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.