Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On the passing of an extraordinary personality

The Wife's Mom, Jacqueline Kehoe, died back in December from complications of Pulmonary Fibrosis. We had her memorial service this last Friday. It was well attended and nobody started a fistfight, so I'd say it went well. As several people got up to say a few words, everyone made mention of the fact that they "had a few good stories" about her. Since no one actually TOLD one, I figure someone ought, so I stepped up. It follows hence...

When The Wife was yet but a little girl, her mom took her to the movies. About half-way through the film, she started wiggling in her seat. "What's wrong?" asks Jackie. "There's something wrong with my seat." says she.

Jackie turned around to discover that some unbalanced gentleman had sat behind the innocent waif, had slipped his hands up between back and seat of her chair, and was feeling her little patootie up.

Now, this was the early 70's. The average person might have simply moved seats, perhaps made a complaint to the manager. Jackie was not "the average person". She stood up and proceeded to verbally rip the creep a new one, punctuated with pelts from her prodigious pocket book. The man likely injured his back slinking out of the theater.

Jackie would go through hell and high water to protect her children, and make sure they were safe. I learned this every.single.day of my married life. She was a glorious person with a life full of high points and strong emotions. She was difficult to forget, and gave you no reason to wish to do so.

We shall miss her.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On the revamping of women and girls of the Battish persuasion, and the reappearance of avian predators

For all the questionable and outright poor choices DC (read "Dan Didio" if you like, you know you want to) have made, I am still quite surprised that anyone still considers keeping Babs Gordon as Oracle, and NOT making her Batgirl again, to be a BAD move.

Babs was one of the few examples of a character undergoing a radical and shocking change and actually coming out the other side a newer and better character. Originally paralyzed by the Joker in Alan Moore's Killing Joke, John Ostrander couldn't stand the fact that such a great and classic heroine was taken off the board. So he (and the divine Kim Yale) created Oracle, turning Babs into a viable character again. And since then she's become FAR more important a player in the DCU than batgirl ever could.

The current version of the story goes that when DC Editorial decided to bring back Batgirl again, returning Babs to the role seemed the slam-dunk move. But they got talked out of it, and they went with Spoiler. And for the life of me, I can't get why anyone sees that as anything but a plus. Oracle is jut plain a great character. A rare example of a topical character (the "hacker") having the staying power to rise above the cliches of the trend. There's the argument about her being an inspiration to the handiicapped as well, but I don't neccessarily see her being tied to the wheelchair as intrinsic to the character. Yes, she chose this role because of her inability to help physically, but if she regained mobility, I don't see that making Oracle any less a strong character. In a universe where character lose major portions of their body and become better strong faster thanks to technology, Babs' paralysis has always stuck out like a sore thumb to me. It seemed much more like she needed to stay in the chair for narrative as opposed to "real" reasons. The only other major wheelchair-bound character I can think of in the DCU (and I'm sure y'all will bring others to my memory) is The Chief from Doom Patrol. In a weird way, I can actually see him CHOOSING to stay wheelchair bound, for two reasons. One, making his enemies underestimate him, and two, the Guy Caballero motive of "respect". But Babs, I don't think she'd really turn down a legitimate fix, as opposed to magic or prosthetics or what have you. But I, to borrow a catch-phrase, digress.

Whether or not the new Batgirl should have been Babs, Spoiler, Cassandra Cain, someone else or no one is another issue, and one that'll likely never die. The point was that turning Babs back into Batgirl would have been a step backwards in a lot of people's eyes. It's one of the few times that the chestnut about making the characters (back) into the version that the most people know is not the better move. Like Dick Grayson into Nightwing, trying to turn him BACK into Robin would have been almost laughable, let alone a poor use of the character.

As the tale goes, Dan wanted to kill off Nightwing as well, but was talked out of it by people (spearheaded by Marv Wolfman) who convinced him that there were more and better stories to be told with the character alive than dead. So Dan changed his mind. And if he hadn't, we wouldn't be reading the current Batman stories, which you have to admit have been pretty damn good. If he was as poor as his job as so many say he is, he'd have stuck to his guns, forced through the plot he wanted, and very likely seen it go up in flames faster than Conan at 11:30.

