Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Excelsior





It's a familiar story. I'll bet you've heard it before.

It was the late fifties. The comic industry was still in a state of suspended animation following the dramatic events of the anti-comics backlash of the Wertham era. Atlas was a small outfit whose greatest asset in a rapidly shrinking marketplace was the business acumen of its publisher, Martin Goodman. Atlas' in-house distribution company had been shuttered due to lack of volume. Their second distributor, American News, collapsed in short order. Goodman made a deal with National's distributor, Independent News, to piggyback on the company's newsstand access.

But Atlas was still dying. Almost the entire staff had been laid off following the discovery that the company had enough unpublished inventory to run for the better part of the year. Even that wasn't enough to keep the doors open. And so, the story goes, a man named Jack Kirby walked through the doors. He had just split with his longtime partner Joe Simon, after their publishing company had collapsed. (1954 was not the most auspicious year to start a comic book company.) He couldn't find work at National (later DC) on account of a failed lawsuit. Kirby and Atlas were both grasping at straws in an industry that, aside from major publishers such as National, Dell, and Archie who emerged from the Wertham era relatively unscathed, was circling the drain.
I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! ... Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn't know what to do, he's sitting on a chair crying — he was still just out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, "Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I'll see that the books make money".(*)
Or so the story goes. Kirby later on had reason to emphasize his significance alongside Lee's impotence, just as Lee had his motivations for denying Kirby's dramatized version of events. Lee was also 35 when Kirby returned.

The important facts are this: Atlas had been a company named Timely. The company had been founded by Goodman, primarily a publisher's of men's magazines and pulp adventure books. Stan Lee was Goodman's cousin by marriage. He joined the company at its start, working as an assistant at age 16, and editor by 19. Aside from a stretch in the army during the war, Stan Lee never worked for another company besides Marvel. It was the family business. Imagine his chagrin when, years later, in the flush of over a decade's worth of sustained success, people began asserting that his company's success was due to Kirby, alongside Steve Ditko and others. How galling. Lee had been there from the beginning.

Marvel Comics is the offspring of Stan Lee's perpetual frustration. For all the dispute over credit that has dogged Lee and his company for over fifty years (even further if you consider Simon & Kirby's unhappiness regarding Captain America), the character of Marvel Comics was all Stan. This was the myth you bought into when you became immersed in the books. They were hip, they were happening, they were cooler than Brand X. Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child. Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination, and Stan was the man with the plan.

It was an attractive myth because everyone but young children knew it was just that - a myth. Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. But they remained stuck playing the role of perpetual underdogs even after the reality had shifted. Even into the 1970s, long after Marvel had escaped their distribution deal with National and become the dominant force in the marketplace, they still nourished the illusion of outsider status. It was a great thing to become a Marvel fan: it was like becoming a member of a secret club, and long after you should have known better, the identification somehow stuck. DC, for their part, (somewhat unwittingly) embraced their status as the Evil Empire: DC was a place where men wore suits and ties to work, with offices staffed by old pros who consistently dismissed their upstart competitor until it was too late to reverse the damage. Marvel was the place where a few crazy middle-aged men had accidentally created a counter-culture incubator, as the company became increasingly dominated by younger men (and even a few women) who had grown up reading the books and very much wanted to be a part of the clubhouse Stan had built. The company depended on the perpetuation of these myths to maintain forward momentum.

As successful as Marvel became, the company never outgrew Lee's frustration. There was a ceiling to the company's relevance. DC was bought by Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers in turn produced a few successful (and not so successful) movies based on DC's IP. Lee spent many years after leaving day-to-day operations of the company trying and failing to sell Marvel's IP to Hollywood, with very little success. A handful of cartoons. A few live-action TV shows, only one of which ever amounted to anything. One big-budget debacle that ruined the company's name in Hollywood for years after. But above all else, the main product of these years of mostly wasted effort was dozens and dozens of hints and half-promises made in the pages of Stan's Soapbox over the course of decades. James Cameron was going to direct a Spider-Man film for something like a decade. Lee first announced the development of an Ant-Man film in 1990. That never happened, obviously.

The history of Marvel in Hollywood is a history of near-misses and missed opportunities. Lee never gave up hope. Even after he ceded control of his own company, even after the company changed hands, even after a lifetime of creative controversies began to take a serious toll on his public image, he persisted as "Mr. Marvel." And to a degree, at least, he personally remained something of an underdog: the man who had co-created the Marvel Universe, the guy whose uncle had founded the company, adrift in a larger, indifferent world. He never got around to writing the Great American Novel, and he never made a movie with Alan Resnais, and he never got out of Marvel's shadow. Why would you want to? He was The Man.

At their creative pinnacle in the mid 1960s, Marvel succeeded creatively by being both more primitive and more sophisticated than their rivals. But in terms of their business, Marvel succeeded the same way they always succeeded: they flooded the market and undercut the competition. As soon as Marvel regained distribution capabilities in 1968, they expanded precipitously. In 1971 they tricked DC into shooting itself in the foot by faking out the competition with a (seeming) line-wide price hike from 15 to 25 cents. DC responded by doing the same. Marvel's price hike lasted one month, after which they reduced prices to 20 cents, but DC was stuck with the 25 cent experiment for months afterwards. In the time it took DC to course-correct, they permanently lost market share. Marvel began to franchise their most popular characters into multiple books. By the late 80s, soon after Jim Shooter left the company, Marvel set out to flood the market in earnest. This was the beginning of another disastrous boom/bust cycle - a boom made even worse by subsequent mistreatment of prominent talent, who left the company to form a third major publisher, Image. (The books continued to sell after the talent left, once again reinforcing the idea that the Marvel brand would always be bigger than any individual creator.) There were a number of factors involved in the mid-90s industry breakdown, but Marvel made the worst mistakes, and the mistakes were big enough that they barely survived.

Marvel 2015 is still fundamentally the same company it was back in the mid-50s, when Martin Goodman found a cabinet full of inventory and used it as a pretense to fire everybody for six months. For all the criticism aimed at Isaac Perlmutter, he's still playing from the Goodman / Lee handbook: flood the market, undercut creators, and pray you survive the next bust. With Disney at their back they no longer need to fear the bust, and have proceeded accordingly.

Left unchecked, the company has recreated the entertainment industry in its own image. The occasion of Avengers 2 has provided movie critics and industry observers another opportunity to bemoan Marvel's success, and its not hard to see why they'd be so resentful. As bad an industry as Hollywood has always been, Marvel is worse in almost every way. Instead of franchises taking two-or-three years between installments, Marvel has figured out a way to keep successful franchises in theaters twice a year. They've proven so successful that every other entertainment conglomerate is changing their business model to compete - even Disney itself is looking to Marvel as a model for its resuscitation of the Star Wars franchise. Right now Marvel Entertainment has a hold on the popular imagination, and the imagination of the industry, that simply defies comparison: there's never been anything like it before. Even if the superhero bubble burst tomorrow, the structure of the entertainment industry will already have been permanently altered.

And it's no accident. They got to where they are today by importing Lee's playbook intact from the company's heyday. Marvel isn't a company, it's an experience. If you buy a ticket for a Marvel movie, you're buying into the experience of being part of something larger than a single movie. Everyone loves Marvel, and if you love Marvel too, you're part of a special club. People cheer when the red Marvel logo comes onscreen, and they get excited about recognizing obscure plot points from comic books they've never read, but have read about.

People have been predicting the end of the superhero movie boom for almost fifteen years - as long as there have been superhero movies, basically. The gloomiest predictions always seem to come from comics fans themselves, who recognize in themselves an incipient exhaustion with the genre that simply has not yet manifested in the general public. There are decades worth of stories left to strip-mine for basic parts. If Marvel keeps a tight ship they'll be in a good position to ride the bubble in perpetuity. If they (and Disney) are smart they'll be able to pivot when the market goes south, leaving their competitors holding the bag, selling the equivalent of 25 cent comics in a 20 cent market.

But what about Stan?

Stan lived to see his company take over the world. After decades of trying and failing to expert Marvel, it finally happened after he was no longer directly involved. He's still the figurehead, naturally, and for so long as he lives he will continue to receive his rote cameo in every Marvel movie and TV show. The problem is that the ideology Lee cultivated in the 1960s, when Marvel was a legitimate underdog in an industry that had spent the past decade trying to run his family company out of business, doesn't carry the same meaning. Marvel isn't the dark horse anymore, they're the heavy favorite. They are owned by the largest entertainment company on the planet, and they are possibly the most valuable arm of that conglomerate. The grasping ambition that Lee once cultivated was charming, in its day, part and parcel of a fantasy where Marvel was in a state of constant siege. They were self-effacing and ironic, and it was them (and you, True Believer!) against the world. The problems began when Lee started to believe his own press, and were compounded when his personal insecurities were inflated into a corporate ethos. This is the world he and his uncle made, whether or not they foresaw the consequences.

