Sunday, 28 September 2014
(Nightcrawler > The Fonz)
I was quite down on the first issue of this mini, arguing it was all over the place, a riot of colour and ill-matching designs in search of a plot. In truth, the plot here isn't much stronger, but it is at least far more focused, which actually removes a lot of the problems.
It's once again desperately simple fare. Here Nightcrawler must defeat the sorcerer and rescue the princess, all with rather unexpected help from his piratical former buddies, who aren't about to let some bad blood stop them gaining the princess for themselves. That's as far from original as Nightcrawler is from home right now. That means the story has to rely on two alternative planks, focusing on how Kurt getting through a pulp fantasy tale works differently to how any other hero might attempt it, and ramping up the weirdness so at least the issue can plausibly make the case that its unique specifics make up for its tired generalities.
And in fact Cockrum at least makes a fist at both of these. Kurt's acrobatics allows him to lead Shagreen's gigantic rock-snake-worm guardian to its bosses own sanctum (never rely on a killer monster your own doors can't stop), and the concluding sabre-duel beneath and ultimately atop a gigantic flying squid employ both Kurt's love of swashbuckling and his skills at it. However many final duels you've seen before, very few of them will involve the hero wielding three blades simultaneously, or define victory by stabbing a shark in the face . It's a shame Kurt has to give up his bonus swords so quickly, actually; did Cockrum simply fail to realise how bad-ass this approach was?
Glorious weirdness is thick on the ground, as well. Not the randomly-generated lunatic chic of last issue, but playful off-kilter stuff. Quite aside from a four-armed shark-faced antagonist, the early pages of the issue are infested with the Boggies Kurt spent all of the last instalment being mistaken for; naked two-foot creatures with miniature bat-wings between their arms and bodies, but dead-ringers for Nightcrawler beyond that, even before you factor in their teleportation skills. Considering their cutesy appearances and sarcastic, odd speech patterns, I suspect these creatures put us in Marmite territory, but personally I rather like them. From this point forward I shall never refer to Lockheed as anything other than "Snappyface Toymonster", and the Boggies' general approach of lambasting Kurt for his total cluelessness is a nice counterpoint to our favourite teleporter's effortless heroics. Each one is a Yoda with a better sense of humour and less interest in trousers. What's not to love?
Which is really all there is to say about this issue. Well, I suppose I could delve into the aggravating nature of the "hero selves helpless princess" motif employed here, but honestly this iteration is so utterly devoid of originality there's a low ceiling on what ripping it up could possibly achieve (Cockrum does shake things up a wee bit by adding some horniness to his innocent princess; reasonable people can disagree over whether that's in any way an improvement). A cliche can be harmful, of course, but at its 15, 232, 155th iteration doesn't strike me as a fruitful place to begin the hammering. It feels more sensible to just confess that there's not a great deal to be said about this book, which isn't to say it's bad, just that its positives are obvious and uncomplicated and its negatives so well-trodden that further bitching seems redundant.
Besides, with this issue ending with Nightcrawler being teleported to a new dimension, there might well be plenty of things to complain about next time around. On this occasion, I'll simply stop here.
 Not that Nightcrawler would do that. His X-Men honour would never allow him. Shark-Dude has to accidentally fall off the squid instead, as is traditional. The accidental death-by-gravity that absolves the hero from blame, I mean. Not toppling off a floating gas-filled cephalopod.
The continuing effects of the time differential between dimensions means that technically, this is all still happening on the same day as NGT #1.
Saturday 22nd December, 1984
White man Bernard Goetz shoots four black teenages in a New York subway, after they surround him and ask for five dollars (they will later be described as muggers; muggers being well known for a) showing no weapons, b) asking for money rather than demanding it, and c) setting their own exceptionally low bar on their score rather than aiming for everything their mark is carrying. All but one recovers (the fourth is paralysed). Goetz is ultimately found not guilty of any charge other than a single illegal firearms possesion count.
"He's going to sacrifice her? Kill her?"
