Comics Ate My Brain

October 31, 2013

[Reposting] Towards A Modern Superhero Canon: “Night of the Reaper!”

Filed under: batman, blog-at-rama repost, halloween, modern superhero canon — Tom Bondurant @ 1:21 pm
All dressed up and nowhere to go

All dressed up and nowhere to go

[I wrote this post originally for Blog@Newsarama, which is apparently no longer being updated. It was published on October 30, 2008.]

Welcome to the second in a periodic series of posts on my list of “canonical” superhero stories. (The original post, which includes a link to Tucker Stone’s call for such a canon, is here.) Last time I talked largely about “Beware My Power,” the introduction of Green Lantern John Stewart from writer Denny O’Neil and penciller Neal Adams. This week brings another O’Neil/Adams tale, “Night of the Reaper!” from December 1971′s Batman #237.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea — my standards certainly don’t begin and end with O’Neil and Adams. In fact, timing has placed “Reaper” at this particular point on the schedule. Not only does it take place at Halloween, but it strikes me as a fine way to remember the late Tom Fagan of Rutland, Vermont. As the man behind Rutland’s Halloween parade, Mr. Fagan helped inspire this story, as well as a few others.

“Night of the Reaper” uses Rutland’s Halloween festivities as its backdrop, and really, it’s all about the costumes. Just about everyone is in some kind of weird getup; and the reader is invited to imagine that all those strange adults in their bizarre outfits (we see no minors trick-or-treating) might just be the real thing, be they Batman, Robin, or Death itself.  While the murders the story chronicles have some very down-to-earth motives, they too have been “dressed up” for Halloween. Thus, “Night of the Reaper” is an excellent superhero story because it melds the empowerment of a superhero costume with the unique atmosphere of Halloween, and draws on both for an eerie, fantastic mood.

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May 14, 2011

On “Smallville’s” Big Finish

Filed under: smallville, star trek, superman, tv — Tom Bondurant @ 3:00 pm

It’s pretty much redundant to say that the classic Clark-to-Superman transformation is archetypal, because Superman is the archetype for so many things superheroic. Accordingly, I will always make room for any version of the transformation, especially one staged like a walk-off grand slam, and accompanied by gratuitous John Williams music.

That’s — SPOILER ALERT! — pretty much how “Smallville” flew off into TV history last night (here’s the YouTube clip). Once it was announced that this season would be the show’s last, and once I realized I actually had some free time on Friday nights, I ended up watching a decent amount of these final episodes. (ComicsAlliance’s “Smallvillains” feature made it easy to keep up with the show otherwise.) Last night I also followed reactions of the faithful on Twitter, first at #Smallville and then #SmallvilleFinale. Now, I know, Twitter; but even discounting the OMG! factor, clearly the show developed an audience devoted enough to keep it on the air for ten years. Heck, it probably could have run until Tom Welling started to look like the Earth-2 Supes and the special DC guest-stars were Aztek, Kid Psycho, and Sugar & Spike.

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February 15, 2010

Biographies and origins

Filed under: batman, dissertations, star trek, superman — Tags: , , , — Tom Bondurant @ 8:23 pm

Whenever the Best Wife Ever watches something adapted from a comic book or reworked for the kids today, inevitably she will ask me “is that how it really happened?”

Accordingly, I was watching the Midwest’s most gifted repeat offender get the snot beaten out of him yes, another viewing of Star Trek ’09 — and thinking, no, that’s not how it happened.  It is now, of course; but it wasn’t then; and that is not an insignificant distinction.

See, then it wasn’t necessary to come at James T. Kirk from Year One, let alone Day One.  Back on September 8, 1966, it was enough to see Kirk fully formed as Captain of the Enterprise.  For that matter, it was enough to introduce “the Bat-Man” as a mysterious urban vigilante; with the shocking! twist at the end of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” being that he was really bored playboy Bruce Wayne.  Batman’s origin was told a few issues later, in a two-page vignette which had nothing to do with the main story’s Dirigible of Doom.

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February 1, 2010

Note that “favorite” does not necessarily mean “good”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tom Bondurant @ 7:39 pm

One of my favorite Justice League stories is “The Deadly Dreams of Doctor Destiny!” from Justice League of America #34 (March 1965).  It may be one of the worst JLA stories ever.  It is definitely one of the most audacious.

Today the villain Doctor Destiny is a monstrous, skeletal figure, emaciated from the toll exacted by years of channeling mysterious energies.  JLA #34 found him pretty early in his career, though; and he’s just a regular-looking guy without even a supervillain costume.  In a previous story, he had invented a machine (the “Materioptikon”) which could make real whatever he dreamed.  If he dreamed about chocolate, he’d get chocolate.  Thus, he dreamed about a Materioptikon, and got a Dream-Materioptikon.  This allowed him to plot against the JLA from his prison cell, and indeed during the story he never leaves it.

