Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On the need to change without actually improving

The Batman Annual, part of the pretty damn good if I say so Night of the Owls Bat-event features the New 52 origin of Mr. Freeze, who played a fairly big role in the plot of the Court of Owls. 

Yes, there are spoilers. either keep reading, or don't.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On the introduction of a very specific change to a major character

Of all the announcements from this weekend's Kapow! Comic Convention in Britain, the one that has set the most lips flapping is the announcement that DC plans to retcon one of its major characters to be gay.  As opposed to their initial plan to only create new characters to be gay, they've chosen to take an existing one and re-introduce them in the DCnU as gay. They've not said who, they've not said when, just that they plan to do so. Indeed, it's only been inferred that it'll be a character that has not yet been seen in the New 52; the way Dan Didio made it sound, using phrases like "would be" suggested that it'd be a big part of the character from the get-go.

Allow me to make one thing clear from the same get-go - I am totally cool with this. Having more gay characters, more black, Asian, what have you characters only serves to make the DCU more similar to the real world in how many different sorts of people are in it. From a narrative viewpoint, if they'd tried this in the old DCU, any character they wanted to do this to would have had a whole bunch of stories that would likely need tweaking or explaining should they make such a change.  Here in the New 52, there IS no backlog or adventures, or at least not as many.  If you want to re-make a character, this is the time to do it. 

There's any number of characters in the DCU which hasn't gotten a lot of time spent on their private lives. Most of the time is spent in the costume. Even though they have the opportunity to start any character from scratch here, if they choose to use a character who very clearly was heterosexual beforehand, had a lot of male/female relationships, they might get more pushback than if they'd chosen to go with one where it was never really addressed.  If they were to use, say Ralph Dibny the Elongated Man, I'd be disappointed, as his married relationship was a major part of the character.  If they used, I dunno, Aztek or Agent Liberty, characters whose personal life is more of a blank slate, it might be easier to swallow.

DC has done new versions of their characters with new ethnic backgrounds and other major changes of late.  Almost every one of them has been met with...oh, let's call it "reticence" with a facet of the readership, who tend to describe it as ramming an ethnic character down our throats.  And as a rule, that's a shame, because many if not all of said characters have been exemplary.  Batwoman, once they finally got the book off the ground, has been an artistic masterpiece.  I've gone on about how much I adored the new Blue Beetle, though I must admit the New 52 iteration has been a bit too dour for me.  The Renee Montoya Question was another very good character - not as much a chance to get used as many would have liked (myself included) but what there was was cherce.

Considering that homosexuality is much more a hot-button for people than mere ethnicity is, I expect there to quite a hue and cry once said character is announced. The way they're saying it, this won't be a new version of the character, but the same character as in the pre-DCnU, with the big difference that he/she will be gay. And judging from Dan's statements, their being gay will be a bigger part of the character, becoming as he put it, “one of our most prominent gay characters.”

Now I gotta admit, I don't know how I feel about the being gay becoming a "big part" of the character.  I think it's going to depend totally on who's writing the character.  Marc Andreyko had a large number of gay characters in his version of Manhunter, and never did the characters feel forced, nor did their predilections get overly mentioned in the narrative.  Rarely, if ever, was their gayness relevant or important to the plot; they were just gay.  And that's EXACTLY how it should be played.  I've gone on about how well the new Doctor Who has integrated gay characters into the stories - some characters are gay, it's mentioned, it's not made the center of the story, and nobody comes away learning an important lesson about tolerance.  There's gay people, and it doesn't mean a hang about their goodness or evilness, they're just there.  Perfect. 

Personally, of all the gay characters DC have had, the one I thought was done the best was Pied Piper early in the Wally west Flash run. He'd gone straight (you should pardon the choice of words, but even HE made the joke) and was working with Wally on many cases. Having a conversation, Wally starts a very guyish "Are any supervillains gay" discussion. Piper admits he isn't aware of any villains who are gay...except himself of course. Wally does a total double take and reacts the way any average guy finds out his friends is gay - he runs off to watch football or box or do something mannish. By the end of the issue, he realizes it doesn't make a damn bit of difference and their relationship goes back to what it was, and it's barely made a Thing of again. Of course, Countdown, that place where oh so many things went wrong, had him played like being gay was the only thing he'd ever done, and all the other Rogues constantly going about it and generally acting very out-of-character towards him. But Countdown is one of those books we wish we could all just forget and ignore, so no need to make a big frooferau about it.

It's neat that DC is trying to create more diverse characters. As long as they get played as fully formed, and not just one-trick ponies, all will be well. How well the general readership accepts them will also hinge on how well they're written, and who's writing them. If you create or introduce a character specifically to BE gay, and that becomes their biggest characteristic, there's a real likelihood they'll stay two-dimensional.  The new Teen Titan, Bunker, got introduced with much fanfare, and all told, his gayness hasn't made too much of a difference, because they've been far too busy fighting for him to go on about how wonderful guys are.  There's been no "can I trust this guy to have my back, as he is gay" plotlines, thank god. 

