Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Let's Talk About Spider-Man

Well, aren't Spider-Man fans in a tizzy lately?

I noticed this only because nearly every comic book vlogger seems to have simultaneously lost their cool--

perhaps I need a better phrase--

lost their minds over What They've Done to Poor Peter Parker Lately.

They, currently, is comparatively new writer Zeb Wells.  He gave Spider-Man a new status quo that started with a bang.  Actually, it started in mediās rēs, with that bang as the mysterious background incident behind the status quo.  I read the first handful of issues and, frankly, was very impressed.

I bet you didn't see that one coming.

You read that right.  Not impressed with the new status quo per se -- I couldn't care less about Spider-Man's love life -- but impressed with how well it was written. Spider-Man was an interesting, if flawed character. His villains were multidimensional, his world interconnected and coherent, the supporting characters realistic and independent in their motivations.  Wells work did a very good job of handling a situation that often trips up DC writers; he seemed to understand how created situations that emphasized, yes, having superpowers is cool, but it doesn't in fact solve every problem or most problems or ... any problem, really.  YOU do that.  Or not.  And that's a really great place for Spider-Man to be, narratively.

Psst. No one ever called them "long underwear characters".

In fact, that's where Spider-Man STARTED.  Stan Lee And Company knew what they were doing when they created Spider-Man and that's exactly the point they were trying to make with the character.  That tack (and other similar ones) is part of what helped Marvel distinguish itself from its Distinguished Competition, as they used to call it.  It was part of Marvel's niche, its competitive advantage.  Spider-Man was a superhero who powers not only didn't solve his personal problems, they aggravated them.  The Fantastic Four were a dysfunctional family (if you ask me).  Thor was a god, but hobbled (literally) by forced incarnation as a crippled man.  The Hulk's superpowers came at the price of a loss of self-control. You get the idea.

And what lesson did we learn from this today, Pter?

Or, at least, if you do, you're ahead of many contemporary Marvel fans, it seems.  They are currently rioting about the same thing they ALWAYS rioting about with Spider-Man, every time this happens:

Why does Marvel hate Peter Parker? Why won't Marvel let Peter Parker be happy?

Honestly, it would be funny if it weren't so sad. 

There's zero mystery. Peter Parker wasn't designed to Be Happy.  It is not his literary function and never has been. Honestly, I say --and praising Marvel isn't something I do unthinkingly-- good on Marvel for now, as always, making the point that: being good doesn't ensure that you will be rewarded.  It's an important message. You do good because it is right to do so and there is moral satisfaction in that, but riches and (a beautiful movie actress's or even just the public's) love do not logically follow.   THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE POINT OF SPIDER-MAN.  It's a difficult, very adult message to try to convey, especially to the original audience of children.  But Marvel took that hill and held it.

Thanks to Zeb Wells, they still are.  There are lot of Spider-Fans who identify enough with Peter Parker, however, that they are incensed when he doesn't do well and accuse Marvel of "abandoning the character's development."  

Ahem, how does one put it politely? No ****, Sherlock.  

There are a lot of artforms you can seek out if you want Character Development, but expecting it (at least on a permanent basis) for IP that spits out monthly stories for five plus decades is disingenuous. Nobody wants to see THEIR version of Spider-Man (or Power Girl or whoever your fixation is) set back to a starting place, having, as a reader, stuck with them through all their struggles and watched them slowly start to get their lives together and get ahead. But comic book icons don't have character arcs; they have persona cycles.  Eventually the arc will bend 'round again.

Meanwhile, yes, YOUR version of Peter Parker has had the rug pulled out from under him again.  Well, if you want sappy, overly-optimistic comic books, where heroes suffer potentially debilitating tragedies (such as the destruction of their home planet or witnessing the murder of their parents or of being an apparently-totally-straight woman growing up on isolated island with nothing but other women) but still go on to live happy, successful lives anyway, where the public loves them and they have satisfying romantic involvements and perhaps build families ... there's a company that publishes those.  You're the one who picked the company that boldly made the tough decision to a harder, less pleasant message with their characters.  

"You knew I was a scorpion when you agreed to let me ride on your back.  It's in my nature."

