Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Haf-and-Haf Controversy

Well, I have avoided it since the beginning of this blog, but now it's ineluctable; it's time for me to weigh on the Haf-and-Haf controversy. Which, if you aren't familiar, goes as follows...

In 1931, Chester Gould created a comic strip about "Dick Tracy", a hard-nosed and intelligent detective in an unnamed metropolis, who fought many colorful gangsters and criminals.  Enormously popular, Dick Tracy was adapted repeatedly into various media, and collections of his early adventures in the late 1930s helped bring readers to the new medium of standalone 'comic books', rather than just newspaper 'comic strips'.

For Dick, it was a Tuesday.

Although Dick himself was painfully straightforward, his surrounding world was bizarre, violent, and unforgiving.  

"Well, I DID lose my tie clip, now that you mention it. 
The one Tess bought me, too."

For many decades until his retirement in 1977, Gould churned out a never-ending parade of weird (and improbably named) foes for Tracy.  While these foes frequently had convenient first-level characteristics (it's not hard to imagine, for example, what Tracy villains "Flatop" and "Pruneface" look like), those were often coupled with oddly unrelated quirks: Mumbles was a guitarist and recording artist, Mr Bribery had a fondness for roses and shrunken heads, and The Brain was never seen without his ocarina.

And the Brain Hat. But that goes without saying.

Yes, long before manatees started working for Seth McFarlane, they were hard at work for Chester Gould, generating random characters and situations for Dick Tracy to deal with.

But in 1966, Gould created a character using someone other than the manatees as inspiration:

Haf-and Haf.

This is not original Gould art. Somehow it's even more terrifying.

In the internet age, this shameless rip-off of Batman villain Two-Face would have been loudly damned the second he was introduced.  But Gould created Haf-and-Haf in 1966, when fandom was disjointed, had no collective medium like the internet, and Harvey Dent hadn't been seen in comics for 17 some years.  

When asked about the, ahem, similarities in a later interview, Gould said he wasn't aware of Two-Face and had been inspired by the 'half and half' diary product. Which, clearly, is the most ridiculous and patent lie a cartoonist has ever uttered.  

Spend some time trying to figure out how he wound up with the left half of his face in the acid if he was the driver of the truck.  I'll wait.

Just like Two-Face, Haf-and-Haf's origin has him scarred in an accident with acid.  And, even though Haf-and-Haf has no obsession--or even interest in--the number 2, his name is:

REALLY, now.
TWOla TWOzon?! Ugh; how obvious could it be?  The only reason to name him that is if Two-Face is your inspiration.  

Also, Batman and Dick Tracy--both modern detectives in a big city fighting weird criminals--were commonly compared. No one can believe that Gould was unaware of Batman's rogue's gallery.  In fact, this was 1966 when live-action Batman began on television and EVERYONE was paying attention to the Caped Crusader.  In February of 1996, this episode aired:

The villain was a female stage magician.

"Stop taunting me, Evol! You know I abhor violence!
All I ever wanted to be was a poor, but honest, magician!"

Guess who Haf-and-Haf's love interest was?  That's right: Zelda the Great, a high diver at the same circus where he was a sideshow attraction.  You know darned well Gould was tuned in, same bat-time, same bat-channel, every week.

Everything about her was terrifying.
But especially the cocktail dress.
Despite everything I've said and all the evidence, there is one fact on the other side of the argument that's hard to ignore: Chester Gould, an odd duck even at his best,  was... not always, um, all there.  In his later years, he sometimes wasn't sure what decade he was in.  And in 1966, his 'Moon Period" was already in full swing. Dick Tracy, who historical fought gangsters like Big Boy and Flattop, was now flying around in air car and his son was marrying "Moon Maid" one of the humanoid creatures who lived in Moon Valley. On the Moon. So... you know.  If there was anyone who could have created Haf-and-Haf without remembering accurately where the inspiration came from, it would be Gould.

Haf-and-Haf, unlike, well, virtually all Dick Tracy villains, actually survived his Gould-era encounters with Tracy.  That meant when Max Allan Collins took over the strip in 1978, eager to bring back some classic foes or their legacy characters, Haf-and-Haf was one of the first.

Whatever Gould may or may not have understood about the similarities between Haf-and-Haf and Two-Face, Collins was completely aware.  Collins, after all, is the comic book writer who gave us the tire-stealing 1-800 version of Jason Todd, whose father was killed by Two-Face.

"Dear Diary; today I cited 'created Jason Todd' as evidence that someone knew what he was doing."