So not counting the moaners and groaners, the hot topic has been to try and guess who the character is going to be.  It's taken as read it won't be one of the big three (And let's be honest, while Wonder Woman would be a far more obvious choice than many would care to admit, they've already had mention of her dating Steve Trevor, so it's likely it's not her.)  Having it be any of the back-up characters in any of their stables is also a slim chance. Most of them have enough history that such a change would require a fair amount of history fixing.  So it's likely a character we've not yet seen in the DCnU yet, or one whose personal life we've seen very little of.

I think there's a VERY good chance it'll be one of the Earth-2 characters. They're in the process of re-inventing all the Earth-2 versions of the characters in a new timeline.  Making one of them be gay would be an easy move, as they're all effectively new characters,  Also, James Robinson, writer of the Earth-2 book, has had a lot of success writing gay characters, and making them three-dimensional characters who don't exist solely to be a token tip of the hat. 

I'll put my bet on the table - Alan Scott; media mogul, and Earth 2's Green Lantern.  They've said the character would be a major character.  James has already said that his GL would pretty much be the most powerful character on Earth-2.  Alan Scott likely already has a fair amount of notoriety as a head of a major media company; he could easily be in a position to be a positive role model. 

So let the guessing commence - Who's gonna come out of the closet instead of the phonebooth?

Postscript - so far, both MTV Geek and Bleeding Cool have come out in favor of my guess, both reporting various insider information and rumor.  But we know where they heard it, don't we?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

On what happens when you give someone the job they were born to do

The idea of nobody dying in comics was really put in place by the Comics code - Most pre-code superheroes were quite calavier about killing the wicked, or simply not leaping to save them when they backed up off a cliff. After the Code, you couldn't even show a crime, so you'd see rubbers running from a bank which they robbed off camera.

So while all (mainstream) superheroes have a personal vow not to kill, Dan Slott has given Spider-Man one better - nobody will DIE on his watch. After a heart-rending adventure where J. Jonah Jameson's wife catches a bullet during a fight (a story about which I have previously kvelled), he vows that nobody will die as a direct result of one of his acts, or the collateral acts of his battles.

Riding the razor's edge between guilt and responibility, Slott has placed a great load on young Mr. Parker's shoulders, but he's also made it more possible for him to achieve said feat.  After nearly fifty years of adventures, Dan has played up on the fact that Peter is a scientific genius.  No longer a news photographer (Or heaven help us, a high school science teacher -- who is he, Fonzie?) he's gotten a job at Horizon, on of the Marvel Universe's biggest (albeit only just now introduced) scientific think tanks.  Now, finally made part of his life, he is using his mind to create inventions that will both help the world, and enhance his fight against crime and/or evil.  Over the last year, Spidey has created a number of specialty suits to fight certain villains and situations.  Like the pods of Thunderbird 2, he grabs the equipment he needs for the fight at hand - a stealth suit, extra- heavy duty armor for the more powerful villains, what have you.  In the hands of anyone else, this would seem like a cheap hotshot for a cover, or an obvious attempt to create something toyetic for the action figure division.  But Dan makes of perfectly logical, and logical from the point of the narrative.  Indeed, it's a throwback to the early days of the strip, when Spidey would tweak his web formula or cobble together a gadget to allow him to defeat a villain. 

By doing so, he's also addressed a point I've also gone on about in the past - the idea that superhero/villain inventions never seem to trickle down to society.  A fraction of the inventions Reed Richards has come up with could change the world, yet the only one he's seemingly passed down to humanity is a skin cream formula.  But in a recent issue, Peter Parker looks around and realizes his choice to work for Horizon has ALREADY changed the world, in small ways.  He realizes that the polymers he invented for his spider-armor has been licensed by the company for a new generation of bike helmets, his stealth tech making new and more efficient headphones, etc.  So not only has his choice to use his genius made being Spider-Man better, it's helped the people he's trying to protect.  In a very real way, Peter Parker is now contributing as much as Spider-Man.  One thing I very much look forward to is Peter's first royalty check, which, considering Horizon seems to be a very above-board company, will be sizable.  Yes, in the hands of a more I Want To Make A Point-obsessed writer, it could be a very SMALL check, leading to a talk about the contract Peter had signed, but that would effectively ruin the fun and positive environment he's working in, and ruin the potential of future stories for the chance to make a point once.  So I don't see that happening.
Dan has done a lot to shift Peter's life for the better, while not making it all sunshine and lollipops.  He's done something never before thought of for Aunt May - he's given her a happy ending.  rather than toss her into a hospital or a grave or some other ham-handed way of writing her off the table, he married her off, and to J. Jonah Jameson's dad, no less.  Seeing that Peter has finally started taking advantage of his gifts, she doesn't feel the need to protect him anymore, starts and cements a relationship with JJJ's pop, and moves to Boston to be with her family.  It removes her from danger and easy plot-device use, adds no more guilt to Peter's platter, and keeps her in the back pocket for the occasional visit.