Spider-Man isn't designed to be happy and stay married to a super-model. No matter how long it's allowed to go on, it's just a fanfic fever dream, but which the character and the company inevitably wake up from.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Trinity (and a great many topics it touches on)

 Let's talk about How Bad An Idea This Is and In What Ways.

I have a feeling we won't be the only people.

This... creature, in case you do not already know. is the (theoretical) daughter of Wonder Woman. Or, as the Crimes Against Comics Division calls her, "Tom King's rap sheet, page #74."

Tom King is DC"s current exemplar of the Hot Young Auteur From The Outside World. It's one of DC's real-world tropes.  Such a person: 

has some sort of outside credentials the company thinks brings gravitas; 

is imagined by DC to have a following of readers independent of the characters they are writing; 

is give near carte-blanche to upset the applecart and take characters in New (unwise) Directions; 

usually has a distinct style that they adapt characters to, rather than the other way around.  

He's not the first and you can probably list them better than I. As the song lyrics go, "Such as —Wwhat d'ye call him, Thing'em-bob, and likewise—Never-mind;  and 'St,'st, 'st, and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who; but the task of filling up the blanks, I'd rather leave to you."

So, aa a dear friend of mine once said, "Let's start with your clothes."

I can only assume her civilian job is as a yoga teacher.

Thank you, Judges. Expertly put.

I only wish Blockade Boy were still with us to give his reaction to this monstrosity. Tom King mentioned in an interview that he used his 12-year-old daughter's interest in Wonder Woman as a reference point (just about the only positive thing he did say). Well, it sure looks like a 12-year-old designed that costume. "Y'know what's even COOLER than a magic lasso? THREE magic lassos!" 

After all, a girl can never have too many ropes.

Yeah, no; she LITERALLY has three magic lassos. What could be more practical in battle? One for the left hand, one for the right hand, and one for, um.... Let's play it safe and say "one for dragging".

I'm just going to assume her inevitable death by Isadora Duncan ia a future Fixed Point in time.

I'll leave aside the stupidity of that, which needs no belaboring. I will take a moment to linger on her hilarious (and surely dangerously sharply-pointed) heart-shaped breast-plate (which will CERTAINLY be lamp-shaded as such at SOME point,

"She wears her heart on her sleeve.
Well, maybe not her sleeve, exactly...."
< panel of her torso in chiaroscuro>
See, I can write bad comic book dialog just like the pros.

Trinity = Love, you see. Oh. Oh, I'm sorry, did I forget to mention her name? It's TRINITY.  You know, like in Christianity's creakily literal interpretation of Genesis 18-19 (et sim.)

Obviously, we have Augustine to blame for this, 
Aristotle would have slapped him silly had he been there to do so.

It is stunningly tone-deaf that (even) Tom King would have Greek Olypmianist Diana give her daughter a name (1) that's an English abstract noun and (2) so inextricably associated with an incompatible (and historically hostile) religion. Even a comic book geek should realize that's the primary evocation of the word "trinity".

Maybe there simply isn't any "Christianity" per se in the DCU. But there is always Christmas, right, so doesn't there have to be Christianity? Otherwise, how would machine gunners lure Wonder Woman onto roottops?

But in using the name King is trying, of course, to evoke the "DC Trinity" (i.e., Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman).  Which, well, I hate to have to resort to such an over-used and trite modernism as "cringe". But.. it's cringe.  Cringe-y? Let's go old school and call it "mortifying awkward to outsiders " (which I suppose is why people coined the term "cringey").  

The use of "trinity" to describe DC's three tip-top-tier heroes has always been tacky, due to its religious associations. But I've usually turned a blind eye to it for several reasons.  

First, there are so many people who don't know any better and don't think anything of it. I don't actually encourage the dominance of the shadow of historical Christianity over modern culture and thought, and it's an example of people kind of forgetting what 'trinity' originally meant, well... so be it, I guess.  I don't consider its usage "sacrilegious"; it's just tacky.  

