Wednesday, April 21, 2021

How I Learned (Today) to Love Max Lord

I'll happily confess: I've never been a fan of Max Lord. Or, as they started calling him when he became overtly evil, "Maxwell Lord".  

Gods know, WW84 was a non-ideal film but I give them credit for making Max a cheesy '80s hustler again.
As such he pairs perfectly with Booster Gold, another cheesy '80s hustler.

Many people remember Max fondly as the paterfamilias of the Keith Giffen's "Bwahaha" League of the '80s.  

Whether you LIKE the concept of the Justice League as comedy:
they made it work.

They forget that he was always manipulative, shady, and amoral.

In his first appearance, Max was behind the terrorists who attacked the UN during the '87 League's formative mission.  Nobody remembers that.

But JL became JLU and got warmer and fuzzier and wackier, and so Max had to be redeemed.

Oh, Max and his wacky, terribly drawn hijinks!

As Max became more beloved due to the hijinks he presided over, the writers gave him an out (or two?) for his shadier behavior, like, he was being influenced by some evil alien machine or such. Regular comic book stuff.

Was it... Brother Eye? It wasn't but, I don't really care and
you don't either.

Aw, poor Max!

And of course there was... The Invasion.

People gush endlessly about "the original Crisis" (by which they mean "Crisis on Infinite Earths", which, they don't know because they read nothing written before they were born, was named after the ACTUAL original crisis and the 97 others that followed it) and how it changed the DCU FOREVER and NOTHING WAS EVER AS IMPORTANT.

Which is hogwash.  It was just another reboot, the kind of thing DC did without fanfare to individual books all the time.  

Pictured: old school fanfare.

Read Batman during that era; you will notice next to no difference between pre- and post-Crisis Batman.  Some figures got more thoroughly rebooted than others (e.g., Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash).  And some characters that used to live in multiversal suburbs moved into the big city. DC made a big deal about this being their chance to do Something Different but having given too little thought as to what that would be, they wound up simply doing Everything Again.

You know what REALLY changed the DCU?  The Invasion, which happened a mere three years later.  In many ways, it was the opposite of COIE.  COIE was a long drawn out overcomplicated incoherent mess with an ersatz Big Bad who might as well have been Agamemno or King Kull.  Frankly, I think Barry intentionally killed himself just to get away from it all for a while (and obviously the rest did him good, because he's had two television series and a new movie coming out). 

And finally has the legs he deserves.

Invasion, on the other hand
, was a tightly plotted three-issue series which explained most of how the DCU now worked (and would work 1000 year in the future!) where the threat came from pre-existing DCU entities (all the bad guys species of outer space) with sensible political motivations for wanting to attack Earth (specifically, that Earth positively sweats out dangerously powerful superheroes). 

Somehow, the dirty stinking Rannies were not among them.

It introduced the "meta-gene" as the cause of most superpowers and explained the future world of the Legion of Super-Heroes elegantly. It's full of real, powerful but understated moments; the Denial of Arani, the death of Scott Fischer, Buddy Baker versus the Thanagarian bomb, J'onn's final trick, and THE GENE BOMB, which almost killed Max Lord.

Max succumbing to the Gene Bomb, which was like COVID for superheroes, except everyone got infected at the same time.

People, including Max, in meta-gene comas.

But it DIDN'T kill him. It 'activated his meta-gene'. making his mind-control explicit; his having had it operating before unconsciously at a low level became the explanation for how he formed and reigned in the members of the Justice League.  

And that was the beginning of the end. Because one of the many truisms of comics is: mind-controllers are (almost always) evil.  It's the ultimate power and, ultimately, it corrupts the user.  

Including her, too. "I know what you did, Imra!"

Plus, it was too good an opportunity for the Serious Comic Book Writers of the dark '90+s to pass up.  They loved nothing more than perverting the light-hearted or wacky elements of past comics into sordid grimdark versions of themselves (this would show how Adult the writers were).