"Of course kill her, stupid! Not gain bigmagic power by nicemaking kissykiss!"
Sunday, 21 September 2014
(Despair is right.)
We'll cover this issue on its own. Not because it's any good - it isn't, though I suppose in this ongoing train wreck this is one of the ones that most avoids damaging houses or knocking over pensioners. But it's worth running though this one on its own, partially because it sets up a fairly major shift in the story which will take us through into the final third of this benighted series, and partially because this is by some distance the most mutant-heavy issue of this title so far.
It's also, relatedly, the debut of Tabitha Smith, AKA Time Bomb, AKA Boom-Boom, AKA Boomer, AKA Meltdown. As one of very few 20th century X-folks who've survived in general rotation without either Stan Lee or Chris Claremont having any hand in their creation, Tabitha Smith generates interest through rarity if nothing else.
And that isn't all there is. Tabitha, we learn, has run away after her father learned she was a mutant and responded by punching her in the face. Now she's on a mission to find the school she's heard about that functions as a haven for mutants. X-folks have had problems with their families before (Iceman is the most obvious example, though in truth we didn't actually learn that until soon before he and his father made up in any case), and they've been threatened with exclusion and even violence before (see Nightcrawler's introduction). But the explicit mentioning of a young mutant suffering physical abuse from a parent simply for being who they are is new.
This is clearly a logical step in continuing the build the mutant metaphor. Which isn't to say it can't be problematic as well. It's a brave step to take. Domestic abuse is always a difficult topic to write about without seeming crass, and it's a particularly uneasy fit in a genre where punching people at the slightest provocation seems to be generally regarded as a spiffing idea. Shooter's tack here is to compare the Beyonder's loneliness over Dazzler's rejection (and, implicitly, his status as the only one of his kind) to similar feelings in Tabitha stemming from her father's abuse. Which is perhaps an interesting comparison, in theory, but the problem here is obvious: being rejected by a girl is a common problem for the intended audience of this comic. Being a young girl beaten by her father most definitely isn't. You can't push this parallel without being entirely unequivocal that implying anything but the most skin-deep similarities is thoroughly awful.
Which might well be what Shooter is trying, in truth. There's certainly no lack of indications that the Beyonder is exactly that sort of solipsistic arsehole. He sulks about how his infinite power doesn't help persuade a woman to love him; a fairly transparent iteration of the disgracefully rich man whining that they're only 95% immune from the constant unbearable shitstorm of reality. Even more damning, he accompanies Tabitha to Xavier's mansion even though he knows the X-Men are leery of him, and when they inevitably attack (apparently having learned nothing from his previous admonitions about mutants having good reasons to be a little less knee-jerk about who they consider threats) he simply yawns and disappears. This has the direct effect of forcing Tabitha to flee from the only people she knew of who could maybe have helped her sort out the damage her father and wider society have done to her life. And throughout all of Tabitha's genuinely upsetting confessions and knock backs, the Beyonder remains utterly uninterested, using her as nothing but a sounding board for his solipsistic mooching. Later in the issue he prepares to obliterate the universe just to force a reaction from the Celestials, sparking a battle that wrecks an alien city and which very plausibly kills people too. Literally the best thing you can say about his behaviour in the first two thirds of this issue is that he doesn't allow her to commit suicide after he prevents her speaking to the people she's travelled so many miles to find.
But if the idea is to skewer the Beyonder for his self-involvement, Shooter takes a tremendously anaemic approach to it. Tabitha doesn't blame the Beyonder for the damage he causes, instead begging him to come back when he leaves, setting the time bomb that would have killed her if not for his intervention. We return to the fundamental problem of this entire mini: the Beyonder expands to fill everything, denying any other character the time they need to respond satisfactorily. And of course this is particularly problematic here. It's one thing for the Beyonder to wave his hand and give Power Man a massive pile of gold. It's another for him to wave his hand and remove Tabitha's black eye. It's not that we should want this thirteen year old kid to keep the marks of her abuse. It's that they need to be healed, not just be waved away to demonstrate the protagonist's good will.