Indeed, Peter's life, both in and out of the suit, is going SO well, that I fear what Minnesotans call "The Coming of the Other Shoe".  Someday, Dan will leave the book, ("Not for years", I can hear Johnny Ola saying) and I fear the new writer will see a need to bring the character Back To His Roots, which will (to him) mean sad, guilt-ridden, and near poverty.  So I choose to push those fears down deep, until I'm almost standing on them, and enjoy today for the joy it is.

If you have not been buying Spider-Man for a long time, or if you chose to Quit Comics Forever as a result of One more Day, it is time to come back.  Spider-Man is a bright shining star of fun in a still-gloomy universe of trouble and strife, and is well worth the investment.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On a look at the Red Circle part 4 - The Web

Continuing my series of histories on the MLJ / Red Circle heroes in preparation for the first issue of New Crusaders on May 16th, here's...

You can't escape...The Web!

Premiering in Zip Comics #27 (with a double-page teaser in #26) The Web started off with a bang, fighting a band of Japanese spies who were kidnapping and torturing government officials for their secrets.  Professor of criminology John Raymond is asked to investigate a mysterious accident witnessed by one of his students, Rose Wayne.  As they try to prove that the accident was no such thing, Rose stumbles upon John's secret - he is the vigilante The Web. 

In his second adventure, he brings Rose into his confidence and reveals his reasons for fighting crime to her.  His brother Tom was a proverbial bad egg from childhood, and his eventual arrest and sentencing to reform school inspired John to study the criminal mind.  Years later, Tom breaks out of prison and comes to John's home, threatening him into assisting him.  The police, unable to reach the professor to warn him (Tom cut the phone wires), come to his home in person, finding Tom there.  John realized that Tom's actions were his own undoing - criminals get caught in a "web" of their own making.  While John Raymond fights crime in the classroom and with his research, and The Web fights crime in a more personal fashion.

With so many different artists working on their books, they couldn't seem to keep Web's design straight from issue to issue - he changed from blonde to black hair regularly, often changing between the cover and the feature.  His yellow and green costume shifted quite a bit as well, the color panels moving location, the triangular panels in front coming and going issue to issue.
His last appearance was issue 38, a rather short run, compared to that of tentpole characters Shield and Steel Sterling.  But of all the characters they had, The Web was one of the few chosen to be brought back for the Mighty/Radio revival in the sixties.  In Fly-Man #36, a young man begins a career as a criminal, copying The Web's costume, but clearly not his love for the law.  After a brief battle against The Fly, the evil Web come to the attention of John Raymond, who realizes he has to come out of retirement to catch him.  Only problem is, Rose, now his wife, had him promise years before to hang up the cape, and she sees no reason he should risk his life again.  She allows him to catch the miscreant, and though he swears it's the only time he'll put on the suit, it's clear at the end of the story that he's gotten the taste for adventure again, and begins training while Rosie sleeps.

Web returned again briefly in Mighty Crusaders 4 and 5 (As did damn near every other old MLJ character) and more regularly in Mighty Comics.  Rosie's role went from caring wife to shrewish harridan quickly, even adding in the stereotypical mother-in-law.  The Web became known as "The Henpecked hero" on the cover of the books, and while his ability to fight crime was legitimate, his adventures became more campy and sitcom-like.  In one adventure, Rosie took the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" route, made up her own costume and became "Pow-Girl", to scare John into giving up the life.  Of course, she ends up being pretty good at it, he compliments her, but when (not recognizing her, of course) she offers him a kiss, he politely demurs, ad swings off, leaving her unsure how to think of his choice of leisure time activity.

The Web returned as part of the eighties revival as a member of the Crusaders.  Still married to Rosie, who now, according to a story in Mighty Crusaders #14 is now Ralph Hardy's (The Jaguar) sister.  Poor guy - if her mom is so hard on her son-in-law about being a hero, imagine how hard she'd be on her own son!

The Web returns in the New Crusaders -Wyatt Raymond is the son of John Raymond (and presumably Rosie), and unlike his parents, has actual super powers.  How did he get them?  How does Mama Rosie (not to mention Grandma) feel about him following his crazy father into danger?  We shall find out in only one day!

Monday, May 14, 2012

On a look at the Red Circle part 3: Steel Sterling

Pop quiz - what's the first comic book character to be known as "The Man of Steel"?


Steel Sterling had to stop appearing for a couple years before DC appropriated the sobriquet for the Man of Tomorrow.  first appearing in Zip Comics #1, Steel's origin flew in the face of science and physics as much as any other MLJ hero.

