Monday, January 12, 2015

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!

Fantastic Four #285

If there's one thing you should have picked up on by now, I genuinely love Secret Wars II. I think it was an ambitious and endearingly odd experiment, a massive line-wide crossover - only the second ever, really - masquerading as a weird personal statement on the part of Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. To fully understand SWII you really need to follow it up with Shooter's Star Brand and his later Solar - Man of the Atom, in order to see him return again and again to the idea of a normal human being granted godlike powers, and in turn denied the pleasures of domestic bliss taken for granted by the rest of the population. You can read what you wish into Shooter's choice of reluctant gods as authorial proxies, over and over again . . .

However, not everyone working at Marvel was on Shooter's wavelength at the time. So while a number of SWII crossovers were interesting, many were also unmemorable, and a few were actively terrible. Those books fortunate enough to be scheduled for a crossover during the early months of the series - mainstays such as Iron Man and Captain America - lucked out with superfluous tie-ins that needed do little with The Beyonder. Later scheduled series were forced to shoehorn the character into their ongoing storylines - which worked well in the case of a handful of soon-to-be-cancelled series that needed well-timed deus ex machina plot devices, such as The New Defenders, ROM and The Micronauts. But the worst victims of the crossover were, oddly, Marvel's then-highest selling books: Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Fantastic Four. Whereas most of the Marvel line was on the hook for only one crossover issue, these five were stuck with a mandated three crossovers each - four in the case of The Avengers, which was also allotted the dubious honor of featuring the main series' aftermath as well.

Marvel's attitude towards crossovers is far less compulsory now. Often, lower selling titles participate more in high profile crossovers for the purpose of boosting sales, while higher-selling titles feel comfortable sitting out all but the biggest of big deals. Not so in 1986: your reward for producing one of Marvel's highest-selling titles was being pressganged into participating in the EIC's vanity crossover sequel not once but thrice. To their credit, Chris Claremont and John Byrne rose to the challenge and produced some of the crossovers' best efforts. For instance, in many ways Uncanny X-Men #203 is the series' "real" climax, with Secret Wars II #9 serving as that book's denouement (which, come to think of it, might itself have been a form of passive aggression on Chris Claremont's part). Fantastic Four #288 was a similarly climactic tale, featuring the Beyonder brought low by Dr. Doom and Reed Richards, while also cleaning up the last great dangling plothole from the original Secret Wars (again, any resemblance to actual animus between Jim Shooter and John Byrne is completely coincidental, I am sure.)

But, and this is putting it mildly, Fantastic Four #285 is no Fantastic Four #288.

Fantastic Four #285 isn't just a genial goofy misfire. It's not a clumsy, ambitious overreach. It lacks the charm of Peter Parker teaching the Beyonder how to use the bathroom, or even the sheer absurdity of the Beyonder curing cancer with a wave of his hand. No, this is worse: this is terrible, maliciously terrible. This is a wrong-headed comic with an inconceivably awful and profoundly confused "moral" that leaves a rancid taste in your mouth. I thought it was terrible when I first read it almost three decades ago, and it's still awful now. And the worst part is that the story hasn't been forgotten. It placed at #40 on Marvel's recent 75 Greatest Marvel Comics anniversary poll. It even made the deluxe Omnibus commemorating said anniversary. It received a sequel a few years later in Fantastic Four #342. Its endurance is astounding, considering just how blatantly, irredeemably offensive the story actually is.

Our story begins at the ending, with a coroner's report. Whose report? Why, little Tommy Hanson, age 13. Who is this mysterious Tommy Hanson, you ask? And how does his story intersect with that of the Fantastic Four?

Already on the first page Byrne tips us off the perceptive reader that this is going to be a heavy trip. Dead children! Sad professional brunettes! This isn't your father's Fantastic Four! This issue is going to be about . . . Issues.

It turns out that young Tommy Hanson is actually a member of that most harried and abused minority . . . a fanboy. And not just any fanboy, but a Human Torch fanboy, which is about as sad as it sounds. Especially since all the "cool kids" in the seventh grade know about Tommy's, er, proclivities.

Seriously, what's going on here? There's a new celebrity gossip rag out with a big feature on the Human Torch. Instead of being all, hey, I'll buy it with my allowance next time I'm in a 7-11, our pal Tommy immediately signs over his lunch money for a month, and agrees to do this guy's homework until Christmas. Even if lunch only costs a couple dollars a day, that's still at least $30 or $40. This was the 80s so a new copy of People magazine would have been, what, $1.50? I'm not even a mathematician and I can tell you that's a pretty steep mark-up.

So now you've met Tommy, in all his denim-on-denim glory. Let's be frank here: Tommy is a sad-sack without any redeeming features, in terms of the junior high pecking order. He's thirteen years old and 3'6", which is pretty sad all on its own. It's conceivable, based on the evidence here, that Tommy has serious medical problems besides just being a nerd.

Anyway, Tommy's joy over getting his seriously overpriced magazine is cut drastically short when Ms. Welsh discovers him reading the magazine in class.

Oh boy, there's a lot going on here, and none of it is good.

One of the more uncomfortable facts of life for many kids growing up liking stuff like comic books, sci-fi, or fantasy is that the reason they gravitate to these pursuits is because they have a hard time fitting in. It's often a chicken / egg situation - did you start reading comic books because you had a hard time in school or did other kids give you a hard time in school because you read comic books? When your peers were repeating dirty jokes they heard from their older brother and talking about which supermodels they wanted to bang, did they call you "faggot" because you didn't have an opinion one way or another? Or did they pull a pile of comics out of your backpack, spot some overly-muscled male superhero, and, well, you see a pattern here? Lots of sexual insecurity on display from all directions. Those examples aren't from personal experience, but they loom large in the racial memory of certain kinds of comics fans.

