Thursday, 28 February 2013

ALF #10: "Blood Battle!"

(From the ridiculous to the subprime mortgage.)


Is this the most strangely structured comic I've looked at yet?  As a brief reminder, last time we visited Canada we found ourselves above the Arctic Circle, watching as Walter Langkowski, stuck in his human form due to a broken arm, faced off against the Super Skrull, who'd already killed all five staff members at the research station Langkowski was visiting.  That's all you need to know, really, but of course Byrne still thinks it's necessary to dedicate over half a page to an explanatory flashback.

Not over half the first page, though, because for reasons unknown, we kick off with three pages of James Hudson buying a New York apartment. Because nothing ramps up anticipation of a battle to the death in the freezing Arctic winter like seeing someone signing up for a new mortgage.  To make things worse, this scene is accompanied by some of Bryne's worst writing yet:
And this day, across the majestic Brooklyn Bridge words are spoken and papers signed which are intended to reduce Canada's population by two... while increasing New York's by the same number.
Yikes. Bryne could get two paragraphs out of opening a phone book. 

Time to return to our scheduled episode of Skrull & the Sasquatch, and things don't look good for our hero.  With one arm broken he daren't transform into Sasquatch, which basically limits his options to running away.  Except of course that his enemy is faster than him, which further reduces the choices to one; throw himself down a sleep slope of ice and hope for the best.

"The best" isn't exactly what happens.  Langkowski reaches the ground safely enough, except the ground proves to be covered in a snow deep several feet deep, and he's quickly swallowed.  The good news is, the sudden shock of being buried alive instinctively triggers a transformation, which turns out to repair bones in any case.  The bad news is that the resulting agonising shifting of Walter's skeleton drives him mad, leaving him a savage beast in fact as well as in appearance.

Actually, that has its good side, too, since now he's all roided up, Sasquatch has no trouble beating the alien snot out of the Super Skrull. The shape-shifter only avoids total defeat by breaking out his secret weapon and hypnotising Langkowski.  And a good thing too, because otherwise, we wouldn't get two whole pages of the Super Skrull's story.

I really don't have the energy to run through what we learn here.  Sooner or later, you have to call an end to the madness.  Besides, it's not a good idea to encourage these people.  There's two reasons Byrne has stuck this weird combination of the alien's flashbacks and Langkowski's resultant deductions.  The first is to throw chum to the fansharks by linking ol' Supes' last appearance to this one.  The second is to paper over the cracks in the storyline.

Both of these impulses are interesting, because of how many pixels have been spilled over the years on the subject of how far they should be taken.  The most obvious comparison here from this squid's perspective is Russell T Davies' reign of terror during the Tenth Doctor era.

Those who've read the older blog will know I have very little time for Davies as a sci-fi writer, or for some of the more ridiculous things he's come out with in interviews.  For now, though, let's limit my dislike to two strands: Davies' comments that callbacks to the old series were self-indulgent and alienated new viewers, and what I can only read as an utter disinterest in ensuring his various lunatic ideas and setpieces actually have any kind of logical throughline whatsoever.

I mention this because I've spent a ridiculously disproportionate amount of time online - even by my standards - beating these ideas up, but Byrne's work here is Exhibit A that Davies has a point. The idea that references to the past are in themselves is self-evidently idiotic (though the chances Davies was being entirely straight with his responses is of course minimal); the Tennant era was littered with asides regarding previous adventures.  It was simply that the majority of said adventures were never actually seen, a fact that's lost on the exact same people Davies is trying to claim shouldn't be confused by previous references.  Moreover, one of those irritating issues with such long running multi-author stories as Doctor Who and the X-Men both is a tendency for the artifacts of the past to be reused without regard to the events of the past.  Most commonly this involves a dead character returning without so much as a ghost of an explanation (be it the Master or fully half of the Marvel supervillain back catalogue), but there are many less obvious forms of the problem as well.

In this sense, the two issues are actually one and the same, it's all just a disagreement about when and where explanation is necessary. What separates them is who exactly is arguing for greater exposition.

