Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Icicle, on Logic

"The trouble with being a super-criminal has always been the fact that the Justice Society...or... the Justice League...always catches us!"
The Icicle
, "Crisis on Earth-One!"

You wouldn't ordinarily think of the fairly colorless Icicle as an exemplar of, well, anything, let alone logic. But there's a reason he's a true villain, not just a thug with a freeze gun.

Through his superior reasoning abilities, he has hit upon the crux of the "super-criminal" problem. This is particularly impressive since it seems to have escaped the notice of all his colleagues....

Chronos, on Fairness

"Guard yourself, Batman! My time numerals will shock you senseless if they touch you!"
Chronos, "Crisis on Earth-One!"

Okay, circumstances pit you against Batman. Batman, the one-man thwarting machine for whom the word "outwit" was invented. Batman, who once made a telegraph out of some loose change and a glass of saltwater. Batman, who mastered every known science and discipline, honed his body to peak physical perfection, and became an unparalled martial artist and the world's greatest detective in precisely TWO panels.

You, fortunately, have one of those surreal silver age devices that can fry his great brain, gelatinize his olympic-level musculature, and leave him a twitching lab frog to be prodded for your amusement.

Any simple crook would just use the device. But it takes a villain to warn Batman before doing so. That's fairness!

Bizarro Speaks Out on Jason Todd

I love Spoiler and I'm glad she's dead; I hated Jason and I'm glad he's alive.

I was entirely opposed to bringing Jason back to life, particularly as it stinks so much of that most malodorous of all Batman arcs, "Hush" (the ultimate monument to the vacuity of Loeb's writing...until Superman/Batman came along). But then War Games happened, in which, Stephanie Brown a.ka. Spoiler a.k.a Robin, was killed. Just as in a Greek tragedy, Stephanie's own actions, stemming naturally from her character, led inexorably to own destruction. In doing so, she became the ideal Tragic Robin.

That, of course, rendered Jason Todd irrelevant. Before Stephanie's death, Jason's death made him the great casuality in Batman's war. Because he was the only one of Batman's allies to have died, his death overshadowed that fact that he was a jerk and no one liked him.

But Jason's death wasn't tragic, merely horribly unpleasant. It had no irony, no bitter twists, or unintended circumstances. Jason was simply killed by the Joker (uncharacteristically brutally, I might add; I was embarrassed for the Joker). Well, lots of people are killed by the Joker: welcome to the DC Universe, bub.

But, Stephanie's death! There's irony and tragedy!
Batman fires Stephanie because she's overconfidence and doesn't seek the input of others (his own worst faults).
The plan to unite the underworld under Batman unites them against him.
Stephanie makes her own murderer in the king of the Gotham underworld.
The plan, designed to give Batman control of the underworld, results in his losing control of the police (and his own Bat allies).
The plan fails because Batman kept one of his identities secret from Stephanie yet results in his Batman identity being publicly seen on television.
Batman searches desperately for the cause of this attack on his city, not realizing that he caused it (wow, that's straight out of Sophocles!).
In trying to help Batman, Stephanie hurts him terribly.
In trying to replace her boyfriend as Robin, she ensures that he will replace her instead.
In trying prove how worthy she is, Stephanie proves how right Batman was to fire her.

While some of the writing on War Games was muddy, structurally it was a brilliant multi-pronged tragedy (no matter how many fan-boys didn't "get it"). We experienced pain because of the many tragic circumstances, rather than just watching Jason experience pain and get a crowbar all bloody. Then get blown up.

With Stephanie as the Ideal Tragic Dead Sidekick, Dead Jason is immediately superseded as Dead Sidekick and serves no function in the Batman mythos that she doesn't serve better. But Alive Jason becames Former Sidekick Who Crosses the Line. That's a new mythic idea, one that I can't remember ever really seeing in a DC story, one that adds enormously to the Batman mythos (and his personal tragedy). And having Jason adopt the identity (Red Hood) of the man who killed him? Bitter; good work, Judd!

And that is why I really liked Stephanie, and I'm glad she's dead, but I really despised Jason, and I'm glad he's alive.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

I don't have the strength yet to tackle the mythic structures and archtypes underlying rogues' galleries. Yet.

But, during the wonderful renaissance of Hawkman's rogues' gallery that's now going on, just reflect on this: a LOT of his villains are "guys ya can't hit". Jim Craddock, the Gentleman Ghost. Anton Lamont, the Fadeaway Man. Carl Sands, the Shadow Thief.