And this is where the story tips its hand. Because Tommy isn't just any kid, he's a Reader Surrogate. Not in a good way, mind you. He is standing in for the comic book nerd's worst possible self-image: the undersexed, physically weak, hopeless geek with nothing to live for besides his precious superheroes. But it's OK, you see, because Tommy doesn't have a crush on the Human Torch, no sir. He just really likes the idea of a flamboyant, flaming young muscular man.

Byrne has a, let's be politic here, questionable track record when it comes to homosexual characters. Of course they didn't talk about these things openly back then. But read his Alpha Flight, or his Namor. There are clearly gay characters in both series, but they're also not the best possible portrayal of LGBT characters. In fact, both Northstar and Desmond Marrs play up different angles of similar kinds of noxious gay stereotypes - finicky, flamboyant, scheming, bitchy. (Also, they both have strangely intimate vaguely incestuous relationships with twin sisters, which is . . . weird?) So gay people do exist in Byrne's world. But Tommy Hanson isn't gay. Because there is no way that Byrne could ever have given a sympathetic portrayal of a kid with ambiguous or confused sexuality. And because he's our perverse audience surrogate, Byrne has to bend over backwards to state as explicitly as possible that there is nothing at all gay about liking superheroes.

Anyway, we see the rest of Tommy's day, and it doesn't get any better from here.

Absentee mother? Check. Absentee masculine role model? Double check. But, there is someone around . . .

Here's Joss. What the heck is Joss doing here? Well, Joss is a guy wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath, long hair in a ponytail and a Mephistophelian goatee. He also has to "call the office" when he gets a call on his "pocket beeper." Given that we know Joss spends his spare time tinkering with remote control airplanes and playing around with his own special formula of rocket fuel, because real rocket fuel isn't good enough for his toy airplane, what possible "job" could our pal Joss actually have? Does it involve selling special herbs from a van? Or does he spend his time driving around the countryside with three friends and a dog, supposedly "solving mysteries" but really just following the Grateful Dead's tour itinerary?

Anyway, in case you needed the help. Because the story really is just too subtle. Byrne provides foreshadowing. Did you miss the foreshadowing? Here's the foreshadowing again, in case you missed the foreshadowing:

Meanwhile, in case you forgot who the main characters of the book are, it's the Fantastic Four! At this period in their career, the Baxter Building had been demolished and the team spent a few months living in Avengers Mansion while their new building, Four Freedoms Plaza, was being built on the site of the old. And, oh yeah, the Beyonder was still skankin' around, somewhere, doing somethin' - nobody knows what! Will that be important? Who knows!

Now, the good thing about being on a team with Reed Richards is that you know he's going to spell out every plot point and thematic element precisely and at length. Now . . . I'm only partially joking here. From the series' very early days Reed was the obnoxious know-it-all lecturing to his best friends about anything and everything. But one of Byrne's better tricks writing for the series was subtly and not-so-subtly aging the other members of the cast so that they weren't completely dependent on Reed to provide all the series expository gravitas. If you recall a few weeks back when I tackled the Thing's participation in SWII, one of the themes of Byrne's run on the characters was the fact that the other members of the team - especially Ben - had grown resentful of Reed's treating them like children. This scene, which begins with Reed lecturing Johnny, turns out to be a reasonable conversation between more-or-less equals. It's a nice character piece that also touches on some of the themes of the main crossover. Byrne may or may not have resented the imposition of having to participate in the series, but he still had a good understanding of what Shooter was trying to accomplish with the Beyonder. He also managed to tie in the Beyonder's presence with themes Byrne established in the then-recent "Trial of Galactus" storyline.

But look who it is, it's that lady doctor from the first page. Which means that try as we might, we're not going to be able to forget that other, awful-er plotline . . .

You know how I said that Byrne matured the team a little bit? Well, even though Johnny was going steady with Alicia Masters (who would later turn out to be a Skrull, you know, so just think about the fact that he was married to a Skrull for five years), he still finds time to flirt with the woman doctor in the maroon pantsuit. Good job, Johnny, way to class up the joint.

Anyway, upon hearing that Tommy Hanson is dying in the hospital, Johnny beats feet.

"I only did it to be like you . . ."

Fans with long memories might remember that the Human Torch was excluded from the late 1970s Fantastic Four cartoon, replaced with longtime fan punching bag H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot. The rumor for years was that the character was kept off the show for fear of inspiring stupid children to set themselves on fire to emulate their hero. This was false. But the rumor stuck, and even though the series lasted a scant thirteen episodes, everyone hated H.E.R.B.I.E. so much that during Marv Wolfman's run (which immediately preceded Byrne's, and for which Byrne was partially the artist) the robot became mentally controlled by Dr. Sun and was subsequently destroyed after trying to kill the team.

So as absurd as it may seem, the grimly specific nature of Tommy's death was actually a reference to an urban legend about a cancelled TV show that remained a bone of contention with thin-skinned fans for many years.

Tommy's parents are, understandably, a little upset about what happened to their son. How exactly are readers supposed to read this scene? On the one hand, you have grieving parents who are reacting against the most proximate cause of their son's death - i.e., his emulation of his superhero idol, who also happened to be a man on fire. On the other, we've been given every reason to think that the Hansons are simply awful parents, leaving their son alone all day, oblivious to his problems at school, perfectly willing to let him spend his free afternoons with "Joss." So whose fault is Tommy's death? Is it Johnny's? Or his parents? The clear answer is that Tommy fell between the cracks, let down by his parents, his teacher, and his only "friend." But if there is one thing that the story goes out of its way to communicate, it's that the only person completely undeserving of blame is Johnny Storm, the actual guy who inspired the kid to set himself on fire.

