Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Zeroing In: Phantom Stranger

Oh, Phantom Stranger, why hast thou forsaken me?

Or, more accurately, why has DC forsaken thee?

I've written a lot of the Phantom Stranger, a character I adore.  From beginnings as part of an Odd Couple with Dr Thirteen to his pre-new52 status as the Guy Who'll Smack-talk Darkseid and the Quintessence gang, the Phantom Stranger has been remarkably...

well, I was going to say "consistent".  But in fact he is anything but.  His inconsistency is, in a way, part of what is consistent about him.  You cannot say what his powers are.  Or how or why he does what he does.  Or even what it is he does.

You don't know his name.  Or his origin.  The main things you know about him that are constant are:
  • he seems to come and go as he pleases ("Phantom") and 
  • no one, including you, knows jack about him ("Stranger").  
  • Oh, and that he's basically a good guy, who helps good guys do good things, using his superior knowledge and vaguely mystical powers. 

In the Zero issue of "Phantom Stranger", DC has abandoned all that, pretty much ruining the character completely in just one story.

Oh, he still looks the same.  And he sounds the same.  But he's a phantom of his former self, and he's become a stranger to me:
  • They gave him a definite origin.
  • That origin is tied (pretty unambiguously) to the Jesus Christ mythos.
  • He is punished by kind of characters he used to challenge with impunity.
  • He no longer follows his own mysterious agenda, but is the pawn of others.
  • He has no idea what he's doing, or why.
  • He seems apathetic about humanity.

They did everything I can think of that would ruin the character short of making him do a rap version of his own theme song.  And somehow the real Phantom Stranger would have still made that work.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Zeroing in: Amethyst

Through the mysteries of the internet, I'm a de facto "authority" on Amethyst.  Which is extremely odd, since I've only written abouther once, I think. But her Wikipedia article links to me, and, so, of all the things I have written, my Amethyst post gets me more hits than almost anything. Even more than referrals from the Chicago Spanking Review, which is very fond of my work on Wonder Woman.

Therefore, I feel I should comment on the new conception of Amethyst advanced in her "Zero" issue as part of my series on DC's "Zero Month".

Yesterday, I talked about the Shazam Zero issue, which tackles the difficult job of updating an essentially childish character for a modern audience.  DC faces a similar challenge in updating Amethyst, which was an attempt to capture the readership of young girls.

Classic Amy Winston was a 13 year old girl; Modern Amy Winston is 17.  This is an understandable change; after all, DC is probably not fooling itself this time into thinking its audiences is pre-pubescent girls.

The change is an understandable one; but not necessarily a wise one.  A great deal is lost by making Amy the same age as her Amethyst identity.  Young girls (and boys) often wish that they were older and dream about what that would be like (it's the desire upon which the Archie Empire is based).  Part of the original concept of the Amethyst story is: be careful what you wish.  Because she is older in Gemworld, adulthood is thrust on Amy all at once, and it's not quite the princess-perfect package she'd hoped for.  As I mentioned in my previous Amethyst post, one of the first things that happens to Amy in Gemworld is that some ogres plan to gang-rape her.  Not exactly a Rainbow Brite problem, is it?   

Original Amy Winston was a 13 year old with a normal but unexciting suburban life, who, because of an unsuspected heritage, is suddenly thrust into a world of danger for which she is not prepared (an excellent metaphor for adolescence).  Modern Amy Winston is a tough, edgy loner, who knows that she has some mysterious heritage she will soon discover, and whose mother has been training her (seemingly pointlessly) in combat for years while they migrate from town to town.  In short, Amy is just about as prepared to become Amethyst as she possibly could be, without actually knowing the truth.  In the Zero issue, she's not threatened with rape in Gemworld; she rescues someone else from it in our world.  In fact, the most distressing thing for her in Gemworld seems to be that she can no longer control the color of her hair. PLUS, her mother is there to guide her.  