DC, Marvel, all the comics companies have copyrighted and trademarked characters which they need to keep using on a regular basis, or you end up with the scenario where Captain Marvel can't appear in a book with his name on the cover, or toys named after him. So we will ever see hero names re-used. There's no point grousing over it. It's why all the classic Superman characters started to re-appear oin the books after Byrne's famous "get rid of all the silly stuff" revamp. So for Batgirl to reappear is not a shock. Again, want to argue who it should have been; go ahead, and sei gesund.

The same is so of Batwoman. Not nearly as popular or as well known a name, but a name that needs using every so often. They got it into that Batman Beyond movie a while ago, but it needed using again. Greg Rucka created a very good and very intersting character in Kate Kane, one that has far outpaced the initial rowdy-dow about her interpersonal predilictions. That doesn't happen often; usually those re-vamped characters are sad shadows of the original, requiring years to find redemption in the proverbial "right hands". The plethora of Starmen (Starmans?) leap to mind. So to actually get a good, even great character from such pedestrian needs is quite a treat.

One of the single best revamps of a character in recent years (IMHO) was The Calculator. As much as I have to say against Identity Crisis (suffice to say I am a rabid Ralph and Sue fan, and let that be the end of it), taking Calculator from one of those aforementioned "trend-born" characters and revamping him into Oracle's opposite number was nothing short of brilliant. Gail Simone took the ball and ran with him, using him regularly in Birds of Prey, often in virtual battles against Oracle, and at least one face-to-face meeting. Gail eventually left the book in the capable hands of Tony Bedard. Tony's a very good writer, and delivered some solid character issues, but right at the end of the run, the direction they chose to take both the book and The Calculator bordered on embarassing. They chose to have him not only survive an attack by the Kilg%re, but survive with powers similar to the cybernetic beast. Which I found to be utterly pointless. Already a great villain with lots of resources and abilities at his command, giving him powers is like adding a spoiler and neon to a Dusenberg. This, combined with the choice to retroactively make him the father of Wendy and Marvin from Teen Titans was an attempt to make Calculator more than he needed to be.

Birds of Prey ended, immediately followed by the mini-series "Oracle: the Cure". This begged the question "cure for what"? The rumors ran rampant - Babs would walk again, Babs would become Batgirl again, she'd become a cyber-being like that guy from Psyba-Rats, and who knows what else. As I mentioned, I didn't see an issue with Babs being able to walk again and still remaining Oracle. A lot of people were really against that - they maintained that her position as a role-model was too important. I found that almost cruel; would the same people have begrudged Chris Reeve the ability to walk because he was too important as a role model, or Stevie Wonder to "get a peek" as chris Rock described it? Yes, I know, fiction and reality, but I still found/find it an odd position to take.

Ultimately...nothing happened. It was a protracted (and suffuciently entertaining) fight in the virtual and real worlds against the Calculator for possession of a facet of the Anti-Life Formula which ended in a sort of tie, with his daughter Wendy awakened from her coma (apparently the titular "cure") but paralyzed. Basically, nothing happened to Babs. The book ended with an entreat to read the upcoming Batgirl series, a book that now nobody had any idea who it would star. People complained that the book didn't deliver what was promised, never quite realizing that nothing was promised. People assumed it was Babs' "cure" we'd see, so all it could be accused of was that it didn't deliver what they THOUGHT is was supposed to.

The new Batgirl book is quite entertaining. Since I've already said I didn't care for the idea of Babs returning to the purple tights, and never really having to great an attachment to the young Ms. Cain, I am happy with the choice made. I do look forward to seeing Ms. Cain appear (and hopefully the narrative backflips she was put through resolved) and I wish the book a long life. But I dod suspect the most recent announcement might make the book feel redundant in many eyes.