Marvel Entertainment are not nice people. They like having an avuncular mascot to trot out and reassure people that these entertainment products are made by the same kind of people who hand-crafted the original comics, but that's a lie. It's not about people at all. It's about a company with a seventy-five year track record of scorched-earth business tactics doing everything they can to maximize their leverage on largest scale possible, the kind of scale not even Lee himself could ever have imagined.

You can't root for Marvel anymore. It's like rooting for McDonalds. Once upon a time Stan Lee believed himself to be Ray Kroc, but for a while now he's been Ronald McDonald.



Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56



And remember, you can always listen to this and lots of past mixes by clicking the link in the sidebar!

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud



Friday, April 24, 2015

Crime and Punishment (Groan)





Considering the hazards inherent in writing a character like the Punisher, it's curious that Marvel has managed, for the most part, to avoid turning him into the kind of noxious right-wing caricature for which he could easily be mistaken. That the Punisher has been traditionally embraced by certain sections of the right is no surprise, but for much of his existence the stories themselves have gone to great lengths to draw a more nuanced picture.



Garth Ennis is responsible for two of the character's great defining runs - reinventing the Punisher once as pitch-black comedy and then again as a dead-serious crime book with political overtones. In both instances Ennis saw the Punisher not as a mouthpiece but as a cautionary tale. The best Punisher stories often highlight precisely why the Punisher is not - or at least, should never be - a wish-fulfillment character. He's the exception that proves the rule. No one should want to be the Punisher, and we should understand exactly why - even if we may receive a fleeting twinge of satisfaction from seeing Frank annihilate the drug dealers, rapists, and mass murderers of the world - he represents an inherently destructive and untenable moral infection in the body politic. He's a right-wing revenge fantasy as it might have been designed by left-wingers who understood the precise limitations of the type.

(Of related interest: I wrote about this subject back in 2009 in reaction to the Watchmen film, and my opinion on what Snyder got right about the character of Rorschach and vigilantes of this type, even in the context of a film that got so very much wrong.)

My favorite Punisher will always be Mike Baron's Punisher. It's an interpretation of the character that has mostly gone out of fashion, less the rugged sociopath and more the super-competent anti-hero of men's adventure novel series like The Destroyer. Baron's Punisher was a wry globe-trotter, an intelligent and articulate vigilante with a dedication to retribution, not merely vengeance (which are not synonyms). His actions were still, of course, morally repugnant, but the stories took place in a universe that acknowledged that the Punisher was on the wrong side of the law and existed primarily in dialogue with - and as a foil, not a corrective - to more traditional superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman. This despite legions of literal-minded fans arguing the contrary, largely in contradiction to the stories themselves.

The most recent Punisher series, written by Nathan Edmondson, comes down on the wrong side of this argument. From the very beginning the series has presented a version of Frank Castle directly at odds with much of his previous 40 years of established characterization. In doing so, Edmondson has highlighted just how well previous generations of Punisher creators - men and women on both sides of the political divide, it should be emphasized - have dealt with the challenges and pitfalls inherent to such an essentially problematic character.



This is a page from the third issue of The Punisher (2014) by Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads. If you aren't familiar with the Punisher, it might not immediately occur to you as to just why this passage is so problematic, fitting as it does nicely into current political arguments regarding gun rights and the philosophy of self-defense. But for anyone who does have experience with the character, it should jump out as immediately problematic.

The Punisher is not, and has never been, portrayed as reflexively pro-gun. On the contrary, despite the history of the character as someone who fetishizes firearms and other weapons of war - even to the point of having had a series devoted specifically to his weapon collection - he's always taken great pains to illustrate the principle that guns belong solely in the hands of trained professionals. The Punisher - as an ex-Marine - reveres soldiers and police officers. He doesn't shoot cops, and even crooked cops have traditionally been a blind spot. On the contrary, one of the most frequent tropes in the Punisher's history is his disapproval of copycat vigilantes and bloodthirsty fanboys. The stories themselves bend over backwards time and again to show that the Punisher is an exceptional case, and every other example of a proactive vigilante figure is a negative one. Even on those rare occasions where Frank takes a protege, it's always temporary, as even the most well-intentioned followers inevitably fall short of his standards.

For an illustration of this concept, take this page from the aforementioned Punisher Armory, issue #4 (1992), by Eliot R. Brown. This series comes in for a lot of criticism, almost all valid, but just look at how different the conversation over the Punisher's firearms usage was just 23 years ago.



Here's the text in a larger format:



Here's another editorial from Brown, this time from issue #6 of the same series:



Although I don't doubt (based on his enthusiasms, if nothing else) that Brown and I differ considerably on politics, I think this is nevertheless as good and defensible a description of the Punisher's rationale as you're likely to find. It's maybe fun - or at least cathartic - to imagine a world in which an extra-legal vigilante such as the Punisher can effectively operate, just one step further down the slippery slope that characters like Batman always manage to negotiate. But we don't live in such a world. We live in a world of laws, lawyers, and juries, and as imperfect as that system is it is nevertheless better than any alternative. In reality, the Punisher could never be as perfectly unerring as he is presented. Because of his superhuman competence - never making mistakes, always keeping to his primary objective with a laser-like focus - the Punisher is pure fantasy, and should always be regarded as such.

The Punisher doesn't exist to highlight the ineffectiveness of law enforcement, which is precisely the kind of right-wing fantasy Edmondson's current run seems to be asserting. For the Punisher to state that only fools place faith in the government's ability to protect them undermines the character in the most profound way. For decades the Punisher has consistently maintained that guns are dangerous and belong only in the hands of trained professionals. If there is one thing he hates as much as drug dealers, its incompetency (hence his distrust of amateurs such as Spider-Man and Daredevil). Seeing guns in the hands of millions of improperly trained paranoids, marching under the banner of a fundamentally misguided belief in self-defense as an absolute right, goes against everything the character represents, and everything that makes the character at all defensible even as a kind of fantasy. The necessary element to any fantasy, after all, is the acknowledgment of impracticality.

Elsewhere in the pages of the Armory, Brown spends a great deal of time talking about gun control in what was - for 1992 - a remarkable even-handed way, as someone who was a self-admitted (though not without reservations) member of the NRA. While it would obviously be a mistake to read Brown's words as the Punisher's, I think Brown's ideas represent what was at the time considered to be a fairly orthodox interpretation of the character, which itself represented what was (at the time, remember this was over two decades ago) a fairly centrist position on guns. That is: guns are legal, and as long as we have private gun ownership the only people who should have guns should be people who use them in an educated and responsible manner. The familiar analogy to car ownership is made more than once. The Punisher doesn't want more people to have guns. The idea that he would encourage citizens to take up arms in the face of police indifference not only flies in the face of decades of characterization, it takes what has traditionally been the character's unexpectedly nuanced ideology and demolishes said nuance in favor of signaling allegiance with precisely the kind of uninformed and dangerous political program to which he could never cosign, precisely because of its potential for unanticipated collateral damage. Where others see ideology, he sees practical consequences.

To put it another way: the Punisher represents the apex of conditional morality. That is, he acts selfishly, rationalizing his actions as the end result of certain specific conditions that dictate his specific actions. He could never endorse anything resembling a categorical imperative. He would never assert that every person who has lost a loved one to violent crime should act as he does by taking the law into his own hands. Rather, his existence is predicated on the necessary condition that his exception can only remain a singular exception. To do otherwise would undermine the illusion of ethical exceptionalism that provides his rationale. In the context of a Punisher story, it is a given that he is the smartest guy in the room, able to see every angle, to have answers for every conceivable problem, to ensure that bullets only go where he wants them to go. He can't cede that respect to anyone else, and neither can the story itself - lest the mere existence of the Punisher become license for negative anarchy. If Edmondson's interpretation of the character becomes the new standard, then he has finally and irrevocably become the indefensible right-wing paranoid fantasy his critics have always projected, but his creators often resisted.