Don't misunderstand me.  Arriving in Gemworld would be a startlingly event under any circumstances.  But in the original story, Amy is armed only with a good solid upbringing by smart caring parents.  The Modern Amy Winston is now just another sword-wielding bad-ass ninja chick in dark clothing and funky hair of the type fanboys like so much.

In Justice League Zero, Billy Batson is being updated to give him more meaning in a modern context.  DC is trying the same thing with Amethyst in Sword & Sorcery Zero, but I think it has backfired, robbing the character of meaning rather than adding it.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Zeroing In: Shazam

Well, the execution of "Zero Month" has been an interesting grab bag.  The idea is clear and sensible enough.  Like any epic, the New52 began in medias res, with our cast of characters already in the fifth year of the new Era of Wonders.  Now that we've spent a couple months navigating unfamiliar seas, we take a break to sit down on Dido's couch and learn the background of how we got where we are.

Some of the Zero books are answers to the utter mysteries of characters whose former histories simply no longer fit the new DCU (e.g., Jason Todd).  In other books, where the change of status quo is less notable, the Zero convey little essential information (such as Legion or Batwoman).

In this "Zeroing In" series of posts, I'm going to share my thoughts about the Zero books; please share yours! First up, the one that has every Comic Book Guy's hair on fire...

Justice League #0 (Shazam).  Geoff Johns' portrayal of Billy Batson and his origin is the blogosphere's current whipping boy.  I understand why, even if it's not quite my sentiment.  Captain Marvel has long symbolized our nostalgia for a more innocent brand of superhero comics.  Or at least, what we remember as more innocent.

Just because you didn't see him kill those 186,744 comic book citizens doesn't make them any less dead, you know.

Why, it's just like Reggie getting clobbered by Moose in Riverdale!  Except it's a Nazi crippling a boy for life.  Note that I skipped the part where he drowned Freddy's grandfather.  Ah, the innocence of Golden Age comics.

I am an inveterate critic of the Marvel-style "flawed and therefore relatable hero"; I want heroes who are better than I am, not just superpowerful.  So watching Johns drag the Billy Batson icon through the mud doesn't thrill me much, either.  And Johns is not being subtle about what he's doing.  Being subtle is not something Johns does.  He aims to make a point, and he's going to make sure you don't miss it.  If that makes his plots (and particularly his dialog) a bit cliched some times, he's okay with that.  In that sense, he is truly the modern heir of the mantle of his idol, venerable Denny "Heavy-Hands" O'Neil.

First of all:  I will hear no more kvetching about not calling the character "Captain Marvel" any more.  (1)  It was never a very good name; (2) It's an even worse name now than it was in the Golden Age, thanks to Marvel Comics; (3)  Lots of 'normal' people think the character's name is Shazam any way.  Nerds: LET-IT-GO.  

Second: everyone always complains when Captain Marvel (neo Shazam) is not written as squeaky clean and innocent as they think he always was.  When he is, no one buys him.  The character was created when the only (perceived) audience for superhero comics was children.  That is no longer the case and whether any of the kvetchers like it or not, Shazam needs a different approach in modern times to be even remotely workable.  Heck, Alex Ross just plain made him terrifying, taking advantage of the inherent creepiness of the underlying concept, which is as weird as a one-note H Dial.

So, I understand what Johns is trying to do.  Those who complain "argh this is what Johns always does" seem to be ignoring the fact that Johns wrote Captain Marvel before.... in JSA.  This is not the only thing Johns can think of to do with the character.  He's trying to give the character a relevance, a meaning that it's never had before.  

All of DC's most iconic characters stand for something, a principle, a set of ideas, a way of looking at the world.  Even Green Arrow, who stands for the idea that Batman Knockoffs Suck.  The only thing the Shazam legend has every stood for is the idea that childhood is innocent.  Which, frankly, it isn't.  Johns is right: Billy Batson was an orphan living on the streets.  That's not really a formula for innocent optimism.  Super-Little Orphan Annie does ring very true any more (if it ever did).

