Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Comic Book Rehab Thanksgiving - Issue #1

Ever try a Turducken? That's de-boned stuffed chicken stuffed into de-boned duck, stuffed into a de-boned turkey. I'm not so sure if it's good, or if, like the Chupacabra or Jeremy Clarkson's opinions, we're looking at a creature of myth, something in which sightings have been reported but not truly experienced. Duck meat is tough - just look at Scrooge McDuck - and despite most claims to the contrary, duck meat is not what you order when you want a briskly-paced dinner at a restaurant.

Forget about food, let's talk Comic Book Turduckens. We're talking concept turkeys that have been stuffed with other concepts - superheroes that make you think twice about even trying to read about once because they have totally unappealing and cluttered histories and seemed doomed to stink over and over - they've got their own duck meat in the middle.

Hawkman - This character has had more than one origin, more than one attempt at revamping and reconciling his origin, more than one secret identity, and more #1 issue relaunches than you would think.
First, he was Carter Hall, an archaeologist - lind of a low-rent Indiana Jones. He was in the Justice Society of the 40's and early 50's. In the 60's the concept was re-thought and replaced with Kator Hol, a space cop from the planet Thanagar, who fights crime in a winged outfit (just like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, but not as fun). The Winged Detective was a bit of a jerk and a social dud, but his wife was hot, and this incarnartion became the longest-lasting, if not the most entertaining of the lot. He's the one that appeared in The Superfriends, but he was on his best behavior there.

In the 80's Kator the space cop's background was sharply redefined, with Tim Truman's Hawkworld mini-series. But that story hit the big reset button and gave the character a clean slate - what to do with all that continuity from the past two-and-a-half decades? Imagine that the big bird guy in the Justice League was never there? Well, actually, they imagined that Carter Hall, the Indiana Jones Hawkman, was in the League in it's early days, and the jerk with the hot wife that was in your dad's Hawkman comics was a Thanagarian spy, leading up to the Invasion! storyline, which is as memorable as it is now forgotten by anyone under 32. In the 90's they decided to cop-out and came up with Hawkgod, an entity who was Hawkmen of  all Hawkman comics/appearances - seriously, though, this only makes sense if they didn't think anyone was actually reading the comics - and who was reading superhero comics during the collectors bubble in the 90's? Maybe they thought they were on to something.

Within the last decade, we've seen Carter Hall return as a one-and-only Hawkman, and the different origins/concepts/cock-ups co-ordinated  under a reincarnation gimmick that seems to settle issues of continuity with anyone still trying to read or follow his adventures - now if only he had any.

The Spectre - This character reminds me of Spawn, only he seemed to use his powers in more offbeat/interesting ways, but nobody seems to like his secret identity, Jim Corrigan, or if his adventures are too downbeat to want to read for any length, even though it seems to work for Daredevil . It doesn't help that the Spectre is now viewed as a corrupt pasasitic entity rather than a simple loveable, huggable anti-hero, if that is possible. (Kevin Levin11 in Ben10 is likeable, even if at the core he's a jerk and initially a mean sonuvabitch). The Spectre became a turducken when he became then-former Green Lantern, then-dead (they get better in comics) Hal Jordan, and later becoming Crispus Allen, a character from Batman: Gotham Central. So now they've got Green Lantern continuity and Batman continuity (and, in some ways, Spawn continuity) stuffed into a Spectre turkey. What you care to try it?

Supergirl and Power Girl - Superman's cousins became turduckens when their orgins were revamped to satisfy short-term thinking. In this case, it was that Superman (and only 1 Superman - sorry, Superboy)should be the sole survivor of the planet Krypton. Eventually, their origins were reintroduced and their status as Superman's cousins was reinstated, but it's very hard to shake off the turducken tag.

Spider-Woman - Mulitple incarnations, multiple origins (in the Jessica Drew's case, three different origins coincided with eachother and a fourth tried to make them all fit) - this is a turducken by proxy.

The Huntress - there are two incarnations of this character: one, Helena Wayne, is the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth 2. The other is Helena Bertinelli, daughter of some mobster and too many Valerie Bertinelli t.v. movies. Most fans are divided on which incarnation they prefer, and despite a notable attempt to split the difference (in Batman: The Brave and The Bold, the character is seen wearing the Helena Wayne costume with the Bertinelli identity) she's an unevenly cooked turducken. I think her best moments came when she served as a Batgirl temp in the late 90s Batman comics, coinciding with Batgirl's appearances on television in The New Adventures of Batman and Superman.

The Punisher - He's been killed off, he's been brought back as a ghost, (de-boned chicken) given a change of ethnicity (he was curious {black}) killed again, appeared in three feature-length turkeys, (de-boned turkey) fought man monsters with giant boobs, made into a zombie (de-boned duck)... this turducken is still not done!

We're all lucky there is no known quantity of Tryptophan in duck meat, or we'd all drop dead. There's more, lots more, like Ghost Rider - but this isn't a personal turducken - we've all had our share of it sometime, but we don't have to try it. We can chose not to have any turduckens in comics, or at least, not sample them.

