Tuesday, June 30, 2009

OG Seebelow: A Scene From the Metropolis Press Club, 1958

Written after reading the latest Showcase Presents: Superman Family collection.

(Bar at the Metropolis Press Club. Midday, midweek, June, 1958. Reporter 1 sits at a stool. Reporter 2 comes up, sits next to him, signals the bartender.)

REPORTER 2: Martini please, Eddie. Extra dry.

REPORTER 1: Hey, Mike.

REPORTER 2: Hey, Hanretty. (takes drink) Thanks. Could I get a burger, too? Medium-well? Thanks. So, how's tricks over at the Star-Sentinel?

REPORTER 1: Pretty good. How about over at the Planet?

REPORTER 2: Same as usual. Chasing down a story on the "Gloves" Moretti mob. Thought I'd stop in for lunch.

REPORTER 1: Yeah, same. Oh- hey... haven't seen you in a couple of weeks. Looks like I might be getting the foreign correspondent assignment.

REPORTER 2: Say, that's great! Congratulations- hey, Eddie! His next one's on me, okay? So, when do you start?

REPORTER 1: Looking like June. There'll be a couple more meetings, but Lewis says it's pretty much mine.

REPORTER 2: That's just great. Wow- foreign correspondent. That's a hell of a beat.

REPORTER 1: I know, I know.

REPORTER 2: How'd you do with the tests?

REPORTER 1: Tests?

REPORTER 2: Yeah- you know, with everyone pretending not to know you.

REPORTER 1: I'm sorry?

REPORTER 2: Come on- where you come into the office one morning, everyone pretends not to know you, someone else is sitting at your desk... you go home, your apartment's got some other guy in it, your stuff is in storage?

REPORTER 1: I... ah... I just asked Lewis about it, he took it up with the managing editor, who talked it over with the editor in chief...

REPORTER 2: Really? Superman didn't clear out your apartment and hire an actor to live there?

REPORTER 1: Superman? Why would-

REPORTER 2: To give you the cold shoulder bit, really sell it.


REPORTER 2: Yeah, we all did it to Jimmy Olsen last week, to see how he'd hold up, if he'd figure it out. It's all so you won't be trapped by (looks around, whispers) spies.


REPORTER 2: It was tough, getting the whole staff to play along, but you know, when it's friggin' Superman, you tend to listen, you know?

REPORTER 1: Right. No, uh... they just, uh, looked over my clips.

REPORTER 2: Huh. Well, if that's the way they want to run your paper over there...

REPORTER 1: Uh, yeah.

REPORTER 2: (looks at watch, to bartender) Hey- you know what? I'd better get that burger to go. I've gotta get hustling on that deadline. Tomorrow, we're ceasing publication for a week- the whole paper's staff is playing themselves in a Superman movie out in Hollywood. Anyway, congrats on that foreign correspondent job. See you in a week! (leaves)

REPORTER 1: Yeah, thanks. (to himself) And that's why they have the lowest circulation in town. (to bartender) Another scotch rocks, please.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Superman Story (A repost)

Expect this to be a review in parts as I simply kept finding more and more images I wanted to scan and more and more of the frenetic, high Silver Age plot I wanted to either gently chide, openly admire or even more openly mock. I'm still figuring out the new scanner, but I really have wanted to review this paperback my wife found for me in a second hand store for quite some time now.Supermancover

Entitled "The Superman Story" it's a black and white paperback reprinting of Superman's origin and, at the same time, it's a hilariously convoluted... well, why should I spoil it for you? We won't even get half way through all of the crazy in this one little paperback today.


I love the idea that he knows he can melt steel with his eyes, but it never occurs to him that if he does that with glasses on he'll melt the lenses. I know I would do that.


Yes, the Metropolis World's Fair. You see, while the rest of the world has to share one World's Fair, the city of Metropolis gets a completely separate World's Fair of its own. This is why I love Marty Pasko. Well, this, and the fact that he wrote this story, where we find out that Superman is subconsciously hypnotizing every single person he meets.

Anyway, here we are at the Metropolis World's Fair and its magnificent Superman Pavilion, where throngs of onlookers will pass between Superman's magnificent thighs, directly underneath a twenty foot high super scale replica of his spandex clad genitalia, and enter into a display that contains some of the most magnificent artifacts in Superman's long history of crime fighting.

For instance, Superman is fully willing to donate the only thing in the world that can kill him, freakishly mutate him or permanently steal his powers

Supermanbw4Yeah, I personally might have balked at that. Not old Supes, though. As long as they stick the Kryptonite behind leaded glass he is totally okay with what is essentially a glorified carnival having the radioactive rocks that are more or less his only real weakness just displayed for any rube to break the glass and take him out.

The pavilion is ostensibly part of an attempt to donate money to charity, probably because Martin Pasko realized that it wouldn't be very Superman-like to go in for a huge celebration of, well, himself without some more noble motivation than 'wow, a big statue of me, cool!' I don't hold it against him - the fact that a guy who looks just like Colonel Sanders ends up being the dude behind the whole thing, or that Colonel Sanders is really just a puppet for an even more sinister mastermind (I know, you're wondering who could possibly outdo Col. Sanders as the story's villain... well, read on, my friend, although I won't actually be answering that question tonight... I am a tease.) is really more important than whatever flimsy justification we needed to embrace to get us scenes like this.

Supermanbw2Yes, that's Jor-El's infamous shooting of his son's dog into space. The best part is, the narrative chooses to show us the death of Krypton via Superman's use of a telepathic memory probe he invented as a teenager by studying a cache of Kryptonian weapons that included devices that could project convicted criminals into another dimension where they were doomed to exist forever as bodiless phantoms. This is so awesome. It's like you or I discovering how to invent an iPod by studying the gas chamber, really. You'll also notice the totally demented subplot of this story, which is that while wandering around the Superman pavilion coming insanely close to revealing his secret identity to a crowd of gawkers and pointing out exactly where in the exhibition hall they can find the only rocks in the world that could kill him dead, Superman is also having his memories stolen and downloaded into a clone of himself being grown and aged to adulthood at an accelerated rate in the basement.

No, seriously. That's what's happening. Did I mention that I love Marty Pasko?

Supermanbw6So yeah, there's a Blazing Saddles homage of Smallville in the basement. Everything Superman is remembering upstairs, his clone is being walked through with a fantastic beanie on his head below. And this is just a subplot. Of course, this does beg the question of what things, exactly, Superman is remembering upstairs. And the answer is, the Kent family and their incredible sense of laissez-faire when it comes to parenting. As you can see in the following picture, the Kent family knows that if you coddle your children they'll ultimately grow up to be no good. So it's best to let them get rough and tumble with the livestock as soon as possible.