Second, call me old-fashioned, but I'm still conscious of how artificial a construct DC's "trinity" is.  Real world references to it are one thing but any in-universe references are painfully forced.  The "trinity", remember is entirely a post-Crisis concept, in which DC decided to elevate a re-launched Wonder Woman into a tier which previously included only Superman and Batman (and by extension Robin). I am not saying this was a bad idea, per se, but it comes with challenges.  Much of post-Crisis disappointment in what's been done with Wonder Woman stems from how the bar has been raised for the character, perhaps beyond a point the concept can reach.  

Besides, DC blew its chance to do the obvious in a post-Superfriends era: create a QUATERNITY, with both Wonder Woman and Aquaman raised to the top tier.  

DC, you had a generation (or more) prepped from childhood to view this a quarternity of top-tier iconic heroes and you wasted the opportunity. You are incredibly good at wasting opportunities.

They are kinda/sort slow-rolling that nowadays, but Aquaman is sometimes as much "over there" as he is "up there" in the heroic hierarchy.  I suspect the lingering hand of Pope Innocent III, whose Fourth Council of the Lateran rejected the concept of the Quaternity in 1213.

Who would make an awesome addition to Aquaman's rogues gallery.
Kind of like an updated Torpedo Man.
"Continue to enjoy your graceless state!"

Third, there's not really a much better term. "Triumvirate" doesn't work because that refers to three men  etymologically, and to political rulers, a very bad connotation indeed.  "Trio" is a musical group, "triad" a musical chord", "troika" is too Commie-sounding, "ternion" is AWESOME but no one without pince-nez is going to use it, etc.

"Trigon", unfortunately, was already taken.

But, as stated, while I'll endure its use in our world, its use in-universe is unacceptable.  And the idea that Wonder Woman would name her daughter that?  Honestly, it's the most "cringey" fan-ficish thing I've seen since I don't know when.

I'd have to give it some thought.

Add to this the "me-too!-ism" of it all. Superman and Batman have children now, so Wonder Woman has to!  Because rather than have her, gods forbid, be her own person, we have to have her mimic Superman and Batman in order to remain at their level.   

It's a modern day mutation of the Dynastic Centerpiece Model, you see. We still WANT Kid Sidekicks but we feel bad nowadays about heroes picking them up at circus fire-sales, dressing them in bright colors, and throwing them at gun-wielding gangsters.  Plus, so many readers nowadays aren't children but rather HAVE children that we want heroes who share that condition so we can continue to identify with them.  So now the craze is for our heroes to have children who are way older than they should be, whom they dress in bright colors and throw at gun-wielding gangsters. But it's their own children, so it's okay.

Therefore our only actual sensible sane responsible adult iconic superheroes are Hal and Barry. Just you think about that.

So, how IS Wonder Woman's child inappropriately-old already? Oh, that's easy.... she's hasn't been born yet. This is a FUTURE person.  From the FUTURE.  Where fashion has gone to hell, apparently.

Yes, it just keeps getting worse and worse.  It's another "possible future that's definitely going to happen" that one writer creates and fans takes as gospel, because well, we actually like pretend this stuff makes sense, rather than just "whatever nonsense the most recent Auteur was allowed to spit out".    No offense to Mark Waid, but DC's readership is STILL in collective therapy from Kingdom Come.  So, rather than do the work, King is just skipping to the answers in the back of the book.  

Well, this is wrong on so many levels.  I'm going to pass over the obvious ones that come from this approach. We've all seen them before and can identity them easily enough. I'm just going to point out the irony of taking this approach to creating WONDER GIRL.  The only reason there was ever a Wonder Girl character separate from Wonder Woman to begin with was because sloppy editors/writers at DC weren't paying any attention to the fact that, when they created Teen Titans, the character Wonder Girl WAS WONDER WOMAN as a youth (in the same way Superboy was Superman).  DC has spent 60 trying to fix that mistake (still unsuccessfully).  So, yeah; having Wonder Girl be from a different time period? Not a great plan, historically.

Longtime readers know there is only one writer who could have cared so little about continuity.
Until now.

And that brings us to our final point. DC's slash-and-burn approach to Wonder Girls. To be fair, they have this approach to a LOT of characters.  

Some versions may deserve to be slashed and burned, however.