Remember when Kevin Smith made Stanley (& His Monster), from one of history's most innocent series, into the victim of satanic child abuse by his own grandfather?  Because god forbid anyone should not think of Kevin Smith as a Serious Adult Writer.

With his mind-controlled meta-gene now active (and amplified through a storyline or two) and being synonymous with the wackiest version of the Justice League, Max might have well as had a target painted on his back for These Serious Writers.  So they had him go not just Full Evil but Scenery-Devouring Evil, and shooting in the head Blue Beetle (the most comedic member of the Bwahaha League):


Take THAT, Innocence! So THERE, Fun!  This was followed by Evil Max Lord taking over Superman. Even if it makes no sense, even if you can probably think of 17 characters off the top of your head who could nerf Superman or make his possession by Lord irrelevant or useless, it doesn't matter. Symbolically and canonically, Superman is The Ultimate Weapon and he -- or anyone who controls him-- Can't Be Stopped.

Screen-capped, thank god, but not stopped.

Which leads directly to 'the snap' (about which I complained recently);

"Make a hawk a dove;
Stop a war with lo-
Oh. Okay, well, I guess that works, too."

Wonder Woman, having 'no choice', killed Max Lord to prevent him from using Superman to take over the world (or whatever Max's Giant Secret Plan was).  This gave the Serious Writers the opportunity to permanent Sully WONDER WOMAN, the princess of truth and love and understanding. What a coup!  Eat your heart out, Dr. Light and Sue Dibny!  

This (kinda) final storyline for Max cemented him as "a Wonder Woman foe", even though this is pretty much the only interaction between them.  This is how Max came to be the villain in the WW84 movie and a figure in her upcoming Heroclix set:

Once you become a supervillain you have to wear the gloves.
It's a union thing.

So, because I can't stand Max Lord (especially since his use as a villain symbolizes everything that was wrong with the Dark Age of comics), I looked at his figure's powers and abilities to see what other character I might put on his dial.

And then it hit me. 

I knew who I would have replaced Max with, and once I knew that I no longer felt the need to. Because I realized that Max, effectively, was:


That's what the character was called in the Golden Age, when he was one Wonder Woman's most consistent foes.  The Greeks simply called him "Δόλος"  (Deception).  Even if none of the Serious Writers realized it, they were step by step turning Max Lord, huckster, into the modern version of the Duke of Deception.  

The lesson? NEVER throw away your "Who's Who" binders.

I might have made the association myself sooner if I'd actually gone to SEE the WW84. I haven't yet; um, there was quarantine and we went to Colorado to visit David's folks and, um, the dog ate my homework.  But in WW84 the object that empowers Max Lord is mentioned as possibly being a creation of ... Dolos, the god of Deception.


John C said...

Regarding Crisis on Infinite Earths, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of Green Lantern #143 (from the early '80s, if any of the other runs got that high) for the letters page. I believe that it's the first public statement on what would eventually become (to be fair) the first company-wide crossover event that certainly changed comic book marketing forever, even though it's just a two-issue story iterated to run out the clock.

While I do like connecting Max to the Duke of Deception (seriously, it's a great catch), I wish DC could commit to grifter characters. They have had Max, Booster, and even Ralph Dibny--though fans seem to like to pretend that wasn't his original concept--and probably others, but it's apparently not feasible to just make that their thing. And of course, they also now have the Wildstorm character named Grifter, but I haven't the foggiest idea why that would be his name.

I admit that I haven't seen WW84 either. I wasn't interested to go to theaters, and the HBO Max value proposition still seems miserable, especially as DC Entertainment rearranges their slate to be things that aren't holding my interest. So, I get it.

Anonymous said...


The Duke of Deception is a villain from the dimmest recesses of my memory; I saw a reprinted page or two of an old "Wonder Woman" comic and there the duke was. Working for Ares, using his illusions to "turn into" a pig, that kind of thing. I wonder what he's been up to.

I think you're right on the money, the Duke of Deception's latest deal has been disguising himself as Max Lord.