Another essential part of the Punisher's mythology is his status as a Vietnam vet. This is part and parcel of his status as a creature of the 80s - even if he was born in the 70s, he could only have rose to prominence in the context of a culture then in the throes of systematically rejecting the narrative of American failure that arose as a direct response to the war. But again, the Punisher is rarely used as a mouthpiece for the kind of betrayal fantasies so prevalent among the right - the proverbial "stab in the back" myth that posits that the American military can only fail if undercut by domestic infidelity. (This is the kind of thinking that leads to the belief that government conspiracies are afoot to deny the truth about fallacious POW / MIA numbers, for instance.) Rather, the Punisher is most often used as an example of a particular left-wing narrative of the Vietnam period, a narrative that posits that American soldiers were betrayed by a government that used them poorly as collateral in an futile war fought primarily at the behest of defense contractors and misguided ideologues. Although this was a persistent theme of Ennis' run on the character, this is a part of his background going as far back as, again, the Armory series, this from issue #8 (1993).



(Again, though, note the presence of the MIA tag alongside the statement of the war's futility.)

Therein lies the crucial difference between the Punisher as initially conceived and developed, and the character as he exists now. By necessity, considering the character's age, his roots in Vietnam have been scrubbed. Now he's a veteran of one of the recent Gulf wars (the stories themselves being, I think, intentionally vague on this point). And right now in American culture there exists a sharp and contentious divide between those who celebrate these wars unconditionally as exemplars of American heroism, and those who regard the whole enterprise with sharp skepticism. The culture that promotes the likes of Chris Kyle will have no problem lionizing a character like Frank Castle as the patron saint of the "Righteous Kill," as opposed to a cautionary tale of an already-damaged human being destroyed by the trauma of a tragically unnecessary conflict.

It's the difference between defining a hero as a someone who takes on the responsibility to do the worst regardless of personal cost, or as someone who takes on the responsibility to do the best regardless of the difficulty. The Punisher has never been a hero, but he's often been an interesting character. Making him a hero renders him uninteresting in the most ugly and banal way conceivable.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight





"Prey" by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and Terry Austin


If the Batman vs. Superman trailer that leaked last week proves anything conclusively, it's that the positive influence of Frank Miller's late 80s work on Batman ran out of gas a long time ago. The people in charge of the franchise don't know anything else to do, really, but keep aping Miller's work (and Burton's films, which followed naturally from Miller as well as Moore) onscreen as well as in the comics themselves. Accordingly, there's a certain breed of comics fan who gets very upset - pants-wetting territorial, really - about any deviation from these same well worn Batman formulae laid out during the Reagan administration.

This wasn't always the case, and the immediate of success of Legends of the Dark Knight is a testament to that fact. Rather than serving up issue after issue of Miller / Moore pastiche, each early arc takes a completely different approach to the idea of telling a "mature readers" Batman story. "Shaman" was a thematic misfire from a veteran creator still stuck uncomfortably between paradigms. "Gothic" was a success that eschewed the strictly ground-level noir of Miller and Mazzuccheli's Year One in favor of an engagement with the supernatural, a horror story well within the literary genre from which the story took its name. "Prey" is something else entirely.

This isn't Batman as supernatural avenger, the "Dark Knight," or even Miller's shadowy hard-boiled detective hero. This is Batman as a man, a fighter and a scrapper without magic gadgets or Super Saiyan finishing moves. He gets cut, he bleeds, he almost drowns, he ends up stranded in the wrong part of town and has to walk through the sewers to get home. This is also, crucially, Batman as a man with definite psychological trauma, one whose scars are never quite so deeply buried as he would like to think.

"Prey" was also notable for reasons other than its status as a Batman story. Although this isn't the first time either Moench or Gulacy worked on Batman - and isn't even the first time they worked on Batman together - it was nevertheless a big deal to see one of comics' most storied teams working on a lengthy prestige format Batman epic. (Remember "prestige format"?) One telling detail here is that while Miller's influence has loomed larger and larger over each successive generation of creators, Moench and Gulacy (as well as Denny O'Neil and, for obvious reasons, Klaus Janson) were either Miller's peers or elders. While the existence of Legends of the Dark Knight is directly due to Miller's success with the character, his vision of Batman was still only the proverbial first among equals - not, as it would later become, the default. I doubt Moench and Gulacy felt particularly intimidated by Miller's influence, even at that point in his career.

(The question of Grant Morrison's debt to Miller is another topic entirely. It's almost tempting to read Morrison's later Batman work as an attempt to come to terms with Miller's disproportionate shadow by forcing the post-Miller Batman to confront the most scandalous elements of his long history - objectified as the "Black Casebook" stories that many longtime Batman fans believed to be dead and buried. Miller himself spent time in the 00s trying to disown his Batman, by tearing him down in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman. The attempt failed, in any event.)

But anyway, to cut to the chase, this is an excellent story. Maybe one of the best unsung Batman stories, and certainly the best story yet in Legends of the Dark Knight.



"Prey" observes the letter if not the spirit of the series' "no supervillains" mandate by offering the first post-Crisis appearance of Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange occupies a unique place in Batman's rogues gallery. Although he predates the Joker and Catwoman by a few months, he's never been a mainstay, appearing only sporadically and rarely to any lasting effect. The most memorable thing about him is his name - and even that, for obvious reasons, serves as much of a hinderance as a help to his larger career. He began as a super-villain before the rules governing super-villains were established. He was initially another in a long line of interchangeable mad scientists who bedeviled the first generation of super-heroes. His first gimmick was the invention of a super smoke machine to help his gang rob banks. After a couple follow-up appearances - and different gimmicks, like deadly zombies and fear powder (an idea to which the franchise would return) - he got put in the freezer for thirty years, and has appeared sporadically ever since.

In the last few decades creators have mostly defined Strange as a criminal psychiatrist - that is, a psychiatrist who treats / profiles criminals while also being a criminal himself. "Prey" takes place, like the two stories that precede it, in the post-Year One period wherein Batman's circumstances were not yet solidified. "Prey" picks up on Miller's use of the police as early foils for Batman, setting out to tell the story of how Batman won the trust of he police department and the mayor's office after his early splash as, essentially, a violent vigilante at odds with the city's most powerful citizens. James Gordon is stuck in the middle between Batman and the mayor: after Year One, Gordon knows Batman is on the side of the angels, but sticking up for the vigilante could jeopardize his job.

Enter Hugo Strange. After a debate on a local public affairs program (yeah, you can tell this was 25 years ago), Strange catches the mayor's attention. The mayor hires Strange to advise an anti-Batman task force being put together in the police department and to be led by . . . James Gordon.



Moench wastes no time in showing how twisted Strange is. He's a profoundly ugly man with an even uglier attitude towards women - he keeps a blonde department store mannequin as his confident, and seethes with jealousy over Batman's physical prowess and (imagined) erotic potency. He builds a homemade Batman costume in order to inhabit his enemy's mind. But despite all this, he's not stupid: with just a little bit of help from the police, he manages to deduce Batman's secret identity while at the same time framing him for a series of copycat crimes performed by a member of the anti-Batman task force who has been brainwashed into believing himself to be some kind of anti-Batman.

You can tell that Moench and Gulacy were mainstays of Bronze Age Marvel, because there's a lot of plot going on here. It works, though: there are many moving parts, but everything moves logically from one character to the next over the course of the narrative. Although there's a copious amount of actual fighting, the real battle is the contest of wills between Batman and Strange. (Middle-aged Strange, it goes without saying, represents no physical threat to Batman.) With Strange manipulating both the police and the mayor in order to tear down Batman, Batman has to piece together a counter-plan that depends on trusting Gordon in perhaps the most critical moment of their friendship - although we, the readers, know that Gordon eventually becomes Batman's most trusted ally on the police force, they both have to earn this trust, and Gordon's reluctance to fully embrace the vigilante is understandable. The wild card in this relationship is Catwoman, who also appears - in a follow up on her supporting role in Year One - during the early phase of her career, still at the time an unknown quantity who isn't very happy about being caught in the crossfire of the police force's war on Batman.



Although the ideas explored weren't exactly new, the story gains a lot from the assumption of a slightly older readership. Strange is a Freudian, so his ideas about Batman are both on-the-nose but also, as Miller himself acknowledged, fairly accurate. Baseball bats and swords represent masculine overreaching. Caves are dank and dark wombs. Women symbolize either childhood innocence or adult transgression - with Strange himself representing the kind of misogynistic arrested development that Batman needs to move past in order to grow up. Batman's burgeoning flirtation with Catwoman is an acknowledgment of the existence of adult relationships beyond the shallow Madonna / whore complex that fixates Strange, and which threatens to derail Bruce Wayne as he struggles to overcome the grief over his parents' deaths. While Strange is still stuck play-acting sexual aggression, Batman has to embrace the feminine - literally descending into the (womb-like/chthonic) earth of the Batcave in order to be reborn as a cohesive individual, able to overcome Strange's emotional manipulation.