John Sterling's father was killed by gangsters when John was but a boy, and he vows revenge against them, and on criminals in general.  He becomes an eminent chemist as an adult, and invents a compound which will (OK, should) give him invulnerability.  He coats his body with the chemical, and with the zeal that can only come from a man obsessed with revenge, tests the compound by leaping into a vat of molten steel.  Arising unharmed, he has given himself "the resistance, the magnetism and the strength" of the steel he has immersed himself in. 

In addition to his strength and toughness, he could "magnetize" himself by running his fingers through his hair, allowing him the ability to fly by attracting himself to things like power lines, or follow vehicles by locking onto them.

He leaps into crimefighting with both feet - hearing about a bank robbery in a nearby town, he flies over to stop them.  He overturns their car by throwing his body under their wheels, but one escapes via a rendezvousing plane.  A criminal by the name of the Black Knight is behind it, his headquarters in a castle near town.  After attempting to trap Steel, The Black Knight eventually falls into his own traps, and ends up in a pit full of rats, where he is nibbled alive...until his nitro-fueled booby-trapped castle blows up around him.  Or so it appeared - The Black Knight would return to plague Sterling for quite some time, along with numerous other villainous characters, like almost required Nazi villain Baron Gestapo. 

Steel's earliest adventures were drawn by Charles Biro, who would soon go to Lev Gleason and take over Daredevil, the character having just been revamped by Jack Cole, who kicked off The Comet's adventures.  He appeared in every issues of Zip Comics (and each issue of the short-lived Jackpot Comics), though as the series continued, newer comedy features slowly stole his thunder. 

Steel's participation in the Mighty / Radio comics revival in the 1960s would be cursory at best.  In a storyline in Mighty Crusaders that featured almost every MLJ hero reappearing, he made a brief team-up with The Jaguar and Mr. Justice.  His magnetic body had quietly been replaced by an anti-gravity belt, as well.  He also got three solo adventures in the later issues of Mighty Comics, formerly Fly-Man's titles, converted to an anthology book near the end of the run.   He was also one of four Mighty heroes to appear in a short-run paperback book called "High Camp Superheroes", all scripted by Superman creator Jerry Siegel.

He got quite a bit of a revamp in the 80s revival.  Issue three of Blue Ribbon Comics featured a new origin for Steel - it's now explained that this is the same Steel Sterling from the forties, and the story of his father being killed by the mob is largely unchanged, save we now know how it happened - a booby-trapped car.  New details reveal that John Sterling has a sister, Meg, who has been rendered unresponsive due to the shock of witnessing her father's death out the window when his car explodes.  He grows up, living with his mother and sister, helping the people of his neighborhood in whatever way he can. 

One evening, a bright star seems to entrance John, and he follows its shine through town, and into a metal foundry.  Almost out of control of his actions, he jumps unprotected into a vat of steel, and emerges with the strength of the molten metal.  He finds his uniform in a nearby trashcan, an inner voice telling him it is for him.  the transformation also keeps him from aging - he lives to the eighties, unchanged from his life forty years before.

This version of Steel is more a man of the people, balancing a career as an aspiring actor with that of crimefighter and protector of the downtrodden.  He gets a plum role in an action movie, and donates his advance to a local soup kitchen.  In a new wrinkle, solar flares (perhaps connected to the light of the mysterious star) now have an odd effect on his powers. 

He co-starred in Lancelot Strong's Shield title, taking over for him in issue 3 when Lance sacrificed himself against a powerful foe. The book would be re-titled after him for the remaining four issues, ending with issues 7. The events of his first solo issue would be a slightly expanded version of the story from Blue Ribbon.  Comics veteran Bob Kanigher handled the short run with style, but quickly pushed Steel out of his own book. He's nowhere to be seen in issue 6, replaced by a team of teen adventurers (created by Kanigher) called The Young Steelers, and a brief coda to Lancelot Strong's final adventure.  He returned for the final issue, in a story that gave him a chance to see some revenge against his father's death.

Steel Sterling never made it into the Impact comics run at DC, and was only mentioned in passing in their Red Circle revamp from last year, though there had been plans to do more with him had the line succeeded.  He's shown up in the occasional Archie issue, as have a few of the other MLJ heroes.  But the new title will be his first official appearance since that run from the eighties.

The Steel Sterling of the New Crusaders is the son of John Sterling - it'll be interesting to see who John married - will it be ace TV reporter Gayla Gaynor, the foxy Ms. Samson, or someone else entirely?  His sister Meg would be in her nineties if she was still alive, and likely still catatonic.  It'll be curious to see what changes they make to Sterling's history, if any, to link him up with the rest of the heroes.

The New Crusaders starts May 16th - pick up the Red Circle App to read the new adventures, as well as get access to a library of the original adventures of the heroes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On a look at the Red Circle part 2: The Comet

Continuing my series of histories on the MLJ / Red Circle heroes in preparation for the first issue of New Crusaders on May 16th, here's...

The Comet - The Most Astonishing Man on the Face of the Earth!