Supermanbw1Some folks might not let their toddlers play with angry cattle. But if Jonathan Kent learned anything from his own father, it was that if you spare the gore, you spoil the child. Also, I know full well that in the back of Jonathan's head, he's secretly chortling at all the stumps he'll be able to pull up without breaking any more axles on his Zetar. Martha, meanwhile, is told by her son that he can see objects through walls and decides, basically, to haltingly restate that very fact in case the kid didn't remember what he just told her two seconds earlier. Then again, these are the folks who, upon finding a baby near the site of an exploded rocket ship, just cover the whole thing up and get away with it, managing to conceal not only the extraterrestrial infant but also his tremendously advanced spacecraft complete with a prototype faster than light engine composed of materials that actually become nigh-indestructable in our solar system. They may seem like simple farm folk but it's clear that the Kents taught Jason Bourne everything he knows about thwarting the US Intelligence community.

Anyway, after making sure that their super-baby meets all the criteria in their checklist, Jonathan makes him wear balloons and flies him around like a kite.

Supermanbw5You never believe me, do you? You know, Jor-El gets a lot of grief for basically depopulating Krypton's pet stores in order to fire every monkey and dog he could get his hands on into space, but at least he was trying to save everyone in his world from a violent, explosive death. What the heck is the reasoning behind Jonathan and Martha's decision to raise their adoptive son to wear a leotard and get shot at, and at what point in that process did the balloon harness first crop up? Were they drunk? I don't know if they make moonshine in Kansas but I have to wonder. Soon, however, our young hero to be gets to meet his best friend.

Supermanbw9If you think I'm going to snark on a picture that cute, you're wrong. Is that not the cutest thing? Look at his little tail wag! He's so glad that Jor-El strapped him into an untested missile and launched him into the cold, cruel vacuum of space. He's like Laika with a happy ending. Most people don't get why Krypto is such an integral part of the Superman mythology. Jon Morris once made an excellent point that Superboy is the boy who ultimately gets his every wish granted, and it's not until he grows up and matures and stops wanting the selfish things of a childhood heart that this quality fades... the safe arrival of Krypto on Earth to become Superboy's confidant and friend certainly fills that kind of role.

Supermanbw10The reason I love Krypto is for scenes like the above. The idea that the ultimate good son and formative hero requires the stabilizing influence of a good dog to romp with, and the unique bond they shared as the only other being who could possibly understand the subtle differences in life as a super being at that time, in that place, just warms all the cockles of my horrible, blistered, black heart. Love for that dog coats each nook and cranny in an emotional Thomas English Muffin of contentment.

Not all was peaches and cream in Superman's trip down memory lane, however. We do get to see that Kryptonians who are shot into space and crash land on alien worlds use every part of the spaceship when they decide to become superheroes. Even the cockpit!

Supermanbw8He uses his baby blankets, the seatbelt, the cockpit glass, a sliver of the frame as a needle, and even the seat upholstery to make his boots! Seriously, it's like that ship is a buffalo and he's a stereotype.

I may dig the copy out again and post more of it if folks are interested. Heck, I have scans of all sorts of old Superman stories to make fun of.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sewer Diving: Shaenon K. Garrity is a Very Brave Woman

Before there was an internet, comic book devotees were able to pretend that they were actually a bunch of smart, tasteful folks who were largely misunderstood. Now, of course, we know that they are awful, stupid, maladjusted cretins who should be shunned, or possibly arrested. But few people have the wherewithal to actually dive into the reeking sewer pipes that are comic book message boards and present the world with concrete proof; that's why we all owe a debt of gratitude to Shaenon K. Garrity.

Last week in her Comixology column, Garrity visited the forums at Comicon.com, the Comics Journal, DC, and Byrne Robotics, among others, doing a fine job of amateur anthropology by unearthing the sexism, racism, mindless contrarianism, and massive dysfunction that can be found there. It's a fine, funny, and very perceptive piece of writing; she not only tallies up important categories like average reading level, typical dismaying thread topics, and frequency of Tom Spurgeon, but also makes some keen observations about how quickly it takes for any mention of race to degenerate into moronic white-people bitching (approximately 2.4 seconds) and how comics fans act when there are no women around (in other words, all the time). She also hones in on how, curiously, none of these folks actually seem to like comics very much; "if there's one thing comic-book fans hate, it's comic-book creators," she notes. Good thing they're all getting their stuff off of BitTorrent, anyway.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

[Insert Your Joke Here]: Charting the X-men Nookiescape

I've often heard the claim that comic books are simply soap operas for teenage boys. This is, of course, ridiculous. Comic books aren't about complex romantic relationships tempered with unrealistic domestic entanglements, foreign espionage and the intricacies of a dynamic hospital staff.

Everyone knows that comic books are really about escapist wish fulfillment for middle aged man children, women with anatomically impossible gifts, and ultra violent psychopaths with dubious qualifications as foster parents. Oh, and complex romantic relationships tempered with unrealistic domestic entanglements and foreign espionage. None of that hospital crap though.

The romance connections between comic book characters is something that every writer treats differently. Some make it a focus of character motivation and growth, and others treat it with a distance and disdain that illustrates how little experience they have with it themselves.

It's never really been questioned that there is a certain amount of romantic entanglement between some characters. What I'd never really realized before is simple how much of it there is. Not until I saw this obsessively detailed chart of the romantic connections between X-man characters.

Two things become immediately clear. First, some people have a lot of spare time. This kind of detailed rendering of social connections, including different rankings for activities from flirtation to dating, to marriage, requires some real dedication to your craft. Your craft presumably being unhealthy voyeurism of comic book characters.

Secondly, Wolverine is a veritable nexus of Getting Some. Guys like Wolverine is why your work place has to have a regulation on fraternization. Apparently the ladies like a fellow who appears to stuff his t-shirts with shag carpet and might accidentally kill them during one of his frequent fevered nightmares.

After giving this chart a couple of look overs, my favorite part has to be the complexity. There are few normal relationships in the X-men. There are so many complications that the chart is difficult to make any sense of. My favorite part is that a special dotted line had to be added to indicate a relationship with someone from an alternate reality, because it happens so frequently.

X-Men Universe Relationship Map [UncannyXmen.net]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Criterion DVD release of Prince Namor's "The Fantastic Four"

The Fantastic Four (1962)
Review by RJ White

Criterion Collection (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 Mono | English (FHI) Subtitles | Director: (Prince) Namor

For years, this, the first (and only film) directed by Prince Namor, was only viewable via the stray late night television screening or on some nth-generation awful dub from a dealer at a comic-book convention. Now, however, various ownership and legal issues have finally been ironed out and Criterion has been able to put out a very extensive DVD release for a film many have only heard about.

The story's pretty well-known- in the early 1960s, not long after their disfiguring accident and entry into the public eye, the short-lived "science vigilante" group the Fantastic Four (Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards, Susan "Invisible Girl" Storm-Richards, Ben "The Thing" Grimm and Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm) fell upon some financial hardship, due to poor investments. Monarch/industrialist/part-time terrorist Prince Namor of Atlantis (sometimes known as the "sub-mariner") decided to privately fund a film starring the team. Namor even started his own production company to produce the film, but the whole thing turned out to be some sort of elaborate scheme in which he had planned to kill them. Thwarted somehow, he went back into the sea and the film was completed by an uncredited Samuel Fuller.