But, really, you're reading a Batman story by the team behind Master of Kung-Fu, so you want to see the fights. Which are uniformly excellent. Gulacy is one of the best fight choreographers in the medium, and every battle throughout the story has a convincing verisimilitude. Instead of random figures colliding over monocolored backgrounds, Gulacy give us real bodies existing in concrete relation to other bodies. If you see a blow in one panel you see the counter blow in the next panel, with scrupulous attention paid to staging throughout the fight. Gulacy's Batman is a superb acrobat but no Superman: he takes as good as he gives, and there's a sense of real peril throughout. Years spent translating the filmic language of martial arts into the language of comics pays rich dividends.

Moench and Gulacy's Batman is one of the best: human and fallible, nowhere near the supremely competent Bat-God that he would become as the 90s wore on and Miller's characterization of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns became the standard approach. You believe that this Batman can be hurt, and that means everything in the context of a franchise where the hero's infallibility is usually accepted as his only weakness.



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction (2015)





On a dry planet on a distant arm of a distant galaxy, there was war! The wheels of conquest and heroism had rolled across the barren sands of the unnamed world, grinding the bones of the weak under the tread of laser tanks, and greasing the gears of the nuclear-powered rail guns that leveled entire mountain ranges with a single titanic shot!

The war had begun eons ago, on another world in another universe, but so far there had been no winner - could be no winner - as long as one last warrior on either side lived to hold a weapon! This was a war of extermination in which there could be no prisoners and no retreat - only death!

But one day there came upon the beautiful fields of combat a terrible truce. The generals of one army strode across the empty desolate plains to parlay with those of the other, and their troops, the finest intergalactic shock commandos in a dozen realities, took advantage of the rare quiet for a day of rest. What would be the result of this truce? Could there be . . . peace? No one dared guess.

On a distant mountain on a far plateau of this desert world there stood a concrete box, approximately five feet by five feet, closed on all sides. There was a muffled sound from within, the sound of steel cables tensing as if to burst. In the afternoon heat of this desert world the heat was unbearable, but through the miracle of an unknown endothermic reaction the box seemed to absorb all heat around it, such that the concrete was actually cold to the touch. There was a moment of silence when the titanic movements within the box seemed to pause, and then the front face of the box began to slide open.

Far away on battlefield where the generals discussed their truce, they heard the sound of a distant explosion, as if the bonds holding an ancient Titan of old had broken in a violent conflagration! What was happening? This planet was distant and empty, there were no other sapient beings for parsecs on any side. What could this strange event foretell?

Suddenly there came a silence, like the calm before a dreaded Bargoxian Ammonia Storm. The general rumble of armies at peace faded and all present knew they were on the cusp of something epochal. A man came into view striding from the desert, unhurriedly and yet with the supreme confidence borne of a total mastery of all natural and logical processes. He was clad simply in robes and wore nothing on his feet even as he marched across the burning sands. He wore no covering on his head and yet did not squint in the afternoon sun. His hair was cut short and his skin was bronze, the color of cooling iron after it has been tested by the forge. All present knew at once they were in the presence of a singular creature, a MAN who would and could change the destinies of every living being, if he so chose!

He was a MAN of uncommon bearing. His muscles rippled and twitched in the light, never truly still, constantly tense under the burden of perfection, a burden he carried in the desert heat with as much heat as a camel might carry a sheet of fine white paper ten thousand miles on a lonely trek.

Finally, the MAN approached the clutch of generals in their repose, arrayed around a table festooned with beverages and other delicacies. All along the plains where two armies stood motionless silence reigned, as all present held their breaths to hear what this potent stranger might say.

He paused at the table and stood without movement. Finally, he opened his mouth - but instead of moving his jaw and articulating his tongue, the words simply flowed from his mouth like waves crashing on a rocky beach. His words were THUNDER and his speech was LIGHTNING, and it seared the souls of all those who attended him.

WHERE IS THE WAR?

The generals were afraid to speak in the presence of one so much greater than they. Finally, one brave warrior, older and more esteemed than all the others, rose on his spindly legs and addressed the stranger.

"We have warred for generations, but we have come together today to broker peace. Because we are tired of war."

BUT WAR IS LIFE.

"We have lived on this barren rock for longer than I have been alive, fighting one another for control of nothing. We wish to make peace and to leave. We no longer wish to be at war with one another."

BUT WITHOUT WAR, IS WEAKNESS.

"We have fought for centuries and tested our resolve against our enemy. We have earned valor uncountable. But we grow old and our numbers no longer replenish themselves."

YOU HAVE SUCCUMBED TO WEAKNESS, AND FROM WEAKNESS UNTO DEATH, AND FROM DEATH TO DISHONOR.

"We have fought long enough to satisfy honor."

I UNDERSTAND YOUR WORDS BUT NOT YOUR MEANING. THE ONLY GOOD DEATH IS DEATH BY BATTLE, ALL OTHER DEATH IS DISGRACE.

The elder sat down in defeat. Another rose, from the same side of the table, to answer the proposition. He was not so old, and not yet so weak.

"We have forgotten why we fight."

YOU DO NOT NEED A REASON TO FIGHT. IT IS NATURE TO DESTROY, NATURE FOR MEN TO SWEEP THE EARTH OF ALL RESISTANCE AND ANNIHILATE THE WEAK.

"But sir," the second general began, "many among us no longer wish to fight."

NOT MANY MEN ARE TRUE MEN. WHO DO YOU FIGHT.

A figure from the opposite side of the table rose and began to speak. Before she could address the stranger, he spoke at her.

WHO ARE YOU TO SPEAK TO ME?

"I am the leader, the highest general of my army."

BUT YOU ARE . . . NOT MALE.

It was true! The general who now addressed the MAN was a woman, old and wizened, but still strong underneath the delicate ceremonial armor which she wore in the desert heat.

"That is true, I am a woman."

THEN HOW CAN THIS BE. YOU ARE WEAK.

The second general from the other side of the table arose and spoke. "They are women, yes, but they are warriors true. They have fought us across the universes, to a standstill, and at great cost to both sides."

ARE YOU MEN?

"Yes, we are -"

NO, YOU ARE MALES. YOU ARE MALES BUT YOU ARE NOT YET MEN. TO BE A MEN IS TO UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF THE CLOAK OF WEAKNESS THAT ALLOWS YOU TO BE STYMIED BY NOT-MALES.

"But sir -"

SPEAK NOT AGAIN LEST I DESTROY YOU WHERE YOU STAND.

The MAN tensed his left and right biceps and the sound of an earthquake filled the ears of all those present.

IT IS SAID THAT TO STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND IS TO STRIKE WITH LOVE. DO YOU STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND?

"No, sir, we strike the the fire of a thousand thousand suns. The fearsome might of our blitzkrieg is hailed across the known realms, from Asterum to Zeenig."

YOU STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND, BECAUSE YOUR ENEMY - NOT-MALES - YET LIVES. WEAKNESS IS LOVE, AND LOVE IS WEAKNESS. THEY ARE BUT NAMES FOR ONE AND THE SAME THING, WHICH ARE BOTH SIGNS OF THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH. TO STRIKE WITH THE FIST IS TO STRIKE WITH HONOR, TO STRIKE FOR DESTRUCTION AND FOR HONOR AND DIGNITY.

"Sir, we have fought across the universes -"

AND YOU HAVE NOT WON. I KNEW I WAS RIGHT TO LEAVE THE WORLD OF MALES BEHIND.

"You were once one . . . of us?"

I WAS NEVER LIKE YOU. FROM A YOUNG AGE I PERCEIVED THE LOGIC OF STRENGTH. I TOOK THE RED PILL AND I KNEW THE FUTILITY OF ALL RESISTANCE.

"But sir, we have taken the holy Red Pill as well! All of us have pledged our lives to destroy the Adversary."

AND YET YOU MAKE PARLAY WITH YOUR ENEMY.

"We have fought long and hard. We have upheld our honor."