Johnny reacts, I think, how most of us would in the same situation, rightly or wrongly:

OK, that's the end of the story. The Human Torch retires, never uses his powers again, and spends the rest of his life working for children's charities. The rest of the Fantastic Four carry on, and the world keeps spinning. The End!

Oh, shit. It's still not over.

Yep. This happened during the brief period where the Beyonder was on his whole life-affirming kick, teleporting around the planet in order to help people better fulfill themselves. So he hears Johnny's words in his moment of anguish and decides that there is no better time to pop in and help out by giving a timely pep talk.

Johnny doesn't take too kindly to the One From Beyond showing up to help, considering he - like the rest of us - remembers that just a few months back the Beyonder was taking potty training lessons from Spider-Man.

Just about everything about the issue up to this point has been remarkably offensive, but . . . this is simply ghastly. It's disgusting. It's the kind of "moral" that only makes sense in the wind-tunnel of comic book fandom, a world in which living vicariously through fictional heroes is somehow considered a legitimate alternative to "real" life.

Sure, we've all been there. We've all had those moments or those years where spending time with fictional friends has been far preferable to real friends. For some of us, comic books (or gaming or fantasy or whatever) were what we needed to get through hard spots in life. Tommy is that kid. That much is obvious: we're supposed to sympathize with the kid whose life was so bad his only respite was collecting celebrity gossip rags with Human Torch photo spreads in them. But how sublimely self-serving of this comic to tell us, the readers, that it's OK to be losers so long as we keep buying Marvel comics. It's OK because there is no way, no sir, that we're gay. Because that's obviously a fate even worse than setting yourself on fire.

To say that this "message" is garbage is an insult to garbage. The story stacks the deck against poor Tommy Hanson, giving us the worse possible model of the socially maladjusted, physically disadvantaged, sexually backwards adolescent nerd. There is nothing going on in this kid's life but reading comic books and being a fanboy. But that's OK! Nobody should feel bad about reading too many comic books and getting beat up at school because it's just fine and dandy to live vicariously through comic books. Why has this story lingered in the imagination of aging fanboys? Is it because it's provides the perfect excuse for growing up and into the kind of maladjusted Eltingville Club monsters who use their bad childhoods as all the excuse they need to spew abuse and harassment across the internet? Lifelong resentment against bullies both real and imagined provide all the rationale necessary to turn against the world that hates and fears you. It's OK because Marvel Comics are your only real friend. Marvel will never leave you.

Not only is the reader's expected sympathy towards Tommy heavy-handed, but the story's supposed life-affirming message is disconcerting and self-absorbed. Every ounce of sympathy towards Tommy dissolves the moment you realize the story is solely intended to make its readers feel better about being nerdy outcasts. The message isn't "it gets better" or that you need to be confident in yourself or stand up to bullies or that you should reach out for help to other people when you feel alone - the message is that some nerds are so far gone that the best they can hope for is a quick death. Is there a single coherent message to be salvaged from the story, or is it futile to even try?

And because this is a self-important superhero comic, we can't be expected to get off without a ham-fisted literary quote:

Tommy wouldn't say it had a happy ending. Nothing about this even vaguely resembles a happy ending. This is a shitty ending about how the world is a shitty place and even though shitty things happen, pretty people will always find ways to make themselves feel better about those shitty things, even when the shitty things are partially their fault. What's more, it's OK to be pretty and oblivious because it makes the peasants feel better about themselves to be able to look up and admire their betters. Or something?

I am confident in asserting that this is one of the worst comics Marvel has ever published. It's stuck in the middle of one of Marvel's most celebrated runs by one of its most celebrated creators, so not only has it historically received a pass, it's been celebrated for its toxic "message" by successive generations of fanboys too stupid to tell when they're being insulted.

Oh yeah, in case you were wondering:

Yep, even as Secret Wars II marches on, life continues, and the resurrection of Jean Grey for the purposes of launching the first non-Claremont X-Men spinoff was a story too important to wait. You know Byrne just had to get in on that action.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Munchausen Weekend

The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies

Have these Hobbit films been any good? Well, that depends.

Were they absurdly stretched out? Were they leaden and somber where every word of the source material was light? Was every conceivable detail magnified to Brobdingnagian proportions, often flying in the face of narrative sense or common decency? Did the movies, which depended for their existence on an absolute fealty to every sentence of a short book still somehow take enough liberties to obscure everything charming and memorable about the original story? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions must be yes.

These movies were made the way they were made because there was money to be had, and without the participation of the Tolkien estate there will be no more films, leastwise until the rights change hands. (This is something of a shame, because there's lots of material in The Silmarillion and related texts that might make for decent films, without needing excessive padding.) Peter Jackson tried to resist but sure enough he loved playing around with these toys, and his affection - if not his fidelity - is manifest in every frame. Will I ever return to them? Probably not. I don't see them holding up as well as the Lord of the Rings films have, for all the same reasons why they are nowhere near as good as the previous series. But I don't regret having seen them in the theater, either. They were fun, if just that.

I long ago made peace with the fact that there is no use getting upset about the liberties these movies make with their source materials. I dearly love Tolkien's works and his world, and the quality or lack thereof of any movie adaptations does nothing to efface a single period or exclamation mark in the books themselves. (Let's just put aside the fact that, if Gandalf really did know for certain at the end of The Hobbit that Bilbo had the ring, there's no reason in the world they shouldn't have just marched to Mordor to destroy the thing as soon as possible. Cool story, bro.)

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1

I enjoyed this one far more than I think I probably should! I don't have the time to devote to actually reading the books themselves so I don't have any opinion on how good a job they do with these adaptations, but they feel sturdy and well-constructed in a way that too many similar YA adaptations do not. Get a good cast, some decent material with surprisingly heavy themes, and you're off to the races. There are some images of Katniss and her crew walking over mountains of cremated skeletons and rubble that genuinely surprised me in a movie of this pedigree.