No matter what snow they shovel at you now, these characters were not made to work with one another. They were made to supplant one another. 

Kid sidekicks/youth heroes (and the broader heroic dynasties they are part of) are at the heart of conflict between two opposite tendencies at DC.  DC often mixes up the concepts of heroic "legacies", to show that heroism is a tradition that is carried on rather than dying with an individual, and "replacism", the avid rush to ditch any existing version of a character for a newer version that The Kids or a Different Audience Might Like Better.


When you have all the copies and younger duplicates lying around, it becomes VERY tempting to the powers that be to ditch That Old Character They Didn't Create and Feel Constrained By and Don't Have Creator Rights To.  The very tools that are supposedly created to respect the past are used to kill it.

And Replacism has a strong pull in an era given to narrowcasting rather than broadcasting; where we make a lot entertainment tailored to smaller varied audiences rather than a few shows designed to appeal to a broad audience.  The classic DC icons are "broadcast" icons designed to appeal broadly and they are correspondingly generic.   

Almost interchangeable.

The more people who can identify with Mr./Ms. Secret Identity, the fewer people can identify with him/her CLOSELY.  Hey, I'm Modern! I don't want your generic old white guy superheroes, like stupid brain-damaged Hal Jordan! I want a Green Lantern I can IDENTIFY with, who's like me. Somebody gay. Blond. Left-handed. Independent. With fashion flair. Who despite being not too young, looks REALLY good for his age. And likes dark-haired guys named Alex.

Okay, DC. You win this round.

But this can lead to increasingly rapid turnover/proliferation in a character that instead leaves everyone with next to nothing.  Instead of one Green Lantern we can all see a little of ourselves in every month, we each get one Green Lantern we could see a lot of ourselves in... if we ever saw them, which we don't, because there are 87 of them.  

In recent years, DC (or certain forces at DC) have been smarter about this issue and drawn a line in the sand. Despite taking guff for it, for example, Geoff Johns rolled back the turnover-cascade that had taken over Green Lantern and Flash by re-establishing Hal Jordan and Barry Allen as those mantle-bearers.

A task they handled easily, even after being dead for twenty years, because making it look easy is what they do.

One can complain about Johns' bringing back "his generation's version" of those characters, but the choice is defensible as where the problem started. If you draw the firebreak anywhere else, the choice seems arbitrary and the problem might take root again.  His recent work with reintroducing kid sidekicks and the Justice Society is also his attempt to re-inject the concepts of Dynasty and Legacy to help stabilize how DC deals with balancing past, present, and future.  

"Trinity" is... pretty much that opposite of that. She's just The Latest Author's Version of Wonder Girl, since I guess we've already consigned Yara Flor to the Discount Bin of discarded versions of Wonder Girl.

Remember her? Me, neither. I literally have never seen her in anything. At least her costume is marginally less ridiculous than Trinity's.

Except this one comes with the cheap trick of being Wonder Woman's daughter, which King clearly hopes will insulate her from eventual elimination (as it has odious Damian and the incomprehensible and blandly controversial Jon Kent).

It's a headline-grabbing, de-stabilizing pyrotechnic thrown out by an author who can't write a mystery, so instead he 'subverts expectations".  Well, what I expected from the Dawn of DC was certainly better than "Trinity" so consider my expectations subverted, Mr. King.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Thank You, Rich Johnston

Today is the day I publicly thank Rich Johnston, founder of and frequent columnist on Bleeding Cool.

I am a dilettante. This blog is not my job. I do it when I want, as I want.  I can make fun of a seventy-year old story in excruciating detail for seven days straight and ignore whatever giant multiverse-shattering crossover DC is demanding I pay attention to.  I'm an American!

And with my Pointy Toes of Justice I can defy the Petty Tyrants and Would-be Cultural Hegemonists of the World, like freckled football Archie Andrews.

So I can not-read Batman.  There was a time when I didn't exercise this American freedom.

A freedom Batman himself shot people to protect for me.  Thanks, Bruce!

