Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hercules' Lament

Those of you who read Justice (which should be all of you, by the way, because it's fun, even if, as always, it's impossible to see what's going on because Alex Ross is drawing it) may have been confused by the Cheetah's mention of "Hercules' Lament" when she scratches Wonder Woman with her poison-tipped claws. Be confused no more; it's a reference to the myth of the death of Herakles.

Herakles, as you probably already know, was sort of the Superman of the ancient Greek myths (except he wasn't nearly as nice as Superman). Nowadays, superheroes are often aliens or metahumans. Ancient myth had something similar, as its heroes were often "demigods", the offspring of a god and a human. [There were also some heroes who were fully human, like Odysseus, the Batman of the ancient world, who relied on his ingenuity and adaptability to accomplish great things. Odysseus, like Batman, rocked.] Demigods were usually more powerful than regular humans (sometime even getting a special ability, like prophecy, flight, or telescopic vision; no, really!), but were still mortal and could be killed.

Herakles (or Hercules, as the Romans called him) was the big kahuna of the demigods; if you got into a fight with Herakles, you lost. If your army got into a fight with Herakles, it lost. That's why most of his exploits involved fighting monsters (like Superman in the 1980s and 1990s) or using his abilities in clever ways to solve seemingly unsolvable problems (like Superman in the 1950s and 1960s).

Early on in his career, he hung out with his nephew and "boy pal", Iolaus, who was yer basic Jimmy Olsen (complete with cryptohomosexual undertones), except that Iolaus was occasionally useful (such as when he helped kill the Hydra by cautering its necks when Herk lopped off the heads). Later, Herakles gave Iolaus his ex-wife (Megara = Lana Lang) to marry. That is so Superman Family, it's creepy.

Still, later Herk finally landed his "Lois Lane", spunky warrior princess (a.k.a. "gal reporter") Deianeira, daughter of Oeneus, king (a.k.a. "editor") of Calydon (Oeneus means "wine guy", because he learned winemaking from the god Dionysus himself; no, really!). Once Herakles marries Deianeira, that's where the Lamenting comes in. Kind of like Lois.

Herakles and Deianeira were out a-wandering (like heroes do) and came to the river Euenos, where a centaur named Nessos was the ferryman. I guess that's what retired centaurs do; better than giving pony rides to the spoiled children of satraps.

So Nessos starts to carry Princess D across and realized, wow, she's a total hottie, and starts to, ahem, "carry her off", which is what they called it in those days. Well, Herk bridled at that sort of horsing around, and shot Nessos with one of his arrows. This hurt even more than you'd think, because all of Herakles' arrows had been soaked in the poison blood of the Hydra (Editor's Note: the monster Iolaus had helped him kill long ago, in Ancient Action #CCXIV!). So as Nessos lays dying, he goes, "Oh, I'm sorry about molesting you; pardon my hot-bloodied centauriness! Let me apologize by giving you the recipe for a love potion made from my blood and some other stuff I won't mention because this is a family blog! It will ensure Herakles remains yours, just as he has ensured you will remain his by shooting me with this really, really painful poisoned arrow that's killing me even as we chat."

Deianeira, being pretty much as stupid and insecure as Lois Lane, falls for this line of hooey. See, because people who read comics know better than that, reading comics keeps you safe from vengeful dying centaurs and other of life's little dangers, so buy comics for your kids, folks. Anyway, ,Princess D makes the potion (which is obviously poisonous, duh, since it's made from the centaur's poisoned blood) and soaks Herakles' tunic in it.

What happens next is not pretty. Picture if Lois got really ticked at Clark and soaked his supersuit in kryptonite krazy glue. Herakles' servant Lichas (who was like Kelex at the Fortress of Solitude, except for not being an alien robot) plops the outfit on his boss and, oy, the lamenting begins.

Herakles, in torture, orders Poeas (another servant guy) to build a funeral pyre that Herk throws himself into to stop the pain, an extreme but effective solution to his problem. His mortal essence burned away, but his dad, Zeus, took his divine essence up to Olympus, where Herakles became a full god (much to the annoyance of the many many relatives of the many people H killed on earth; just ask King Priam in Age of Bronze how he felt about that).