And when your hero's main battle tactic is hitting people with a mace, that's pretty clever.

And, for Hawkman, really annoying. Hawkgirl, however, has (slightly) less testosteorone than he does, so she doesn't seem quite so peeved about it.

Oh, a shout out to you fellow Heroclix nerds out there... I'm pretty good at "power exegesis", explaining why certain figures have certain powers on their dials. But if there's a good explanation why Hawkgirl has OUTWIT on her dial, I'm still waiting to hear it...!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Religious Icons

Okay, I know it seems like all I can talk about (lately) is superheroes as Dynastic Centerpieces, but that's just not true. And I'm now about to prove it by discussing religious figures ...
um, as Dynastic Centerpieces.

As any fan of DC's dirt knows, the legend of Alan Moore's departure from DC after his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing is that editors nixed his story using Jesus as a character. They SAID they were afraid of public reaction, but I think the real reason was they couldn't get the rights to the character. That's the trouble with Creator-owned characters, you know.
Anyway, what if DC had acquired the rights to Jesus (say, by suing for copyright infringement because he could do almost everything Batman can)? I think the cast of The Adventures of Holy Man would have been something like this...

Dynastic Centerpiece: Mild-mannered carpenter, Jesus Nazareth, adopted son of Mary and Joseph ("Ma & Pa") Nazareth, sent to earth by his real father from the distant and cool-to-draw place of Heaven. He controls the Holy Ghost, which is kind of like the Thunderbolt, only not as fun visually.
Junior Counterpart: His cousin, John Baptist, whose water-based powers enable other people to breathe under water and command the loaves & fishes.
Female Counterpart: His mother acquires superpowers of healing and intervention as "Mother Mary".
Kid Sidekick: Judas. Was his last name Olsen, or is that my imagination?
Romantic Interest: Mary Magadelene. ("Hm. 'Mother Mary', 'Mary Magadelene' ... strange how so many important people in my life have the initials MM!")
Elder Statesman: That would be God, I think.
Civilian Companion: Peter Rock.
Animal Companion: The donkey. Definitely the donkey.
Black Sheep: Muhammed. Go ahead, flame me.
Authority Figure: Pontius Pilate. Hey, authority figures don't have to like the good guy.
Contextualizing City: Salt Lake? Just kidding. Jerusalem City, of course.
It's all very Shazam Family, isn't it? Going with that, we'd get comic relief from
Fat Holy Man Jerry Falwell, Tall Holy Man Robert Schuler, Hillbilly Holy Man Billy Graham, Uncle Holy Man Jean-Paul, and Hoppy the Holy Easter Bunny.
Dynastic Centerpiece models; they're not just for comic books any more!

Dinahstic Centerpiece!

One of our favorite Absorbasconners, RICO, has cried out that Black Canary deserves to elevate her iconic status by becoming a new Dynastic Centerpiece!

Indeed, she does, Rico. She's a pivotal character in the DCU. She links Golden Age with all subsequent ones, the JSA with the JLA, the "trained humans" with the "gifted metahumans". No female hero in the DCU, other than Wonder Woman, has her gravitas and icon-potential.
Yet still she remains a clearly secondary character while her doo-doo head ex-boyfriend has been creeping out of the grave and back onto the "A/B" list. WHY? Because she has no Dynasty, of course.

Birds of Prey, you say? Yes, very cool. We all love Birds of Prey, no argument. However, while it has undeniably helped her popularity, working equally (some would say subserviently) to Oracle and Huntress has not lifted her "status". (Under current continuity) this is the woman who was almost the driving force in founding the Justice League with (Saint) Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter; cool as Birds of Prey is, hanging out with Oracle and Huntress does not increase Black Canary's cache.
Black Canary needs a Dynasty built around her. With that in place, she can be in any little Task Force she wants and her rep will remain unassailable (yeesh, think of all the losers Batman's worked with over the years without denting his cool factor!). And, so, based on Rico's suggestions, let's take a stab at the "Dinahsty"!