Naturally, his plan involves manipulating the Leaguers’ dreams.  Each of our heroes dreams — sometimes in conjunction with a colleague, which you’d think would tip them off — that during a super-battle, a weird article attaches itself to him or her and imposes some encumbrance.  That’s fancy talk for Batman’s ring giving him super-speed, Hawkman’s gloves only letting him “swim” through the air, Wonder Woman’s mask broadcasting her thoughts, and Atom’s headpiece giving him always-on telescopic vision.  Superman’s device renders him immune to Kryptonite, but makes him susceptible both to fire (a la Martian Manhunter) and the color yellow (like Green Lantern’s power ring).  I haven’t yet mentioned Superman’s device, because it in fact is the ludicrous hurdle which this story must overcome.

Superman’s device is a pair of eyeglasses.

Now, by itself that might not be a problem.  Superman fights his particular opponent (a giant statue) in the Italian countryside, perhaps far removed from anyone who might see his bespectacled face.  The fact that this happens initially in a dream also mitigates a lot of secret-identity concerns.  However, when the dream-devices inevitably manifest themselves in reality, and the glasses are fixed on Supes’ nose, he doesn’t think anything of it.  Furthermore, he apparently doesn’t care that he’s still wearing the things when he and the rest of the Leaguers visit Doc Destiny in prison.  In an era where secret-identity plots were as common as primary colors, I can barely believe that writer Gardner Fox and editor Julie Schwartz passed up such a golden opportunity.

I mean, I wouldn’t be making such a big deal about this if the story had only acknowledged that maybe it might be a problem for Superman to be seen in a pair of glasses.  Supes probably had a half-dozen ways to talk himself out of “say, don’t you look like that reporter?” One line of dialogue addressing just one strategy no doubt would have satisfied a lot of readers, me included.  I can accept a lot — I accept Doc Destiny’s reality-bending powers, especially given his later appearance in Sandman — but I trip over this plot hole every time.

And I do like the story.  It’s one of the first Fox/Sekowsky JLA stories I remember reading (in a ’70s reprint, of course), and it is one of the more imaginative takes on a familiar JLA plot.  There are nice visuals too — Wonder Woman and the Atom fight giant mollusks, Batman and Hawkman fight the Joker and (the terribly obscure) Chac amongst some South American ruins, and Superman’s gladiator-statue foe is convincingly menacing.

Those glasses, though…. I’m still shaking my head.

January 29, 2010

Requiem for an action figure

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tom Bondurant @ 9:00 am

I don’t usually read the biographical information on the backs of action-figure boxes, usually because I know it already.  However, I did glance at the brief bio from the DC Universe Classics version of Green Lantern Katma Tui:

When the Green Lantern, Sinestro, turned rogue, the Guardians of the Universe named Katma Tui as his replacement.  Katma Tui served with distinction for a long time before retiring.  She returned to service at the urging of Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of Earth, and trained Jordan’s replacement, John Stewart.  Katma Tui came to love Stewart, and the two of them married, but Katma Tui was murdered shortly thereafter by longtime Green Lantern foe Star Sapphire.

Can you tell which of those data points Mattel might have considered omitting?

I mean, I buy a nominal amount of action figures, and like I said, I don’t often read the bios — but I don’t expect them to say that the figure I just bought is a plastic version of a dead character.  I bet if she comes back in Blackest Night some copywriter is going to be mighty embarrassed….

January 28, 2010

k THX bye

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tom Bondurant @ 9:27 pm

Comics posts are coming, honest, but I did want to mention that I watched THX 1138 recently.  It was the “George Lucas Director’s Cut” version, which meant some CGI inserts a la the Star Wars special editions.  I am not especially familiar with the original THX, although I did tape it (and Lucas’ original student film, also a DVD extra) off Bravo ten-plus years ago, so it’s not like the original is completely lost to me.  The GLDC didn’t despoil my childhood, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, it was an interesting film, very much in the mold of alienated ’70s sci-fi, where everything looks drab, utilitarian, and monochromatic, and all personality has been outlawed. It does have its moments, most of them having to do with the characters LUH (love interest) and SEN (maliciously annoying colleague).*  THX (the character) is heroic in his way, but it’s a slow burn before he finally decides to (as Lucas puts it elsewhere on the DVD) “walk through the open door.” LUH and SEN each have designs on THX, and it’s through their actions that THX is put through his ordeal, so perhaps that’s why they seemed more … well, entertaining to me.  I had forgotten it had nudity — which sounds really strange at this point, doesn’t it?  Nudity in a George Lucas movie? — and either the actors (Robert Duvall as THX and Maggie McOmie as LUH) had great chemistry or Lucas had a much better feel in the early ’70s for directing a romantic scene.  Insert smart-aleck Attack of the Clones comment here.