The Comet appeared in PEP #1 along with The Shield.  He was created by Jack Cole, a creative dynamo of the Golden Age, who had just helped tweak Lev Gleason's Daredevil, and after the first few issues, went on to create Plastic Man

His origin was presented in his first adventure - Chemist John Dickering discovers a gas "fifty times lighter than hydrogen", and discovers he can make himself "light enough to make great leaps through the air" when he injects the gas into his bloodstream.  (That's right kiddies, if Joe Higgins' twelve hours of X-ray exposure wasn't dangerous enough, this guy is injecting gas bubbles into his veins.  Comic book science is AWESOME.) After many self-experiments, he discovers a chilling side effect - his eyes now emit rays that when they cross (in other words, when he focuses his gaze), they disintegrate whatever he looks at.  He quickly discovers that the only thing immune to the rays is glass, so he quickly fashions a glass visor to stop the deadly rays.

(Sound familiar?  It's positively the same power as Cyclops some twenty-five years hence, save for Scott Summers' eye beams being an "impact beam" and his visor using rose quartz.  Once again, the MLJ heroes innovate where others imitate!)

Like another "super" hero, the ability to leap turns into full-blown flight almost immediately, and as we join The Comet for his first printed exploit, he's already got his costume and a pretty good handle on being a hero.  As with The Shield and most of the pre comics code heroes, he's a pretty violent guy - in his first adventure, he's up against a ring of gangsters (get this) distributing Typhoid germs to people as a way of killing their loved ones to collect their life insurance.  In said adventure he "disintegrates" (read: kills) three people, a house, and drops a fourth baddie from a great height, and not into a pile of pillows, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

His career goes south rather quickly - in PEP #3 he is captured by a criminal with the utterly modest name of Satan and hypnotized into committing crimes for the mastermind.  A quarrel with the hypnotist who did the deed cause The Comet to be ordered to kill Satan, only to neglect to put his visor back down (being hypnotized makes you forget little details like that) and disintegrate the hypnotist in a puff of irony.  He awakens with no knowledge of his actions, and with both guilty parties reduced to their component molecules, no evidence of his innocence.  He spends the next several issues as a fugitive, only able to redeem his name with the help of ace reporter Thelma Gordon, who covers his exploits and convinces the police that he's on the side of the angels.  John and Thelma establish a reomantic relationship as well, and by the time of his last adventure, they're close enough for Thelma to want to get married.

Did I say...last adventure?

After Cole left the book, The Comet got somewhat spotty treatment. He dropped from second to third position in the book, now supplanted by Danny in Wonderland, a fantasy tale in the Little Nemo mold. He got passed to a few different creative teams - the plot about being an outlaw seemed to come and go, and in one story, he's called "John Dickinson" in error.  One story had him sporting glasses that made him a ringer for one Mr. Kent, (mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper), and by the time issue 16 was released, the next issue teaser suggested something quite serious was up for The Comet.

And indeed, in PEP #17, a new hero was introduced, The Hangman, with a groundbreaking origin.  The Comet appears in the beginning of the story capturing a top mobster, and we soon meet John Dickering's brother, Bob, just back from college.  John is too immersed in his work in both chemistry and crimefighting, and asks Bob to take Thelma out on the town.  He does so, and continues to do so for some weeks.

Meanwhile, cronies of the mobster The Comet captured are attempting to get to John Dickering, who will be testifying at the mobster's trial.  They capture Bob, who they mistake for his brother. The comet comes after them, and as Bob tries to escape, the gangsters shoot at him.  The Comet dives in front of the bullets, saving his brother, but at the cost of his own life.  Bob vows revenge, promising to take up John's role of hero.  He swears that he will bring the gangsters to the hangman, that he will "be their Hangman".  He fashions a costume, and with no powers but above-average strength and blind seething rage, becomes the merciless vigilante, The Hangman. 

Bob Dickering took Comet's place in the pantheon of heroes, as well as in Thelma Gordon's heart, Hangman got the second spot in PEP back, and The Comet was never heard from again.

OK, no, not quite.

In the second era of the MLJ heroes, a new hero know as The Comet appeared in Adventures of The Fly #30, a former ruler of the planet Altrox who comes to earth to woo and wed The Fly's female compatriot, Fly-Girl.  Some months later, in Mighty Crusaders #2, a bit of retconning revealed that this was, in fact, John Dickering, the original Comet.  His death was seemingly written off the board - now after many years of crimefighting, he was enveloped in a mysterious fireball of energy which whisked him off the the planet Altrox, a planet in dire need of a hero.  He aids their queen Naija against a race of "living metal" beasts known as Mecks.  He defeats them easily, and soon the two are wed.  but the last surviving Meck attacks the queen. Tragically, something in the Altroxian atmosphere has cancelled out his powers, and he cannot stop the beast in time. 

He remains as king of Altrox for many years, the alien world preserving his youth.  He dons a costume with technology to replace his original powers, and protects the world, but his advisors often catch him watching transmissions from Earth. Eventually he admits that he must return to his homeworld, feeling he must protect them as well.