Junior Counterpart. Flamebird is a perfect choice. Bird-themed woman crimefighter, needs a mentor, completely unused right now, and could be connected to Canary by Nightwing.
Male Version. Her buddy, Wildcat, representing her "kick-butt streetfighter" roots. And having a "subsidiary" version be older is a nice twist from the regular pattern.
Kid Sidekick: Perhaps the Empress? Empress could use the connection to a legacy and Canary should able to be appear to be grooming a successor without having to have a baby girl named Dinah.
Black Sheep: Flame me all you want, but my No. 1 choice is unequivocally: Reverb (Vibe's older brother, also known as Hardline, whom you may remember from the Conglomerate). Lots of narrative potential there and connects with her "superhero" side. Onyx, from the Batman War Games storyline, is another fun possibility.
Elder Statesman: Black Canary I, of course. Unfortunately, she's dead. Lady Blackhawk, then! The Blackhawks as a whole could become part of the larger Black Canary mythos.
Civilian Companion. Hm. Someone new. How about... a gay guy who actually runs her flower shop, because lord knows Dinah can't have any time to do it!
Romantic Interest: Anyone BUT Green Arrow. Wouldn't Jason Bard be an interesting choice? Like her mother, her Romantic Interest should definitely focus on a private dick.
Animal Companion. A cat, definitely. A black cat name "Blondie".
Authority Figure: A new character, I should think. Some one in the Mayor's office of her new...
Contextualizing City: I think she deserves a place of her own, don't you? Why not "Gateway City"? It's available and would give her a chance to interact with Wonder Woman, since (I think) Wonder Girl still lives there).
Any other ideas, folks?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Are You Sleeping, Brother J'onn?

The interesting thing about the Absorbascon's new toy, the Dynastic Centerpiece model, is its potential use to build a mythos around a character without a dynasty. Take, for example, the ultimate also-ran, the Martian Manhunter.

"Poor J'onn", as everyone knows, couldn't maintain a series to save his himself. But if DC really put its mind to it, they could, without even making up new characters, build a Dynasty with J'onn as the Centerpiece that would not only enable him to have his own title but, eventually, would nearly demand it. A quick stroll through the DC Encyclopedia provides the raw material, simply waiting for Geoff Johns to arrange it one day while sitting on the toilet (or the J'onn, if you prefer cheap Golden Age puns).

The Martian Manhunter's role in the DCU is easily unique: he is the Ultimate Outsider (J'onn is unfailingly ALIEN, no matter how long he's been here) as Ultimate Insider (he's a shapechanger, reads minds, can turn invisible, and "JLA" is his middle name). So the dynastic themes are disguise, espionage, invisibility, detective work, infilitation (physical and mental), alienation and belonging. The Martian Manhunter mythos could become the home for a lot of unused or underused outre figures. There are plenty of pre-existing choices:

Dynastic Centerpiece: J'onn J'onnz
Junior Counterpart
: The Elongated Man (as long as we don't have to watch him talk to his dead wife), or Xer0 (a black basketball player who doubled in disguise as a white secret agent)
Female Version: Gypsy, Mirage, or Aruna (shapeshifting Indian girl; she was in "Batgirl", trust me, it's in the Encyclopedia)
Kid Sidekick: Gypsy (hey, if she's not in MM's dynasty, who would be?), Risk, Hero (the gay guy from the Ravers), or even Cassius Payne (Clayface's kid)!
Black Sheep: The Question, The Human Target, Praxis (remember him?)
Civilian Companion: Slam Bradley (the noir detective, like John Jones was)
Elder Statesman: Phantasmo (oh, just look it up), a retconned "The King", Nathaniel Dusk, Hamilton Drew (already associated with Elongated Man), Darwin Jones
Animal Companion: Detective Chimp (although he seems to be spoken for), Sam Simeon (another character who uses his mental powers to go undetected among humans), Rex the Wonder Dog (hey, he's a "property" they need to do something with him!)
Authority Figure: King Farraday, Mr. Bones
Contextualizing City: Midway (with its "neither fish nor fowl" halfway between Gotham and Metropolis image), wacky Delta City (home of Vext), National City (home of Xer0)

Add in the "anti-dynasty" (also easily supplied the Encyclopedia) and the series practically writes itself.

The Mystery Analysts of Gotham

As long as groups like the Sea-Devils, the Blackhawks, and their ilk are returning in DC's stories, I cast my vote for The Mystery Analysts of Gotham.

During the "New Look Batman" era, they were five snoopy people who flitted in and out of Detective Comics, solving mysteries (hey, Batman is a busy guy, you know). Commissioner Gordon (the professional cop), Hugh Rankin (the private eye), D.A. Danton (um, the District Attorney), Art Saddows (the crime reporter), Martin Tellman (the armchair detective).