The debate about how much of any given plot should be explicitly explained, implicitly clear, purposefully mysterious, and just obviously inexplicable, is by far the more interesting of the two battles.  Which is a shame, because for the purposes of this post, it's not really particularly relevant.  That's not true of Byrne's work in general, however.  I tend to agree with Phil Sandifer's take on Byrne that he thinks his readers are idiots, and thus works far too hard to ensure nothing is left unexplained, irrespective of how rubbish those explanations prove to be in practice.  For now, though, let's focus on Byrne's other major failing.

Byrne, I think, has always been a fan's kind of writer, someone who knows what long term readers want to see.  The problem is, there's always been an important difference between what fans say they want, and what works in practice.  A slavish devotion to continuity is the big one here, of course; ensuring every new story fits into the ever-tightening parameters created by those it follows.

Obviously, this isn't a position to which I'm unsympathetic, but I'm not kidding myself, it can get problematic. It certainly does here. Byrne hates (understandably) the idea of bringing back the Super Skrull without any explanation as to how he got there, and so hammers home every step from A to B to justify the reveal. 

The problem here is two-fold.  First, obviously, it makes for boring reading.  If you can't explain a reveal in a couple of sentences, then you either drop the explanation, or you drop the story (my preference would be for the former, but I'll grant it depends how good the story itself is; an overly-padded confrontation based on a double pun certainly doesn't qualify).  The second problem is that Bryne's explanation is so utterly batshit nutball that it ends up working in exactly the wrong direction. Even I'm prepared to admit that no explanation is preferable to an utterly terrible one, and a story about becoming a "living space-warp" and bouncing around a transport beam until developing super lukemia (I'm not joking here, Walter actually offers super lukemia as his differential) is nothing if not uniformly terrible.

So if Davies' true point is that explanations can end up backfiring horribly, well, point taken.

Right. Back to the "action". All of that cosmic cancer seems to have affected the Super Skrull's hypnotic abilities (not something I ever thought I'd type, but not in the top twenty stupid things about this issue), allowing Walt to play possum, helping the alien build a method home until it's time to strike (the alien accidentally helps with this by not bothering with any hypnosis re-ups, which is does make the top twenty).  When the Skrull suffers another attack, Sasquatch throws him into the half-built transporter, scattering unstable molecules all over our unstable cosmos.

The danger passed, Walter begins the long walk back, fretting all the way about whether his earlier bloodlust is a sign he's giving in to the beast within.  Me, I say anything you do with your arm in two pieces counts for very little in terms of predicting trends.  In any case, everyone's favourite ginger monster soon has other things on his mind, when he gets back to his apartment to find Aurora waiting for him...

Speaking of Aurora, this issue's back up strip "Family Ties" finishes off her origin story, as Vindicator arranges her first meeting in decades with her twin brother Northstar.  As with the main story, there's really far more expository detail than's necessary in here; I'm really not all that bothered about the exact details by which the twins ended up growing up without any knowledge of each other.  That said, there are two nice ideas packed away in these five pages.  The first is the idea that the French Canadian Northstar hates the parliament in Ottawa, and has never felt the need to learn to speak English (though the implication here is that he can understand it).  The second is actually really surprising; Byrne hints that Northstar is gay.

I had no idea that Jean-Paul's orientation was implied so early, and it's to Byrne's significant credit.  Looking at the backstory, it turns out Bryne in fact wanted to give more than just nods and winks, but Marvel nixed the plan, due to some combination of the CCA being its typically unpleasant self, and Jim Shooter refusing to allow openly gay characters. We'll have to wait another eight years before Northstar can finally state the truth explicitly, but obviously I'll be keeping an eye on what else is said on the subject as we go on.


The main action in this issue takes place through the night and into the following morning.  Walter's return home to find Aurora takes place just under a week later.  The issue confirms that we are now in winter.


Saturday 10th to Saturday 17th December, 1983.


X+5Y+285 to X+5Y+292.

Contemporary Events

The 45th government of Turkey is formed, beginning a new era of civilian rule.

Satya Bhabha is born, and later grows up to be the first guy Michael Cena beats up in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Standout Line

"The women don't seem to have interested you overmuch..." - James Hudson.

Dammit, Vindicator?  How are you supposed to find the forest with all these damn trees in the way?

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