Before Herk kacks himself, he gives his magically unerring bow with its poison arrows to Poeas as a going-away present. Some people claim he really just said, "Hold these, Steward," with gritted teeth, but those people are just jealous, I say.

Poeas passes the bow and arrows on to his son, Philoctectes, father of podiatry (don't ask). Philoctectes turns into, well, Green Arrow, a bitter misanthropic crank who smells funny and learns to use the bow and arrow when he's stranded on a seagirt dirtpile. Phil becomes extremely important in the Trojan War (even though you've probably never heard of him), due to one of those absurd Silver Age Justice League story contrivances, where the rest of the JLA is helpless until GA can hit the button on some console with his boxing glove arrow, so everyone puts up with him; Philoctectes is like that. If you want to know why he's the key to "Death Rides a Wooden Horse!" either read Sophocles' play about it or subscribe to Age of Bronze, where I'm sure it's going to come up at some point.

A great ancient source for the story of Nessus is the Library of Apollodorus (which was the ancient world's "History of the DC Universe" and a very groovy read), something every civilized person should have in his library.

So, that's the poison the Cheetah (who's clearly a total nutbar) says she got from the queen goddess of the underworld (Persephone) and is using on Wonder Woman, who naturally enough thinks, "You are clearly a total nutbar, but, gosh, yes, this does sting."

Well, I figure there was at least one person who didn't get the reference, so there it is for ya. Because comic books are like myths: you don't need to get all the references to previous continuity to enjoy the story, but it helps.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Mystery of Space Cabbie

Ordinarily, when I have a question about comics I can't answer, I turn to Devon Who Erreth Not over at Seven Hells. But I know for a fact Devon can't help me answer this question, so I'll ask you.

What is the appeal of Space Cabbie?

I find it a mystery deeper and more unanswerable than even "Why would someone swordfight on the bottom of the ocean floor?" The Mystery of Space Cabbie thrusts itself into my face by way of this week's poll, in which Space Cabbie (incomprehensibly!) is beating out all other contenders for "most desired Showcase Presents", even the famously inventive Sugar & Spike and my obvious favorite, the fabulous Red Bee.

Why would some make a Space Cabbie out of Legos?

How can a character with no name, no origin, and no personal details at all be so popular?

Particularly when his last "real" story, not just an "appearance" (outside his JLU gig) was in, what, 1972?

Can anyone, without hitting the internet, name a single Space Cabbie story (JLU excepted) or remember its plot?

Why does Michigan State library have a Space Cabbie collection?

I'm not the only guy stymied by this Space Cabbie mystery.

My operating theory is that Space Cabbie is an empty icon, a sort of comic book Golden Calf, worshipped precisely because it has no meaning, and turned to as a rejection of the more difficult demands of modern comic book gods as we wander through the Desert of Decompression.

As such, Space Cabbie's vacuuity works to his advantage, a blank screen upon which we project our own concepts of "how innocent" comics used to be. Devotion to SC thus becomes a shibboleth for the Silver Age Apologists, the Whimsy Huggers, the ardent Argentophiles, who think that because they like literary candy bars for dessert that it would be great to consume them night and day.

What do YOU think of Space Cabbie?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Killer Moth's "Tools for Stopping Batman"

Ah ha! It is I, the Killer Moth, the anti-Batman, come to haunt your nightmares!

Decades before there were pretenders like Deathstroke or Prometheus, there was I ... I, the Killer Moth! With my Mothsignal and Mothmobile, I protect criminals from police predation and vulturous vigilanteism.

Sure, it's a gas-guzzler, but the ladies love it!

So, today I offer you some advice on How Not to Get Caught By Batman. I'm going to reveal some of the contents of my Futility Belt, so called because it renders useless the upholders of law! Ha! Ha ha! That appeals to my Golden Age sense of humor; Joker -- call me!

I have been asked to review some of the proper implements for protecting yourself from the Caped Crusader, some of which you have previously seen here at the Absorbascon, which I, the Killer Moth, am gracing with my criminal presence. Here are some of the proven tools that I, the Killer Moth, recommend for stopping Batman. Consider carrying them for your own supercriminal protection!

A Bear Head
Somewhat unwieldy but high in Golden Age pun possibilities!

A Punching Bag
Difficult to aim, but a successful attack writes its own punchlines!

