Monday, February 28, 2011

Whack History Month

Many of the more questionable stories involving race throughout the history of supercomics can and usually are dismissed with the simple observation that the creators' had their "hearts in the right place." It's easy to look at Ebony White and Pieface and see callous racism, but by the mid-60s most of the parties involved in mainstream comics had eliminated or at least toned-down the instances of outright bigotry. In the place of bigotry was a gradually growing awareness of diversity issues. By the late 60s, that meant two things: a small but growing category of ethnically diverse superheroes and adventure characters - i.e., Gabe Jones, T'Challa, the Falcon; and a profusion of "issues" stories.

Most people are usually kind to "issues" stories even if they - as a rule - age horribly. Everyone knows these panels:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best of Us

I've written this first sentence a dozen times. Nothing I write seems quite right in tone or content. It's especially hard considering that this isn't an essay anyone thought they'd be writing for a good many years: even considering how much he'd already accomplished, Dwayne McDuffie wasn't even fifty yet. How the hell are we supposed to make sense of that?

I didn't know McDuffie the person. I never spoke with the man or exchanged words with him online. The only way I knew MCDuffie was through his writing. And I guess, as awful as this is to have to say, I never really appreciated just how much his writing meant to me until I heard he was dead. In mainstream terms he wasn't particularly prolific, but everything he wrote seemed to matter. He didn't seem like the kind of person who ever gave less than his all for any assignment, either writing for his own projects or work-for-hire scripts. The best kind of compliment I can pay any writer, especially in such a debased medium as superhero comics, is that he always took the time to think before he wrote. He meant every word.

All of which is well and true, but what does it mean? I never knew McDuffie, but I knew his work, and his work has meant the world to me. There aren't many people in comics whose work has had quite the influence on me that McDuffie's did. When I read he had died, it felt almost like I had lost a member of my family. I regret, probably more than I will ever be able to express, that I never got the chance to shake his hand and thank him for the stories he gave me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is This It?

This Is Happening has been out for almost a year, but it took me a while to warm to it. In truth, it took a few months of occasional listening to really wrap my head around the disc, before I could even begin to give it a fair shake. It's not as immediately inviting as Sounds of Silver, which is still one of the best albums of the last decade. But I've slowly disabused myself of any notion that This Is Happening is an inferior follow-up to its universally-beloved predecessor. It's different.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Checking the Register

A few basic observations out of the way: no one at any point ever sat down with the intention of creating a fictional entity called "the Marvel Universe," or "the DC Universe." These fictions were constructed over the course of many years of seemingly accidental and slow-moving accretion, with numerous separately conceived individual pieces being fit together in haphazard fashion. No comics universe that was conceived as a holistic unit from its outset has ever survived past a few years from the moment of its origin. Effective fictional universes arise from the union of individually popular properties whose connection brings some form of benefit either real or imagined to future iterations of the properties in question: the universe itself cannot be a selling point unless people already care about the stars in the firmament. An argument can also be made, under this principle, that the very idea of a large multifaceted superhero universe works against the purity and strengths of original character concepts, and that in many notable cases the leavening effect of superhero continuity actively dampens the specific virtues of many properties. Captain Marvel is the best example of this, but the argument could be made that any superhero created before the mid-60s suffers somewhat from having been retroactively shoehorned into a larger context against the wills of their creators.

But with that said, shared universes have been the norm in superhero comics for almost five decades.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Back to the Future

Back before Christmas I posted on the subject of one of my all-time favorite comics, What If? Vol. 2 #1, "What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War?" It's an interesting, thought-provoking book, even if it might seem simply bizarre and dated with twenty-two years' hindsight. That's just how they rolled back then.