When Alex Ross wrote Billy Batson, he let him be the only figure who truly understood both what it meant to be human and what it meant to be superhuman.  Johns is trying to let Billy become another 'straddling' figure; Billy is not perfectly, naturally, or intrinsically good.  Because people aren't.  Billy represents the human ability for choice, for potential to be both bad and good, the potential for greatness.  Obviously (very obviously), Billy will learn and grow to be more and more good as he understands (through the advent of John's favorite, Black Adam) the consequences of a powerful person choosing to be bad.  

Is this the most original concept?  Certainly not.  It's very much in the Spider-Man vein of learning to wield power responsibly (the essential lesson of all adolescence, in fact).  Captain "Marvel" indeed!  As trite as it may seem in the broader comic book context, the fact is that we have no one at the highly iconic level in the DCU who stands for this idea.  Except maybe the new Green Arrow, who doesn't count because, you know... Green Arrow.  So, as long as he need to be retooled for a modern era, it might as well be Shazam. 

Johns has successfully revitalized so many characters for DC that I've lost count.  Sometimes the process has been a little uglier, and this time is no exception.  But his track record is such that he's earned a suspension of judgement from me until he's done telling his Shazam story.  

And to all those who are unhappy with it so far: well, I hear you.  But in the scores of blogs expressing your unhappiness I haven't heard one of you come up with a better idea for a modernized Shazam.  Johns, at least, has dared to try. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