With this story behind it and such a legend built up, the film has a lot to live up to. Here's the thing, though- it isn't really very good. It's mainly just a bunch of fight scenes, in which each member of the Fantastic Four gets their own set piece. The entire thing is strung together by a thin plot involving some sort of vacation or assignment by the military- it gets a little muddled. Then, out of nowhere, Prince Namor occasionally shows up and it sort of becomes a film about the making of the film. In that way, it's a little revolutionary, I suppose, as this sort of meta commentary on itself, but in that case, they should have just set aside any sort of fictional narrative and made the thing as a documentary. Ah, well, at any rate- it did very well at the time, particularly in the Midwest and South, where the antics of the Fantastic Four had only been seen on television or in magazines and for many years, much of the public in other areas of the country assumed the team was just the creation of some sci-fi B-movie screenwriter. The performances are fair at best, with the exception of the late Mr. Grimm, who could have maybe pursued acting or television as a career, were it not for the whole being-covered-in-orange-rocks thing.

The extras are superlative and provide some surprising insight. Prince Namor, though defeated, still went through with the distribution and, in some cities, promotion of the film (Trivia note: The company Namor established for the production of the film later co-produced some documentaries by the Maysles Brothers). Also, I definitely have to applaud the restraint of the producers in not using documentary footage or photos from Phil Sheldon's Marvels franchise. You can't swing a dead cat while talking about any of these people without hitting some material from that and it's great that the Criterion producers didn't go to that well once again.

To sum up- the print is excellent- the quality of the materials and extras are up to Criterion's usual high standards. It's a shame that the centerpiece- the film itself- isn't of comprable quality, but it serves as a very interesting artifact of a bygone era.

- 2000 interview with Namor on The Charlie Rose Show
- 1985 interview with Samuel Fuller in which he briefly discusses his role in directing and editing portions of the film
- Newsreel piece on the film's opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater
- Outtakes from Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm's recording sessions for promotional radio spots. (They get a little blue.)
- Theatrical trailer
- Interview with John Pierson on Prince Namor's role as a pioneer of early independent film
- Commentary by pulp magazine publisher Stanley Lee, who, with with advertising legend Jacob Kirby, produced issue 9 of the licensed 1962 "Fantastic Four" children's comic dramatizing the film's production
- Commentary by film historian and critic Leonard Maltin
- Ten-page production booklet, including pages from the 1962 "Fantastic Four" children's comic.

DVD cover design by Kevin Church

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: The Ultimate Universe

I'll admit that I never quite understood the purpose of Marvel's Ultimate Universe - outside of the canny and obvious one, that it created the opportunity to expand the franchise of Marvel's top books and characters and pack a few extra must-have books into an already fit-to-bursting comic rack full of Spider-Mans and X-Mens. Beyond that sheerly back-rooms decision, however, the reason for the existence of the thing always exceeded me.

I had been taking one of my periodic breaks from comics when the Ultimate Universe debuted, and was a few years into it before I even noticed it. That it was ex-continuity was clear enough, particularly as modest changes appeared to have been made to the fashions of Wolverine and the Fantastic Four. By the time a streamlined, black-highlighted Captain America, a technological Thor and a heavy industry Iron Man made it into the roster, I became curious enough to begin reading.

I went in with a preconception, one which I thought made for common sense. With the recent runaway success of Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man movies, and a plethora of other films on the way, I assumed that the Ultimate universe would constitute an accord between the summarized continuities established in the film and the traditional continuity of the regular books. Going in, I expected that the Ultimate universe would bend heavily in favor of the film universes and use them as a jumping off point to introduce characters and situations outside the two-hour purview.

But no, they didn't. Ultimate Spider-Man, in many ways, bears fewer resemblances to the film than (god help me, I hate this shorthand) "616" Spider-Man, and likewise the same for the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. so, no, it was no compromise with the films.

Still, I assumed that the Ultimate Universe would be something of a modern-gen comic writer's dream - a chance to make cohesive the expanded continuity of long-established, iconic books. I went into Ultimate Fantastic Four expecting that here we would see the disparate elements, created in the perpetual rush to fill pages and not waste the distribution slots, united into cohesive whole; Galactus and Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, the Skrulls, the Cosmic Rays and the stolen spaceship and Diablo and Mole Man and all the dozens upon dozens of other character and events of the first fifty issues of the original FF sewn together into a linear, interdependent story.

But, Ultimate FF - like Ultimate Spider-Man, X-Men, Ultimates and so on - was no less episodic than the source material.

And it was there where the one advantage of the Ultimate Universe fell apart: a fresh start on continuity. That it was a writer's playground, and a showcase for artists by way of the "wide screen" mentality of storytelling, was fairly clear. Starting from scratch with just the names intact, the writers could begin telling stories without the readers needing to memorize forty years' worth of previous continuity. It was no longer necessary to know, for instance, that Storm was a New York-born, Africa-raised child thief who ended up in Cairo after briefly being worshipped as a goddess in central Africa, had claustrophobia, is now a queen, and was the de facto leader of an underground clan of mutant savages. She could be re-created from basic ingredients.

However, the problem with fresh starts is that they can't stay fresh forever, and the Ultimate Universe now comes with its own backlog of convoluted history. Jumping into the character's history now, the reader - especially one who already did know the above about the mainstream Storm - has to experience some sort of crash-course in picking up the essentials - a relationship with Beast here, with Wolverine here, born in Cairo, an illegal alien in New York, a tragic secret in her past, former friends and now archenemies with Lady Deathstrike ... it's now no less confusing to recount the Ultimate versus the iconic.

There's also the flaw that all of these fresh starts seemed to represent a chance to slough off the conceits and prejudices of the 1960s, and yet it all ended up almost worse. In the rush to find Ultimate versions of everyone, senseless "Ultimate Vision" and "Ultimate Red Guardian" have shown up, amounting to far less than the sum of the parts of the predeccesors, while attempting to even the playing field between certain female "housewife" superheroes and their male counterparts, all the writers could think to do was make the formerly underappreciated female sidekicks into scientists, just like their heroic hubbies. The watered-down 'me-too'ism of the Ultimate Wasp and Ultimate Invisible Woman is not an improvement over having been an accessory, frankly.

So, ten years into the Ultimate Universe, and all I really know about it is that the writers got to do whatever they wanted, they got to swear more, they're killing the whole thing off under the man who is kryptonite to decent writing, Jeph Loeb, and in the end it all feels like a terrifically long issue of What If where the premise was What If All Superheroes Acted Like Assholes Most Of The Time?

It's a terrible shame, because the Ultimate Universe had the opportunity to be more accessible, more streamlined, more mature, more interrelated and more essential than its mainstream impetus, but instead, in the end, it appears to have been only louder, vulgar, and briefer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

[Insert Your Joke Here]: Darkseid Minus the New Gods

In the spirit of Garfield Minus Garfield, The Fourth Letter brings us Darkseid Minus The New Gods.