In the adventures of the eighties, The Comet's Altroxian technology fails him at a vital moment, much in the same way his own powers did on Altrox.  Shortly afterwards, his original powers return, and he dons his old costume.  We need to wait for his abortive (originally six issues, only two were ever released) mini-series to learn more.  His timeline was massaged again, folding back in his death, and birth of The Hangman, again. With the comics Code frowning on showing injections or the taking of any type of drug via needle, John's experiments are done via inhaling his gas mixture. Thelma is now his fiancée from the start, and his transformation to The comet cause his lab to be destroyed, and he presumed dead.  He creates his protective visor in secret, and inspired by heroes like the Shield, fashions his costume and returns to Thelma, who is needless to say, surprised to see him.  They present a slightly amended version of the Typhoid adventure, and brief recaps of the adventures against Satan and the hypnotist, now working on his own. 

The initial teleport to Altrox now occurred a bit earlier in his career, and after fighting the Mecks, he was returned to Earth.  His last adventure and passing occurred as seen previously, except that now, after he died, the mysterious fireball returned, looking to Bob and Thelma as if John had been consumed by it. 

But in fact, he is transported BACK to Altrox, where their super-science restores him to life and health.  Again, he marries Naija, and she is killed as his powers fail him.  He then returns to earth, and his later adventures proceed as before.  This new version of his history brings back the violent acts of those early adventures, and Comet feels remorse for them, as opposed to the smiling glee he seemed to feel at the time, or the way the acts were tastefully ignored in the sixties.

At the time of the New Crusaders, John Dickering has married (it'll be interesting to see who he married) and adopted a son, Greg.  His son has somehow gained powers similar to his adoptive father's in a fashion I'm sure we shall discover.  While he's aware he's adopted, Greg's true parentage is unknown to him, and it's clear that this will be an important part of his part of the adventure.  Looking forward to learn more.

The New Crusaders will be available exclusively through the Red Circle App, available May 16th, with a print edition of the complete adventure available nearer to the summer.  The app also includes access to a library of the original comics of the characters as well.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On a look at the Red Circle: The Shield

Archie Comics has been doing some of the most risky things in comics of late.  Over in the eponymous books, they're running parallel "Imaginary" stories where Archie marries either Betty or Veronica, and details how the two lives would differ. 

They also introduced Kevin Keller, Riverdale's first openly gay character, a move that has gotten them much publicity and sales.

They've now chosen to get back into the superhero business.  Hot on the heels of DC's latest abortive attempt to renovate the characters, DC is reviving the Red Circle line, and all of its heroes.  As opposed to DC's two tries (I've gone on about the Impact line before), Archie is keeping all the heroes' history in play, as far back as the first appearance of The Shield. 

Again trying new things, The New Crusaders will be available digital-only.  The Red Circle App will be made available on the 16th, where for a monthly fee, readers will not only receive the chapters of the new comic, but get access to a library of the original runs of the characters.  It's a new idea, and one I'd really like to see do well.  After fervent fan demand, they announced the book will eventually be collected into print edition.  But personally, I think the digital release should be the one that gets the attention.  By taking the cost of print out of the mix, Archie reduces their costs to a point that gives them more freedom to experiment. 

Since the characters aren't as well-known to modern readers, I thought I'd help things along with a bit of a run-up on the history of the characters, in anticipation of the new book's premiere this May 16th.

The Shield - G-Man Extraordinary!

Joe Higgins uses a chemical formula, combined with a ray treatment, to give himself super-strength, and fights crime with a flag-styled costume.

Sounds familiar, right?

But The Shield premiered in Pep Comics #1 almost two years before Timely's Captain America, and his origin was revealed a few months later (but still almost a year before cap's) in Shield - Wizard Comics #1

Joe's father was an agent for the army intelligence during World War I, a close friend with J. Edgar Hoover, as well an exceptional chemist.  His son Joe helped with many of his experiments, including one intended to impart a person with super-strength.  Alas, on his last assignment he is kidnapped by German saboteurs, and kept from preventing what became known as the Black Tom explosion.  Fatally wounded in the blast, he tells his story to Joe and his friend Hoover, and urges Joe to continue to work on their strength formula, his last word an enigmatic "SHIELD".  With no evidence, Tom is blamed for the explosion; Joe swears he'll clear his father's name.

Joe grows up in his father's image, a eminent chemist.  Perusing an anatomy book, He realizes his father's last work is an acronym for portions of the human body where the formula must be applied to function.  Preparing a suit to help force the formula into his body, he applies the compound and lays in a harness as a twelve-hour treatment of fluoroscopic rays activates them (Twelve hours under a fluoroscope - gotta love the early days of fiction!)