52 Things I Wonder About

1. Is there a Starman? Was there ever? If not, how can there be a Stargirl in the JLA?
2.       There’s an Atom in the big two-page spread battle between the JL and the JLA preview.  But there’s no Atom in the previewed posing shot of the JLA. Is the Atom there, but we can’t see him/her?
3.       So with the new slenderized Amanda Waller and Etta Candy, are there essentially no fat people in the DC?
4.       Where does Supergirl live? And who does her hair?
5.       If Guy Gardner, John Stewart, and Kyle Rayner are still Green Lanterns, when and why in the last five years did that happen?  Did the Guardians just pick a replacement for Hal every time he had a major concussion?
6.       Once we’re done suffering through Wolfman’s atrocious “Rosemary’s Baby” redux in Night Force, can Baron Winter join Justice League Dark?  Not that he’s much of a joiner, mind you.
7.       How long before we see Krypto?  Because certain concepts are simply unavoidable.
8.       Do Earth-1 villains have Earth-2 counterparts?  I don’t think we’ve seen any yet.
9.       Why doesn’t the CW put the Octopus Gang on “Arrow”?  I mean, you’d watch that, right?
10.   How did the Justice League get a satellite HQ, when most of them seem to barely get by in their own lives?
11.   Will Ted Kord be the Blue Beetle of Earth-2? Does Booster remember the Ted Kord of the old Earth-1?
12.   When does Morrison leave Action Comics?  Because I’d like to start reading it.
13.   There’s a new KGBeast Heroclix figure out.  Was there still a KGBeast?  Because that character barely made any sense 30 years ago, let alone now.
14.   Will we ever see a new Rainbow Raider?  Do we want to?
15.   When on Earth-1 did Plastic Man happen, and how?
16.   Do we know how Green Arrow got off the island?  Was it Aquaman?
17.   Where’s the Riddler?
18.   Will Wally West be the Kid Flash of Earth-2?
19.   Speaking of which: has Barry ever met Bart?  Because I can’t help thinking that meeting a grandson he’s never had and almost certainly won’t would crop up somewhere in his book. And if he’s aware that there is a “Kid Flash” in the Teen Titans, don’t you think he’d do something about that?
20.   If Cyborg is going to be pushed as a JL-level icon, shouldn’t he have his own title?  He doesn’t even have a supporting cast.  Or is he truly the Replacement Martian Manhunter, with no life/activities outside the League?
21.   When is someone going to deal with the fact that Damian is too old to be Batman’s son?
22.   When did Deadman die?  And howcum the JLDark can see him?
23.   Shouldn’t the existence of Supergirl be a much bigger deal in the DCU?  At least in Superman’s books?
24.   Why doesn’t the Red Hood’s hood cover his head? I mean… that was his original thing, you know?
25.   Does Batman know who killed his parents?
26.   Wonder Woman is evidence of the existence of the Greek Gods.  Does that have some impact on the world religious landscape?  Or at least enrollment in Greek classes?
27.   If the new GL is from Dearborne and Vibe is still from Detroit, is the JLA the new Detroit League? 
28.   How old is Nightwing? Really, he can’t be more than 20, can he?
29.   What is the relationship and division of jurisdiction between DEO and ARGUS?
30.   Do we know whether there is red kryptonite yet?
31.   Were you as impressed by the backup story in Batman #0 as I was?
32.   So, when exactly did the whole “Aquaman rules Atlantis” thing happen, and why?  We pretty much know zero about Atlantis, right?  Maybe it’s in Graves’ book.
33.   Are the Trinity the only heroes whose identities are the same on both Earths?
34.   So, obviously, there was a previous generation of ‘adventurers’, since Zatanna, Sargon, and Dr Occult all precede the Justice Leaguers.  I guess they just weren’t particularly public about it.
35.   Does/did J’onn J’onnz ever have a secret identity?
36.   Is there an Eclipso?
37.   More frighteningly… is there a Jean Loring?!
38.   Will Green Arrow and Hawkman become fast friends in the JLA? Because that would be great irony.
39.   So, do people know about Power Girl?  And if so, what do they know?  I can imagine Huntress going under the radar….but not Power Girl.
40.   Are there more than two Earths now? How do we know?
41.   Why did they ruin the Phantom Stranger by giving him an origin?  Now he’s not a stranger any more.
42.   Is there still a Star City, Stupidest City in America?
43.   Why does “Grifter” get a series rather than other Wildstorm types?  He doesn’t seem any more interesting.
44.   If ARGUS isn’t military then why are they using military personnel as their representatives?
45.   So does Dollman pre-date the Atom as a shrinking hero?
46.   Will Wonder Woman’s rooftop discussion with Superman and the targeting of Steve Trevor because of their relationship lead her to adopt a secret identity?  And if so, will she become the owner of a 1960s/70s vintage boutique?
47.   Hugo Strange—villain from the past or one we’ve not yet seen?
48.   And the LAST five questions YOU get to contribute….


Monday, September 10, 2012

Octopus Week #7: Arms and the Man

Green Arrow and Shaft Lad have the Octopus cornered in his hideout, where nothing can possibly go wrong.

Ollie, next time, follow Batman's example: always led the kid go in first.

Okay, almost nothing.  Even I can't blame Ollie for walking into this one.  Who expects an octopus in the living room?

You know, if I'd lost my virginity to an octopus while my not-dad was watching, 
I might have turned to drugs, too.

Green Arrow, using the power of comic book irony, saves himself (and Arrow Boy) with his tentacular suction-cup arrow.

Bet Michaels is feeling foolish about not having a weapon on him now. 
"Eight hells!  If only I had a sock with an eight-ball in it!!!"

Octavus gives up when he recognizes that it's Green Arrow. Because Green Arrow knows Aquaman.  And Topo.  Octopuses don't have a lot of heroes to look up to, you know.

The Octopus tries to make a getaway.

The "gang boss"? 
Even the kid who works with Green Arrow is embarrassed to call him "the Octopus".

But Ollie stops him with comic book irony.

Dude; the tentacle hat isn't even shielded?!  You suck, Michaels.

 I'm not even going to pretend to understand that.

The lesson of this story?

Don't put your faith in a disturbed man with a weird hat who attempts elaborate thematic jobs, sometimes on television, armed with nothing more than delusions of grandeur and a gang of eight guys in suits.