The One I Love

Now here is a movie from which I expected very little but which actually turned out to be very good! We sat down to watch this more out of a sense of obligation to the people in it than anything else - Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass usually have very good instincts as far as these things go. Expecting some kind of bland mumblecore-esque relationship drama, we got . . . well, here's the thing. It is kind of that. But I can't say what else it is. It's bad enough that I even have to hint at something else to entice you. I've already said too much. Just ... go see it for yourself. I'll wait. Quite satisfying.


Here's another movie that zigs when you think it should zag, only difference being that this a horror movie and these things are expected here. It's a New Zealand movie, and if you didn't know that going in you could probably pick it up from one of the many aspects of the film that are poached wholesale from Dead Alive (AKA Braindead if you're feeling pedantic). There's also the small matter of the Wes Craven influence . . . but telling you which of his films Housebound borrows from most liberally would be spoiling the whole game.

So I'm of two minds. On the one hand, it was a very well made, enjoyable film that was genuinely unpredictable and featured game performances from a handful of charmingly deadpan actors who I've never heard of before. It wears its influences gamely on its sleeve and has a lot of fun riffing on the audience's expectations. But on the other . . . some of the decisions made in the second half of the film seem to actively undermine the potential of the first half. It's one thing to watch a movie and be surprised when what you thought was one thing turned out to be something else all along, but another to be left thinking that the first thing you thought might well have been more interesting than what you actually got.

The Fall (2006)

I knew in advance this movie would be terrible. I watched it anyway. It was terrible. Why did I watch it? You're better off not knowing. The best part is when Thranduil from The Hobbit tries to trick a little girl into helping him kill himself by stealing morphine from the hospital pharmacy. Oh wait, that's all the movie. Yay?

The Interview

James Franco is the most absurd person to ever walk the planet, but I do have a soft spot for the movies where he spends the entire running time making fun of himself. It's a good look on him. And that's basically what The Interview is about, geopolitics notwithstanding: Franco is a self-centered idiot who doesn't understand why no one else takes him seriously, and in this he finds common cause with a genocidal dictator. It's a good look. The dick-and-shit jokes are slightly above normal caliber, and a splendid time is had by all.

That a movie this intentionally modest and silly became a cause célèbre on the field of international relations is weird. That the movie has been adopted by some North Korean exile groups, not because of its quality but precisely on account of its pervasive dumbness, is interesting. An argument I've heard from more than one source is that the film, being a bog-stupid comedy, works better at undermining the regime than the most powerful dramatic treatment could. It's flattering to the sensibilities of an America that prefers its political engagement as disengaged as possible, but there's some truth there as well.

Obvious Child

This isn't the first time you've heard anyone talk about how great this movie is and it won't be the last, but it doesn't lose anything from hearing it again. it's a good movie! Not just because of the fact that it's got an abortion in it or anything, that's what it's "about" but it's only what it's really about if you're uncomfortable about the idea of an American movie treating abortion in anything but a critical manner. It's a character study of a fucked-up girl in the same way that we get a seemingly infinite number of character studies of fucked-up boys - the only difference being, if this were a boy's movie Jenny Slate's character would be played by Jonah Hill and the budget would have been somewhere around $40 million dollars instead of a half-eaten bag of shoestring potatoes and some Kickstarter spare change.

But most importantly, it's funny. In another world movies like this would get made all the time - you know, movies where being a woman isn't a problem to be solved but a fact of life for half the population. Calling it feminist just for existing is a poor complement, but that's the shitty world in which we live.

Trailer Park Boys - Don't Legalize It

By all rights Trailer Park Boys should have passed it's sell-by date a while back. The idea that a show about white trash Canadian petty crooks and the trailer park in which they live would have lasted fifteen years without any real interruption - even allowing for the series' rights changing hands in 2012 - is pretty improbable on the face of it. But they've managed to tap a surprisingly deep vein of class antagonism and scatology. Even if every season and movie from the very first tells the exact same story, they have shown remarkable ingenuity in switching around the component parts in such a way as to make it seem new with every turn.

The movies take place at a slight remove from the show, in terms of continuity and characterization. Whereas the show, eight seasons in, does a good job of maintaining a pretty rigid stasis for each character - the point being that they're all trapped in Sunnydale forever doing the same thing over and over again until the day they die - things change in the movies, people get married, actions have vague consequences. To wit, Bubbles finds out his parents have died, leaving him their "house." Ricky drives to Ontario with the purpose of protesting the impending legalization of marijuana, with the understanding that if pot is legalized, "small business owners" such as himself will be pushed out of the market for good. And Julian figures out a sure-fire way to make a lot of money selling clean piss from the nearby military base. As you might expect, none of these plans go exactly right. I keep expecting not to laugh anymore, to see that the jokes have gotten stale or the slapstick performances less inspired. But it hasn't happened yet.


If you're clever you can figure out the common thread between this, The Fall, and The Hobbit. That's how I spent my winter vacation.

Thing is, I'm a sucker for talking animal movies like Garfield is a sucker for lasagna. I enjoyed this more than The Fall, and probably more than The Hobbit. The only thing this movie didn't have was a scene where Billy Connolly rides a pig, and honestly I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Chrimbus!

Those who follow my Twitter feed, and those who pay attention to the sidebar, already know that for the last few months I've been uploading my podcasts to Mixcloud - my page, with all my uploads, can be found here. I release a new podcast more or less monthly, and I've put the last couple years' of older podcasts up as well.