A Bottle of Perfume
Also comes in hand with the ladies, when you're "Lady-Killer Moth" as I am!

Empty Water Pistols

Innocuous looking, but ...! It's all in the wrist.

Purple KangaroosI, Killer Moth, can get them for you wholesale!

Spare Change
Also useful in parking meters; nothing is more embarrassing than having the Mothmobile towed. Well, with the possible exception of having Batgirl knock you unconscious with a penny loafer and leave you splayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Or being deceived into thinking that the Boy Wonder is actually is the offspring of an alien avian race. Or being portrayed by Tim Herbert.

Sigh. Anyway, where was I ... ? Oh, yes...

Batman cannot resist them.

Purple-robed Pansies, Armed with Corndogs
Surprisingly effective and embarrassing. They will give him such a slap!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Kurt Busiek Interview on Superman

Devon has posted the second of his his three-part interview with Kurt Busiek (scribe on Avengers, Superman, Astro City, Conan, JLA/Avengers, and something called Sword of Atlantis) over at Big Monkey.

In this part, Kurt and Devon discuss his plans for Superman and hints at some upcoming projects he's pitching to DC ...

Jimmy Olsen, Sword of Hobbs Bay

Lights Out for Hal!

Over the years, I have seen many sad and tragic things in comics, things that have made me openly weep: Black Canary's JLI costume; the Super-Cigars of Perry White; Aquaman #40. But none such have ever made me nearly as sad as one thing I have not seen...

Behold, the saddest thing never seen in comics!

Here's the wind-up...
and the pitch!
The Expert Commentary:
The Color Commentary:

Can you tell what's missing from this sequence? No, folks, it's not an omission on my part, not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story. This is the one and only first original time Green Lantern Hal Jordan gets clonked on the head (by a yellow table lamp, no less) ... and IT HAPPENS OFF PANEL.

*Sob*! *Choke*!

The gods and editors are cruel, so very cruel. They cut away in the third panel to the incredulous gangsters' reaction, so that we never actually see the blow to Hal's head, never get to see Green Lantern "lamped out" by a Yellow Lamp. OH, the Comic Book Irony!

I guess I shouldn't blame the editors of the day. This is Hal's first outing, and I'm sure they read the script and said, "Can't show the hero getting klonked on the head; too undignified; better make it off-panel..."

We the fans of Hal Jordan deserve restitution for this wrong. I demand a Green Lantern Secret Files with nothing in it but scores of drawings depicting the lamp's arc between panels 2 and 3, the look on Hal's face as it connects with his cranium, his stunned body thudding to the floor with the lamp beside, victim and victimizer, and of course the scene where he decides to eat the lampshade, just for revenge. That way, if you flip the pages, you'll see a little movie of Hal's First Head Injury ... over and over and over again.

It should also have a Who's Who style page profiling Hal's original archenemy, the Heavy Yellow Lamp, with its own logo-font and including a cut-away diagram, some background history on the lamp, and specs on its height, weight, and bulb wattage. I bet it has Olympic-level illumination and mastered a variety of Asian lighting techniques.

Then maybe there should be a small background story, full of foreshadowing, where the lamp gets bought at Ikea (that's where we learn it's true identity, something like "Jarnstra" or "Diabas"), placed in the living room, and begins to plot its schemes against all green lanterns, like the ones that used to make fun of it at the factory.

Then, as further compensation, I expect a replica from DC Direct. I'll have one in each room of my house; anybody gets smart with me, WHOMP, lamped out they will be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Blowing Stuff Up with Starman

How cool was Starman?

So cool he could compose flattering yet minatory haiku while jogging at the speed of a horse.

But let me blow up
that place; that sort of stuff is
right down my alley!

I swoon at his personal and poetic power! Oh, we shall not see your like again, Ted Knight!

Can you (even when not jogging alonside a running horse) compose a haiku to compare with that of Starman?

Monday, April 17, 2006

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles...

Surely you remember "the Best Lois Lane Panel Ever"?

Thanks to Absorbascommando Don Reisig, we know that that Golden Age panel was reprised in the Silver Age. Or was it?