Actually, I'm being a little unfair here. The one part of this issue that I think works is Tabitha's insistence that whilst she's perfectly happy for the Beyonder to remove her bruise, he's not to remove her mutant power. He can heal the damage, but he is determined to remain who she is. This, at least, is how things should be, I think - a separation between wanting to be rid of the effects of bigotry and wanting to be rid of the slices of your identity that sets the bigots off. It's also interesting that the Beyonder neither offers nor Tabitha asks him to remove the memory of her father beating her. I'm not in any position at all to speculate on whether survivors of domestic abuse might wish for their memories of what they've suffered to be wiped, but on balance I think it was the right choice not to try it here. If you want to introduce such heavy and difficult subject matter, it needs to be processed, not waved away.
Except ultimately that's what Shooter does, as Tabitha finally gets sick of the Beyonder's pointless acts of destruction and insults him enough for him to teleport her from the ruins of the city below the Celestials and back to Earth. Ultimately this is what rankles most of all; it's time for the Beyonder's interminable, joyless story to continue, so the determined, lonely little girl running from a father who hit her for no good damn reason at all has to be set aside. Well, OK, she's still in the final pages, phoning the Avengers to explain how terrifying the Beyonder is and then helping to set up a trap for her new acquaintance so the Avengers can beat the crap out of him (they stop when he refuses to resist, which is odd since their entire plan revolved around attacking him before he could resist because any resistance and they'd all be dead), but that's just plot mechanics; it could have been anyone who made the call.
All of which is to say that there's no longer the merest scrap of doubt; this is a book about things that happen to the Beyonder, and absolutely nothing else. An already thin idea stretched past the point of all reason has become as self-involved and dull as it's own protagonist. I'd rather read the worst five issues of X-Men: The Hidden Years than revisit this series up to now.
But change is in the suffocating, humid air! Next issue begins the career of the Beyonder, superhero! Can that finally turn around this wagon and offer us something better? And dear Gods, can it possibly get any worse?
This story takes place in approximately real time.
Friday 25th January, 1985.
Pretty much nothing.
"I should've put a bigger time bomb in his lasagna."
Never mess with Tabitha Smith. Not if you want to ever eat dinner without fear again.
Tuesday, 9 September 2014
(Won't somebody think of the children?)
I've been very complimentary of this series, and the good news is that isn't really going to change here. As I've been saying, each issue puts effort into deconstructing superhero comics, and occasionally fiction more generally. LGS #4 most certainly maintains this approach, though here the specifics are a little harder to untangle.
So let's start with what's obvious. The central scene in this issue involves a group of children playing at being interstellar buccaneers (views differ on whether this imaginary outfit are the "Starslammers" or the "Star-rammers"). The boisterousness of this play-acting results in an argument between the parents of some of the children over how their little ones should play most appropriately. The mother wants them to avoid introducing violent elements into their games, and fears television is corrupting their innocent little minds. The father, in contrast, thinks an awareness of the uses of violence is a basic part of any child's development - no-one will mess with your person if you walk down the street with an assault rifle, or mess with your country if you seed your deserts with ICBM silos. His worry is that they read too many comic books, with all that fantasy nonsense and such.
Stating the obvious, then, we're being invited to pick a side here. The only question in any doubt is whether we're to pick from the two options given to us, or generate a third by rejecting both. And it's clear we're never going to be down with Dad. Complaints comic books are just fantastical nonsense? In a comic book? 98% of the audience are going to hotly deny the charge, and the other 2% are going to say "Sometimes, and isn't that just wonderful?". But of course it's his stance on weaponry that's the real problem here. Walk down the street with a gun and no-one will mess with you? Good job his kids are white, right? But even for white folks, walking down the street with a gun may end up with you shooting someone. With you shooting yourself. Who in their right mind talks in public about nuclear missiles being "good etiquette"? This is a man from whom children are learning? A guy who thinks the world is safer for the advent of nukes?