I just put up a double shot of podcasts dedicated to the best music of 2014 - Party Jams #52 and #53. Those with long-ish memories might recall that I used to post the earliest podcasts on here until I received my first and only Cease & Desist letter, but so far Mixcloud seems to be a safe and legal alternative. In the years since I stopped featuring them here, I've distributed them primarily through e-mail and Twitter - anyone who wants to have access to actual downloads instead of just online streaming can e-mail me to be added to the list.

Et voila!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Final Exam - ENL 3 - Fall 2014

Below are four questions. For your final exam, please answer two of them. Each answer should be 400-500 words long, and will be worth 75 points. You have two hours to finish the exam. When you are finished, please upload your answers to SmartSite. You may leave when you are done. Have a good holiday break!
1. Color symbolism – specifically the juxtaposition of black and white – recurs throughout The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Cite one instance of Poe’s use of color and explain its significance.

2. Both Pym and At the Mountains of Madness end ambiguously – we don’t know what Pym and Dirk Peters experience after the abrupt end of the novel, and we never learn exactly what Danforth sees after their final escape from the hidden city. Why is this ambiguity significant to the effectiveness of horror stories?

3. Both Poe and Lovecraft make extensive use of mythological imagery – in Poe’s case, through many references to real-world myths and religion, and in Lovecraft’s, through the elaboration of an intricate and original myth system. How is the use of myth significant in either of these stories?

4. Explain the relationship between At the Mountains of Madness and the idea of scientific progress.

Extra Credit
10 Points

Imagine for a moment that Edmund Burke finds himself magically alive and well in the year 2014. After watching “Too Many Cooks” he decides to write a new chapter of A Philosophical Inquiry, explaining the significance of this viral video to our understanding of the sublime. What is his argument?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!


If the Beyonder's interference in the lives of both ROM and the New Defenders smacked of last-minute arbitrary editorial shoehorning, many crossovers actually did have interesting things to do with the character. In particular, the Thing had a particular relationship to the Beyonder, and the promise of the first actual physical slugfest between these two titans was more than enough of a hook on which to hang a crossover during the last days of Ben's solo series.

The first Secret Wars had a big impact on the Fantastic Four. One month, the Fantastic Four along with all of Earth's greatest heroes and villains mysteriously disappeared after stepping into ominous gateways placed across the world. The next month . . . the heroes returned in the pages of Marvel Super Heroes Secret War #1. But the heroes also returned to their solo books as well, with the events of the Secret Wars in their past, but (for obvious reasons) unable to speak about just what had happened during their (real world) year on Battleworld. Spider-Man returned with a crazy (but extremely cool) black costume that wouldn't be explained for another eight months. The X-Men returned and Colossus broke up with Kitty because he fell in love with an alien healer, in addition to having gained a sassy dragon stowaway named Lockheed. And perhaps strangest of all - the Fantastic Four returned, with new member She-Hulk, and without the Thing.

The same month Marvel Super Heroes Secret War #1 and Fantastic Four #265 shipped, so did The Thing #11, the first chapter of the "Rocky Grimm, Space Ranger" saga. The first page of The Thing #11 is also the last panel of the Secret Wars series, something readers wouldn't understand for a full year. Essentially, the first page of "Rocky Grimm" sees Ben Grimm - not the Thing - chilling on Battleworld, holding the switch set to take him back to Earth at the end of his adventure. Something strange happened to Ben on Battleworld: he became able to switch back and forth between his human body and the Thing at will. Furthermore, he realized that one of the reasons why he had been unable to consciously switch back and forth on Earth had been psychosomatic - a subconscious conviction that Alicia Masters would never love plain old Ben Grimm. So, since Reed had mastered the portal technology to enable Ben to return to Earth at his pleasure, he remained on Battleworld in order to sort some things out.

"Rocky Grimm, Space Ranger" has always been one of my favorite stories. In the first place, it's a weird story where Ben wanders around and explores all the strange parts of Battleworld they didn't get around to seeing during the actual Secret Wars. In the second, it's also an emotionally raw exploration of Ben's psyche, where he is taunted and tortured by physical manifestations of his self-doubt and fears. And, of course, it's still the Beyonder's doing: even though the actual Secret War ended when the Beyonder left our universe following Dr. Doom's defeat, he made Battleworld to reflect the deepest desires and fears of the combatants. His world made a woman for Ben to love, the supposed embodiment of his truest desires. His world made a villain, too, but if you haven't read the story I won't say who it is for fear of spoiling it. Leave it be said, by the time he gets back from the Secret Wars planet, he's been through an exhausting emotional ordeal. (Seriously: just seeing this cover makes me tear up, it's fucking brutal.)

So Ben returns back from Battleworld, (supposedly) unable to ever transform into Ben Grimm again, to find that the world has changed considerably. Not only had Sue lost her second child (or rather, she lost it for a time, until she sort of came back because the universe was destroyed by Reed Richards to defeat Abraxas, er, best to move on), but Alicia Masters had begun dating Johnny Storm. Ben came back, found this out, and almost killed Johnny, before leaving the Fantastic Four (supposedly) for good. (It was all good though, because the Alicia who married Johnny was eventually revealed to be a Skrull, which was itself eventually revealed to have been the opening salvo of the Secret Invasion.) Even above and beyond Johnny - his best friend - making time on his girl, there was the small matter of Ben having realized that Reed - his other best friend - had suspected all along the real reason why Ben was unable to switch between his human form.

After that, Ben spent another year and change on the road, as a wrestler for the Unlimited Class Wrestling Foundation as well as a kind-of sort-of member of the Avengers West Coast. But this was a different Ben - pissed, resentful, and angry like he hadn't been since the first year of the Fantastic Four. He was estranged from his family and his one true love. And he blamed the whole situation on one being: the Beyonder.