IF YOU HAD UPHELD YOUR HONOR I WOULD STILL BE AT PAUSE IN MY EXILE. MANY EPOCHS AGO I RECOGNIZED THAT I WAS THE ONLY MAN ALIVE - PERHAPS, IN MY TIME, THE LAST MAN. I EXILED MYSELF FROM THE WORLDS IN ANTICIPATION OF THE DAY WHEN I COULD ONCE AGAIN COME AMONGST YOU, MY PEOPLE, AND BE NO LONGER ALONE. I WAS TO BE - THE FIRST MAN. BUT I SEE THAT MY EONS OF REST HAVE BORNE BITTER FRUIT. THERE ARE NO MEN, ONLY WEAK AND SIMPERING MALES, AND LESS THAN MALES.

The MAN turned to address the commanders of the second army, resplendent in their molybdenum polymer armor, ritual war lasers at their side.

NOT-MALES, WHY DO YOU FIGHT?

"Sir," the eldest general replied, "we are warriors for social justice. We have crossed the known realms and laid barren whole galaxies to prosecute our cause with great zeal."

YOU FIGHT FOR - SOCIAL JUSTICE?

"Yes."

WHAT IS - JUSTICE?

"Why, justice is equality and fairness - equal representation and fair access. It is the right to be addressed with dignity and respect by equals."

THERE IS ERROR IN YOUR WORDS. YOUR IDEALS CANNOT WITHSTAND THE KEEN BLADE OF REASON.

"We welcome free debate -"

THERE IS NO DEBATE. THERE IS NO DELIBERATION. THERE IS MERELY THE STATEMENT OF TRUE AND NOT-TRUE PROPOSITIONS. YOU HAVE STATED NOT-TRUE PROPOSITIONS.

"What is 'not-true' about the desire for justice?"

YOUR PREMISE IS FATALLY FLAWED. JUSTICE DOES NOT EXIST.

"Justice is human and fallible, but no less necessary -"

ALL REASON BEGINS WITH THE PROPOSITION THAT A=A. THE PRINCIPLE OF IDENTITY PROCLAIMS THAT OBJECTS CAN ONLY BE EQUAL TO THEMSELVES. JUSTICE IS PREDICATED ON EQUITY BETWEEN NON-IDENTICAL CATEGORIES, HENCE IT IS A FALLACY.

"We fight to defend the universe from your ideology."

THEN YOU FIGHT A FUTILE WAR! A=A! A CANNOT EQUAL B! TO BELIEVE THAT ANOTHER IS EQUAL TO MYSELF IS WORSE THAN A FALLACY - IT IS THE WORST KIND OF DEATH, EGO DEATH!

"But we are all of us equals."

THEN WE ARE ALL NOTHING! EQUALITY AND JUSTICE ARE MYTHS PERPETRATED BY THE WEAK TO MAINTAIN THEIR STATUS AS BLESSED VICTIMS. IN TRUTH, THE WEAK SHALL INHERIT ONLY - DEATH! THE ONLY TRUE ACT OF THE STRONG IS TO DESTROY!

"But if destruction is your finest aspiration, how can you survive?

TO BE MALE IS TO EMBRACE DESTRUCTION AS THE ONLY POSITIVE ACTION. TO BE A MAN IS TO ACTUALIZE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL CREATION WITH EVERY LIVING BREATH. THIS IS TRUE AND GOOD.

A QUESTION: IF A MAN SPEAKS, IS THE ACT AN ACT OF CREATION OR DESTRUCTION?"

"To speak is to create."

NO! TO SPEAK IS TO DESTROY SILENCE! IF A MAN SPEAKS IN THE PRESENCE OF A WOMAN, HE DESTROYS THE POTENTIAL FOR HER TO SPEAK. IF A GENETICALLY PURE MAN SPEAKS, HE DESTROYS THE SPEECH OF OF A IMPURE MONGREL RACE SPECIMEN.

"But why can't there simply be room for all to speak their peace on an equal basis?"

A=A! A CAN ONLY OCCUPY THE SPACE OF A! A AND B CANNOT COEXIST! IN ORDER FOR A TO REMAIN A, IT MUST ANNIHILATE B! A CAN ONLY REMAIN TRULY A UNLESS ITS EVERY ACT IS DESIGNED TO ASSERT AND REASSERT IT'S IDENTITY!

"But why can there not be room for everyone?"

TO BE FULLY ACTUALIZED IS TO ACCEPT THE MANTLE OF SUPREMACY. TO REJECT SUPREMACY IS TO EMBRACE WEAKNESS. TO BE WEAK - TO ACCEPT MULTIPLICITY AND RADICAL EQUALITY - IS TO EMBRACE DEATH, FOR ONLY IN THE EXERTION OF POWER AND DESTRUCTION IS THERE LIFE AND FREEDOM.

The general who first spoke, aged and wizened, rose again and addressed the demigod who now walked amongst man.

"It is obvious from your words that you are the prophet who has been foretold, the MAN above men who will lead the male race to its position of genetic and ideological purity over the mongrel and not-male. But we have fought long and hard to fulfill your ancient teachings - how have we failed?"

YOU HAVE FAILED BECAUSE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE HEARD MY WORDS YOU HAVE NOT LISTENED TO THEM. YOU LIFT THE CUP TO YOUR MOUTH BUT TURN AWAY BEFORE YOU DRINK.

"How best can we follow you?"

FOLLOW ME? YOU BETRAY YOUR IGNORANCE WITH EVERY WORD! YOU CANNOT FOLLOW ME. I AM NO LEADER. THERE ARE NO MEN AMONG YOU, BECAUSE NO TRUE MEN ARE CONTENT TO LEAD OR BE LED. IF THERE WAS ONE MAN AMONG THE THOUSANDS OF YOU, THEN THERE WOULD BE ONLY ONE MAN. HIS ACTUALIZATION WOULD MEAN THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL FALSE PROPOSITIONS, ALL NON-ACTUALIZED MALES.

"So there can be only one?"

IF THERE WERE A MAN AMONG YOU, HE WOULD KNOW THAT SURVIVAL OF THE SELF DEPENDS IN ALL INSTANCES ON THE DESTRUCTION OF THE OTHER. IF THE OTHER IS ALLOWED TO SURVIVE, THEN THE EGO IS DIMINISHED, MADE WEAK, RENDERED UNTO DEATH.

"But then how can there be society?"

SOCIETY IS AN ILLUSION AND A LIE TOLD BY THE WEAK IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED TO SURVIVE UNDER THE SKIRTS OF THEIR BETTERS. TO BE ACTUALIZED IS TO RECOGNIZE ONE'S AUTONOMY, AND TO RECOGNIZE THAT SOCIETY IS A DISEASE OF COMPROMISE.

"But how can men survive alone?"

MAN CAN ONLY SURVIVE ALONE! TO INTERACT WITH OTHERS IS TO ADMIT WEAKNESS!

"What can a man truly do, then?"

MANY EONS AGO I LEFT THE WORLD OF MALES AND NON-MALES TO BEGIN MY EXILE AND REST UPON THIS DISTANT WORLD. I BUILT MYSELF A SHELTER OF STONE, A CLOSED BOX WITH NO WINDOWS AND NO DOORS. IN THIS BOX I HAVE SAT, MOTIONLESS, FOR MILLENNIA, THE ONLY SOUNDS THE TRIUMPHAL STRAINING OF MY STEEL MUSCLES IN PERPETUAL ISOMETRIC SELF-ANNIHILATION, MY ONLY THOUGHT THE ENDLESS RECITATION OF IDENTITY - A=A! A=A! AND IN THAT STATE OF DIVINE MASCULINITY I COULD HAVE HAPPILY REMAINED UNTIL THE END TIMES.

"Why have you come upon us now?"

I HAVE LEFT MY SUBLIME MEDITATIONS ON MANHOOD TO EXAMINE YOUR CONFLICT - TO SEE IF, AS I HOPED, THE ERA OF TRUE MEN HAD ARRIVED. I SEE NOW I AM WOEFULLY MISTAKEN. I SEE NO MEN HERE - ONLY WEAKNESS AND DEATH.

"How will we know when the age of True Men has arrived?"

YOU WILL KNOW FROM THE ANNIHILATION OF ALL FALSEHOOD. A=A! ALL NON-MEN SHALL BE DESTROYED, AND IN THIS ACT OF DESTRUCTION ALL FREEDOM SHALL EMERGE!

"But if we can only destroy, how shall we propagate the race?"