For this, I am truly thankful.

Now, excuse me while I get the popcorn, jelly beans, toast and pretzels ready...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Graphic Blandishment Featuring Superman - Part 2

Symmetry...The Strand has copies of  Superman: Krisis of The Krimson Kyrptonite for $17.50. It's moments like that where I'm glad I found a nice copy of an old book for a better deal. In this case, it was a well-preserved copy for 5 bucks.

This book is the long middle chapter in a trilogy of sorts - 3 stories in which Mr. Mxyzptlk gets Lex Luthor into his "Mx". Here, we see him create/offer Red Kyrptonite to Lex as a kind of magic lamp - wish a fate upon Superman, and that wish is granted. Lex wishes Superman was his equal. The rock takes away Superman's powers.  Unlike Mr. Ebert, I will spoil it for you: the wish is valid on one condition - Lex cannot tell Superman where the rock came from. Lex brags about it to Clark Kent, instead, and Superman gets his powers back. 

That sounds awfully simple, right? Cute, right? Good enough to have been adapted into an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, yes? Of Course! Why didn't they do that?

That outline I just described was used as a kind of sandwich for 5 issues of a powerless Superman/Clark Kent riddled with doubt about his fate as a superhero. Aside from Lex and Mxy, we meet a lot of "run-of-the-mill" (quote lifted directly from the script!) villains who are not even 3rd string, and some soap opera about Clark proposing to Lois Lane (she said yes, but it seems the pros wanted her to say no - check the current Superman comics and see for yourself). There's a lot of late-80's continuity abound, but not enough to make you want to go back and check out those issues - it's really like looking at a moment in time - with one exception: Roger Stern's Starman seems likeable enough, and it was nice seeing a seemingly angst-free superhero guest star - his costume could use a redesign, though. Maybe give it the Starman costume Batman wore in that zany story that was reprinted in Batman: The Black Casebook? Just a thought...Oh, and Gangbuster seemed O.K., even though his bailiwick wound-up handed over to Steel in the 90's.

In the end, what works is the iconic stuff: Superman vs. Lex and Mxyzptlk, Round 2. I recall the 1st round had Lex tackle Mxy alone while Superman was in space for the Exile storyline. Round 3 was a story by my favorite Superman team, Jerry Ordway and Tom Grummett, which concluded the trilogy with a play on that familiar logic puzzle involving a choice between three levers and who's telling the truth about picking the right lever. Maybe someday they'll put all three stories together - or all the Modern Age Mxyzptlk stories from the 80's and 90's into one trade. They're very good.

This book has been out-of-print for years but is not too hard to find - I think the final fight between Mxy and Superman loosely inspired the chase sequence in the episode of the animated series that featured Gilbert Gottfried as the voice of Mxyzptlk. The idea of having the imp re-introduce old concepts in modern continuity, as well as offering power to other DC villains pretty likely inspired the Emperor Joker storyline as well. There's also one of the best inside jokes I've ever read in a superhero comic, courtesy of John Byrne.

In the past few weeks, I've reviewed two books collecting stories that featured Kryptonite. Both were very mixed, or "Mxyd" bags. Did DC get around to trying "Best 1 Out of 3"? Yes, Yes, they did...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No $#!+ Sherlock! pt.2 - Comic Book Rehab issue 2 of 6

I recently returned a copy of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes DVD at the library. Now, when you think of "rivals", you think Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, Nero Wolfe - characters that were published within Doyle's lifetime and managed to stick around, more or less. If you're under 40, maybe your parents were Ellery Queen fans and have a few beat-up books squirreled away someplace, or have seen the eponymous mystery magazine or watched Castle and Murder, She Wrote without realizing that you're watching Ellery Queen in all but name only. If you're a Poirot or Wolfe fan, those books are easy to find. Philo Vance novels popped in and out of print over the past few decades and films featuring Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn and William Powell as "Needs-a-kick-in-the-pants-Vance" appear on Turner Classic Movies once in a while.

None of those guys appeared in this collection. What's left is very interesting - a collection of detectives with gimmicks and M.O.'s that resemble a distillation of qualities we associate with Sherlock Holmes:

Profound knowledge of Forensic Science - Dr. Thorndyke

Streetwise, with an eye for opportunity  - Dorrington

Pragmatic and busnesslike in dealing with clients - Martin Hewitt

Brilliant Amateur Gentleman Slueth - Dixon Druce

Flashy Bravado - Max Carrados

Gothic settings and confronting the supernatural - Thomas Carnacki

Flair with Disguises - Romney Pringle

Quarrels with the police - Lady Molly

Inside knowledge of the Underworld  - Simon Carne

Eye for detail on a specific subject - Bernard Sutton

Most of the characters had one episode devoted to them. Some, like Martin Hewitt and Dorrington, had two or three to make up a full 13 episodes. They were run-of-the-mill stories, and not really interesting. Unfortunatley, I wish they had chosen to adapt more Carnacki  stories - I thought that episode worked best - it could've been made now, only with better special effects.
As Carnacki, Donald Pleasance seems slightly more effective than Dr. Loomis was at chasing Michael Myers, but at least Carnacki has neat gadgets, like the electric pentangle, and does not bore us with psychobabble. There were only six stories written with this original ghostbuster, with a number of pastiches that followed by other writers. Best of all, Carnacki appears in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Comics.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT THAT MEANS!  For the first time, an obscure character that I'm actually interested in seeing more of has an important role in that comic! Now I want to go look for the stories featuring him and not wonder why Moore seems so dead-set against Sherlock or Dracula appearing in his funnybook. Yes!

