Friday, August 19, 2016

There Came a Time When the Brain Globes of Rambat Died!

There's a parallel world out there I'm curious about.

The Legion of Super-Heroes became famous, of course, during their long run in Adventure Comics in the 1960s. But this run ended with #380, cover dated May 1969. After that the Legion spent about a year (June '69-Sept '70) as backups in Action Comics. And then they didn't appear for about half a year, only reappearing as a backup in Superboy in spring of 1971. (So, you know, it was about like now, only not as bad.) The point of which is, between the summer of 1969 and, arguably, the spring of 1972 (when Dave Cockrum took over the art) there was a period during which DC wasn't really putting much effort into Legion comics.

You know what else happened during that period?

Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to DC and created the Fourth World. The first issue of these stories was Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133, cover dated October 1970; apparently Kirby took over that title because there was no incumbent creative team on it.

(The Fourth World stuff was not a huge commercial success. Its titles (Jimmy Olsen, plus Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and The New Gods) lasted for a couple of years before Kirby turned his attention to other things, but DC has been using the characters and ideas ever since.)

What I want to know is this.

What if, instead of fitting the Fourth World stuff into the Jimmy Olsen comic, Kirby had scooped up a different Superman-adjacent franchise and done a Legion of Super-Heroes comic instead? It's a natural: nobody was really using the Legion, and their spacefaring future-adventures were a more natural fit for Kirby's imagination than Jimmy Olsen and his bow tie. I honestly have no idea why this didn't happen.

And if it had happened, how would it have changed things? I actually think it would have made things worse for the Legion, counterintuitive as that may seem. Consider:

- it's not like the Fourth World led to any kind of Jimmy Olsen renaissance
- Darkseid and Mr. Miracle have been enduring characters, but despite DC's fascination with the various properties, there really haven't been that many Fourth World-related comics, post-Kirby, that have been any good
- Kirby would have been taking over the Legion before Cockrum's costumes, before Wildfire and Dawnstar, before Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl married, before Invisible Kid and Chemical King died. Would subsequent writers have felt compelled to keep the Legion the same as it was when Kirby was working on it?
- what would have happened to the Legion when Kirby was done with it? Would they have found a home in the Superboy title, or not? Given a different chain of events, would Bates and Cockrum and Grell and Levitz have found their way to the LSH?

So I'm not saying I wish it had happened. (For one thing, and I know this is heresy, but Kirby is one of those great comic-book creators whose style doesn't really appeal to me, along with Joe Kubert, Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and Don Heck.) But I would like to know what it would have been like.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Always Repeating Itself

2016 seems like it's an ordeal. Sometimes it doesn't feel like we're going to make it to 2017, because who knows what might happen next? Any crazy terrible thing! Nothing is off the table.

Here's what I think is going on.

You may know from previous writings that I'm into the Strauss-Howe generational cycle theory. If you're not familiar with it, here's the upshot: every eighty years, give or take, society will go through a period of about twenty years, give or take, called a Crisis era. In a Crisis era, it will feel like everything is coming to an end, like things can't go on like this any longer, and like we have to solve all of our giant problems right now. It's a time in which crumbling institutions finally give up the ghost, and new ones are born, and a time in which children are overprotected to the point of feeling smothered. Previous Crisis eras in North America have featured the Depression+World War II, the Civil War+Canadian Confederation, and the American Revolution.

My intention is not to try to sell anybody on the generational cycle theory. If you want to look into it and you think it makes sense, great; if not, great. My point is this: there have been tough times, tumultuous times, before, and they have been survived. The challenges all around us are serious, but we can, if we try, cope with them. We can, maybe, solve problems and make things better. We may be able to come out the other end of this with a better society than the one we have now.

It's not the end of the world and it's not a time to despair. It's a dangerous time, yes, but also an opportunity to do some good. It's a time to keep our hands on the wheel, in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

So don't let it get you down. If, as I suspect, the Crisis era began on September 11th, 2001, then we've still got a few more years of this kinda action to go, but... it's fine. This is the kind of thing that people deal with, and wouldn't we rather that we were those people, rather than some other bunch? This is history, and we're in it. We should act like it.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Notions Preconceived Can Lead to Utter Madness

I really don't know where the hell we are.