We've all been there, and that's why I find this period in the Thing's career so enduring. If you look at the facts, sure, Ben is as much to blame for his problems as anyone. Reed and Johnny screwed up too. But Battleworld did what was promised: when the Beyonder said, "Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours," Ben took him up on the offer. He slew his worst enemies - his own fears and insecurities - and got what he should have been very careful to ask for: in the words of the oracle, he knew himself, and he didn't like what he saw in the mirror. But we've all had that One Bad Year where everything goes wrong. Every single bad thing that could happen to you happens and you're left out in the cold. And it's always easier to blame other people for your problems than yourself, and easier still to displace the blame from your friends and family onto a seemingly invincible third party. And that's exactly what Ben does.

But of course, Ben never really imagined he'd have the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the being who ruined his life.

The best thing about Secret Wars II - OK, maybe not "the" best thing because the series is nothing but a series of unimpeachable highlights - but one of the best things the series does is that it has a lot of fun with putting the Beyonder into the most banal situations possible. This is the point of the series, after all: he keeps running into people whose first reaction is to try and fight him, which is completely stupid since they've all seen him destroy a galaxy in a blink of an eye. If you think of all the laws of time and space the Beyonder would need to break just to make that event appear simultaneous to the combatants of Battleworld situated hundreds of thousands of light years away, well, you might begin to have an idea of just how bad a motherfucker the Beyonder is. ("Inhuman-mutant" my ass. "Incomplete Cosmic Cube" like fuck. There is only one omnipotent Beyonder, from Beyond, accept no substitutes.) Anyway, the Beyonder just wants to learn about human life, and the concept of desire. It's just misfortune that the only people he knows are super heroes with poor judgement control.

(Seriously, Marvel, I think you're going to be publishing as many Secret Wars tie-ins as you possibly can fit down the chute very soon. How about a Untold Tales of Secret Wars II with Derrida, Badiou, Habermas, Jameson, oh, maybe the Silver Surfer, too, since the Beyonder alludes to a meeting with the Surfer that we never see?)

So we meet the Beyonder in a bar, depressed because of his inability to make sense of life - as well as having been rejected by his first true love, Allison Blaire, AKA the Dazzler. He's upset even though, let's be serious, she was way out of his league to begin with. But because this a superhero comic, you can never have a scene set in a bar without a bar fight. A few local toughs think it's a good idea to fuck with One From Beyond, so he makes short work of them and demolishes the bar in the process. But he just so happens to be seen by a manager working with the UCWF, who sees in the Beyonder his ticket to the big time.

Now, we should say a few words about ethics in professional wrestling.

The Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation was Marvel's answer to the then-burgeoning national popularity of the WWF (later WWE). Because this was the Marvel Universe, the UCWF was comprised of super-strong individuals. One of the problems with the UCWF was that because, even in the MU, there are only so many people with naturally occurring super-strength, doping was a big concern. And by "doping" I mean this guy here would strap you to a gurney and do some mad scientist stuff until you came out roughly as strong as US Agent or D-Man (both of whom underwent this process). They would also get you addicted to opiates and lie to you, telling you that you needed a steady supply of the "special medication" or the procedure would kill you. So, y'know, not a very ethical outfit. (That guy, Karl Malus, was recently eaten by Carnage, so, you know, what goes around comes around.)

The Thing was the star of the Federation for a few months, before he figured out how crooked it was. But one thing was on the up-and-up about the UCFW, and that was the fact that the matches weren't scripted. Which means, of course, that any trip out to see the UCFW would have been taking your life in your own hands, watching a guy strong enough to fight the Hulk swap punches with guys who could tear Buicks in half, in a completely unpredictable fashion. How did anyone ever insure that business? Was it even insured? Or were they just one flying piece of jagged metal away from losing everything in a blizzard of lawsuits? Maybe it isn't that surprising: before the WWF came along and codified all the rules for a national audience, wrestling was even more weird and dangerous than it was before being "domesticated" in the 80s. Imagine all the fun of a wildcat wrestling league with a dangerous gimmick (think the ECW) and guys who can punch holes in battleships. (I do think, incidentally, that this storyline was prompted by some familiarity with and affection for wrestling norms on the part of the creators, Mike Carlin and Ron Wilson. For proof look no further than the joke on "From Beyond," as a play on the eternal formula "Parts Unknown.")

With all that said, Ben was pissed when he came back years' later to do some color commentary for the now-"clean" (about as clean as any wrestling outfit, I imagine) UCWF and found out the matches were now scripted.

But anyway. Given all this background, it's charming how the owners and promoters at the UCWF are so consistently worried about the health and safety of their wrestlers. It's also charming how the issue manufactures the coincidence of the Thing just happening to run across the Beyonder's try-out.

Apparently the tryout for the league is simply to lift (press) a bunch of 500 lb weights over your shoulders. Which the Beyonder, given that his power is limitless, accomplishes with ease.

I just would like to point out: that's around 50 weights, so at 500 lbs each that comes out to roughly 12 1/2 tons. That can't be five times what the Thing did, since the Thing is in Class 85, enabling him to lift (press) 85 tons. (I want the record to show that I didn't need to look that up.) Meaning: either the Thing's stats in the OHotMU are inflated, or he essentially lied to the UCWF promoters in order to get into the ring and be able to take out his frustrations on people who were significantly less strong than himself. I can't believe that Ben's stats were juiced since he is regularly able to trade punches with the Hulk - a confirmed Class 100 - so the only option is that Ben is a liar who has been using the goons of the UCWF as his personal meat punching bags.

So the Beyonder runs into Ben outside the auditorium and, what would you imagine to be the most impolitic thing he could possibly say? Yeah, "I think I understand how you felt about Tarianna now" - you know, the girl who died in Ben's arms on Battleworld. That's totally on par with being down because the Dazzler rejected you.