You can leave your mask on

Attention: fans of both comic books and sadomasochism. Starting today, you can finally own your own pair of official Batcuffs.

Catwoman whip sold separately (I assume).

Monday, June 15, 2009

All sorts of people aren't really dying who never really died before

Look, I apologize in advance: I wrote this thing a while ago and it's huge, and I have no way to make it smaller.

The Superhero Comic Book was born, more or less, in the late 30's with the invention of Superman. (We can argue if Mandrake or The Phantom count as costumed super heroes some other time, okay?) Followed by Batman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, Captain America and a cavalcade of remarkably brightly colored men and women (like the Phantom Lady, who wore a remarkably skimpy costume decades before Ed Benes was a twinkle in Michael Turner's eye... wait, Ed Benes isn't Michael Turner's son? Oh. Well, neither of them was alive back then anyway.)

The superheroes inherited the moral code of their pulp forbears like Doc Savage, the Spider and the Shadow, as seen by Superman standing there grinning while people died to poison gas or Batman using an airplane machine gun to mow down mindless deformed giants. As such death was a relatively common, and relatively final, affair.

Major villains like Hugo Strange, the Ultra Humanite, the Joker or Lex Luthor were an exception, but the way this was dealt with was also befitting the pulps which were comics direct ancestors. Basically, You Never Saw The Body. Island headquarters would explode, mad clowns would fall off of cliffs like Moriarty in greasepaint, vats of chemicals would have strategically placed vents that led to fast moving rivers.

When a writer creates a suitable villain he or she is often loathe to lose such a useful tool, and so You Never Saw The Body. After a suitable amount of time had passed, the villain would return, cackle some about how the hero had thought that those dinosaur robots had killed him but no, and now the time was ripe for revenge, hahhahahahhahhahahhaha. It was all very ritualized.

Some characters, meanwhile, were created entirely so that they could die. Thomas and Martha Wayne were effectively 'born dead', so to speak. They exist only to be dead so that Batman has a better reason than an insane fetish for his actions. The entire populace of Krypton were born to die, (depending on if the writers have bottle cities in their particular version) to get blown up as a lesson in hubris.

Uncle Ben is dead, baby, and Peter Parker is not ever getting over that one because then he'd probably stop running around in a red and blue unitard and we'd have to call the comic "Peter Parker, the Unremarkable Regular Man". Even Howard Mackie didn't go that far and he cloned just about everyone else in the book.

However, neither of these categories includes when main protagonists die in comic books.

This is because at first, that didn't happen. How would it? Superman's not going to die in his own comic book. This constraint bothered some writers so much they came up with the 'Imaginary Story' so that they could have their cake and have Luthor poison it to death with Kryptonite too.

The invention of super hero comics that were considered even less real than the usual monthly adventures of a space alien who looked just like a beefy white dude and could melt things by looking at them and fly, or the nocturnal adventures of a rich orphan and the teenager in hot pants he kept around to distract psychotics helped stave off the authorial lust for blood for a while. But it couldn't last forever.

The first death I really remember in comics is the death of Ferro Lad.

Ferro Lad, a member of the 30th century Legion of Super Heroes, sacrificed his own life to save Earth from an alien creature called a Sun Eater, which yes, ate suns. Ferro Lad's death was a very rare event in comics at the time, the death of a heroic figure, even if he was more famous for dying than he was for anything he did while he was alive.

It's interesting to note that in death Ferro Lad became more famous and respected as a Legionnaire than he ever would have been had he lived. On the other hand he didn't have to call him self "Sir Prize" or have Proty as a pet either. Ferro Lad's death became one of a select few deaths in comic books that seemed relatively inviolate, like that of Captain America's partner Bucky or the X-Man Thunderbird, more or less heroic deaths onscreen (so to speak).

At the same time that this process was underway, we also had the introduction of more 'realism' in comic books. Super heroes could have troubles with money, with women... in short, 'realism' effectively meant 'We're going to make these bastards suffer like a modern day Job'. Marvel Comics pioneered this trend with comic books showing the Fantastic Four going bankrupt, Spider-Man's relentless drumbeat of financial and personal calamity (your aunt is dying because you gave
her a blood transfusion and you have radioactive blood and did we mention that you're trapped under a giant machine?) as just two examples. Writers in the 70's and 80's who wanted to live up to this kind of pressure to make life suck eventually just had to kill somebody.

In 1973 (I was two) Gerry Conway did it. He killed off Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy.

Apparently, he did this because the writers didn't want to see Spider-Man get married, believing this would age the character too far from his roots as a troubled teenage character. This makes sense in the strangely static, status-quo enshrining milieu that is the superhero comic book. While it is true that as the decades pass changes are made to characters (for instance, the modern Batman would not be as quick to shoot people as he was in the 30's, as the character did not yet suffer from his now infamous aversion to firearms) the comics medium in general tends to return to certain core tenets and achieves a sort of equilibrium as a character gains more history. At the time Gerry Conway was writing the death of Miss Stacy, he was one of only a few people to write a Spider-Man comic book following the departure of the character's co-creator Stan Lee. He was, effectively, blazing a trail for how comic books would handle the idea of real, lasting change, and his decision (supported by the editors of the time) was to deal with it by killing Gwen before it could happen.

Ironically, this did indeed prevent one kind of change... Spider-Man would not be a comic book starring a married man for another decade or so... but caused quite another. The semi-innocence of the Silver Age died alongside Gwen, as the men and women who were now taking the reins of storytelling at both Marvel and DC (and who had spent the previous decade reading the comics themselves) became both more insular and more willing to go to extremes to prevent the comics from falling victim to 'change'. Gwen's death was followed hard-upon by that of her killer, Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, and we wouldn't see him again for another 300 issues of the comic.

Yes, that's right, his death was so final (he impaled himself on his own rocket powered glider in an attempt to kill Spider-Man, and we saw him die right in front of us, not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story) that it lasted almost two decades. That kind of death is almost unheard of in comics nowadays, however.

The result of the constant brinkmanship between those who wanted to change things and the inherent status quo of the medium led to more and more shocking deaths, deaths that happened 'in front of the camera' or more accurately on the very page. While villains could still get away with You Never Saw The Body, the 70's and 80's became a much more uncertain time for the friends, family and even the superheroes themselves.

The ultimate manifestation of this trend was Marv Wolfman's Crisis on Infinite Earths. Not even counting an infinite array of universes which all died before page 1 of the miniseries, we have a heck of a death toll in this comic.

Without even going to pick up the trade, I can list Psimon of the Fearsom Five, Kole, Dove and Aquagirl of the Teen Titans, the Red Bee (hah, the Red Bee died way before this, I just like mentioning the poor guy), The Red Tornado sorta (I'm not sure what Marv intended here), Peacemaker from the Charlton books, someone in a Green Arrow costume (I have no idea who that guy was, as it was the old costume), and of course the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl (Kara Zor-El). Also some of the Global Guardians die in one panel or even off panel because Marv had a lot to cram in here.