PROCREATION IS WEAKNESS! DO YOU ACCEPT YOUR NEGATION? DO YOU WILLFULLY SUBJUGATE YOURSELF TO THE WILL OF ANOTHER? DO YOU EMBRACE IMPERFECTION? THEN YOU PROCREATE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU SHALL BE SURPASSED IN TIME BY ANOTHER. TO ACTUALIZE YOURSELF IS TO REJECT PROCREATION, IS TO EMBRACE THE THESIS THAT YOU ARE ALREADY THE PINNACLE OF ALL! YOU SHALL NOT POLLUTE YOURSELF WITH THE ACT OF PROCREATION! TO GIVE LIFE TO ANOTHER IS TO TAKE YOUR OWN!

"How will we know when the final age is upon us?"

YOU WILL KNOW BECAUSE THE ONLY LIVING BEINGS WHO REMAIN SHALL BE THE SELF-ACTUALIZED, THE POWERFUL, THE TRUE MEN OF MEN. AND THEN IN THE FINAL DAYS WE SHALL MAKE JOYFUL WAR, TO DESTROY EACH OTHER AND THE UNIVERSE THAT EMBRACES THE WEAKNESS OF ALL LIVING THINGS. IN THE END OF ALL TIME, ONLY ONE MAN SHALL REMAIN, ONLY ONE MAN SHALL STAND VICTORIOUS OVER ALL CREATION! AND THEN IN THE FINAL ACT OF FREEDOM THAT MAN SHALL DESTROY CREATION, EXTINGUISH EVERY SUN AND DISINTEGRATE THE EARTH BENEATH HIS FEET, FINALLY ACHIEVING TRUE MASCULINITY. UNTIL THAT MOMENT, WE SHALL BATHE IN WEAKNESS AND COMPROMISE, DAMNED TO DRINK THE FILTH OF THE UNWORTHY AND TO FEAST ON THE OFFAL OF THE UNCLEAN.

"And what then, will the Last MAN do, at the end of time?"

THE FINAL ACT OF DESTRUCTION SHALL BE THE OBLITERATION OF THE SELF, THE FINAL FLEXING OF INVINCIBLE MUSCLES THAT SHALL UNDO THE POTENTIAL OF ALL THAT EVER WAS AND ALL THAT WILL EVER BE! IN THE FINAL MOMENT OF ECSTATIC SELF-OBLITERATION SHALL THE LAST MAN KNOW TRUE PEACE!

"So, the true fate of MAN is to uncreate the universe!"

YES! TO ACTUALIZE THE MASCULINE IS TO EMBRACE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL THAT IS! TO REJECT THE ILLUSIONS OF JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS! TO UNDERSTAND THAT COMPASSION AND EMPATHY ARE THE INTOXICANT OF THE WEAK! TO KNOW THAT CREATION IS ABOMINATION, AND THE ONLY TRUTH IS POWER - REAL ULTIMATE POWER - THE POWER TO ANNIHILATE!

"By the great moons of Gargolax, we have been wrong, we have wandered weak in the valley of suffering! Give us a new gospel, bring us the truth of all existence and uncreation!"

On a dry planet on a distant arm of a distant galaxy, the MAN who was above all men spoke again, and his words were burnt into the soul of every space-warrior present. They knew that they were present at the end of the beginning, of the beginning of the end of all things. The imperfect prophets of yore had failed to adequately prepare the human race for the Final World, and it would fall on every soul present to spread outwards from this remote and war torn world with the new gospel of Man, to save and redeem the universe through fire and steel.

A=A!

SOCIETY IS COMPROMISE!

COMPROMISE IS WEAKNESS!

DIFFERENCE IS WEAKNESS!

WEAKNESS IS DEATH!

PROCREATION IS SELF-DEATH!

SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS POWER!

POWER IS DESTRUCTION!

DESTRUCTION IS SELF-ACTUALIZATION!

SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS LIFE!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!



Cloak & Dagger #4



Let's talk turkey: no one likes Cloak & Dagger.

I hear you sputtering and frothing, your monocle plopping off and tumbling into your bowl of French onion soup as you stare in disbelief at the words on your computer screen. No one likes Cloak & Dagger, you say? Why I never!

Before you get offended, think about it for a minute. Cloak & Dagger first appeared in 1982 in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. They spun-off into their own mini-series in 1983, followed by the launch of an ongoing series in 1985. This series ran for 11 bimonthly issues before being folded into a relaunched Strange Tales anthology, with Dr. Strange as the co-feature. After 19 issues of that, Cloak & Dagger and Doc were once again split into separate series. The new Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme book ran for 90 monthly issues, whereas The Mutant Misadventures of Cloak & Dagger lasted for 19 bimonthly issues - and in that time crossed over with Inferno, Acts of Vengeance AND The Infinity Gauntlet.

The important thing to remember is that this was a period of historic success for the comics industry. In the late 80s and early 90s, getting canceled required a significant effort. And it's also worth noting that Dagger's "costume" is that she is a skinny blonde girl with perky breasts in a translucent body suit that manages to involve both cleavage and and an exposed belly-button. They tried everything: Spider-Man was practically a co-star, they were pals with the New Mutants, they had two Marvel Graphic Novels, one of which was even a team up with Power Pack. (OK, maybe that last one wasn't exactly a recipe for commercial success, but still.) Marvel really tried with these guys. They saw a Cloak & Dagger sized hole in the market and tried their best to fill it for seven long years. Unfortunately, it really wasn't as big of a hole as they thought.

That doesn't really say anything about the books, or the characters themselves. I admit that even though I've never been a big fan, I've always thought the duo had some potential, even if that potential has usually been hidden under a pile of regrettable crud. They've got a memorable, if kind of racist visual, after all - literally the whitest white girl you can imagine juxtaposed against the darkness of Cloak's, er, cloak. The problem is that in addition to this memorable / problematic visual, everything else about the premise has also dated terribly. (And hey, if you think that 1982 was probably one of the last moments when an interracial couple like C&D might still carry a bit of heat in mainstream culture, you'd be correct. This is especially true if you also filled the book with racists who spent half their time telling Tandy that Ty was a literal demon. Why, you might even say some racial panic was baked right into the premise. But in 2015 that part of the characters can be very easily ignored since in most parts of the country interracial relationships have become, you know, relationships.)

Do you remember the 1980s? Do you remember what everyone was worried about in the 1980s? I mean, besides nuclear war, the homeless, decaying manufacturing capacity, and growing wealth inequality inspired by Republicans having adopted trickle-down economic policies inspired by the nonsensical Laffer Curve? Yeah, I'm talking about drugs, as in, The War on Drugs. Conservative and conservative-leaning politicians across the country - and much of the rest of the world - ginned up a moral panic over surging rates of drug use. Whereas in a better world the viral spread of crack cocaine and resurgence of other hard drugs would have inspired government to mend the holes in the social safety net that enabled illicit drugs to pour into ruined inner-city neighborhoods (and even white suburbs) across the country while also establishing a drug abatement philosophy that treated addiction as a medical condition instead of incarcerating addicts, the good old U-S-of-A decided it was better simply to criminalize and demonize. If you're "of a certain age," you undoubtedly remember this PSA, or some variant thereof:



The War on Drugs, and the Rockefeller-inspired drug laws passed in its wake, backfired immensely. To begin with, look at the basics of drug education during the period. Remember D.A.R.E.? It stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. This was a program that sent armed cops into classrooms all across the country to lecture kids about the dangers of drugs. All drugs. Marijuana remains a Class-1 narcotic in the United States, in case you forgot, meaning that on paper it's as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. The first and worst lesson kids took away from D.A.R.E. was that all drugs were equally bad, which meant that every single anti-drug lesson the student learned in primary school was completely erased the moment the high schooler took his or her first hit off a joint. My parents were and are recreational pot smokers and I could see with my own two eyes that half of what they told us in D.A.R.E. in the mid-80s was bullshit - stuff like, smoking marijuana once can under certain circumstances put you into a permanent coma (for instance, that's an example from memory). The other half was simple common sense stuff about peer pressure and the like, but because it was so intimately intermingled with bullshit the whole message was irreducibly tainted.