Last week, DC announced that Gail Simone would returning to Birds of Prey. I've yet to hear this news accepted as anything other than a triumph for good comic books everywhere. Gail will be able to write characters like Black Canary and Oracle again; characters that many have said no one has been able to write as well since her departure. But for those who have been buying Batgirl for their monthly required dose of Babs, will the re-appearance of this title see their desire to read Batgirl diminish? Will DC decide that the best place for Ms. Brown to receive further training is among a large number of female heroes? I am curious, but hopeful, about Batgirl's future. The title? We shall see.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On the latest chapter in a thousand year long tale

You ever see that cut scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace talks about "Beatles people and Elvis people"? People like Elvis, and people like the Beatles, and some people like both, but NOBODY likes them both the same. It's a great scene.

I think that can easily be applied to X-Men and Legion (and/or Teen Titans), and to a larger degree, to DC and Marvel. People really are either DC People or Marvel People. For a long time the primary difference was optimism vs pessimism. DC was primarily a nice place to be - heroes were treated as such, evil was punished, and in the far-flung future, people generally got along as well as people can do. Marvel, OTOH, was where heroes were mistrusted, even by each other, and people had more "real" problems. Yeah, the two sides have grown more similar, as the cynical spies always say in espionage movies, but there's still the perception that it's what the two companies represent, and the desire of its most dedicated readers that it's where they will eventually return.

Well, DC has made a series of announcements this week, all tied to the new bi-weekly series Brightest Day, that suggest that DC may just be tiptoeing back to that happier place and time. New books and creative directions include:

Keith Giffen returning to the Justice League International, as well as taking over the reins of Booster Gold with former JLI collaborator J.M. DeMatteis

Gail Simone would be returning to Birds of Prey

Both Justice League and The Flash would carry the "Brightest Day" trade dress, and their stories connect to the over-arcing plot of the main mini.

This is in addition to the War of the Supermen and return of Bruce Wayne plotlines that had already been talked about.

But so far the news that had me the mst hopeful was the announcement that Paul Levitz would be writing TWO Legion titles - A continuing story in Adventure Comics and a NEW eponymous Legion of Super-Heroes book.

I read lots of Marvel and other titles, but I'm still a "DC Person" to the core. I liked Teen Titans (I still...try to), but I LOVED (add sparkles and shimmery letters to that) the Legion. Maybe it's that I was already a sci-fi fan, maybe it's cause they were a younger team, young like I was at the time, maybe it's because some amazing people wrote some of those early stories, people like Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton... but Legion was just the best. And it stayed the best, right up until the Byrne-reboot, and it REALLY wasn't his fault, really. But after that...well, you ever try to patch a hole in the wall? First you have to make the hole bigger to hold the plaster, then you realize the paint doesn't quite match, and now one wall is a different color than the others, and before you know it, you're buying a new house.

So seeing a Legion that's as close to the one I loved come back, and then telling me that it's going to be written by the guy co-responsible for one of the book's classic runs, a guy who has the same fire in his belly about the book that I do, well that's just awesome.

Because believe me, the Legion is the kind of book you really do have to LOVE to do really really well. Dozens of characters, just as many home planets, alien races, not to mention a thousand years of future history to keep track of. It's true of most comic characters, but it's even more so with the legion. You can't look out the window and see what you're writing about - it's totally new. Yes, the people will deal with the same things - good vs. evil, love and hate, chunky or plain, but visually, everything has to be made up. Yes, for a long time the Legion Shuttles looked a lot like the Enterprise, but hey, the flying "7734" cameras in the Superman books right now look exactly like the flying sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; that's almost tradition.

To say the Legion has had a spotty record since the Great Reboot Saga is an understatement. Each new attempt to fix (read: "change") things raised the hackles of numerous old fans, and none ever drew enough new fans to take up the slack. And alas, "go back to what worked" was never an accetable option, so they just kept trying new things. Eventually Mark Waid and Barry Kitson literally started from scratch and brought us a whole new Legion story, one where the Legion wasn't a group that fought evil as much as it was a youth movement. And while Legion fans stayed away in droves, it was a DAMN fine book. Great dialogue, strong plots, really a new concept, presented well. But with each issue, in the back of your mind, there was still that nagging thought... "Imagine how good this book would be if it were the REAL Legion!"