Now, I've written at length about Crisis before and I expect I will again (for now, let me just say that never before or since has a comic book looked so good, been such a fun read, and yet totally screwed up an entire publishing company for more than two decades the way Crisis did) but here, the real effect of all these deaths ceases to be shocking or astonishing and just becomes tedious after a while.

Seriously, when the Earth 2 Robin and Huntress, the daughter of the Earth 2 Batman and Catwoman, die along with Kole it's all I can do not to yawn at this point. Whoopee, they died, so what? They didn't even have lives anymore anyway, thanks to Marv's relentless meat cleavering of everything fun and interesting about the DC multiverse concept.

After Crisis, comes the deluge. In this case, the deluge of 'reboots'. Oh, all the colors of the rainbow. And in this age of rebooting (which coincidentally comes around the same time as the one - two hammerblows of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns) we see whole periods tossed out in an attempt at making comprehensible the fevered dreams of a four color medium, and hoo boy do we see death.

I won't say it was all bad... John Ostrander wrote Suicide Squad, and that was a damn fine comic... but in general, the 80's and 90's were the time of blunt force trauma applied to comic books. Spines were broken over knees (the guy who broke Batman's back actually looks like a Mexican Luchador) and Superman actually died, killed by a rip-off of the Hulk.

Green Lantern went evil and killed his own comic book, and then a new Green Lantern came around just in time to give us all the concept of 'fridging' as his girlfriend of two issues is killed and her body jammed into a refrigerator for no other reason than to shock us. It fails, of course, because by this point what's left?

All of this would be bad enough if not for that status quo I mentioned. See, sure, you can break Batman's back and have someone else dress up in the costume in order to make some weird sort of morality play about how bad it would be if someone like Batman killed people while shooting bat shaped ninja stars.

Sure, Superman can die and be replaced by a teenage boy, an alien machine that acts
like Mack Bolan, an eeeeevil cyborg one step away from a swipe of Reed Richards, and an african-american guy drawn by Jon Bogdanove, who had at this time mastered the art of making me stare at the comic book in shock and horror at character designs that seemed more appropriate for Song of the South than a superhero book. But eventually, even if you kill off Aunt May and tell us that Spider-Man is in fact a clone of himself, things have to get back to the status quo, because the status quo is how you explain the comic book to people who haven't bought it yet and want to know what it is about.

Go ahead, try and break the Clone Saga down for a new reader who doesn't know who Spider-Man is. I'll wait. You want some help?

Batman's first Robin, after fifty years, is too old to wear short pants? Fine, we'll let him grow up. He's now in his twenties (yes, a character that debuted in 1940 is now in his twenties, oh my, I'm shocked at the frenetic pace of comics) but we'll get another kid to dress up in the Robin costume. Amazingly, the fans don't like the new kid, especially after the writers decide to make him smoke and possibly kill people and in short, not act at all like Robin? Heck, most people reading the comic don't really get that it's a new kid anyway? Okay, then we'll let the readers vote to see if New Robin dies or not. Whoops! The readers have spoken, time to kill the New Robin. But that leaves us without a Robin!

Okay, so we get another kid to wear the costume. This one, we'll have act like Robin. Problem solved! Batman keeps his Robin.

So of course, Superman doesn't stay dead. We rebooted history, so now Ferro Lad doesn't stay dead because he never died at all. Hal Jordan (The Green Lantern who turned evil, not the one who had his girlfriend jammed into a fridge) dies instead of him, but he not only doesn't stay dead, he actually doesn't stay dead twice. The entire freaking Guardians of the Universe don't stay dead. Heck, that second Robin everyone voted to kill doesn't stay dead! Green Arrow gets his arm cut off, blows up, and is replaced by his own son, and even that doesn't stop him from being raised from the dead by the dead Green Lantern we mentioned before, just before that guy comes back from the dead all the way himself.

And now, twenty plus years later, the Flash who died in Crisis is coming back from the dead, while Supergirl (Kara Zor-El) is alive, even though it's completely incomprehensible as to whether or not she's supposed to be the Supergirl who died or not. Even the Multiverse is back: At this point the only people Crisis on Infinite Earths has managed to kill was the Red Bee, and he didn't even die in it!

When the Martian Manhunter recently died during DC's huge Final Crisis event (which I like to call Rock of Ages II: The Rockening) people outright wondered how long it would take for him to come back from the dead at his own funeral.

When your fictional universe has people betting on how long you stay dead, death has lost its sting. Marvel's no better: not only has Norman "I was impaled in the chest with a rocket" Osborn come back from the dead, he's now in charge of the US Government's superhuman regulation agency. Thor died twice and came back from Ragnarok. Several people who died were in fact Skrulls and are not dead after all, and while Captain America is still dead (although not for long), his sidekick turns out to have NOT died, so we have Bucky alive, a cyborg, a former Russian secret agent, and now Captain America.

Hawkeye died because of the Scarlet Witch, who then brought him back from the dead and had sex with him. Spider-Man's Aunt May died, turned out not to be dead, almost died again and was saved from death by the Marvel version of Satan when Spider-Man's wife Mary Jane Watson sold their marriage to him, because getting married ages Spider-Man too much, but deals with Satan are perfectly okay. I guess he forgot Uncle Ben when he was making deals with Satan, but on a happy accident note the whole deal brought his dead best friend Harry back from the dead too! Coming soon, DC Comics will be publishing a major summer crossover about people not staying dead, in fact.

The best career move a character in comics can make is to die at this point, frankly.

Friday, June 5, 2009

[Insert Your Joke Here]: Superman vs Batman, The Oh, SNAP!Bitch No You Dinnit... Edition

Batman with the tight inside jab, from Infinite Crisis...

Superman with the long right and a body check, from Action Comics ...
OOF, that one's GOTTA hurt!

Open Forum: The Worst Team-Ups Ever ...

Or, as I'm fond of calling anything with the big planet-eater in it, "GALACTUS: HUNGER WAS THE CASE THAT THEY GAVE ME."

The pitch for this must have taken less than eight seconds; Just the time needed to place a phone call across town and utter the words "Galactus consumes Apokalips." Kirby nerdgasm aside, the premise is paper-thin and the story brings out the worst in both characters; Galactus' ponderous planet-munching preparations and Darkseid's sleep-inducing soliloquizing. The absence of heroes hurts - I found it tricky to give two Apokaliptian shits about Parademons dying in droves - and the utter non-starter of a plot trickles down to a neverwas ending, and all in all it's as pretty a picture of sound, fury, and a noted absence of significance for which you could ever wish.