 Trust me, I know what I'm talking about here.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Octopus Week #6: Ollie, Ollie, Octo's Free

When we last left Al "Slippery" Michaels, now known as The Octopus, his entire gang had just been captured by Green Arrow while trying to rob a game show.

See, Al?  Shoulda listened to Octavus; shoulda stuck with the Octo-Alphabet Board method.  This is what comes of thinking for yourself.  This, and the costume.

"hey michaels me and the Arkham crew saw your boys on channel 8 last night; thanks for the great show, LMFAO; love, Dent #theoctopussucks"

Imagine for a minute that you're trying to make a name for yourself as a criminal, in fact, you're trying to jump the 'big divide" between be-suited gangster and costumed villain.  Now imagine how embarrassing it would be to have your entire gang caught in one fell swoop.

By Green Arrow.


Of course, when one habitually wears a tentacle hat one tends to become endured to embarrassment.

So, what's the next logical step for Michaels, then?   Is it....?

(A) Return to regular gangster hood, his pretensions toward villainy broken
(B) Eschew crime entirely and apply for work at DARPA
(C) Give in to his smoldering sexual attraction to Octavus that he's been sublimating into his criminal cos-play as "the Octopus" and move in together somewhere in New Venice;

But they did get a new apartment together, I note. Now they can do whatever they want, without worrying that one of the boys is going to walk in on them.

I began this series with so little respect for Michaels.  But at this point he shows himself a true VILLAIN by not even considering the first three, comparatively sane choices, and embracing the fourth, villainous one with every ounce of strength in his tentacles.  

Clearly, the television gameshow debacle has only pushed him to up his game and he not only swears vengeance, he PUBLISHES it in the newspapers.  Because that shit's on-line; it's searchable.  Now, that's commitment.

Well, jacta alea octonaria est; even layabout Ollie can't help but see the Octopus's threat in the Star City papers. 

Newpapers? Who knew that many people in Star City could actually read?

Ollie and the little red-headed boy spend the next couple day obsessing about their favorite subjects -- themselves -- instead of trying to find the guy with the tentacle hat who lives with an octopus in his living room.  Finally their ruminations are interrupted by the flaming shaft of the jism-signal.

I'm guess the commissioner's GA fleshlight was broken.

One of Green Arrow's best qualities is his willingness to rush headlong toward self-destruction. Go get 'em, Ollie.

 So, I can't decide: which is weirder, wearing the Octopus outfit in front of other people or wearing it when you are all alone, in the dark, by the side of a rural route?

So, Green Arrow is dead. So is that brat.  The Octopus wins after all.

 I wept when I realized how much pain would have been spared the world had this panel been true.

Actually, Green Arrow uses a smoke bomb to trick the Octopus into thinking he blew up the Arrowcar.  Because, well, because heroes are real jackasses who love to deceive and humiliate you before they capture you.  And it takes substantial planning and effort to humiliate someone who runs around in a tentacle hat.

I don't have the heart to comment on the whole "Arrowcar has eight letters" thing; you'll have to snark that one yourself.

Wait, not 'the Octogyro'?  Sorry, Michaels; you just failed Supervillainy 201

"Thank the octo-gods I spent all that gold bullion from the salvage ship on this Octocopter!  Otherwise, I would have had to have pulled out an automatic and shot Green Arrow and Little Boy Red!"

No, really; it's totally possible to hang on to the wheels of helicopter in full flight for a couple of miles like that.  In short sleeves.  Right, Josh?

I'm sure Ollie will make short work of the Octopus when they arrive at his hideout.  After all, he's got no gang to back him up any more, and no one back at the hideout to help him, right?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Octopus Week #5: The Octopus goes for some booty

Poor Ollie! It appears he's going to have to drag his butt off the sofa and go hunt for these eight-themed losers, the Octopus Gang.  Really, he's thinking, I've done the brainwork of deducing their crime pattern? MUST I go hunt them down, TOO?  Prowling; how tedious.