1. Once upon a time there was the comics blogosphere. Lots of smart and funny people who created blogs to write about comics. It was really cool. Now, though, it's... well, it's not over, because many of the titans of the field are still keeping on keeping on, just like always. But it's not the same. Was it ever as much of a community as I thought it was? Or maybe it was and I was just never in it? Maybe it still is and I'm still not in it. Which I can live with. But... I don't know.

2. Let's do this theoretically.

Here we have a comics company, So Cool Comics. Their flagship title is We Are Not Born, and it's a very good comic book. The primary creator on WANB is a person with the initials ZZ. ZZ is generally liked and respected and is strongly identified with both WANB and So Cool.

Here's the problem, though: it turns out that a little while ago ZZ did a very bad thing to a person with the initials QQ. QQ is also generally liked and respected, not that that matters, but just to set the scene. The thing ZZ did was very traumatic for QQ, and QQ is not doing so great in dealing with it. The facts of this event have all come out and there is no controversy as to the truth of them. ZZ has apologized and, so far as we know, taken lifestyle steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again; ZZ and So Cool have issued statements, legal avenues have been pursued to their conclusion, and QQ has gotten as much satisfaction out of the situation as there was available. The thing that happened has finished happening, and everybody's best understanding is that ZZ isn't going to do anything like that again. The only thing that hasn't been resolved is that QQ is still having problems and does not feel like things have ended well, but QQ is getting appropriate help and there's no way anything else is going to change.

As for WANB, ZZ is still in charge of it, and it's still as good as ever, although there's nobody else working on it who could be perceived as being on QQ's "side", to the extent that there can really be sides in this. And... looking back at some of the early issues of WANB... some of the stuff that a couple of the characters say... it seems a little creepy now if you read them in the context of what happened between ZZ and QQ. But that could be just us.

So where does all this leave us? Like, you and me us, the readers or potential readers of We Are Not Born.

Trick question! It doesn't matter where it leaves us, because the only really important thing here is QQ coping with the consequences of ZZ's mistreatment. Who the hell cares about us? Including us! This is the fate and health of a person we're talking about here, and everyone else can sit down and shut up.

Okay? We clear?

And that's it. That's the bottom line.

Except of course it's not. Oh, for QQ it is. But QQ's course of action is straightforward here: get better and find a way to move on. Easier said than done of course, but at least everyone understands that that's what the deal is, even if we don't fully grasp what goes into it.

But we, the fans, are in a much more comfortable but less well-defined position. It's not at all interesting or important, really, except that it's our position and we have to figure out what to do in it. Just because nobody gives a crap what we do doesn't mean that we know what to do.

Here are some of the questions facing us. Do we continue to read We Are Not Born? Or any comics published by So Cool? Can we continue to like ZZ? Do we forgive ZZ?

And my problem is I honestly don't know the answers.

Take the last question, 'do we forgive ZZ'.

On the one hand, forgiveness is generally regarded as a good thing. Not just a good thing, but a necessary thing: without forgiveness, we might as well have the death penalty for every crime. If the penalty box only has a one-way door on it, eventually we'll all be in there.

On the other hand. Where the hell do we get off forgiving ZZ? ZZ did a terrible thing! That QQ still isn't over! And that's okay with us? If we forgive ZZ, then that's a signal that we don't care about QQ, that ZZ might as well do the same thing again to somebody else, that anybody might as well do the same thing again to somebody else. It's also a signal to people similar to QQ that we are not going to be there for them if ZZ or whoever does something bad to them going forward. Forgiveness is... well, isn't it a lot like permission?

There are a lot of dead ends in this discussion. "Well, wouldn't you want someone to forgive you, if you were in that situation?" If I was in that situation? I wouldn't dare hope for forgiveness from anybody. I suspect I would not accept it if it were offered. But, again: easy for me to say. "You have to separate the artist from the art." Well, you can't. Or else, you have to. I don't know.

There's really only one thing I am confident of in this discussion, and that's that saying, "Well, screw it, everything's just terrible, I guess," is wrong, whether it leads you to rejecting everyone or disregarding any reason to reject anyone. That kind of cynicism is a privilege that's better not being exercised; not everyone is in a position to disengage and it's exactly the people who can who generally shouldn't. Let's stick with it, let's keep our hands on the wheels of our judgment, and if we get it wrong, then we'll know for next time. I guess. I don't know.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Legionnaires: Gates

How have I not done Gates yet?