For paranoid, dystopian early-’70s sci-fi, it’s not especially suspenseful either.  (SPOILER ALERT!)  When Lucas talks about THX walking through an open door, he’s not exaggerating.  The last shot is pretty amazing, though; and it makes a good counterpoint to its sister scene in Star Wars.

Walter Murch’s soundscape didn’t do much for me, probably because I wasn’t watching it in 5.1. I think it’s the kind of movie you have to watch a few times, in order to get a proper feel for the rhythms and themes. I’m not opposed to that, but it may be a while before I revisit it.

* [By the way, I would love someday to chart Donald Pleasance's various career trajectories. Not long before this he was Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, arguably one of the biggest movies in the world. In 1971 he did THX, in 1978 he did Halloween, and in 1981 he was back with John Carpenter for Escape From New York.]

January 14, 2010

Structure, tone, and Superman

Filed under: movies, superman — Tom Bondurant @ 2:00 pm

These days I am watching movies in big chunks, usually while a certain young someone is napping. Today I finished yet another viewing of Superman, which is probably well-suited to this kind of schedule because it has pretty much four distinct parts.

The opening on Krypton is weird not just because everything is cold and crystalline, but because it all centers on Marlon Brando in a white spit-curled wig. He makes a good Jor-El, in part because he and Lara are the most friendly characters we meet. Even when he’s “interacting” holographically with Superman later, though, he plays a caring dad, eager to catch up with his long-lost son.

Of course, when I first saw Superman during its original run, I was nine years old and didn’t know Brando from Mr. Greenjeans. I had no Godfather or On The Waterfront or (yikes!) Last Tango In Paris frames of reference; and can only imagine what 1978 audiences must have thought about Don Corleone in that wig and S-shield muumuu ambling around the North Pole. (Remember, Superman‘s original script was by Godfather author Mario Puzo.) I expect Am I tripping? went through more than a few heads.

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January 7, 2010

How I’d Fix Generations

Filed under: star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 9:25 pm

With plok asking bloggers how they’d change last summer’s Star Trek, and with me not having much to say about that, here are some thoughts on how 1994′s Star Trek Generations could have been a more fangasmic Trek film.

In many ways, Generations is a victim of circumstance. Conceived and produced by “The Next Generation’s” team while that show was winding down, it was filmed in the spring of 1994 for release in the fall. Meant to bridge the gap between Kirk’s crew and Picard’s, it is hardly entry-level, and plays much more to devoted “TNG” fans than to any other group. In the context of the TV show, it’s passable, but it really doesn’t work as a standalone movie. While Soran and the Nexus are new, Data’s emotion chip was last seen in “Descent” (Seasons 6-7), there are “bad” Klingons despite ST VI‘s peace initiatives, and the Enterprise-D is destroyed just as potential new viewers were getting to know her. Plus there’s now an Enterprise-B and its hapless captain, along with references to otherwise-unseen Original Series stalwarts.  Indeed, watching Generations makes one aware of what’s not in it. The more the viewer must fill in the blanks himself, the weaker the film is.

Thus, Generations desperately needs a steady drip of context, stat!

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December 20, 2009

Fiddle-dee-dee!

Filed under: fanfic, green lantern, justice league — Tom Bondurant @ 2:19 am
Not sure what’s turned my thoughts to fictionalized warfare. Maybe some Avatar osmosis, although I’ve cooled to James Cameron’s directorial charms. Anyway, in trying to get to sleep the other night, I started thinking about a Green Lantern story. (It could easily be a Justice League story, but would center around GL.)

Basically, the initial setup was this: Green Lantern — doesn’t matter who, might as well be John — is patrolling Sector 2814 when his ring detects an approaching starship. It’s an advance scout for a massive armada headed, yes, straight for Earth. Naturally, GL alerts the Justice League and also buzzes Oa for backup. The JLA is prepped and ready for action, but the word comes back from Oa: reinforcements denied. In fact, a Guardian gets on the horn to tell John specifically that he is to offer no resistance to the invaders. Instead, he is to observe and advise them. He can protect the Earth’s best interests, but the Guardians have determined that the invasion must be a success, because that’s the only way Earth can survive.

