite frequently in these books. Stories where the main character dies at the end are a staple of war comics; heroic sacrifice is a theme of fiction about warfare, and there are limits to the number of times you can tell a story like that in a book with a regular cast. Either the cast winds up dying off, which severely limits future storytelling possibilities, or you have to introduce a secondary character just so you can kill them off...at which point, you're already doing all the work of coming up with a new character anyway.

Which is why, despite the introduction of many great ongoing stories within DC's war comics, the anthology still went strong for a long time (and arguably still goes strong today; Garth Ennis' 'War Stories' is essentially a descendant of 'Our Army At War'.) Because ultimately, writers use a storytelling engine to make their lives easier, not simply because it's there.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Dangerous Drinking Games: X-Men Edition

While reading Essential X-Men, Volumes 1-10:

Take a sip every time Cyclops thinks or says the phrase, "my uncontrollable optic blasts".

Take a sip every time a character uses a single word or phrase from their native language in a sentence that otherwise contains perfect English, tovarisch.

Do a shot every time the cover contains the phrase, "Welcome to the X-Men", and the phrase "Hope you survive".

Take a sip every ten times Wolverine calls someone "bub". (Hey, it's "dangerous", not "fatal".)

Do a shot every time Kitty Pryde changes codenames.

Take a sip every time Rogue muses on how sad it is that she's unable to touch anyone due to her mutant powers.

Take a sip every time an issue features a cameo appearance by an obscure Marvel character for no reason other than Chris Claremont wrote their now-canceled series and can't let go of said character. (Candidates include Carol Danvers, Jessica Drew, and Misty Knight from Iron Fist. For truly dangerous living, expand it to include villains like Mystique and Deathbird.)

Take a sip every time Psylocke gets lauded or idolized within the text because Chris Claremont clearly had a major crush on a fictional character.

Do a shot every time a major character dies. Do a second shot to commemorate their resurrection.

Finish the bottle when Storm loses her powers forever, irrevocably, never ever to return because Forge is such a brilliant inventor that nobody could possibly undo his work.
Do a shot every time you find yourself thinking that the Marauders are really kind of pathetic, despite Claremont's best efforts to build them up as a threat so major that the X-Men have to fake their deaths to deal with them.

Take a sip every time someone drops a catchphrase into their dialogue that their character would never in a million years use but that Claremont has grown attached to (such as Storm using military jargon that Claremont thinks sounds "cool".)

Take a sip every time a female character gets mind-controlled. Take a second sip if the mind control makes them dress or behave in a much "sexier" manner. (The inventor of the game does not make any kind of warranty against the potential for alcohol poisoning during the course of this game.)

Finish the bottle again when Storm gets her powers back.

Drink when Magneto gets placed in charge of the Xavier School, and don't stop drinking until it makes sense to you or until you pass out. (Note: This is the point in the drinking game where you're probably going to pass out.)