When I was much younger, before Brainiac 5 invented the internet, I used to travel (and this is pre-Time Bubble, mind you) to comic book conventions to scour the boxes to find missing back issues of Batman and Detective for my "collection".  SO I COULD KNOW IT ALL FIRST HAND.  And those sellers could smell my desperation a mile away.

That changed.

At some point, I realized there were things I'd rather NOT know. Like what stupidity was being wrought upon Batman by the Favored Hack of the Month.  

Some people's work (like Tom King's) is like an atomic bomb; you really don't need (or want) to be at ground zero to get a sense of what a disaster it is.

Which is why I haven't been reading Chip Zdarsky's Batman.

And, therefore, today, I thank Rich Johnston.

Because he has been reading Chip Zdarsky's Batman so that the rest of us don't have to.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

The Most Ouroborotic Man Alive

Well, The Flash, history's longest-running live-action DC superhero show, 

Oh my god, he's IGNORING "Smallville"!

is wrapping itself up and at last we have finally seen "our" Barry save his younger self from Reverse-Flash the night his mother died.

He's up against Matt Letscher as the Reverse-Flash who, although he is the "real" Eobard Thawne (appearance-wise) and is more believably petty and obsessive than Tom Cavanagh (who was always hard to believe was wasting his time and talent fussing with goober Barry Allen), simply lacks MENACE.  He's more like some **** at the office who ate the last cruller, saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, did you want that? Somebody's havin' a bad day!" After nine years, it's still not possible to believe Letscher and Cavanagh are playing the same character (a problem that Zach Levi and Asher Angel don't appear to have solved in the big screen Shazam films, either).

I'm not entirely certain they weren't told they were doing a new '"Freaky Friday" series.

It was certainly satisfying and surprisingly well done, especially considering that much of this final season has left fans, ahem, underwhelmed, to say the least. Many have theorized that the beginning of the season was crappy precisely because the show-runners were focused on the wrap-up tetrology, but I'm not sure I subscribe to that zero-sum analysis of production quality.

It was, I suppose, how the show had to end. 

You're a closed circuit, Barry;
you're got the answers in the palm of your hand.

But it does highlight a problem with the show and with the Flash in general that I have discussed before. Specifically: the Flash is about...


Pardon me that tautology, which seems like a stupid statement of the obvious.  What I really mean is that Flash stories are inordinately inward-looking and their subject matter is the Flash mythos itself, rather than external threats and situations.  Batman, Superman, et al.--they deal with threats that arise outside of them and that threaten people and things other than them.  On average, they are not the cause of the problems they have to solve and the problems they have to solve are problems for OTHER people, not merely themselves.  

For example, most of the icons in Batman's rogues gallery (the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, et al.) are presented as pre-existing, operating criminals whom Batman steps in to put a stop to.

Two-Face's origins are bit more...

Similar lists of villains could be made for most heroes. Even Lex Luthor, a villain who is famously obsessed with enmity for Superman, didn't start that way.  He was just a classic mad scientist, whose schemes Superman kept foiling. His later obsession with Superman was rooted in a retcon in Superboy story, twenty years after his first appearance.

Adventure Comics, #271 (1960)
BTW, fire extinguishers were invented in 1819, Lex.

How often is it mentioned "How Great Lex Could Be If Only He Weren't Obsessed With Superman?"

Answer: very often.

This, I'll mention in passing, is why I always so disappointed (angry, really) when fans and writers try to apply this template to the Joker (of all people).  

Frank Miller is to blame for this.
And quite a lot of other things, truth be told

As if the Joker would be so weak as to be obsessed with ANYONE other than THE JOKER.

The Joker #7 (1975)
I can't believe I'm saying this, but ELIOT S! MAGGIN shows here a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of the Joker and Lex Luthor than most modern, pretentious writers.

In fact, most of Flash history was written like all the other heroes.   His classic foes

Unimaginatively called "The Rogues"

follow the traditional model of "existing crooks whom the heroes intervenes against".  Their particular flair or gimmicks may be informed by the fact that they have to face a superhero, sure.  But that's not their GOAL. It's neither their origin nor their purpose.  They aren't ABOUT the Flash.

That's this guy's job.