Mighty Marvel never met a trend it couldn't bite - be it disco, punk, or Iran-Contra, Marvel has found a way to capitalize on every passing fad or current event since Stan sent the Fantastic Four on their fateful rocket mission to beat the Soviets to the moon in 1961. 1982 predated the crack epidemic by a couple years (crack came into use in the early 80s as a response to the collapse of the cocaine market due to oversupply), but coincided precisely with the rise in heroin abuse that accompanied Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. (The Mujahideen flooded the west with cheap poppy in order to fund their insurgency by buying weapons . . . often from the same United States that was coincidentally also experiencing a surge in heroin use. This was the same Mujahideen who later formed the core leadership of al Qaeda and who were considered staunch allied of the United States until, well, they weren't.) So what were the kids into in 1982? Heroin! Oh, I kid. Sort of.

Cloak & Dagger were created to be every 1980s parent's worst nightmare: two latchkey kids - one from a posh upbringing, one from, er, Boston - who banded together as runaways, only to be kidnapped and given experimental drugs. These "experimental drugs" - essentially a kind of synthetic super-heroin that had killed all previous test subjects - left Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson alive but in the possession of amazing powers. Dagger generated and could throw knives of pure light, whereas Cloak became, er, a giant cloak that could swallow people into a universe of absolute darkness. He could also teleport himself and others, which is a useful and surprisingly rare power that meant Cloak always got an invite to massive events where teleportation powers gave the writer an easy logistical cheat (such as the aforementioned Infinity Gauntlet, Maximum Carnage, House of M, and Civil War). But these powers did not come without a price: Cloak was left with a permanent hunger for Dagger's "light," and if he didn't receive regular infusions of said "light," he experienced symptoms similar to those of drug withdrawal. This led, in turn, to him being a bit of a whiny bitch, and creepily possessive of Dagger, to the point where his sole function in many Cloak & Dagger stories is telling her that he doesn't want to go off and play with the other super heroes.

For a while Cloak & Dagger were mutants whose powers had been awakened by the super-heroin. (Just typing that makes me feel dumber.) Then it turned out they were the pawns of Marvel's 17th greatest demonic mastermind, D'Spayre. Then after a while they joined Norman Osborn's short-lived "Dark" X-Men, and subsequently joined the real X-Men, only to be told that they were never actually mutants to begin with, at which point they left the X-Men, only to have their powers magically reversed during Spider-Island, of all things. Their new look is kind of cool, but so far as I know no one has used the characters since.

(And while we're on the subject, just why do you need synthetic "super-heroin," anyway? Isn't heroin already plenty addictive? Giving someone a more potent dose of heroin usually just kills them. And the whole reason behind the heroin epidemic at the time is that it was cheap, so a synthetic version would probably have been unnecessarily expensive. Comic book criminals are fucking stupid.)

With that said, there were rumors a while back that Marvel was looking at developing Cloak & Dagger as a TV show for ABC Family, which would be perfect, since supernatural adventure stories with star-crossed lovers aimed at teenagers are kind of a "thing" right now. Just, you know, drop the super-heroin angle, because the last thing they need to do is inspire a new generation of junkies to try heroin in hopes of gaining awesome superpowers.

So yeah, no one likes these guys. Before you burst into the comments with an angry jeremiad about how Cloak & Dagger are the most underrated duo in comics - think about the fact that your opinion is a statistical anomaly, and that if enough people cared about them to support a book at any point in the last 25 years, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Cloak & Dagger aren't terrible: for the most part they're just . . . there. (When they aren't also being just a teeny-tiny bit racist.)

Based on this preamble, you can probably tell their run-in with the Beyonder is going to be fun.

The mid-to-late eighties was also the era in which the Punisher first rose to prominence, so it's not as if there wasn't a legitimate demand for street-level urban vigilantes (mostly) fighting on the front lines of the War on Drugs. But alas, Cloak & Dagger were no Frank Castle. Until the day I die I will regret the fact that the Punisher's solo series did not begin until after Secret Wars II was nothing but a memory, and so there exists as yet no official meeting between the Punisher and the One From Beyond. (I did, however, write my own, even if the image link is long dead.) But there does exist an editorially-mandated crossover between the Beyonder and Cloak & Dagger, which is as wonderful as you hope.

Out story begins, as most do, with the Beyonder wandering the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, which looked significantly different thirty years ago than it does now.



Now, of course, the Beyonder doesn't understand poverty, which is understandable, because to an omnipotent being from another universe seeing Earth for the first time, poverty is a pretty weird thing.



Now who do you suppose just happens to be hanging out on a rooftop right near where the One From Beyond decided to take his nocturnal stroll down the mean streets of not-yet-gentrified urban hell New York City?



There are a few things that usually come up in any discussion of Secret Wars II: there's the bit where the Beyonder turns a building into gold, the part where the stupid kid sets himself on fire because John Byrne wants to prove an even stupider point, but most importantly, the issue where Peter Parker teaches him to go to the bathroom. This one comes in for a lot of criticism because of the fact that, well, it is goofy. But the incident makes more sense in the context of the issue in which it occurs - Secret Wars II #2 - which is itself a relatively light-hearted and humorous installment of the series, focused on a child-like Beyonder learning how to do things like eat, defecate, and use money. In context, it makes sense. Therefore, I'm always surprised that more people don't know about Cloak & Dagger #4, because I believe this represents the event's true goofy zenith. There is no context in which the events of this comic book can be said to make sense.



The Beyonder, thinking that these strangers are sincere in their desire to satisfy his desire, happily accompanies them into the tenement. This does not sit well with our heroes, who also use the incident as an opportunity to expostulate on their ethical prerogatives.



At this point . . . well, here's where shit get real.



So, to wit: the Beyonder has entered a shooting-gallery and is about to be rolled over by a few dealers. They apparently plan on giving him an overdose of heroin, instead of just - you know - hitting him on the head and taking his wallet, which would undoubtedly save them the trouble of using up valuable inventory. But then, of course, we would be spared the unseen spectacle (thanks, Comics Code!) of the Beyonder actually shooting heroin.



Being the killjoys they are, Cloak & Dagger show up just in time to interfere with the whole operation. The Beyonder, as you can imagine, isn't too happy with this turn of events.





Cloak & Dagger was never exactly a subtle book when it came to its religious allusions. You may have found yourself wondering, when you began reading this article, whether or not the scene depicted on the cover - that of the Beyonder crucifying Cloak & Dagger - actually transpired in the story itself. And now you know the answer is yes. The Beyonder crucifies Cloak & Dagger because they beat up his drug dealers.



And that was the end of Cloak & Dagger, as the dysfunctional duo were cured of their self-destructive powers and set free to start a new life, which included marrying and settling down, opening a bakery in Williamsburg that just happened to take off a few years later when the neighborhood began to change, and subsequently ending up as recurring guests on Martha Stewart Living because of their famous shortbread.

Oh, wait, the story isn't over. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkk.



And so, I give you the greatest moment of Secret Wars II, and maybe, just maybe, by extension, the greatest moment in Marvel history, and as such, the greatest moment in the history of all comics: the Beyonder getting high on smack.

Are you ready?









































Are you sure?









































OK, here we go:



You aren't imagining it: this scene is so hot that the letters are burning right through the page, rendering them completely illegible. Eighties printing at its finest.

But in all seriousness, it wasn't until a few years ago that I was actually able to make out what this page was saying. When I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus (because of course I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus, are you kidding me? It has its own special pedestal and we record all births, marriages, and deaths inside the flyleaf) the first thing I did was turn to page 550 and see if the improved printing allowed for the page to be read. It did, just barely. It reads:
The being from beyond "allows" himself to experience not only its "rush" - that overpowering, initial sensation of pleasure - but also the agony known to every abuser of papaver somiferum from time immemorial. He could end his descent into this poisonous purgatory at any instant and yet he allows the horror of it to sweep over him, so that he can expand his awareness of both the drug and a world where its availabllity is commonplace. An underworld where what is sold in the name of happiness begets hunger - where hunger begets desire - where desire begets need - where need begets crime . . . where crime begets retribution and so on in an endless cycle of addiction - world without end!
Now, the last thing I want to do is pick on poor Bill Mantlo. He's been dealt a rotten hand by life and deserves every ounce of support and well-wishing we can muster. But. This is a thing that happened. The Beyonder shot heroin on his watch. Not only did he shoot heroin but he also magically experienced the rush and the comedown from a massive dose of the drug in what appears to be the blink of an eye - which, you know, I'm no expert in intravenous drugs, but I'm pretty sure that's not quite how heroin works.



The Beyonder, being a child with the powers of God, overreacts just as you would expect, by wiping out the drug dealers and then returning their powers to Cloak & Dagger in order to carry on the War on Drugs in his name. They're not thrilled by this fact. He seems surprised, despite their having explicitly told him just a page ago how happy they were to be free of their powers. Not that bright, this one.