Matt: (Three-Way Tie) SUPERMAN/TARZAN - SONS OF THE JUNGLE and the two BATMAN/PUNISHER crossovers
Chuck Dixon and Carlos Meglia take what could have been an interesting story and just butcher it. Meglia can be a good artist but here he let his penchant for freakishly distorted faces and anatomy just go buck wild, and Dixon phones it in with a suboptimal writing performance that makes me sad every time I read it. There's so much potential wasted here. It's set in a weird alternate late 19th/Early 20th Century (there's dirigibles) but Dixon opts for the old and tired "What if Superman's rocket landed in the Jungle and he was adopted by the apes instead of Tarzan, who ends up going home and being unhappy as a British lord" approach. The Tarzan as unfulfilled aristocrat is fine, but Superman as jungle lord was already done in a far superior story where Kal-El grows up to be Mowgli from Kipling's Jungle Book.

This time around Dixon just seems bored with the whole thing. Why not just do a story where 1930's Superman (you know, the one who could jump really far and have cannon fire knock him down) meets an older, wiser Tarzan who has been at the whole adventuring shtick for years? That would have been interesting, This is just bad.

As for the Batman/Punisher stuff, unless it's 1930's Batman (who gleefully murders people) there's only one way this story should ever end. Batman kicks the crap out of the Punisher and takes him to jail, end of the story. It's even worse when we have to read the adventures of Azrael as Batman, who makes the Punisher look SANE. All in all, this is just slop. It's not even fun slop.

I gotta be honest with you – I haven't read this. I am a great admirer of both Spidey and Cool Barry Smooth, so I'm just awarding this thing "Worst Team Up" on the basis of it's terrible, terrible cover art.

Seriously, that's not a portrait, that's not even a caricature. That's just a drawing of a face that's been colored brown and that doesn't bear any notable resemblance to the ostensible subject. I'm not asking for Vermeer or even Nast here. I just want it to be recognizable. I don't think that's too much to ask.

Oh, sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time. A lot of things seemed like a good idea back then. The idea was this: National Periodical would give their brand-spanking-new super-team, the Legion of Super-Heroes, a boost by getting them involved with Superboy, the teenage iteration of the most popular superhero in existence. It was, at least in theory, a well-conceived team-up; the Legion was a teenaged group that meshed well with the adolescent version of the Man of Steel, and they were suffused with the sort of pulpy sci-fi trappings that were then popular in the main Superman titles. Writers would get to tell new Superboy stories, and the Legion, then just getting off the ground, would receive a boost in popularity. Pages in Adventure Comics would be filled, new fans of both Superboy and the LSH would be created, and lots of x-ray spex and copies of Grit would be sold.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Fans of the “Superman is a Dick” site know that it’s easy to see Supes acting like a horse cock jerk if you take many of his Silver Age stories slightly out of context; people who have actually read Silver Age Superman stories in their entirety know that it’s just as easy to see Supes acting like a horse cock jerk by reading them entirely in context. But for every dick move Kal-El pulled during those years, he got paid back a hundredfold when he first started to hang around with the Legion of Superheroes, because the writers of these stories used the ever-entertaining device of time travel as a platform for Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl to pretty much fuck with Superboy’s head non-stop for no real reason than to be assholes.

Much like actual teenagers, the LSH acted like a bunch of petulant, bratty creeps who pick on people out of pure boredom. Using their futuristic foreknowledge of Superboy’s entire history, they repeatedly travel back in time to mmind-fuck him just because they can. It’s carried off as all-in-good-fun hijinx, but to Superboy - whose entire culture was eradicated soon after he was born and whose relationship to his adopted homeworld was complicated at best - it must have been agonizing. You’d think a bunch of aliens would be more sensitive to that, but no: the Legion just kept showing up to put the zap on poor teenage Clark’s head because there was nothing good on holo-TV. “Hey, Superboy! We’ve denied you Legion membership because you’re a big fuckup who failed all our rigged tests! No, JUST KIDDING, you’re in,” went a typical story. “Hey, Superboy! Guess what! All of Smallville has turned against you and hates you forever! No, JUST KIDDING, we set that all up, everyone loves you, ya big galoot,” went another. “Hey, Superboy! Your adoptive parents are dead and we ate Krypto at a Mongolian barbeque,” was probably the next one, or something like that.

The LSH, in almost every early team-up with Superboy, seemed to delight in nothing more than playing pointlessly cruel pranks on Earth’s greatest hero, and then uncrossing their fingers at the end and having a good laff.

It didn’t end there – they carried this routine over to Kal’s cousin Kara, also known as Supergirl, putting her Kryptonian tit in the wringer for similar cruel laugh. Luckily for her, and for anyone who was getting a little tired of the Legion’s arbitrary, mean frat-boy escapades, Kara figured out a way to stay in the 31st century indefinitely, which led to a downturn in the hazing as the LSH membership began to fear what would happen if she went all Carrie on them. But it still stands as one of the ugliest ‘friendships’ in superhero history, and in light of what they did to him in those early days, Superboy’s incredibly harsh decision to toss Mon-El in the Phantom Zone for a few thousand years gets a lot easier to understand.

For three issues the Fantastic Four were replaced by The Hulk (as Mr. Fixit), Ghost Rider, Wolverine and Spider-Man. Why were they replaced? The short answer is that Walt Simonson had a stroke following a mid day Nyquil binge. The long answer doesn't make any sense, but involves a crash landed Skrull who takes out the FF in less than five pages and tricks the replacements into doing her bidding, looking for an egg. For some reason the Mole Man is also involved.

When you combine an unstoppable giant in a tacky mob suit, the animated spirit of vengeance, an unkillable hairy dwarf with bad table manners and a sticky photojournalist dressed in his pajamas, you rather expect them to take on something of importance. This team combined two of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe with an immortal sociopath wielding fancy cutlery and, well, Spider-Man. Instead of going up against Loki or Kang, they were pitted against the Mole Man and a ship full of Skrulls about as deviant and dangerous as the Keystone Cops. Spider-Man did save the day by using his webs to grab an egg though. Seriously. I wish I'd made that up.

At one point, Richie Rich was the X-Men of Harvey Comics. At his height, approximately 163 titles a month were dedicated to the "Poor little rich boy." That's a lot of pages to fill. Often, the solution was to fallback to the Hanna-Barbera formula- just pile on the new characters when you run out of story ideas- to keep Ernie Colon busy. Or, slap the red bow-tied oligarch scamp together with an existing character, which is exactly what the company did for forty-five months in the Richie Rich and Casper title.

Sure, there's the Oh-Hey-Casper-Is-Richie-Rich internet chestnut, almost as old as the Batman-and-Robin-Are-Totally-Gay gag, which the series sort of puts down, by having the two very similarly-faced titans in the same story. The catch is, Richie Rich always sees his meetup with Casper as some sort of dream, even when it's in the middle of the day and he's wide awake. EVERY TIME. They'll go off on some adventure and billionaire Richie Rich, no matter the evidence against, always chalks it up to an Ambien episode. Of course, they'll get through the story and even though there will be reams of physical evidence afterward, young master Rich will still insist up and down that the whole episode was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

One of the odder occurrences of this melding of the worlds of the living and dead involved Richie being trapped in a cave on the vast Rich estate (which spans three or so counties). Casper, through some contrivance ends up in the same cave and is somehow powerless to pull Richie's dainty white shoe out of a crack in the floor. Instead of finding some other way to free the pre-pubescent billionaire, he decides the next best thing is to impersonate him so that no one notices his absence. So, he goes to the Rich mansion, cuts one of Richie's mother's wigs (what?) to approximate his doppelganger's middle-part, steals one of the kid's 100 identical suits and spends the day as a much paler imitation, one to which no one is the wiser. Whether or not this story was meant to be some sort of deeper commentary on the transience of material possessions or Richie Rich as some sort of super-rich cipher, is left up to your interpretation.