That's the Reverse-Flash's literary function. He has NO other origin or purpose other than messing with Barry. It's right there in the name.  He was DESIGNED to be what Luthor evolved to be: a perfect "anti-fan", but one who is also a mirror version of the hero.  Luthor is very much NOT Superman.  


Other heroes have such villains, of course.   Batman has a score of them, most obviously Catman.

Deadshot, with his mean-girl taunting action, will always be my favorite.

Just kidding! No one can EVER replace Killer Moth in my funny bone of funny bones.

But Eobard Thawne is way better than all of those poseurs, and there is a reason. The Reverse-Flash is the combination of FOUR separate concepts: the Hater (the character who was created to and exists to hate the hero); the Stan (the character obsessed with the hero); the Competitor (the character designed to be the hero's threatening competitor); and the Anti-Hero (the character designed to be the opposite of the hero).  It's like somebody made Superman a smoothie out of Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen, Vartox, and Ultra-Man. 

Which would still smell and taste 100% like Vartox, by the way.

Eobard Thawne's a triple-espresso with cane sugar and any character in any of those categories is going to pale in comparison; "Sure, but he's no Reverse-Flash!"

So, you can't fault the Flash Mythos for having one villain who is its hero's perfect counterpart and using him as such.  Flash may have more powerful villains but none can possibly be more symbolically resonant.

The Reverse-Flash is where it started. But just as Eobard Thawne became increasingly obsessed with Barry Allen/the Flash, so too did Flash storylines. Over time they became more about Barry Allen and his twins and descendants and Iris and his supporting cast and persecution by Thawne and Iris's murder and Barry's trial for his murder of Thawne (with its own absurd outcome, absurd even by Flash standards).  When Wally became the Flash, it was really more of the same because, naturally, Wally was... another obsessed Flash fan, worried about his legacy and THEN... the SPEED FORCE concept hit, and ...

Well, since THAT, it's been a runaway train to see how far and how fast and how frequently the Flash can shove his head up his own mythos.  

Often an impressive feat.

Everything is about a problem WITH or FROM the Speed Force, or a threat to IT or the Flash (or his supporting cast).  Almost to a point where an objective observer would step back and say "you are not the solution, you are the problem; if the Flash and everything associated with him went it away, everyone else would not only be fine but much better off" (which is really not a situation you want your hero to be in).  Unsurprisingly, the show wound up having the same problem the comics did.

I'm fond of many things about Geoff Johns' approach to mythic consolidation, but his retcon of Barry Allen's origin contributed enormously to this problem.  In case you don't already know, "Reverse Flash killed Barry's mother and framed his father who went to jail which is why Barry became a CSI and thereafter the Flash" is a wholecloth invention of Geoff John's Flash Rebirth.  It has zero pre-Crisis precedent.  Pre-Crisis Barry needed no tragic backstory.  He was on the police force and got superheroes, so of course he fought crime; what ELSE would you do with a superpower?!  The only hero who needed a tragic backstory was Batman, because it gave him a reason to develop his "powers".

But Johns's retcon turned the Flash mythos inward-looking tendencies and now set the baseline at "fetidly inbred".  Reverse-Flash and the Flash created each other.

Where on earth did a young Geoff get such a ridiculous idea?

I mean, yeah, if there is any two characters for whom it's in character it's Flash and the Reverse-Flash but... that's the problem.  It's an ouroborotic mess that makes for a lovely sci-fi short-story, but as the basis for a superhero mythos it's constricting.

"Ouroborotic" is a Classicist polite way of saying "self-fellating".

There are various interpretations of What the Myths of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, et al. symbolize. I've discussed many such theories myself.  But none of them have been "two comic books fans pissed off at each other about which one has their favorite hero right" which is pretty much what Barry (fan of Golden Age Flash) versus Eobard (fan of Silver Age Flash) is about.

Now every time I try to check in on what's going in Flash comics it's an impenetrable wall of Speed Force / Flash Legacy /Speedster Character jargon that I shut down.  

Nobody writes comics like THAT any more.

I still remember that issue of the Flash, even though I read it 30 years ago.  How many of the comics you've read lately (Flash or otherwise) will you be able to say that about...?