They brought in Supergirl, and sales picked up. And that hung a lampshade on what a lot of people had been saying all along - the Legion is a great book, but that connection to the Superman mythos is crucial. Now, at the time she was appearing in Legion, Supergirl was also appearing in her own book, acting COMPLETELY differently from how she was acting in Legion (i.e., like a total bitch, as opposed to the pretty damn good way she was getting used in Legion) and people got so insistent for an explanation as to how this could be that they couldn't see the forest through the logs in their eyes. So Mark left the book (and has had no small words for the people who spoke against it, and quite rightly) and they replaced him with...

Jim Shooter.

Now, this was not just a surprise, this was a drop-dead-from-a-heart-attack shock. There were people at DC who allegedly said they'd walk if Shooter ever came though the door. Well, nobody walked, but there he was at the Baltimore Comic-Con, smiling and shaking hands and talking about the 16-part story he'd got ready for the book.

This was Namath coming back to the Jets. This was Hogan coming back to the WWE. This was the guy that took the Legion and almost single-handedly, using the creations of those giants of comics and sci-fi and built the future almost by himself. I couldn't believe our luck. Surely this was a guy who could take the book by the horns and drag it back to glory.

Yeah, right.

Almost as soon as that happened, The Lightning Saga began in JLA. This was the "real" Legion that people were waiting for, or at least the closest we could get. Immediately, people "knew" (read:"assumed") that the Real legion was coming back, and the LoSH title became a Dead Book Walking. People didn't want to bother following a book thay "Knew" was gonna be cancelled in favor of the real thing any time now. And like Waid's run, those people missed out on some damn fine work.

The end was not pleasant. There are a number of versions of what happened out there, and most of the come from Jim Shooter himself because the other parties refused to comment. All we know for sure is that DC wanted to end the book with issue #50, likely to make sure there'd be no confusion with the upcoming "Legion of 3 Worlds" story. This was several issues short of the 16-part plot Jim had planned. Jim either wouldn't or couldn't cut the story short, and the last issue, credited to the house pseudonym "Justin Thyme", was a slap-dash deal only slightly more acceptable than if someone had just written "He rode off into the west and everything was okay" in the back cover of issue 49.

Don't get me wrong - the work Geoff Johns has done to bring the leion back has been nothing short of spectacular. He's done what he does best - take a decade plus of bad choices and hasty revamps and woven them into a coherent explanation that will leave long-time fans if not happy ever after, at least reasonably so, while setting a new start point for new fans to hop on. But I still wonder what shooter could have done had DC not already chosen to switch horses.

So the questions arose - would Geoff be writing new Legion stories? Where would they appear? Which of the new set of Legionnaires that he set up would appear? We started to see new Legion stories in the re-started Adventure Comics, and all seemed well with the world. But as Legion fans know, it's always darkest before it gets even darker. Geoff wasn't going to stay on Adventure, and wouldn't be writing Legion. So cast adrift again, we all wondered who would pick up the baton.

Paul Levitz stepped down from his position as President of DC Comics, following the creation of the new DC Entertainment. And in his farewell/resignation letter, he spoke of a desire to write again, and a cryptic comment about an eye toward the future.




Yeah. Dan announced that the new writer of Legion would be Paul Levitz. Possibly the one guy more responsible for its success than Shooter. It's been a few months since that announcement, but as of this week, we found out we'd get TWO books. All of a sudden it was the 80's again, with Levitz in charge of two Legion titles. There's even been talks of Keith Giffen drawing something.

Maybe...just maybe...we legion fans might get a happy end to our tale. We shall see.

No news yet on Dan Jurgens' new assignment now that he's leaving Booster Gold, and nothing yet on my beloved T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, but I live in hope.  Stay Tuned.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On the danger of asking an obvious question

The other day, Marvel Comics (the other company that is not DC, the one with the spider-guy) sent out a teaser image for the Fantastic Four, with the tagline "FANTASTIC FOUR 2010- Will They Survive?"

Short answer - yes. I mean c'mon, they're Marvel's first family, they've had three films (I'm including the Corman one, because like Guy Fawkes, nothing should ever be forgot), three or so TV series and they're clearly not going anywhere.