John then contacts the JLA from aboard the invading scoutship and explains the situation. Obviously John is conflicted, but ultimately he has no reason to distrust the Guardians. Besides, he (and presumably any other Green Lantern in the area) will theoretically be able to influence the invaders in Earth’s favor. Of course, the JLA and the rest of Earth’s super-folk have no such conflict, and while there is some debate over whether to follow John’s lead, eventually the choice is made to repel the invaders.

Thus, the stage is set: hundreds (if not a thousand) hostile starships bearing countless troops, versus the Justice League, Justice Society, Teen Titans, et al. There are pitched battles in orbit and fierce fights on the ground, but the invaders eventually get past the superheroes. The invaders seem to be looking for something, but they don’t know quite where; and they tear the dickens out of several regions in the process. Cairo, Helsinki, Nepal, and Salt Lake City are hit especially hard. Regardless, thanks to John, casualties are amazingly low, including among the superhumans. Indeed, the invaders start ham-fistedly rebuilding the infrastructure of the devastated cities, even advising local leaders on alternative forms of government.

Once the invaders believe Earth has been subdued, though, the JLA and its allies strike back using guerrilla tactics. This is quite successful, in part because the invaders are caught off-guard. Before they know it, they’ve lost half their fleet and most of their infantry has been incapacitated; and they’re ready to retreat. After Green Lantern has escorted them out of the solar system, he gets a call from Oa: the Guardians are pleased.

Pleased?!? John spits. You could have stopped all this before it even started!

Yes, muses the Guardian coolly, but the [invaders] needed to be taught defeat. The Guardians knew that bloodying the invaders’ collective nose was the only way to get them to leave Earth alone, but calling in the GL Corps would have merely turned the invaders’ attention to Oa. It seems the invaders are a particularly thick and brutal race, but one thing they do especially well is fight — so they would have first found a way to eliminate the GL Corps, and then they’d have come after Earth. And make no mistake, John Stewart, intones the Guardian, [the invaders] would have dedicated their very existence to wiping us out. Now, however, they see that even if they defeat an enemy one day, it also won’t stop until it’s driven them off. The Guardian wraps up by saying they regret having to manipulate John and the other Earth GLs as they did, because (irony alert) they normally don’t work like that.

* * *

Now, clearly there are a number of problems with that story. I first thought of it when I was half-asleep, and I fleshed it out on the fly just now. The point, though, is that it is a blatant morality play about the Iraq war, and I’m not sure that something as deadly serious as Iraq (or Afghanistan, or wherever else the U.S. finds itself) should be trivialized, even potentially, by adapting it to a superhero setting. For one thing, it’s designed to leave no lasting scars on the Earth or its people. For another, the invaders are pretty one-dimensional — they’re looking for WMDs because they think someone on Earth attacked them, but that’s never really made clear.

Still, if you declare that some subjects are off-limits to superhero stories, aren’t you shortchanging the genre? Joe Kelly wrote a decent Iraq-related issue of JLA, where President Luthor basically lies to the Justice League to get them to invade an inoffensive country; and Greg Rucka put Lois Lane in harm’s way in “Umec” during his tenure writing Adventures Of Superman.

I actually do like the story, mostly for the moral dilemma it puts GL in. I suppose you could strip out the more obvious real-world parallels and make a passable 2- or 3-issue arc out of it. It wouldn’t have any real-world lessons, but it might be entertaining, and it would definitely explore the relationship between a Green Lantern and his little blue bosses.

Still, on balance I’d like my comics to be open to larger moral concerns. I’d just hope they’d be able to get past all the fantastic stuff.

December 16, 2009

Forbidden Trek

Filed under: star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 3:04 pm
No, I am not just now realizing that Star Trek owes a tremendous debt to Forbidden Planet. Every time I watch FP I imagine that it is the greatest unfilmed Star Trek episode ever. I mean, really: Leslie Nielsen is pretty much a Roddenberry captain, he works for the “United Planets,” and the four main officers are the commanding officer, first officer, ship’s doctor, and chief engineer. The only thing missing is a Spock figure, and I’m not sure that “Doc” wouldn’t fill that role pretty well.

Probably the weakest aspect of the movie is the romance between Nielsen’s J.J. Adams (that name’s oddly familiar too, given who directed the latest Trek) and Anne Francis’ Altaira, and that’s not all bad. I bought it from her point of view, but by the same token Adams knows full well what she’s feeling and to my mind takes advantage of it.

Still, it’s great fun to spot the other elements which would later find their way into Star Trek. The mysterious loner and his female companion figured in “The Man Trap,” “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” the all-knowing computer was a staple of Original Trek, and of course there’s the design of the deceleration devices.

Oh, and Dr. Morbius reminded me a heckuva lot of Dr. Orpheus from “The Venture Brothers.” Now I want to see Dr. Orpheus’ daughter in the Anne Francis role….

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