At any rate, these monthly team-ups pretty much followed the same formula, starred two almost-identical characters and typically ended up enacting no reaching change on either characters' regular storylines. So, pretty much no different from their more superheroically-oriented counterparts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

News Item: Not all Super Heros have boring lives, just most of them

Super Heroes have personal lives. It's not something we see a lot of. Mostly because it's really boring. After you've seen Luke Cage battle evil, why would you want to watch him do his taxes? Or heat up a Hungry Man in the microwave?

There's a market for everything though, and some people just won't be satisfied until they see Batman sitting down for a late night coffee, the Hulk walking his dog, Spider-Man peeing against the side of a building. Wait, what? Wonder Woman engaging in her favorite pastime of sexual dominatrix... now hold the phone.

Photographer Ian Pool has used the everyday lives of Super Heroes as the focus of a recent series of photographs. Mixing what appear to be action figures with live sets and models, he's created some, well, some interesting images. Evidently Darth Vader can use the crapper without getting out of that life support suit. Who knew?

Super [Ianpool.com]

Open Forum: Greatest Team-Ups Ever

Comics have thrived on team-ups, the chance meeting of two dynamic characters to battle menaces too overpowering for either of them individually. The Seebelow* contributors opine upon their favorite crossovers ...

I’ve never been a huge fan of team-ups, which are usually forced and unnatural pairings meant to drive up sales of a less popular hero by sticking him on a hastily conceived mission with a better-known character. I made an exception, though, for Marvel’s 1970s series Super-Villain Team-Up, a surprisingly well-executed book that rather caught my fancy at the time.

was appealing right from the start, because as everyone knows, villains are always more interesting than heroes. It also benefited from featuring as its central character Dr. Doom, my all-time favorite super-villain and the original big poppa of Marvel mischief-making.

And I’ve always been mildly intrigued by the notion of villain team-ups; it’s hard enough to find friends who share your interest in, say, bowling or model railroads, so how do people like the Hillside Stranglers, who shared a mutual love of torturing prostitutes to death, ever get together? Add to this the fact that some issues were written by the always-entertaining Steve Englehart just before he jumped ship to DC for a while, and you’ve got a pretty entertaining stew going.

It was a stroke of genius to team up Victor Von Doom and Prince Namor. Both were Fantastic Four villains with rich and elaborate histories and special reasons to hate on the FF; Doom (rightly) blamed Reed Richards for tampering with the experiment that cost him his beautiful face, and Namor had a bone on for Sue Storm. Better still, the two of them, like most genuine aristocrats, were rampaging egomaniacs who couldn’t begin to fathom why they couldn’t get what they wanted; Doom was totally unwilling to admit that Reed Richards might be as smart as he was, and Namor could never, er, fathom why Sue would go for a nebbishy braniac like Reed instead of a manly hunk of sea-brawn like himself. The two came together as part of an elaborate scheme against the FF, but almost immediately began plotting against each other for no immediately discernable reason other than that they’re two huge jackasses who would plot against a fire extinguisher if their beds were in flames. Throw in that they soon got involved with the murderous Dr. Lemuel Dorcas, who held the title of Marvel super-villain with the stupidest name until the appearance of Turner D. Century, and it all made for a read that was way more enjoyable than it had any right to be.

Eventually, as all good teams do, it started to fall apart. Namor got traded to the Seattle Mariners and was replaced by the Red Skull, who was just as big a star in the firmament of Marvel villainy as was Dr. Doom, but whose Nazi motives were entirely incomprehensible to Vic. “Fuck this guy,” you could almost hear him say under the metal mask, and he was gone by the 16th issue, replaced by the Hate-Monger, who, in his secret identity as Adolf Hitler, still holds the title of worst super-villain of the 20th century. It just wasn’t any fun without the two explosive egos of Doom and Namor to carry the title, and the last few issues were a slog. But boy, was it fun while it lasted.

Wolverine is constantly being pitted against enemies far more powerful than himself and left to rely on his staggeringly terrible table manners and shiny cutlery to stab his way out of any trouble. Spider-Man is frequently overlooked as an
ything except a sticky photojournalist in his pajamas when he is actually one of the smartest scientists on the planet with super human strength, agility and resilience.

Jim Owsley has taken these two characters who are so often mishandled as simple caricatures and wove around them a story that is not only believable and realistic given the circumstances, but features absolutely zero ninjas. I think we can all recognize this as an oddity for the late 80s. The action of the story is little mor e than a backdrop to some pivotal character development for Peter Parker.

Peter doesn't kill people, and Wolverine is a certifiable lunatic with little regard for human life. They meet in East Berlin on the trail of some KGB assassins. At first, each thinks the other is a commie agent, but then Logan gets laid and it all g ets sorted out. They team up to fight some Red Scare baddies. In the end, Logan's lady turns out to be behind everything and for reasons that I'm sure only make sense to a female KGB assassin who just had sex with a cigar smoking Canadian Tribble, she asks Wolverine to kill her. Because he just had sex with her, he agrees.

At this point Spidey arrives, cops an attitude and battles Wolverine for the right to not kill her. It's a great fight, and they eventually discover what we should have known all along, that they're actually a pretty even match. Even the rather typical Peter Parker emo trip at the end of the book is handled well and it becomes a pivotal element in the development of Spider-Man's character.

Also, if you're into that kind of thing, Wolverine murders like two hundred people and uses his nose to solve mysteries.

Jon Morris: DC COMICS PRESENTS #27-29
An unfortunately overlooked classic from what was admittedly a typically poor example of the Bronze Age team-up book (none of which were exactly beauty contestants either). It introduced the villainous Mongul, derided at the time for being nothing more than a Darkseid knockoff, but unsaddled - unlike Darkseid - with the "Ultimate Evil in the Universe" sobriquet. This meant that Mongul had all the menace but none of the inertia of his near-likeness, making him the actual, active threat Darkseid could never be.

So this fast-paced three-parter not only introduces a heavy-hitter bad guy, but also sees Superman fighting against Warworld - a battleship bigger than most suns - pits him in a dirty knockdown/drag-out against The Martian Manhunter, makes hostages of Superman's entire supporting cast, and ends with Superman attempting to pierce the veil of the afterlife itself and throwing soupbones with the Spectre in order to rescue Supergirl from the clutches of death. On top of all that, writer Len Wein actually had Superman tackle a few of the occasional moral dilemmas inspired by his powers and responsibilities. Top notch Bronze Age storytelling, even if it rarely gets its due.