Tom Brevoort, however, has taken umbrage that the literal-minded among us have chosen to answer that rhetorical question. He's remarked on the electric-type Twitter that he's:
"A little bit irritated with Newsarama posters responding to the FF promo we
sent out. Rather than reacting to the gorgeous art, they all ...instead pick at
the e-mail title."
Well, I must say, the tag line was surely intended to start conversation, so it's a bit odd to get upset when it succeeds.

But honestly, when you ask comics fans if character or group ABC (I can't use "X" as a variable here, as they actually HAVE such a team) is going to "survive", the answer is going to be "That will depend on sales". Threatening or tantalizing us with death or destruction just doesn't hold the weight it might in less "fantastic" fiction. Reed and co have already gone to Heaven and brought back Ben Grimm - death is no longer a challenge.

Might the FF break up? Absolutely. It happens as often as the leaves falling off the trees. It just happened a year and change ago. But unlike a team like The Avengers or some such, the FF is a set group of four, a family. As interesting as a new person coming to the title is, it's going to snap back to the original team eventually. It's all part of Alan Moore's point that comic fans "don't want change, but the illusion of change". I could also add in that the licensing department doesn't want much to change either, but let's stick with creative here.

It's a lovely piece of art, and there's certainly a lot going on in it, implying that there will be a lot going on in the book. I've been enjoying the book, both its recent run and as far back as the Byrne age. They are the single most important characters (gramatically questionable, that, but I'll go with it...) Marvel has. Both recent teams have done something that I think needed to happen to the book, namely brought back the Cosmic. As interesting as stories about social workers trying to take away Franklin and Valeria (because their home is too dangerous) are, the FF should be dealing with dimension-shattering problems. They have more experience with the Big Big Picture (if I may co-opt a phrase from Larry Marder's Beanworld) than anyone else in the MU, and that's the stage they should play on. Based on that image, that seems to be where they'll be working.

There's a few themes we're seeing come back around, and that's fine - they're standard ideas, and re-occur all the time. We've seen some emotional distance between Reed and Sue, mainly because of Reed's dedication to The Work. While in the past it was Franklin that was going to end up eclipsing Reed in intelligence and power, now it's going to be Valeria. That's all well and good as well. Tho I do hope they manage to "allow her to be a child". Too often when you have these super-intelligent kids in fiction, they become little adults. From a purely emotional point of view (and perhaps ascribing too much real-world mindset to the idea than really should) that can cause some messed-up people as they approach adulthood. I'd like to see a story where that incredible intelligence gets used for wholly fun things, as a kid would. And don't go for that "We have to lock this intelligence away until she can handle it" either - a lobotomy is a lobotomy, no matter how many polysyllabic words you choose to wrap it in. Always hated those stories.

If you've not read the FF in a while, I suggest you give it another look.

Tom continues in his 140-chracter long comments:
"Also, just for the record, I never said we had no plans to make FF important. I
was asked if FF was going to become a franchise like Avengers or X-Men, and I
said no. Not remotely the same thing."

"Franchise" has several meanings. Here, I think he's using it as "base upon which to build more titles", something I agree that isn't needed for the FF. There's no need to have a second FF book, or solo titles - it's four people, f'pete'sake.

However, in the sense of "Important character or concept, driving force" the FF are absolutely a franchise of the MU. They're a tentpole. In a world where the general public has a varyingly-guarded view of heroes, the FF are universally adored. They are the go-to team, the people other heroes go to for advice, ether scientific, emotional or how to be a better hero-related.

I feel the need to call out one creator for special compliment when it comes to his recent work on the FF - Dwayne McDuffie. Viewed by many as a transition title-holder, he came up with some truly wonderful stories in his brief run on the book. His one-shot "My Dinner with Doom" is truly one of my favorite FF stories in recent memory. In a weird parallel to his run on JLA, he was handed the book and then basically told he wasn't going to able to write the actual FF. But no matter - he still came up with a few great batches of lemonade, on both books. I just thought that needed saying..