Sadly, that one episode is the only onscreen adaptation of a Carnacki story. The summaries offered on Wikipedia hint that at least two more stories could've been filmed under the given budget. Another season of the show was filmed with a different crowd of would-be rivals, and I have yet to see it, but I have to be honest and say the BEST thing about the whole series was the title sequence. It's very catchy.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing stories for other writers - Special One-shot, 2nd print

The idea of taking a comic book superhero "Back-to-Basics" is nothing new. Every few years, Batman has to demand a little "Alone Time" from his surrogate family of sidekicks and goes solo. The Justice League headquarters gets blown-up or abandoned in favor of a new pad run by a smaller team of six or seven. A hero retires for the civilian life and passes the costume to someone else (though this is often not as smooth as it sounds). A company goes belly-up and a new company aquires the characters and decides to start fresh. The Green Lantern Corps and the X-Men have a massacre or two. Savage Dragon gets regular 'breaks' -killed off and replaced by other 'Dragons' for a time in rotations. Spider-Man and Superman have chunks of recent history erased. The latter three are the most extreme examples.

There is an alternative to having a character wipe the slate clean to tell new stories - wipe the continuity slate clean to re-tell familiar stories. Now, it's one thing to re-tell the story of how Batman met the Joker to a new audience that's never read the old stuff before. It's one thing to want to re-tell an old story because the original seems dated (the origin of the Fantastic Four is an example). It's one thing to joke about how it seems like the only Spider-Man stories anyone wants to tell are the ones with the clone, the dead Uncle, the crappy boss, the dead girlfriend, and the feeble Aunt. But how about this: I'm re-telling a familiar story because I want a Hollywood screenwriter to see it and take ques from it.

Let us suppose that a movie starring ... J'onn J'onnzz, The Martian Manhunter is in development hell because the screenplay gathering dust lacks snap.  Well, how about re-launching his comic book (he managed to have one for a while on the heals of the successful JLA launch, which made the animated Justice League/Justice League Unlimited possible, which is a good example of this phenomena) but within the context of something hip and happening right now.

Bear with me...these pitches only sell in a single sentence, more or less:

"Martian Manhunter - It's like Twilight with superheroes - Taylor Lautner as J'onn J'onnz, the Manhunter from Mars - he'll have his shirt off for 1/2 of the film."

Now I'll plot a 12-24 issue arc that incorporates his origin, along with all the bells and whistles to make it fit my one-sentence pitch, and be sure to set it up in a way that could help launch a Martian Manhunter film.

That's an example of using a character that's okay, yet kind of so-so...he's actually the only member of the League that does NOT have a movie in the works. Not a single one. I figured playing an all-purpose superpowered semi-clothed Martian would be a cinch for a former sharkboy-turned-werewolf.

Now Geoff Johns has a storyline in the new Justice League comic book that's easy to visualize as a storyline for a movie - the league meets and teams up to fight the ultimate representation of pure evil in the DC Universe. Sure, they've spent the last two issues fussing over a Mother Box, but that's the stuff of deleted scenes. Besides, Mother Boxes are nifty. They're iphone12's - can you imagine? That's their function, yet they're often portrayed/talked about casually like old Rubix cubes, dial-up or Compuserve. Not here. They've spent two issues picking at it like the fancy toy that it is, even at risk of seeming like hitting a creative dead end. Whatever. I wish Marvel did something like that with the Cosmic Cube - what the heck is that, really? It's a strong-enough Macguffin to build an Avengers movie, that's what, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Besides, I don't find Darkseid very exciting. He's become more like a sparring partner at a boxing match than a really entertaining villain. A large statue with blinking laser eyes. All rope-a-dope. zzzzzzzzz...If the 1st six issues are devoted to this cosmic Chinese puzzle box with Darkseid creeping in for a cameo in the final panel - well, this was written for me to read, then!

Don't get me wrong - I'm not using my deductive powers for evil and predicting that Johns is going to try to top Joss' lil' ol' film before it clears the editing room, or that he's telling a familiar story with familiar plot devices to show how easy it would be to get a JLA movie made... well, yeah, I just did. I'm pretending I didn't so that I won't spoil my fun.

I wonder if Lautner has his own production company? He's got to stock-up on green spray paint for the big screen test...