Seriously, go read Superman vs Muhammad Ali. Neal Adams art, Denny O'Neil in one of the few stories he ever wrote where Superman gets treated with respect and not that weird "WTF do I do with this guy" manner O'Neil usually managed (Sand Superman? Really?).

Both Superman and Muhammad Ali come off well, you get a rather breezy story involving alien invaders, the former Cassius Clay claims superiority as Earth's defender in the face of an alien invasion fleet because Superman's not even from Earth and in the end, even the evil alien's champion (the aliens are actually called The Scrubb!) is convinced, by Muhammad Ali's and Superman's respective heroism, to turn against his corrupt leaders. Plus Muhammad Ali figures out who Superman really is, putting him in a club that included John F. Kennedy for "real life people allowed to know who Superman is in the comics." This story doesn't take itself too seriously, is a fun read, and has a pretty solid fight sequence between Superman and Muhammad Ali on a red sun planet where Supes does okay but gets whipped, as we would expect.

Batman vs The Incredible Hulk: Batman gets turned into paste. NEXT.
Okay, so that's not how it went. But you have to hand it to Len Wein, Jose Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano: they took a gamma irradiated bat eat and made one hell of a nice green silk purse out of it. The idea of Batman fighting the Hulk in any significant way was so ridiculous in 1981 (this was before Batman became a walking plot device) that the story tackles it right up front: the first confrontation between Batman and ol' Jade Jaws consists of Batman praying he isn't going to get turned to pulp or have his back broken (not for another decade or so, Bats, don't worry) before finally managing to gas the gamma goliath.

The real action in this story, however, involves the Joker working feverishly to cure The Shaper of Worlds, a cosmic level Marvel entity with no real imagination but the power to reshape reality. When the Joker manages to trick Batman into helping him convince the Hulk to provide enough gamma rays to cure the Shaper, we get Joker as king of reality, a surreal series of pages beautifully illustrated by Garcia-Lopez and Giordano and we get to see the Hulk with floppy clown shoes and Batman with a red clown nose. Trust me, the entire book was worth it for that one scene. That, and Batman angrily decking the Joker for letting the Hulk go in alone to face an out of control COSMIC ENTITY WITH THE POWER OF A GOD and then running in to make sure the Hulk doesn't have to die by himself. It's actually a really good read. I left out where Bruce Wayne tries to help cure Bruce Banner. Bruces bonding! All in all, this should have sucked, but Wein and the talented artists pulled one out.

Austin: The Question #17
Denny O'Neill's 1986 reinvention of The Question is still a controversial subject among big fat dweebs like me and, probably, you. Ayn Rand enthusiast and bona fide artistic genius Steve Ditko invented the faceless mystery man, like he invented so many of his characters, as a one dimensional mouthpiece for his Objectivist rantings. Denny O'Neill wanted a mouthpiece for his own beliefs, however, which were sharply at odds with Ditko's. Lucky for him, then, that DC had purchased Ditko's creations from Charlton comics lock stock and barrel, and as a grand old man of the company, O'Neill could pretty much do what he wanted with any of 'em. Or he could have if it wasn't for that meddling hippie Alan Moore, who was writing the Charlton Characters into a magnum opus that would kill most and leave the rest unrecognizable. Since DC wanted to keep all their cash cows healthy, they convinced Moore to tinker just enough to avoid instant confusion and so his version of The Question became Rorschach of the upcoming truly shitty looking blockbuster, Watchmen.

In the Question #17, Vic Sage aka The Question is following a lead to Seattle. Hub City, Vic's home turf is apparently a plane ride sufficiently far from Seattle that he can read a dense, critically acclaimed graphic novel on the way, although not so long that he can actually think about what he's read, as we shall see. Or maybe Vic's just a big dummy, and not really a Zen monk on a personal quest to make sense of the universe after all, because although he recognizes Rorschach as a kindred spirit, he fails to realize that big R is a wrecked-up, doomed, paranoid psychopath and instead decides he "kicks ass." Whenever an object that should be pitied becomes admired, trouble is sure to follow. Sure enough, Vic decides to kick ass instead of follow his usual course of meticulous detective work unsubtly symbolizing his own introspective musings. In brief, The Question bulldozes in on the bad guys, is captured, and in the course of escaping, just about literally runs into Green Arrow, in one of my all time favorite closing Splash Pages. Ollie never looked so butch in that elfy-looking hooded doublet he was wearing back in those days. TO BE CONTINUED!

Consequently in the Question #18, Vic is held captive by a better-known mouthpiece for Denny O'Neill, and another one he didn't create but instead totally rewrote to fit his own uses. Green Arrow is pretty reasonable, altogether. Most of this issue is the two of them talking – The Question wants to be untied but Green Arrow doesn't know him from Adam Strange, and needs to be convinced that he's not just some small time hood. Finally GA is convinced by Q's incredible insights and so relents whereupon they go after the criminals, quoting Sun Tzu the whole way, and yes, Kicking Ass. Although the lesson of the last issue was 'if you blunder in like a bull in a china shop, yours is the ass that's gonna get kicked."

This Team-up is my favorite because it's full of metatextual hooha. Not only do we get the "Flash of Two Worlds" aspect of different versions of the same character colliding, but it brings up all kinds of stupid continuity nerd issues: Watchmen is published by DC in our universe, who publishes it in the DC universe? Is there a DC universe version of THIS comic, since it's published by DC, too? Is there an infinite regression of Alan Moores and Denny O'Neills writing comic books within comic books within comic books? Are we living in a universe written by a Moore or an O'Neill? All that happy horsecrap. Also, as I editorialized earlier, not only is O'Neill paying tribute to Moore's tremendous creation by writing it into his own pet project, he's taking the opportunity to deflate some of the more misguided hype around it. Lord knows how many fanboys I ran into around 88-89 who thought that Rorschach was the bees' knees and didn't see the limits and dangers of his point of view. I may have even fallen victim to some of that myself! Of course most of the blame, or credit maybe, for this goes to Moore himself for making the demented Rorschach such a powerful and appealing character that not even a whole chapter devoted to turning his rancid psyche inside out could fully demystify him – "The Abyss Gazes Also" probably validates his viewpoint as much as condemns it in the view of many readers. (Ask fellow Seebelower Leonard Pierce sometime about how Moore sets up political and personal conflicts in the Watchmen characters sometime – I double dog dare you!) But still, that's only half the story! The second half, where The Question and Green Arrow storm the evildoers' hideout is pretty good, if more conventional, stuff too. O'Neill knows that comics readers want action and plenty of it, and he writes a great sequence that's brilliantly illustrated by Denys Cowan, involving the two of them staking out the lair as they debate the merits of trust vs. suspicion and whether it's possible to recognize inner qualities or only outer. Then they shoot arrows, punch people and race snowmobiles while oversimplifying one of the greatest short philosophical works in history. Who could ask for anything more?