Sorry, Ollie; that's the way crimefighting works.  You can't find the crooks by just sitting your ass on the divan watching the television.

Unless, of course, you live in Star City.

Yes, the Octopus Gang, so careful to wear their Beagle Boys masks at their first, ill-fated ice show caper, have been emboldened by their recent wave of successful crimes (i.e., two of them) to such a degree that they decide to put a job in their street clothes on live television.

"Oh boy-- I'm on TV! I'll be able to watch this on DCUTube everyday for the rest of life in prison!"

Even Ollie can't pretend he doesn't know the Octopus is robbing the gameshow; I mean, the Kid in the Red Pajamas was standing right there when they came on the TV. Sigh!  Better get to the Arrowcar and down to the studio.

"H-how'd he know we'd be here?"  He didn't. He saw you on television.  Dumb-ass.  
You were born in Star City, weren't you?

FINALLY! We get to the EPIC battle between Ollie and the Octopus Gang!

Oh.  Or just that.  More like the Octopussy Gang, if you ask me.  The rest of the gang is captured between panels, I guess, since this is the next scene:


Friday, September 07, 2012

Octopus Week #4: "R" is for... Regatta!

So, under the nearly mindless direction of the octopus....

Oops; I meant this one:

... the Octopus Gang plots to rob a bullion-laden salvage ship.

Hey, when you're wearing a tentacle hat, you have to hire whatever help you can.

How the heck do villains find stuff like this out?!  Must subscribe to the Twitter feed of every two-bit treasure hunter in America.  "Boss!  Old Man Simons just found a fifty-cent piece with a metal detector down at Starfish Beach!" "Forget it, boys; we're after bigger game: SILVER DOLLARS."

So, the plot is to get on board by disguising themselves as a college crew team participating in a regatta, and fake an emergency so the salvagers can "rescue" them.

Hey, wait a minute... .  A crew team manned by guys who are clearly beyond college years gets picked up by a boatful of rope-wielding sailors who've been out at sea for weeks on end and... OMG I TOTALLY RENTED THIS MOVIE!

It was called "STROKE!", I think.

"Those were guns in your shorts?! DAMN!  That's disappointing on several levels."

Unfortunately for the Octopus Gang, the salvage ship happens to have the only telegraph operator who doesn't know the phrase "SOS".

Pictured: Twitter 1.0

Fortunately for the Octopus Gang, the "help" he manages to summon is...

...Green Arrow and that Kid in the Yellow Hat.

Continuing their tradition of fantastic getaways (An eight ball!  A Studebaker!), the Octopus Gang skin-dives their way to safety.

"omg even got the loot this time screw you dent #2facesucks"

By the way, add that to the 1001 Ways to Defeat Green Arrow: skindiving. 

 I find his logic unfathomable.

See, now this is where Green Arrow, even I must confess, shows that he is a true superhero.  Even though he's a loser, with an unworkable schtick in a ridiculous outfit in the city with the lowest IQ in the DCU, Green Arrow has the one power that distinguishes real superheroes from run-of-the-mill crimefighters and police:

he thinks like a supervillain. Because no one is his right mind would be able to discern this imbecilic pattern from among the myriad details in any series of robberies.  In this way, I am forced to concede, Green Arrow is in Batman's league.

In fact, Green Arrow's so good at it, once he's figured out the pattern, all the fun is gone out of the chase, and he longer even feels the need to pry his butt off the sofa.

Um... Ollie?  Take a hint: Batman and Robin do not wander around the living rooms of Wayne Manor in costume, with the curtains open.

"Oh, yes, Henry VIII; it's also so... so obvious now.  Yawn."  Yeah, at this point, if the Octopus Gang wants to grab Ollie's attention with their tentacles of crime, they are pretty much going to have to reach right into his living room... .