Collins himself deemed Gould "innocent" of plagiarism in creating Haf-and-Haf. As he said in 2010, 
"I questioned Chet about Haf-and-Haf and Two-Face. He claimed, convincingly, that he didn't know about the Batman character. He paid zero attention to Batman, in fact paid little attention to the work of other cartoonists, living in his own TRACY-centric world. Certainly he considered Batman an imitation of Tracy, basically Tracy and Junior in costumed drag.  He told me this sitting at his breakfast table in his kitchen and showed me the Half-and-Half creamer containere he was using on his cereal to demonstrate where the idea came from."
[If you are using half and half on breakfast cereal, you are definitely not right in the head.]

That's probably why Collins didn't hesitate to bring back Haf-and-Haf.  Collins at least gave Haf-and-Haf a new angle; thanks to his circus background he was now an animal trainer. Training animals for crime of course.

Guy who looks like Two-Face uses trained crows to steal purses.
Yep; sounds like Dick Tracy, alright.

I remember this version of Haf-and-Haf, because I was a kid reading 'the funnies' at the time.  And even then I remember not being able to wrap my head around what a blatant rip-off he was of Two-Face (one of my favorite Batman villains).  

You know, "Two-Tone" Tuzon woulda worked; ya coulda just left it at that.
I found the style of the late artist Rick Fletcher mesmerizing. Still do.

I'm pretty sure that that version of Haf-and-Haf eventually got shot (to death).

Sure looks like it. But he gets better.

After Collins left Dick Tracy in 1992, there was a, um. non-ideal interregnum where the strip was written and drawn by ...others.  But in 2011,  the strip underwent a dramatic refurbishment under the new creative team of talented uber-fans Joe Staton and Mike Curtis, and I've been reading it daily ever since. I don't always understand or agree with what's going on it, but, hey, it's Dick Tracy, it doesn't need my understanding or approval and if I sass it, it just might appear in a cloud of gun smoke and shoot me in the face. 

BUT.... Staton and Curtis have now done the unthinkable (yet inevitable). They have brought back Haf-and-Haf.  

Tuzon seems to be talking to himself about fate, with a real-time interactive split-personality. Imagine!

And here is where it gets... complicated.

Staton and Curtis have re-styled Haf-and-Haf as... Split-Face.  Under ordinary circumstances, this would be an unpardonable lunge toward making the character a Two-Face clone.  But, this is the world of Dick Tracy and there are no 'ordinary circumstances.'

There has never been a Split-Face in the Dick Tracy strips...but there was one in Dick Tracy films.  Split-Face was the serial killer slasher in the first "Dick Tracy" film (1945).  

You get points if you remember the time Mike Mazurki played Ginger Grant.

Acknowledging the cinema Tracy as part of their world, Staton & Curtis are basically merging the characters of Split-Face and Haf-and-Haf.

The real mystery is why screens in the Tracy-verse are always shaped like nightmasks.

On the one hand, this is an absolutely brilliant way of re-inventing Tula Tuzon in a more usable way, while employing elements already part of Dick Tracy's history.  Staton & Curtis are extremely inventive in re-introducing as many parts of Tracy's history back into their world in a refreshed, coherent way as they can. Dick-Tracy-coherent, I mean.  Their work at world-(re)building is truly impressive and because of it Dick Tracy is the only comic strip I follow.

On the other hand, this is BY FAR the most explicit Two-Face ripoff of all time.  S&C don't have Gould's excuse of having no idea what they are doing. They aren't following in Collin's footsteps by trying to take the character in a direction away from Two-Face.  They are, in fact, quite knowingly shoving the character toward duplicating Two-Face as much as possible (Haf-and-Haf was never shown as mentally unstable before, let alone as a split personality).

And, despite all this writing about the controversy, I am still... of two minds on the subject.  Which may be appropriate but still gives me a headache.

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

DC's Tom King Teases Beating of Dead Horse

"DC's Tom King Teases [stupid overdone fanboy trope here]"  seems to have become the default headline in my feed:

Look, I have written before that long-running iconic characters have certain shifts in emphasis that they undergo every generation or so: for example, Batman goes from dark loner to pater familias of a large group of younger heroes, or Superman shifts from being focused on his humanity to being focused on his Kryptonian heritage. It's a necessary adaptation for such characters and I get that.

But this is not that.  This is not a persona-cycle.  This is just going to the back to the well of Periodic Fake-Out Stories: hero dies/is replaced; so-and-so isn't dead after all; X and Y are finally going to hook up; longtime friends/enemies are now enemies/friends.