In the Golden Age, it looked like this:
Lois has engaged an eminent psychiatrist (you can tell from the beard) with the most powerful Yellow File Card of Piercing Insight imaginable. Where was this man when Hal Jordan lost it, I ask you? Lois is an active participant in her own recovery, alert, leaning forward aggressively into the doctor's territory. Plus, she's wearing one of the spunkiest little outfits I've ever seen, right down to the kryptonite green gloves. That's a Golden Age outfit that screams, "Don't muck with me, doc! I've got a problem and I'm here to solve it!" No shame, no shyness; there's a reason Lois is in Action Comics, folks. Dr. James Lipton is all aquiver and can barely keep up with the Lois's psyche, and the whole scene's more like a riveting evening on Inside the Gal Reporter's Studio than a shrink session.

But, oh, in the Silver Age! In the Silver Age, it looked like this:Lo, how the mighty have fallen! No more Viennese experts for poor Lo-Lo. She's stuck with the bored and weary corner pharmacist, who, instead of using a Famous Freudian Filebox, is calmly scratching out her prescription for Xanax on a cheap steno pad from the Rea & Derrick he works at, immediately aware that she's a hopeless codependent mess. And she is, lying there in some frumpy suburban hausfrau outfit like a worn-out dishrag, draped supine on a cheesy hospital cot like a M*A*S*H extra, with her hand stuck to her forehead in the universal "woe is me" symbol.

You disgust me, Silver Age Lois! Where is your Golden Age verve, your gal-elan, your moxie? Gone, all of it, eroded by month after month of cruel identity hoaxes, hissies with Lana, bizarrely extreme yet still temporary transmogrifications of your physiognomy, and imaginary stories spent shacking up with chubby Lex Luthor. There it lies, a silent but eloquent indictment of post-war American society, the remains of the Toughest Cookie in the Golden Age, eaten away by the acidic insanity of the Silver Age.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Crisis on Ancient Earth

It is the greatest story ever told, the perfect unity of myth, legend, and history. It is the inexahustible wellspring into which all ancient Greek myth flows or emanates. It is "Crisis on Ancient Earth". It is, in essence, the comic book that created Western Civilization. It is the Trojan War.

As a trained Classicist, I am not inclined to praise modern interpretations and retellings of Ancient lit. That's because so many are dreck; all is dross that is not Helena, after all. Yet I have nothing but the highest praise for Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, an on-going monthly series that is retelling the story of the Trojan War.

Unlike many adaptations, Shanower's strives for accuracy, in characterization, plot, dress, design, and decor. Even the decorations seen on palace walls in the comic book are extrapolations from the actual remains of murals unearthed at Troy. He's made all the difficult decisions in interpretation, such as how to reconcile textual inconsistencies or in what way to understand the role of the gods in the conflict, with great care, intelligence, and style. The result is most readable version of the war since, well, Homer.

Shanower also takes full advantage of the comic book medium in adapting the tale. For example, when King Priam tells the story of how when he was a boy Herakles sacked his city, the flashback is drawn in a "Popeyesque" style that captures the mythic tone of Herakles in a way a thousand words could not. As, and befits a gifted interpreter, he augments the original stories with logical expansions, such as the inclusion of the dog Argos in the story of the Madness of Odysseus and of Troilus & Cressida in the doings at the Trojan court.

I don't care what else Image has done; they publish "Age of Bronze" and for that they shall always have my respect and gratitude.

Apparently I'm not the only person to praise the series. Age of Bronze has already won two Eisners and is nominated for a third this year. Unfortunately, it's too close to being one of those books everyone praises but no one reads (you know; like Manhunter). While sales of its collected trades remain healthy, too many trade-waiters are dampening sales of the monthly issues. If those fail, there aren't going to be any trades. That would be a crime, so I'd like your help to keep that from happening. Besides, I want to find out how the war ends.

I intend to do my part by posting occasionally on the various characters, stories, and situations in Age of Bronze and how they should appeal to the average comic book reader. For example, how anyone can call himself a Batman fan without knowing the stories of Odysseus, the Batman of Ancient literature, is beyond me.

All I'm asking is that you check out the Age of Bronze website, read some more about it on-line, and consider subscribing to this wonderful series. Age of Bronze belongs in the short boxes of every educated Westerner, right alongside Action Philosophers.