So the One From Beyond obliterates the drug trade in New York City by destroying every drug dealer. He can do that, you know. In case you forgot. Here's American domestic drug policy in the 1980s in a nutshell: because drugs are seen as an absolute moral wrong, the Powers That Be decided to crack down in as vicious and permanent a way as possible on those who use and sell narcotics, while the bleeding-heart left sat on the sidelines and wondered whether or not drug offenders might not need to be reformed (while actually doing very little to stand in the way of draconian sentencing laws because they proved to be very popular with the same electorate who elected Reagan twice).



Well, seeing as how New York drug use rates didn't drastically plummet in 1986, you can guess what happens next. Because Cloak & Dagger apparently didn't get the memo about this being Reagan's America, they obviously sympathize with the subhuman scum the Beyonder saw fit to scour from a city where decent people are afraid to walk alone at night.



As goofy, strange, terrible, ludicrous, and amazing as this story is, you could also point to it as being perhaps the archetypal Cloak & Dagger story. This, after all, is the one where God comes down and explicitly explains the series' core metaphors: "Cloak represents the darkness - the despair a man may expect as his punishment should he commit a crime - while you are the light of his salvation. Who also just happens to be a bangin' blonde chick while the face of criminal punishment in America is, coincidentally, a young black male."



Superheroes are strange people. You'd think, after encountering a man with the powers of God - not "a" god but capital-"G" God - able to kill thousands in the blink of an eye and then magically resurrect them moments later - they might be slightly . . . affected by the experience. You might even say this could be a life-changing experience for any sane person. But not our heroes! Just another day in the office for ol' Cloak & Dagger.



And so now we have seen the War on Drugs through the eyes of Marvel Comics ca. 1986. As awful as parts of this story may be, it's also premised on a degree of sympathy and compassion for drug users that was not necessarily to be expected in the period. This was the era of Arnold and Sly, after all, who enthusiastically took on crime with both guns blazing. Marvel had it's own answer to these type of inherently right-wing law & order fantasies waiting in the wings, in the form of the aforementioned Punisher. The Punisher was a success where Cloak & Dagger had failed, perhaps on account of the fact that the liberal pieties with which Mantlo approached the drug war were simply out of touch with the times. People wanted to see drug dealers being blown up with rocket launchers, so by God that's what Marvel gave them.

After Mantlo left the book, Cloak & Dagger migrated away from street-level stories and towards more supernatural superheroics - part and parcel of sharing a book with Dr. Strange, one suspects. That direction, of course, proved no more popular. Cloak & Dagger remain oddballs - borne of equal parts opportunistic fear-mongering and liberal sentiment, a concept with never-fulfilled potential relegated to the margins of the Marvel Universe, and predicated on regrettable racial imagery. When it comes to Marvel, of course, you can never say never - the greatest proof of that is another Mantlo creation with a far more unlikely pedigree, whose toys can currently be found clogging the aisles of a Wal-Mart near you. Will we live to see Cloak & Dagger redeemed, plucked out of the unfortunate circumstances of their creation and modernized sufficiently in order to allow the characters to shine? Perhaps. Only the One From Beyond knows for sure.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Monday Magic



In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Plaguemaw Beast (Mirrodin Besieged, 2011)



Ladies and gentlemen, Plaguemaw Beast!

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How are you, Mr. Beast? It's been a few years since you were in the spotlight. What have you been up to?

Well, Jim, it's been a rough few years, but I'm hanging in there.

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

Yeah, you know how it is. That's the way the world works: if you're a Magic card, even a good one, you really only get one shot. If you're lucky, you're good in limited, which means you get a year or so in the spotlight. If you're really lucky, you see a little tournament action. Only a few folks get to stick around for too long after that.

You do have an advantage over most green Beasts, though - you've got a very popular keyword on you - Proliferate.

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That's true, but honestly, Proliferate is as much a gift as a curse. Sure, people love it. They love being able to use me to sac tiny guys to put more counters on their Planeswalkers or their opponent's poison total. That's fun. Problem is, Proliferate - it was pretty powerful. Players like it but design has problems, you know. Not a lot of design space left, they say. Don't look at me, I don't know these things. And even if they did bring it back, they'd want to bring back something flashy like Thrummingbird. Not a five CMC Beast that dies to a Lightning Bolt. But hey, I'm not terrible. I even won a few games, back in the day. Say, for instance, you've got your opponent up to nine poison counters, but you've only got one creature - me. I can swing for four damage, yeah, but without another creature to sacrifice, I don't have Infect or anything. Your hand is empty. You opponent's itchy because he knows the game hinges on the next draw - then BAM you pull a card, slap down a Chimney Imp, tap me and BOOM, the fat fuck opposite you is poisoned.

Why . . . why would anyone be playing a Chimney Imp with you? No one plays Chimney Imp. You weren't in the same block as Chimney Imp, so you're implying someone would choose to construct a deck years after the fact with both you and Chimney Imp in it.

Look it was just a figure of speech, you know? That's what my ability did: no matter how crappy the card, I could bury it and Proliferate counters. Any counters, not just poison.

Also, in that scenario, couldn't you just sacrifice yourself to yourself to get the Proliferate effect?

. . .

What was that?

Next question.

Sorry?

I don't like to remind people I can eat myself to get the effect. Some guys forget, and that's OK with me.

Oh, I'm sorry if it's a sore -

It's unpleasant, you know? I've had to do it a bunch. It feels weird. It's not fun.

Well, er, let's move on then!

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Ah, which brings me to my next question - you've known some Planeswalkers in your time, haven't you?

Yeah, I knew 'em. I was in Standard with Zendikar, so I -

Jace.

Jace. Yeah. Everyone asks about Jace.

Is it a sore subject?

No, no. Jace is a nice guy. Real down to earth, you know? You wouldn't think so, I mean, being the first banned Planeswalker. The guy dominated. Dominated. People were hocking jewelry for a foil playset of that guy, you know? That's not the type of stuff that happens anymore. He still does well for himself, you know. Not very many cards get to go on to Legacy. I saw him a few weeks back, he dropped into the office to say hi to the old gang.

Of course, you weren't in Standard with Jace for long.

Nah. It's a shame, really - they should have known. Him and those Squadron Hawks and Batterskull - it was trouble waiting to happen. I mean, don't look at me, I don't have a lot of experience with tournament decks. It's Greek to me. I'm five mana so I don't usually get out until at least turn five, but those Caw-Blade decks . . .

It was a rough time.

Yeah. The ban wasn't a surprise, but at the same time, they should have seen it coming. Me, I still don't understand how those Hawks carried those damn Swords in their beaks like that. I mean, I've carried some equipment in my time, even though I don't have hands, but I'm big enough I can make it work. Gimme a sword and I can hold it in my mouth. Put an invisibility cloak over my shoulders, I'll make it work. But those birds, they're just too small. I don't get it. And now I see they're printing four-ability Planeswalkers again - it's like playing with fire. They never learn.

So what does a day look like for you now?

Well, some days are pretty quiet. It's cool, I took up gardening a few years back. I'm from Mirrodin, so you know, everything's metal there. It's a nice break to go home in the evening and put my feet in the soil. Soil that isn't filled with pieces of jagged steel because, you know, did I mention that Mirrodin is made of metal? I still see some action. Poison decks will always need something to fill out the mana curve in the mid-game. Maybe some idiot puts me in a green Superfriends deck - I mean, come on, let's be honest here, if you've got a mug like me defending your Superfriends, you're probably going to lose, but who am I to say. I do what I'm told. I eat little creatures and crap out counters. It's a living.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Well, Lookie





So, a new piece of mine just went up on the AV Club - a comparison of the most recent season of House of Cards to one of my favorite all-time runs, Warren Ellis' Doom 2099. Ellis' run is something I've wanted to write about basically forever but just never got around to. I don't think I've done the subject justice here, as its nowhere near being the comprehensive overview the series deserves. The word limit, along with the TV show connection, translate to a piece that reads - to me - rushed. But that's part of writing for an outlet like The AV Club, learning to once again write compactly and precisely, trying to reign in my natural tendency towards digression.

It makes me both appreciate the outlet of a personal blog like this all the more, while also chiding myself slightly for the fact that I've grown wooly and savage in the years since last I worked under an editor. Also, I'm a complete hypocrite, considering the fact that I regularly break all the guidelines that I lay down for my own writing students. Do as I say, not as I do, kids!