The Well is a place of sadness and deception.

Tom King (and other writers): just... no.  Stop it.  You're not fooling anyone.  Well, that may not be true: you can sometimes fool newer readers, ones who don't remember the last time a writer wrote the story you're about to write.  But you're not fooling ME.  

In the much (and easily) derided Silver Age, writers (or their godlike editors) knew how to handle such tropes.  They either reversed them by the end of the story or they put them in so-called "imaginary stories" (we would call them 'non-canon' or 'not-in-continuity' or just 'elseworlds').  

That second story is the one we live in, by the way.

They didn't try to fool us (or themselves) long-term that whatever change they were making was permanent.  Frankly, the creators who spewed out all the imbecilic but imaginative crap during the Silver Age had far more respect for the readers -- most of whom were children -- than modern writers do for current readers -- most of whom are adults.  

Chew on that for a while.  I plan to, while I wait for Tom King's run on Batman to end.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Aquaman the Movie

I was going to try to do a big post about how fun the Aquaman movie is, and all the parts of it I love, and about how even the dumb bits I was able to shrug off, and how you should see it repeatedly, as I will.

Or do a painstaking analysis of director Wan's many choices in storytelling, mythmaking, and characterization that make the film a joy.

I'm going to do neither.

I'm just going to say that the reason thing film will succeed where others haven't is because:

it's a comic book.

Wan didn't try to rise above that, or be more real, or gritty (as too many DC films have done); neither did he wink and nod and undercut all the serious situations with goofiness as way of parodying the very art form that the film is based on (as too many Marvel films have done).

Wan just unapologetically made the biggest, brightest, boldest comic book he could about Aquaman.  And I loved it.

When you see THAT scene, I guarantee you some of you will get pregnant.
And you will name the child Arthur.  Even if it's a girl.

Friday, December 14, 2018

12 things I like about: Martian Manhunter #1

1. John is black.
'Bout time.

2. Engaging and varied panel layout.
"Over the hill". Oh, Diane!

3. John's butt.
Dayum; sign me up!

4. Martian sex.
Oh. Um.... never mind.

5. J'onn is insane.
Why do we worry about Superman losing control when that's pretty much J'onn's STARTING point...?

6. Diane Meade
I want to marry Diane's hair.

7. Samachson and Certa.

Trust me: details are not their strength.

8. Super-physical ignition plagues.
How long before this is a band name?

9. Detecting and deducing.
Spaceman Lizard Tracks. ANOTHER great band name.

10. John is weird.
Diane could make a fortune doing reaction videos.

11. Martian Social Forms.
Megacycles. Heh.

12. Marschitecture.
It's like the Jetsons and Whoville had a baby.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Gunn Takes Aim at Superman

Ugh. Apparently, scriptwriter/director/producer James Gunn wasn't content with taking Marvel characters, known for taking themselves too seriously, and re-making them as goofy clowns.  

In fairness, it does seem exactly like something Chris Pratt himself would do.

That's fine, perhaps.  For Marvel.

But now he's zeroed in on DC characters, known for holding themselves to a higher moral standard, and turning that on its head.  Yes, James Gunn is making a move about the tritest trope in comics: an Evil Superman.

It's been done. Ad nauseum. And with HATS.

Oh, sure, they aren't CALLING him Superman; we all know how THAT would go over in the courts.

Do NOT tug on Superman's copyright.  Just ask Billy Batson.

But all the signs are there in the trailer for BrightBurn.  A barren farm couple wishes for a child and one arrives from the skies in a rocket, which they hide in the barn.  As it grows, this alien child develops super-strength, super-speed, the ability to fly, heat vision, an affinity for red capes and... EVILNESS.

Super-sewing develops later in adolescence, it seems.

It's already being touted as 'a radical new genre': the superhero movie as HORROR.  Because Chronicle doesn't count, I guess. Or any of the other 1000 films/shows where someone gets superpowers and uses them for evil.  No, I guess it only counts when you can clearly recognize the superhero being ripped off and when it's the good-est superhero of all: Superman.

An Evil Superman! Such a modern radical cutting edge concept! Without the vision of James Gunn, who could have thought it before? Except perhaps... ever generation of Superman writers, ever, in every medium.

Simply wearing that much eye-shadow counts as federal crime.

"Coffee.Black. NOW."
He was originally from OUR earth, in case you forgot.

Look. I really like horror movies. And maybe this will be good one.  But was it really necessary to ride Superman's cape to make it?  If you insist on doing that, the LAST thing you have to right to do is make any claim of originality in that idea.