Scipio said...

"Ralph Dibny--though fans seem to like to pretend that wasn't his original concept"

Bryan L said...

Thank you for the support of Invasion. I've always appreciated the fact that it explained SO MUCH of the DC Universe, particularly the United Planets. I know the metagene has stuck with us (as it SHOULD), but the whole "seeding the UP" fell by the wayside and got sort of swept away, and it really should not have.

MarkAndrew said...

Wonder Woman 2 was definitely.. an experience. It captured the "C list title from 1975 that Gerry Conway wrote on the toilet in 14 minutes" vibe more than any piece of live action superhero media I've seen. Oddly, this is a net positive in my book.

I was thinking I started reading Invasion but couldn't finish but now I am 90% sure that was War of the Gods. I should read Invasion.

(Also I know it's a 15 year old post but "Dead of the Manga Kahn School of Dramatic Monologue" is pretty darn funny.)

ShellyS said...

This is brilliant. Thank you. I stopped reading DC for nearly a decade when Supergirl was killed during Crisis (I never did read the rest of that series), and didn't learn about JLI until it was over. I did read the series in which Max killed Booster, but only read about Diana killing Max, which is right up there with Kara Zor-El's death as one of DC's greatest mistakes for me.

I did see WW84, being an HBO subscriber, and while it can't compete with the first WW movie, it's a pleasant enough film and Max works fine for me as a character, though that might be mostly because Pedro Pascal played him.

Anyway, this post filled in a lot of the history of Max for me and makes sense of something that never fully made sense to me.

Scipio said...

"but the whole "seeding the UP" fell by the wayside"

Along with the Legion as a whole.

Scipio said...

You're welcome, Shelly. I actually have HBO Max and didn't realize that's where WW84 was, so now I will watch it.

Scipio said...

"I know it's a 15 year old post"
Thanks! And I meant every month. I could write a month of posts about how and in exactly what ways COIE was bad, but, frankly, I didn't want to waste that much effort and attention on it.

Scipio said...

"for the letters page"
I did; I really don't think a "we should tidy up continuity some day" throwaway reply five years before COIE qualifies as especially significant.

John C said...

I like to draw attention to that letter column, because it shows that the motivation was less a need to streamline continuity so that fans won't be confused (since none of us found it confusing), but rather to stop snarky comments about writers not researching their characters.

To me, at least, the petty tone (there are no fun-loving teenagers in my DCU, and some day I'll make that official policy, kid!) explains a lot about the series itself. As opposed to Invasion!, which is something of a creation myth for the Legion and an origin for an entire "generation" of super-beings (the final number was something like a sixth of the population having the metagene, as I recall), Crisis on Infinite Earths spent basically two years making promises--the Monitor was around for a while--to the reader and quickly breaking them, because there wasn't much of a plan past making sure that Binky (and yes, his buddies, too) were gone and shutting down the books that weren't making enough money.

This kind of makes me mourn that weird Kali Yuga crossover we were promised after Invasion! that never materialized. That probably would've been more fun than War of the Gods and Armageddon: 2001, which seem to have absorbed different aspects of the idea, probably accidentally. But even if it wasn't going to be fun, that sounded like another crossover where there was a complete story in mind with a goal, rather than just a "make it up as we go along" attitude of the earlier two crossovers.

Anonymous said...

The letters page from GL 143 (good rememberfying John C):

The editor's complaint seems to be keeping track of what's in the mainstream DC universe and what isn't -- how do you reconcile Jack Kirby's future with the Legion of Superheroes? -- and rather than establishing some sort of rules that keep them separate, they eventually went the route of trying to incorporate them all into a single timeline that in NO WAY fatally contradicts itself as soon as you devote any thought to it. Thus, as Travis Morgan's jet was entering the Lost World of Skartaris over the north pole, he flew over both Santa Claus's and Superman's houses.

Chris said...

I thought it was a shame that 1988 Max Lord and 1978 Funky Flashman never seemed to coexist in continuity.