Ben is incensed. He insists on fighting the Beyonder, even though management is unwilling to hire the Beyonder, on the grounds that the Beyonder would be able to murder everyone else in the league. (Obviously these guys should have been in charge of booking for the last few years' of Ali's career.) Ben refuses to take no for an answer, even resorting to that time-tested means of persuading people, karate-chopping their desk into many pieces . . .

I just want to point out that even though the UCWF is a business predicated on turning wannabe wrestlers into super-powered junkies, the promoter cares so much about A) the integrity of his outfit and B) the safety of his wrestlers that he is able to face down a fighting-mad Thing in order to avoid jeopardizing the long-term viability of his business model. Somewhere, a young Vince McMahon is taking notes. Because grudge matches never sell, and champions losing titles to previously unknown heels never gets the fans engaged.

Eventually they relent and allow the match to go through, because the Thing is kind of a pissy brat sometimes. Meanwhile, the Beyonder is quite invested in this turn of events.

Seriously, if they're worried about the Beyonder killing other wrestlers, maybe they need to do something about the fact that he is drunk for literally the entirety of this comic book. He may not have learned much about the nature of desire, but he already knows the answer to the most important question of them all.

Finally the day of the fight arrives, and the management is still trying to talk Ben out of the fight.

Meanwhile, in another wrestling comic:

I just happened to be in the middle of a reread of the first volume of Love & Rockets recently, and it's interesting to compare the kind of promotion Jaime portrays in "In the Valley of the Polar Bears" to the kind of promotion in which the UCWF seems to traffic. "In the Valley of the Polar Bears" tells the story of Maggie's aunt, Vicki Glori, and her quest to demolish every other person in the WWW. (I think World's Women's Wrestling? I can't recall off the top of my head.) Vicki is on a tear, seriously putting her opponents in the hospital over the WWW's refusal to insure her title belt. (This sounds more like the kind of promotion an actual wrestling league might use.) What puts her presentation over the top, however, is her use of Maggie as a prop, the buttoned-down scowling accountant who watches over each match in silent disapproval over Vicki risking her belt. That's a good gimmick. If the UCWF were smart, they would have turned the management's reluctance to allow Ben to fight the Beyonder into a selling point. But one supposes that for the UCWF, it really is about ethics in professional wrestling.

The first few minutes of the match are uneventful, with the Beyonder easily dodging the Thing's brute-force charges. The UCWF's buttoned-down, respectable audience isn't happy about this.

The takeaway is that even though the Beyonder is insanely powerful, he really doesn't know how to fight. Also, he actually has learned a few things in his time on earth, as he does accept some of the blame for Ben's unhappiness, so he's willing to let the Thing pound on him.

This is where the story gets dark. In many ways, this is the mirror universe sequel to the famous Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, where Ben overcomes the Champion of the Universe and refuses to give up, even after having been almost killed in the process of trying to save the Earth. (Incidentally: that story made #72 on Marvel's recent 75 Best Stories poll, and I like to think that my Twitter lobbying made all the difference there. It finished ahead of Nextwave, so suck it.) But here, instead of being the overmatched underdog, Ben becomes the bully. The Beyonder could destroy him in an instant, but he refuses to raise a hand against Ben.

Meanwhile, Ben's latest love interest, Sharon Ventura, just happens to arrive in time to see Ben about to murder the Beyonder. It's worth noting that Sharon's initial gimmick was that she was the splitting image of Tarianna - the same Tarianna who died in Ben's arms on Battleworld. I've always wondered if maybe that was too good a coincidence to be true, but no one ever followed up on it and Sharon went on to be a supporting character in the Fantastic Four for many years without any more mention of her creepy status as Ben's imaginary dream woman made flesh.

This is the crucial moment. Ben has to weigh everything - his self-respect, his reputation, his career as both a hero and a wrestler - against his very real desire to kill the man who he blames for having destroyed his life. Ben is usually portrayed as one of the most selfless and stalwart heroes in the world, willing to sacrifice everything to do the right thing, to overcome any obstacle in order to achieve victory over impossible odds. This is one of the most terrible fights in his career, not because he's fighting the Beyonder, but because he's ultimately fighting himself. And he loses.

Ben, being Ben, instantly realizes his mistake.

Because he's a genuinely good and decent person, Ben wastes no time in blaming himself for losing control. He is especially humiliated by having done so in front of Sharon.

This is why, regardless of what anyone says, I will always defend Secret Wars II. It may be universally mocked. It may have been a curveball compared to what most people's expectation of a Secret Wars sequel would look like. I daresay if the story hadn't been called Secret Wars and hadn't had so many goofy crossovers, it might be better remembered today. Because at its core its about a guy who comes to Earth wanting to learn how to be human but who keeps learning the wrong lessons from people who should really know better. It's a strong hook, and a few writers were able to take use it as a springboard for some interesting stories. The Beyonder is a child, basically, and having to face the consequences of what he did to Ben seems almost cruel given the fact that he was as innocent of his actions at the time as a child tearing the wings off flies.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!


The New Defenders #152 is a very bad comic. It's a terrible comic. But it's terrible for a few specific reasons, none of which probably had anything to do with writer Peter B. Gillis' actual intent. Well, OK, some of it probably did.

The Defenders had always been one of Marvel's odder books, a team book put together with a group of characters who really had no business being on a team together, seemingly for no other reason than that they didn't fit on the Avengers but a team book with these specific characters nonetheless sold pretty well in the 70s. The Defenders were a team of outcasts, oddballs, and loners, but a number of creative teams - most notably writer Steve Gerber in the series' early issues - were able to make something surprisingly interesting out of the idea that these guys really didn't want to be on a team together but, nevertheless, kept running into problems that necessitated being forced to work together for long periods of time. And in addition to the team's four titans - the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and, sometimes, the Silver Surfer - there were lots of secondary players who supported these guys throughout the book's run.