Gates, aka Ti'julk M'rasz of Vyrga. Created by Tom McCraw, Lee Moder, and Mark Waid.

Gates was one of several new Legion candidates introduced early in the reboot. He was (is!) a giant bug with claws and a hood, who also happens to have the power of teleportation. You could if you liked consider him to be an effort to get Nightcrawler into the Legion long after Dave Cockrum had left the book.

Once Gates joined the Legion, he was basically on the team right through the end of the reboot, and after Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, he shifted membership to the retroboot Legion, where the writers seemed not to know what to do with him. Then he was trapped in the 21st century as part of the Legion Lost title, about which the less said the better.

The great thing about Gates was his politics. He wasn't serving in the Legion voluntarily; he had been drafted by his planet, and was very skeptical about the Legion's role. Plus he either was an extreme leftist or he thought he was. Plus he's a snarky son of a gun.

Another important point: he's one of the very few nonhumanoid Legionnaires in their history. I'd like to see a lot more such characters.

I miss that Gates. If there's ever a Legion comic again, and if they bring back Gates in it, I hope they use that side of his personality. It's useful as well as fun, and I was disappointed when the retroboot writers didn't use it. Here's his first appearance.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Key Fields

The consensus best Legion of Super-Heroes story is "The Great Darkness Saga" of the early 1980s, by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. There are many reasons why this is so, but at the moment I want to focus on one that you might not have thought of before.

One of the things that they tell you* is that your language places constraints on the thoughts you can think. Example: in Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon one of the characters gets addicted to morphine. This doesn't go well for him. At one point one of the other characters starts talking to him about it, trying to help him get a handle on it. I don't have the book in front of me, but what he tells him is something like this: "In English, we would call you a morphine addict. That suggests that your basic nature is as a creature that is addicted to morphine. I prefer how they say it in German, which translates to something like, 'you are morphine-seeky'. The suggestion is that you are still you, but you have the quality of being addicted to morphine."

You get my point? The words and terms that are available to you will influence the course of your thoughts. Here's another example: heat vision. If we were listing superpowers, or if you were designing a superhero, "heat vision" would likely be one of the things that occurred to you as an option. Because you perceive it as a superpower. You have a term for it. But it wasn't always so: look at the early Superman stories and he talks about melting things with "the heat of my X-ray vision". X-ray vision was a superpower; heat vision wasn't even a thing.

Back to the Legion. When you are considering which are the good stories and which are the less good stories, your list will be influenced--determined!--by which stories you can identify as distinct stories, based on which ones have names. And, for the longest time, comic-book stories didn't really have names, mostly. Each individual issue would have its title, but nobody paid much attention to them usually. But multi-issue stories tended not to have names that stuck. This persists today, to some extent, although the titles given to trade paperback collections have some prominence.

Anyway, "The Great Darkness Saga" has a great name, that was used prominently on the covers of the original comics. People who read it got into the habit of thinking of it as a single unit, because they had a term that they could apply to it. So when they were thinking of great Legion stories, or, really, great comics stories in general, it was easy for them to come up with "The Great Darkness Saga".

During Paul Levitz's second run, he didn't do a lot of stories that stood out as units like that. His writing technique had various subplots bubbling along at different stages, and in each issue one of them would rise to the surface and command our attention, and then recede to make room for the next thing, which had been steadily building for the past five issues itself. It's hard to isolate a specific great story in the middle of that. But there was certainly some great stuff in there.

If you ask people now what another great Legion story from that era is, they might name "An Eye for an Eye". Because now they have a title for the story. Before the trade paperback with that title came out, they would have had to refer to it as "the LSV war" or something. They'd be less likely to refer to it, because they were less likely to perceive it as a distinct choice.

Or take "Omen and the Prophet". "Omen and the Prophet" is not that well-regarded, but it does have a title. So someone listing great Legion stories may well find a place for it somewhere down the list, because they do recognize it as a story. But there's lots of other stuff in Levitz's second run that was much better, but doesn't have a title to use as a hook. Or consider "The Lightning Saga"; same deal. "The Lightning Saga" was actually pretty lame in a lot of ways, but it does have a memorable name.

So this is not a slam at "The Great Darkness Saga", which after all really is a great story. It's got an interesting structure, an impressive scope, and some great moments. But one of the most important keys to its reputation has been simply that people knew what to call it.


* "They". You know. Them. The ones who tell you stuff.

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