Upon completion, Both Joe's body and the suit he wears have undergone a startling change.  He's gained amazing strength and near-invulnerability, and his suit has taken on a flag-colored theme.  After a few experimental feats of strength, heads to FBI headquarters and offers his services to Hoover, not in charge of the organization.  Turns out the saboteurs who captured and killed his father are still in action, and with his new powers, Joe tracks them down and squeezes out a confession in record time.  Hoover offers his a position on the G-Men, providing he can pass the entrance exam.

In his first appearance, chemistry played a bigger role - he carried a portable lab where he'd whip up powerful acid to allow him to break through ceilings. He was quite the brutal character, as were most characters in the pre-code days.  In one adventure he doused himself in kerosene and got fired out of a cannon to scare the bejabbers out of the Nazis.  So, pretty damn hardcore.

The Shield was MLJ's biggest hit, spawning a fanclub and everything.  but all things must end, and, well, let's put it this way, the company isn't called "Shield Comics", is it?  The lad from Riverdale would eventually become the star of the line, and The Shield and the rest of the heroes would pass into myth.

Until the 60's, that is, when renewed success in superhero comics by DC and Marvel had everyone jumping back into the book again.  Archie (under the company "Radio Comics" - bringing to mind the Rocky Horror audience joke "What the hell is a Radio Picture?") revived the superhero line.  Starting off with newer characters like The Fly, The Shield returned with a couple more of the old guard (more about them soon) a couple years in including a new Shield.  It's revealed in the first issue of The Might Crusaders that this is Bill Higgins, Joe's son.  The original Shield was killed, turned to an iron statue by The Eraser one of his enemies, who promptly resigned from crime, going out on top.  Bill carried on in his father's name, wearing one of his father spare costumes. Bill didn't have his father's formula, his powers were based in his suit, and varied a bit.  The suit was bulletproof, and he could "magnetically" attract bullets so they'd bounce off the bulletproof parts.  For a brief period (one issue) he could teleport. Joe was a good hero, but not as successful in the real world - he lost jobs regularly, and was laughed out of the FBI's recruiting offices.

Archie brought the Mighty gang back again in the early 80's.  We learn that thanks to the alien science of a fellow Mighty Crusader, The Comet, Joe Higgins, the original Shield was brought back to life.  He retained the density of iron, requiring him to take even greater caution when he fought villains.  Upon his father's return, Bill immediately retired as The Shield, enlisted in the Air Force, and was not heard from again, a dangling bit of plot-thread that New Crusaders writer Ian Flynn has officially declared "Interesting", so...well, draw your own conclusions.

Archie had one more character known as The Shield - Lancelot Strong, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America.  It only lasted two issues (DC claimed he was too similar to Superman; their go to strategy), but those two issues have likely bee reprinted more than any other books in Archie Comics' history.  Joe Simon and the Kirby estate regained the rights to the character in 1999, and while it's presumed he won't appear in the New Crusaders, it's not quite impossible.

It's the original Shield, Joe Higgins, that we'll see in New Crusaders, as the lead hero, guiding the new generation.  The adventures begin May 16th, and I recommend you give it a go.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On the relaunch of two disparate universes

Valiant was a powerful and creative company in the 90's, spearheaded by Jim Shooter, who engineered a comeback on par with Elvis in vegas and Mel Brooks on Broadway.  Using the heroes from Western Publishing as a base asset, he rebuilt them from scratch, added in brand new characters, and did what hadn't been done successfully in a couple decades - presented a brand new comics universe that actually caught on, and how.

Sadly, the boardroom brawls were as over the top as the action on the page - Jim was squeezed out of his own company, many creators followed (and many didn't), the books went through massive changes in dorection, and the company made a subtle shift to more gimmicky covers and insane print runs, being partially responsible for the downfal of the industry in the mid 90's.  The characters changed hands, went through another couple of revamps, and ultimately withered and died, remaining only fond memories in the minds of the fans.

Some years back there was quite a frooferau as two separate companies attempted to buy (and in some cases, just sieze as salvage) the copyrights and trademarks of the Valiant Universe.  Valiant fandom broke into camps, and the message boards glowed white-hot with anger and vitriol.  One company emerged triumphant, while the other vanished, and we never even got to know who owned them (thought there were one or two Clever Theories).  The smart money was that since this new company only had access to the new characters, and not the ones from Western, their success would be a long shot indeed.

In the years between, we got a reprint or two, Jim Shooter became connected with the company for a very short time, but went off to Dark Horse to write new versions of the Western characters again. (Like so many things involving Jim, there are conflicting stories as to the details)  Ultimately, it seemed like we'd never see anything come of this, and we'd gotten all excited over nothing.

Confounding expectations, annoucements were made that first issues of the new Valiant universe would appear this spring, starting with X-O Manowar.  That issue came out yesterday.

I can honestly say that this new Valiant has surprised the industry in the same way the original did, presenting solid and impressive storytelling, putting the cynics in their place.