So obviously, we're meant to realise this man is an idiot. That's not the same thing as immediately dismissing him, however. As imbecilic as his position is, it's desperately common, so we need some kind of coherent statement against it. Which, of course, is what Nocenti gives us. The father opines his children need a dose of reality from time to time, and that's exactly what happens; the kids see Longshot's increasingly monstrous companion Pup and decide to track him down, just like heroes would do. Which might be entirely fine, except they go get hold of a gun to do it. Because that's what Pa says heroes need.
The problem here is not that fantasy is bleeding into the kid's fantasies, it's the other way round. Kids are supposed to act out what look to adults like incomprehensibly weird ideas. They're not supposed to know how to use a firearm, something we're seemingly reminded of a weekly basis in the US news. A bit of light demon-chasing has now become something genuinely dangerous. And yes, looking at it from a certain angle, it's questionable as to whether hunting Pup without a weapon is actually any less dangerous than doing it with one, but that too is letting reality intrude. Narrative convention is pretty clear on these matters, a gang of kids chasing a demon will get scared but end up safe. A gang of kids chasing a demon whilst packing heat is in real trouble.
Reading this as a clash of two narratives is, of course, entirely the point. The father's definition of "reality" is utterly ridiculous. It is no less a fantasy than the kids' dreams of fighting amongst the stars. This idea of colliding narratives is being played out on a larger canvas, too, as Mojo breaks through from his own world into the main Marvel Universe, to start causing all kinds of hideous trouble.
(We should pause on that for a moment, actually. In his later, Claremontian years I don't particularly care for Mojo; in his hands he becomes the kind of teeth-grinding "zany" character Claremont seems so endlessly fond of. But the Nocenti original, it turns out, is generally unsettling, a delusional unbalanced murderer, what you might expect the Joker to be like if he traded in his spine for magic powers and a TV network. One minute Mojo is demanding everyone wear his face so they're no longer ugly, the next he's setting people on fire for wearing Mojo masks and thus breaching copyright. It's properly unnerving. And it only gets worse...)
Which brings us rather neatly to the mother's position, and her criticism of television. A broadside against the potential problems of TV contained in a comic book is interesting considering how much of a beating comics themselves have taken from the busybodies and witterers of the world, but I guess at least comics can help you read, so there could plausibly be at least some members of the "choose an entire medium and call it awful" brigade who'll rate the idiot box below the funny pages. And at a surface level, it looks like Nocenti counts herself amongst them. After all, what is Mojo but the ultimate end product spewed from the vicious process of network television evolution? Mojo is a network president who literally lacks the spine to resist the lowest common denominator of ultra-violent spectacle. Indeed, he revels in it, and the power he gains from his viewing figures. Everything they see is his, a truism he has twisted into a physical law: if he sees it, he owns it.
But let's credit Nocenti with more intelligence than to write a comic lamenting the violence of television whilst including two different punch-ups between her titular character and other Marvel heroes (first She-Hulk, then Spider-Man, both after Longshot for the diamond theft last issue). The complaint here isn't quite so simple as "television is too violent", rather that television focuses on violence for the wrong reasons. You can see Spider-Man and She-Hulk attacking Longshot over a misunderstanding and see entirely superfluous punching, or you can see it as people trying to be the most moral and useful people they can be. We can focus on the how of the struggle, or we can focus on the why. Nocenti's earlier issues have already made it clear where she stands on that subject. The punching is no more important the explanation of super-powers ; they're all just mechanisms to generate the central point: being a moral person is important.
But then, just because violence can serve this purpose doesn't mean it can't have other effects, nor that there's no limit to how much you can pepper your story with punching before you begin to undermine your underlying message. Marvel demonstrated this all too well themselves in the '90s, of course. Whether the television of the mid-'80s deserves to be criticised on such grounds, I'm not sure - a quick scan of the most popular US shows of the time reveal nothing more violent than shows like Street Hawk. But whilst it's not clear how much TV deserves to be held up as a villain here, nor is it clear how much that's the intent.