I made the bold claim that it might just be the most important Marvel comic ever printed. Sure, that was at least partly an exaggeration for effect, but there's still some truth behind the assertion. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of what is so significant about that book - and about that entire school of Marvel stories - might not be easily legible for contemporary readers. Comics culture has changed significantly since the late 80s. There's been a great deal of turnover not merely in readers - although, of course, the backbone of current readership is people who've been around for multiple decades, as we well know - but in creators as well. The people currently behind the wheel at Marvel and DC are, now, fully removed from the Golden and Silver Age origins. Corporate culture persists but creative culture is much more malleable.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Last Son of Krypton

The deaths of Supergirl and the Flash in Crisis are among the most powerful and fondly-remembered passings in the history of superhero comics, and with good reason. But Kara and Barry were far from the only characters to meet their demise in the series. Beyond the marquee names, there were a few more significant deaths: Dove, Lori Lemaris, the Losers (Johnny Cloud, Gunner, Sarge, Captain Storm). Some of the characters who met their ends had been already or would soon be rendered obsolete or superfluous by the Crisis, folks like the Earth-2 Green Arrow, Robin and Huntress. Most of them, however, were pretty clearly canon fodder: who among us shed a tear for Angle Man and Nighthawk?

To the creators' credit, as unimportant as characters like Ra-Man and the Prince Gavyn Starman were, every hero who died in the Crisis was given the chance to die heroically. I've never read a single Prince Ra-Man story and yet I still remember his death clearly, saving a child from the Anti-Monitor's Shadow Demons in Crisis #12. Kole died trying to rescue Robin and the Huntress, etc.

But there was one more passing - not a death, precisely, but a definite end nonetheless - that sticks out at me as perhaps the most affecting of the entire series. Yeah, even more than Kara.

I'm speaking, of course, of Superman.

Lots of pictures under the cut!

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Fastest Man Alive

One of the most interesting aspects of Crisis was the fact that the Anti-Monitor was a really convincingly creepy dude. He didn't suffer from most of the weaknesses from which big-time super-villains usually suffered, because he wasn't in the least bit human. He liked to declaim dramatically, sure, but if he had his druthers he would have destroyed the whole positive-matter multiverse without ever having encountering a single superhero. He didn't want to defeat the Justice League or humiliate them or even to destroy them specifically - he just wanted them to be annihilated, to cease to exist and to leave no traces of their passing. Living beings in the positive-matter universes were less than dust to him, simply obstacles between him and the fulfillment of a billion-year destiny.

Accordingly, the one Achilles Heel in his plan was the fact that - while he was certainly more powerful than even the mightiest hero - he nevertheless hoped to avoid the inconveniences of physical confrontation. After six issues of successfully keeping the heroes at bay, he was surprised when they actually mounted an assault on the anti-matter universe in Crisis #7. He underestimated the power of the Kryptonians - Supergirl in particular - and suffered grievous harm when her blitzkrieg assault almost completely destroyed his containment armor.

It's not as if the Anti-Monitor had been ignorant of the threat the superheroes posed: on the contrary, he was fully aware of the danger. He had believed, however mistakenly, that he had already crippled their ability to respond by doing two things: first, he recruited the Psycho Pirate and used his emotion powers to keep the heroes of the surviving worlds off-balance by forcing them to fight each other; and second, one of the very first things he did was to kidnap the one hero with the power to travel easily between the multiple earths: Barry Allen.

Lots of pictures under the cut!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Maid of Might

The first half of Crisis, while certainly eventful, is essentially exposition and set-up for the action of the second half. We are placed in a similar position to the heroes themselves, who are thrown into the endgame of the very long war between the Monitor and Anti-Monitor without quite knowing the particulars, learning the details of the Monitor's plans only slowly as the battle grows more and more heated.

Over the course of the series' first half, the heroes are entirely on the defensive, dealing with the massive destruction wreaked by the Anti-Monitor as well as the consequences of the Psycho-Pirate's mental manipulations. Finally, after six issues of successive defeats, the heroes finally come together in issue #7 in order to mount a heavy offense against the Anti-Monitor. The most powerful heroes of five worlds travel from Earth to the anti-matter universe in order to finally confront the villain.

The battle does not go well. Even with two Supermen, Supergirl, the Marvel Family and Captain Atom, the heroes are unable to overcome the Anti-Monitor's defenses. Finally, the Earth I Superman confronts the Anti-Monitor, and - well, he gets his ass handed to him. Weakened by the different natural laws of the anti-matter universe, none of the heroes are at their full power - and Superman, accustomed to being the most powerful being on the planet, is taken by surprise and easily overpowered.

Lots of pictures under the cut!