The best explanation of this dynamic in more contemporary terms was Kurt Busiek and Eric Larsen's Defenders run from the early 2000s. That series had the Big Four being thrown together unwillingly by an evil curse, which strained their already occasionally tense friendships to the breaking point. (Left to their own devices the four main Defenders are all on friendly terms, but they're each monumentally willful and resent forced to cooperate under any circumstances.) But always underfoot are the secondary members, folks such as Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and Hellcat who really liked being Defenders but knew full well there was no group if the big guys couldn't get along.

By the time the original run of The Defenders had devolved into The New Defenders, the concept had been stretched far beyond its originally precarious shape. Gone were all the Big Four, replaced by longtime hangers-on Valkyrie and the Gargoyle, and joined by the likes of Andromeda, Moondragon, Manslaughter, and Cloud. Oh yeah, and three of the original X-Men, none of whom had played a substantial role in Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men in a long time: Angel, Iceman, and the Beast. This is important. These guys hadn't been active X-Men in a long time, and they had all spent time bumming around the fringes of the Marvel Universe - Beast, notably, as a long-serving Avenger, and Iceman and Angel, less notably, as members of the short-lived Champions.

The problem for The New Defenders was that, after years of Claremont's fighting against any arbitrary expansion of the X-Men franchise, 1986 marked the debut of the second ongoing X-Men spin-off, X-Factor, which was premised on the original five X-Men being reunited again after many years apart. And, oh yeah, Jean Grey was being brought back from the dead to star in this new book, an event which occurred without Chris Claremont's help. Jean Grey was resurrected in the pages of The Avengers and John Byrne's Fantastic Four, not Claremont's Uncanny (and if you think this is the last time the real-world enmity between Claremont, Byrne, and Jim Shooter is going to manifest in the pages of a Secret Wars II crossover, you are wrong). X-Factor was originally written by Shooter's pal (but not for long!) Bob Layton, and it would be years before Jean Grey's return was even acknowledged in the pages of Claremont's Uncanny.

So the edict was clear: the three X-Men had to be written out of The New Defenders, and without these characters a title like New Defenders was not long for this world. To add insult to injury, the word came down that the last issue - the last issue! - was going to be a Secret Wars II tie-in. Well, what better way to end a misfit series like The Defenders than killing everybody . . . well, everyone but the characters people actually cared about enough to want to see in a different comic.

The New Defenders #152 begins with the team fighting on-again-off-again hero-slash-villain Moondragon, who is pissed because - I don't know. Honestly, Moondragon was never a very well motivated character, and many of her early appearances fall under the rubric of, "powerful woman with a bitchy attitude, because, women, amiright?" (A lot of those stories were written by Jim Shooter, incidentally, who really doesn't have a good track record writing women.) But for whatever reason she wants to kill the Defenders - or, well, the New Defenders, because she's not stupid enough to try to kill the Hulk. So the issue begins with a handy-dandy recap of why exactly Moondragon wants to kill anyone, something she'd probably already want to do even if she wasn't possessed by the evil Dragon of the Moon.

Well, long story short, the Defenders defeat Moondragon, and that's that. Except, oh wait, there are still like thirty pages left. So of course that isn't the whole story. At the urging of the really quite nasty Dragon of the Moon, Moondragon summons the Beyonder to grant her a favor. He was in the middle of his whole cosmic messiah schtick at the time - he went back and forth between wanting to destroy the universe and wanting to save it, and he was big into helping other people attain self-actualization, so the most powerful being in the universe was easily tricked by Moondragon into thinking she had nothing but the best of intentions.

So there's this guy, who helps take Moondragon down:

And this guy, who helped train the other guy:

That last guy is The Interloper, one of my all-time favorite random OHotMU losers because he is completely useless. He walks around saying stuff like this all the time:

So, anyway, Moondragon comes back after getting The Beyonder's pep talk and power-up, and she is still intent on killing everyone. Thankfully, the Interloper is on hand:

I mean, seriously, look at this guy:

And there's also this rather uncomfortable sequence:

Finally, though, the ever-helpful Interloper reveals that he's got a plan to stop the Beyonder-powered Moondragon, and it's a really good plan because it involves everyone who isn't a mutant killing themselves. They have to save the lives of some supporting cast members Moondragon was torturing, because she's such a swell person.

This is, incidentally, also how the original Onslaught event ended, with a bunch of heroes randomly sacrificing themselves to stop the villain in some vaguely magical way, while another group of heroes standing right over there were for some reason prevented from sacrificing themselves because, oh well!

But, you know, that's life. Sometimes you're in a superhero team and everyone who isn't a Lee & Kirby creation just happens to die fighting a C-list Avenger turned psychopathic hell shrew empowered by The Beyonder with not a lot of oversight. And then, in the last page of one of Marvel's then-longest-running titles, Moondragon saves everyone from the series' supporting cast, even the damn dog, who reappears on the last page after just sort of hanging around when everyone else was killing themselves. Oh yeah, Moondragon also cured the Angel's temporary blindness, which is almost as bad as curing cancer but hey, since you're already sweeping everything else under the rug, why not?

For being a frankly awful mess, for being a poor coda to a long-running series that deserved far better, for being so obviously hammered together to fulfill multiple conflicting editorial mandates at the last minute, and just on general principles because Manslaughter and The Interloper are two of the worst characters ever dreamed up in an ill-fated attempt to recapture Steve Gerber's long-gone magic, we must consign The New Defenders #152 to that eternal quarter-box in the sky, the afterlife of Nobody's Favorites.

Oh wait, that's not even my blog. Well, still. This issue sucks.