So let's concentrate on what we do know, which is this. We have a choice as to whether we want to focus on how violence is applied, or the reasons it was employed to begin with. Those that insist most forcefully that we must live in the real world are those most ill-equipped to recognise what reality actually is (indeed the final panel of the issue has Pup staring straight at the reader, vocally daring us to deny that he isn't real). We have to realise what stories are and what they do. With Richochet Rita now in Mojo's hands, and Pup preparing to tear Longshot up into the world's luckiest steak tartare, it's probably best to remember what we're in this for.
Because things are about to get very unpleasant.
This story takes place over a single day. Timing is tricky, since the news reports at the beginning imply it's only been a day, perhaps two at most since Longshot broke in to the power station and made off with his swag - any longer and it's not clear why it would still be on the news. On the other hand, Rita mentions that he disappeared from set (ostensibly to the hospital) "last week". I suppose we could work off the pleasingly cynical idea that the power company has been leaning on the media to keep reporting the crime until they get their diamonds back, and if we move the action forward by three days we get to Saturday and could maybe say the previous Wednesday constitutes "last week".
So, er, that thing. We'll do that.
Saturday 2nd February, 1985.
"My dad says nukes are the best weapons... let's get some of those first!"
Friday, 5 September 2014
(Fishing for compliments.)
It's time for a changing of the guards at Alpha Flight, though that cliché hardly does the situation justice. John Byrne wasn't just the first guy kicking it in the security hut; he was the original king. Sure, it wasn't exactly an untroubled reign, but it was certainly a popular one. So what do we get from the heir to the kingdom?
Fresh voices and fingers are nothing new for comic series, obviously. What's interesting is the evolution of the approach taken with them. Back in the '60s, they were underplayed, at least in the X-Books; everything was "STAN LEE PRESENTS!" irrespective of what he actually had to do with a book, and in-continuity changes tended to be rather small-bore, at least just after kick-off. As time went on, it seems like new arrivals became more feted, but that's a dubious conclusion to draw since of course from 1975 through almost all of 1985, the only X-Book to see a change in writer was Dazzler. That makes it hard to tell whether incoming talent was being celebrated due to changes in the fundamentals, or just because trying to revive interest in a flagging book necessarily requires a different approach to that of not rocking the boat when a successful talent decides they've had enough.
Either way, we moved from trying to keep changes on the down-low both in and out of the fictional universe to boldly announcing new talent and new directions. ALF #29, however, takes it a step further in a way we haven't seen before: the simultaneous replacement of writer and artist (I couldn't pull a Mike Mignola page out of a stack of Byrne's output, but Mantlo is far too verbose to pass for Byrne even if he had a better handle on the characters' voices than he does) is used as a springboard to have the characters themselves debate whether it's worth carrying on, or whether their best days are behind them. That's a great idea, and hard as I've been on Bill Mantlo in the past, I give him full credit for introducing it to the X-Books.
So, some background. ALF #28 and #29 form the first and last third of a three-issue story, with Incredible Hulk #313 slotted in between. ALF #28 dealt with Walter Langkowski's soul being sent into another dimension by Roger Bochs so Walt could snag himself a new body, only for the returning figure to prove to be the Hulk. I've decided not to do a post on the Hulk book - Langkowski only shows up at the very end, so the connection to the X-Universe is pretty tenuous, and it would cause chronology problems as well - so to summarise it, Walt realises Bruce Banner's mind is still trapped inside the Hulk's body, and so chooses to let himself fade into nothingness rather then evict his old roommate, despite Banner actually being desperate for Langkowski to take up residence so he doesn't have to suffer any more.
Which is all kinds of depressing and powerful, but we're not looking at that today. We're looking at what happens when Hulk gets home and doesn't think much of Vancouver. Smashing, inevitably, ensues.