Special Guest Norbert
by Mike Leeke
  The original X-O started in the middle, with your only knowledge that this Aric guy was a barbarian, had been kidnapped by aliens, and gets ahold of their most powerful weapon.  Here, writer Robert Venditti scrolls back a bit - we see Aric of Dacia in battle with the Romans, we meet his family, we learn a great deal more about him.  He's brash, headstrong, and impulsive, even for a Visigoth.  When he hears about a new "transport" that the Romans have brought in, he investigates.  Of course it's not the Romans, but an alien spacecraft, aliens who promptly apprehend him and his men and bring them aboard.  He escapes his captors, and while searching around the ship, observe a ceremony where the aliens are trying to find a worthy bearer of what will eventually be known as the X-O armor.

That's right, an entire issue of action, solid character work, and we don't even see him get the armor.  No worries about people screaming GTtFM here - there's more than enough going on, without a shread of decompressed narrative.  In a very interesting plot seed, we see that the aliens are sneaking into the Visigoth camp, kidnapping children, and leaving changelings - alien babies transformed to appear human.  It's a fascinating expansion of the original Three-Thousand Year War with the Spider-aliens in the original books - surely we'll be seeing the fruits of that plan when we hit modern day.  One wonders if those alien genes might be responsible for the powers of people known as Harbingers, the next title to come down the pike in a week or two.

It's a fabulous take on the character, giving him more of a personality than he had before and rounding him out as a character.  Setting the Spider-Aliens up as the bad guy straight away also helps set the groundwork for the other books.  When Shadowman came out in the original run, you needed a nudge to "get" that these were the same aliens Aric was fighting 1500 years before,
Cary Nord's art is a delight - clean and uncluttered, no exaggerated anatomy, and solid storytelling.  Indeed, also very similar to the art style of the original books.

One book in, and I am SOLD.  I was hopeful as the news began to trickle out, the decision to make Archer & Armstrong one of the launch title had me thinking they had their head on straight, but this book has me over the moon. 

Over at DC, James Robnison and Nicola Scott have launched Earth-2, the DCnU version of the parallel Earth that got the whole Multiverse mishegas going in the first place.  From the first announcement of the changes to the DCU, the thing that tugged the most heartstrings was the seeming loss of the JSA.  It's not the first time we lost them, and there was a general hope/belief that they'd be back in some way or another.

Almost immediately the evidence began to mount.  Karen Starr (Power Girl's secret identity) was to be a regular character in the Mister Teriffic comic, another character associated with the JSA.  Less than a month or two after the DCnU started, DC announced that we'd see Earth-2 back.  Soon we found out that The Huntress, Paul Levitz' character, who had just got her own mnui-series, was in fact not Helena Bertinelli, but Helen Wayne, daughter of the Batman of Earth-2.  Many fans squeed.

James Robinson has played the details of the book close to the vest.  I noted that he referred to the Earth-2 heroes by their regular names, and not their super-hero names.  I noticed that there were no details of the time-frame of the world's history - how similar was this world to the original Earth-2?

None at all, it turns out.

Extra Special
Guest Norbert by
Dale Eaglesham
 As with the Earth of the DCnU, we're seeing the birth of a new breed of heroes, ones with the same names as the golden age ones, but getting their powers in the present day.  The story starts the same five years ago that JLA did - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (who on this earth have clearly been fighting crime for many years) are fighting an invasion from Apokalips.  They defeat the invasion, but at the cost of their own lives.  During and after the fight, we meet Alan Scott, Al Pratt and Jay Garrick, and see how they were involved with the battle.  Al was a sargeant in the army, Alan a communications mogul, and Jay was just getting out of college.  And in case it's not clear, they're not all 87 years old.  These are yuoung and vital people, who have a big adventure aherad of them.

Now we're seeing this new band of heroes got their powers, supposedly to fight some massive threat yet to come.  Jay will apparently get his speedster powers directly from the god Mercury, finally making that helmet make sense. 

So, I'm in yet another situation where the book is exactly nothing of what I hoped for.  Now I could be short-sighted, pout, and drop the book back on the rack.  But I've already said how much I enjoy the work of James Robinson, and here he comes up roses.  The book is VERY heavily character oriented.  Nobody balls up their fists and screams "JUSTICE!" so that ought to please everybody.  The battle is related in an exciting fashion, and the people we meet afterwards come off as three-domensional characters.  Nicola Scott has made a big jump in her art - her character work was always beautiful, but the detail in the backgrounds on the page are real impressive. 

This is a very different Earth-2, and as with the DCnU, if you're able to get past the fact that these are literally not the characters you grew up with, you're in for a very fun time.  If you can't get past that, I wish you well reading your reprints, but I'm looking forward.

It's interesting how in both of these new books' cases, different tactics were taken. Valiant it very much sticking to the original concepts of the characters, and just retelling the stories with an exciting new energy,  while keeping the feel of the original books.  DC is pretty much jettisoning everything save for the names of the characters, and doing brand new stories.  In both cases, there's no knowing what's coming next, and both approaches can be successful.  And I hope they both are.