At the time, it was spoiled by having Batman in the stories, who overshadowed the Analysts. But make Jim Gordon their leader (giving him something to do other than limp) and the Mystery Analysts of Gotham would be a great back-up feature in Detective Comics. At least, better than "The Barker", "The Tailor", Josie Mac, or the Bald Guy in the Incomprehensible Storyline Better Left Forgotten ("the Jacobian"), which is what DC's been wasting its most prime comic book "real estate" on.

Hal Jordan, Center of the Universe

Despite the wishes of DC's editors, Green Lantern's mythos never recovered from the removal of its Dynastic Centerpiece Hal Jordan. Happily, the various attempts to replace him have wound up filling out the pattern of the GL mythos. The pattern has to be interpreted a bit more broadly to accept John Stewart at Junior Counterpart and Kyle Rayner as Kid Sidekick, but it's a closer fit than anything the GLs have ever had before. Coast City will soon be replaced as Contextualizing City, I understand, as Hal relocates to a AFB on the West Coast. That's good; Coast City never had any character anyway (much like the Town Whose Absence is Lamented By No One, Central City). It also seems that Carol Ferris is being moved away from Romantic Interest to Civilian Companion, which is a good storytelling move. Hal Jordan will work very well with "variable" in the Romantic Interest slot!

And, for the record, no, I do not think Itty should make a comeback as Animal Companion.

Flash Mythos still slow to recover

Flash's mythos is still recovering from the removal of its Dynastic Centerpiece Barry Allen and is currently held together more by the strength of its "anti-dynasty", the Rogues. Wally West is stuck doing double duty as both Centerpiece and Junior Counterpart. If DC worked on repairing his relationship with Jesse Quick she could do the double duty as Female Version and Junior Counterpart, which would help Wally shed his "Junior" role; he also to stay away from the Titans and Outsiders as much as possible and in the JLA, for the same reason.

With the full speed return of Jay Garrick via JSA, poor Max Mercury must have been superfluous as Elder Statesman, which is why he got shipped off to the Speed Force. Kid Sidekick Kid Flash has been "put in his place" as inferior to Wally by shattering his knee a few times. Contextualizing City Keystone itself is a strong character which beautifully contextualizes Wally as a blue collar, unionized hero. Flash still needs a Civilian Companion (who IS "Flash's pal"? Those Chyre and Morillo guys?), and might benefit from a Black Sheep (like the old Speed Demon, Red/Blue Trinity types),perhaps a former Velocity 9 junkie with residual bursts of speed?

I don't think Wally needs a "Flashhound" as an Animal Companion, but it would amuse me if he and Linda had a pet turtle. Named "Pietro". Yes, that would amuse me greatly.

Knick Knack Paddy Whack

Animal Companions are back in vogue, mythically. Krypto the Superdog has his own cartoon now, which also features Ace the Bathound (and his hilarious "utility collar").

Crazy though it sounds, I think Aquaman needs a dog as an Animal Companion; it's already been established that there are plenty of water-breathing dogs swimming around Sub Diego. I think "Salty the Seadog" (or, if you prefer Old School, "Topo" or "Tusky") would humanize Arthur greatly. Besides, the man lost his whole family; throw him a bone already and at least let him have a dog to keep him company, because talking to fish all day will drive you nuts.

Wonder Woman as Dynastic Centerpiece

How's the Amazon Princess doing as a "Dynastic Centerpiece" lately? Well, she's got a groovy new Animal Companion, Pegasus, sprung from the blood of Medusa just as it did for Jason when Medusa was first killed. Hard to argue with that. Besides, Wonder Woman is supposed to be an icon for girls (even if she never is), and girls like horses. Plus, Athena, as the new Ruler of Olympus, certainly can count as an Authority Figure!

Wonder Woman will go on a quest with her Kid Sidekick Wonder Girl (the first time I can remember their actually working together!) that will return Troia (Junior Counterpart) to the fold, and recent cameos by Etta Candy (Civilian Companion) and Steve Trevor (Romantic Interest) are good signs. The stupidly wasteful loss of Hippolyta (Elder Statesman) in a meaningless "crossover" death was a bad mistake, though; Diana's relationship with her mother was the most human thing about her. WW also needs a Contextualizing City; she's lost Boston, Gateway never worked (thanks, Byrne!), and New York de-contextualizes characters because the city is always bigger than they are; when's she moving to "Capitol City" or Washington DC, folks?!?!?

Holey Frameworks, Batman!