This immediately sets up Hulk here as a force of entropy. Ostensibly, he's trashing Boch's lab and the surrounding Vancouver real estate because he wants to return to his desert home, or failing that level the city until it looks as close to a desert as possible. In practice, though, he's reducing complicated structures to their constituent elements. This is important here. If all Mantlo wanted was to have Alpha Flight overcome a villain and thus demonstrate their continued relevance, than any misanthrope with a pulse and criminal tendencies could have done the job. The Hulk has the added advantage of representing thoughtless, omnidirectional chaos, the gradual (or not so gradual) grinding down which threatens to break everything apart, sooner or later. In that sense, the team are not fighting a supervillain (well, super-antihero) so much as they are fact of life.
Which connects, of course, with the state Byrne has left Alpha Flight in. Heather is still panicking about whether she has any business leading a superhero team when the closest thing she has to a power is above-average typing chops (the closest this issue comes to ringing my gender politics alarm bell, which comes as a great relief, as I'm sure you can understand). Aurora is distraught over the loss of her partner Sasquatch, and Northstar is finally ready to admit being crushed on her behalf. Shaman has lost his self-belief and with it his powers, on account of having needed himself a bit of deus ex in dealing with his own bizarre machina so as to rescue his formerly estranged - and re-estranged like you wouldn't believe - daughter. Oh, and the first thing Hulk does when he arrives is to smash a gigantic hole in Boch's robot chest, which doesn't go down too well at all. Not because it kills him - being bonded to the machine saves him from death in some way - but because he immediately panics that the wound will prove fatal eventually.
To recap, then. A force of (roughly speaking) nature arrives, and proceeds to tear everything down. And even though the facts on the ground demonstrate that the team is now more or less functionally equivalent to the team that was, everyone panics and assumes it's time to launch their towel on whatever trajectory will stop the pummelling quickest. As a metaphor for a popular book undergoing a seismic change in creative team, I'd say that's pretty damn apt. Clever, even.
But there is a problem here. Mantlo does a solid job of selling us on the existential crisis dragging the team down, but there's no real move anywhere to explain why this worrying is unnecessary. The most pat way to do this would be to have the team defeat the Hulk. To his credit, Mantlo doesn't settle for that, having Alpha maybe help a bit in directing Hulk outside of Canada a wee bit quicker. But if that isn't going to be the reason to keep the team going, there needs to be something else. All we get here is the newly-reintroduced Snowbird giving everyone a lecture on how Alpha Flight was important therefore still is, before Gary Cody arrives to announce Alpha Flight can have funding again.
Which, if we're going to treat the rest of the issue as a metaphor for the people behind the book casting around for a reason to continue - and I want to do that, because otherwise this is just about a big green guy punching things out of homesickness - then what are we to take from the conclusion? ALF should keep going because it used to be great and also there's money in it? Pass.
I realise all that seems like it falls somewhere between damning with faint praise and completely unleavened damning. But I don't want to sell this issue short. We're still early enough into the history of the X-Books that metaphors of any kind are desperately thin on the ground. I will take this one, and be glad, especially since even the most confused and self-defeating metaphor constitutes an improvement on the sexist bilge this title has dealt in until now.
Unless it's a confused and self-defeating sexist metaphor, obviously. On this occasion, it isn't. There is most certainly still time for one to slouch into view.
This issue follows on directly from ALF #28, and takes place over the course of several minutes.
Sunday 24th June 1984.
There was nothing on this day last time I checked, so it'd be rather strange if that had changed.
"I have a hole where my heart should be."
Box gets poetic. As well as, you know, horribly damaged.
Wednesday, 3 September 2014
As threatened, I've put together a chart demonstrating the explosion in Claremont's X-output from his first gig in 1975 to the end of 1985. I've not included X-Men and the Micronauts because it was co-written, and feels predominantly like Mantlo's work, but everything else is there.
It's a pretty phenomenal growth rate. And just about 900 pages of comics in a single year? That's around 41 regular-sized issues. That's far from unheard of these days, but I wonder how many writers were managing to offer up so large an output in the days before decompression?
It's a pretty phenomenal growth rate. And just about 900 pages of comics in a single year? That's around 41 regular-sized issues. That's far from unheard of these days, but I wonder how many writers were managing to offer up so large an output in the days before decompression?