The Dynastic Centerpiece framework gives us clues to what works, what doesn't, what's happening now, and what might be a good idea. Holes in the pattern are opportunities for the editors to expand an icon's mythology. Recent examples of DC "filling out" the pattern to solidify the mythology of its icons include Speedy, Supergirl, Krypto, Pegasus, Aquagirl, Malrey, Dr. Geist and the return of characters like Golden Eagle, Northwind, Oliver Queen, Hal Jordan, Linda Park, Carol Ferris, Guy Gardner. On the whole, I think, readers are reacting positively to these changes and its part of what's making DC comics interesting again.

But "punching holes" into the pattern has hurt some of DC's icons. Wonder Woman has take some serious hits to her mythos, as did Aquaman, but both seem to be rebuilding through intentional efforts by the writers. Superman's entire post-reboot development has been about how to fill out the pattern without creating Beppo the supermonkey. GL and Flash are still adapting to the loss of their Silver Age centerpieces. The Batman mythos still hardily cycles along between strengthening Batman's independence as a lone actor and his importance as a centerpiece character.

Seaside Rendezvous

The Aquaman team is busy filling out his role as Dynastic Centerpiece! In the most recent issue, they introduced Officer Alonzo Malrey as a Junior Counterpart and/or Black Sheep and Esther Maris as the new Romantic Interest.

How do we know Esther Maris is supposed to be a permanent addition? Easy: job, name, timing.

1. She's a reporter. "Girl Reporter" = Romantic Interest. I think that's why they never let any talk to Wonder Woman.
2. Her name is a bit of a maritime in-joke. "Esther" as in Esther Williams and "Maris" as in Latin for "of the sea".
3. She was introduced at the same time Aquagirl first hints at having a non-Platonic view of Aquaman.

Trust me, she's around to stay. Unless Black Manta kills her, of course.

DC = Dynastic Centerpiece

DC is re-applying what I'll call the "Dynastic Centerpiece" model to its icons. In the Dynastic Centerpiece model, a hero is not a single character but the centerpiece of his/her own array of good and evil forces. Using basic concepts (such the Kid Sidekick, the Junior Counterpart, the Black Sheep, the Elder Statesman, the Female Counterpart, the Animal Companion, the Romantic Interest, the Civilian Companion, the Authority Figure, etc.) a constellation of characters is clustered around the central figure, which helps make him/her seem even more important. Against them is arrayed an "anti-dynasty" of villains similarly created according to familiar archtypes (The Arch Enemy, The Lunatic, the Heroworshipping Villain, the Civilian Enemy, the Untouchable Crime Lord, the Magician, the Evil Opposite, the Femme Fatale, the Mental Challenger, The Physical Challenger, etc).

In the Silver Age, a Dynastic Centerpiece model was used to build a mythos around all the characters as a matter of course. Done right, it can give the character the unstoppable momentum of a freight train; overdone or done poorly, it can break down under its own inertia like an overburdened wagon (the Beppo syndrome, as it were). But because the archtypes are strong concepts built-in to the human psyche, the drive to mythologize a character by "filling out" the pattern is always there. You may not always like how such a pattern's being used, but, like it or not, characters who lack the pattern have trouble standing on their own. It's no coincidence that the likes of the Atom, Plastic Man, Martian Manhunter, Firestorm, Black Canary, despite their powers and pedigrees, don't carry the weight of icons like Superman or Batman, or that one of the main things that the revivals of Starman and Green Arrow did was to use pre-existing and new characters to "fill out" the pattern as much and as quickly as possible.

One of the reasons that the JLA has such mythic power is that we feel it as the gathering of icons each of whom is the centerpiece of its own whole mythos, not just a gathering of individuals (like, say, the Avengers is). During the revitalization of the JSA, the writers/editors have played on this phenomenon by strengthening the ties of each member to larger mythos of which he/she is a part (the current storyline is a stunning example).

The New Blue Beetle

Well, now that the Blue Beetle Ted Kord is dead, I assume Booster Gold will become the new Blue Beetle using the Scarab.

This is a big change for both characters (um, Ted especially). But they've faltered since the demise of the JLI, and, though the current "SuperBuddies" storyline is nostalgic, it simply highlights the 1980s datedness of the characters.

Like Barry Allen, Ted will become one of DC's "sainted" figures, a better character dead than alive. And Booster, I mean, Michael Carter? Are you ready to see him shoot lightning out of his fingertips, 'cuz that Scarab ain't no piece of casual bling bling, folks!


Welcome to the Absorbascon, where I and small group of others will offer you our thoughts on DC Comics for your delight and derision.