Comics Ate My Brain

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.


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.


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!


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….

January 21, 2009

The "Hey, You Look Familiar" Meme

Filed under: james bond, meme, star trek, twin peaks, x files, x-men — Tom Bondurant @ 10:16 pm
Kalinara mentioned a couple of variations on a meme (ha!) and I thought I’d try ’em both.

Version One:

[C]reate a team of four heroes, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only the catch is that each hero must be a character portrayed by the same actor.

Thus, the League of Extraordinary Patrick Stewarts:

1. Ahab, monomaniacal commander of the whaling ship Pequod;
2. Ebenezer Scrooge, newly-reformed uber-capitalist (and the group’s financier);
3. Professor Charles Xavier, mutant telepath and educator; and of course
4. Jean-Luc Picard, starship captain.

One could also have the League of Extraordinary Sean Connerys:

1. Allan Quartermain;
2. Robin Hood (from the film Robin & Marian);
3. James Bond; and
4. Draco the dragon (from Dragonheart).

Finally, the League of Extraordinary Johnny Depps:

1. Jack Sparrow;
2. Ichabod Crane;
3. Willy Wonka; and
4. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Then there’s Version Two:

[C]reate a team of four to eight members, which comprise of sets of doubles as played by the same actor.

Here goes…

1a. Dr. Sam Beckett, time-traveler (Scott Bakula),
1b. Jonathan Archer, starship captain (Scott Bakula),
2a. Dennis/Denise Bryson, DEA agent (David Duchovny),
2b. Fox Mulder, FBI agent (David Duchovny),
3a. Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson),
3b. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson),
4a. Brisco County Jr. (Bruce Campbell), and
4b. Ash (Bruce Campbell).

How’s that?

November 17, 2008

Thoughts on Star Trek ’09 (Trailer Edition)

Filed under: dissertations, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 10:49 pm

After spending an unhealthy amount of time following our thrilling Presidential election, I had been wondering whether I’d find a new obsession…

… but then the new Star Trek trailer appeared. I am (in a word) stoked, and can’t wait the (barely!) six months which tick away just to your right.

Of course, other fans — who appear to be a small but insistent faction — are not so sanguine. For them the trailer, like the pictures which have been trickling out over the past several weeks, confirms their collective fear. The long-dreaded reboot (gasp!) of Star Trek must necessarily explode four decades of canon (or “cannon,” if you’re not particular). To this point the history of the Trekverse had been assembled out of plot points and throwaway references into a workable structure, albeit rickety and creaking in parts, upon which had nevertheless been hung hundreds of hours’ worth of stories and characters. Without canon, Star Trek is merely a collection of stories. With it, though, Trek is a vast centuries-spanning galactic tapestry. I understand why it’s maintained so intricately, and I’ve enjoyed the interconnections (intentional and otherwise) myself.

Star Trek ‘09 aims to reveal finally a new wing of the structure — the “origins” of the famous Five-Year Mission — while looking back into Kirk’s and Spock’s childhoods. With so much background material available, the participants in this story seem obvious: all those trivial (in the strictest sense) names and events relevant to this period which had already been mentioned on-screen. The story itself seems like a mere matter of connecting the dots, from “The Cage” to “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Thus, the subplots would be Pike to Kirk, Number One to Spock, Boyce to Piper to McCoy, etc. For good measure, throw in all the people from Kirk’s Academy days and early career: Mallory, Finnegan, Ruth, Carol Marcus, Captain Garrovick, Ben Finney. Perhaps most importantly, there’s Gary Mitchell, Kirk’s best friend, who may even have been his first officer when he died as part of “WNMHGB’s” climax. A “Year Zero” story would need to address the doomed Kirk/Mitchell friendship … wouldn’t it?

In a word, no. Star Trek ‘09 appears to answer those kinds of issues in the resounding negative — or perhaps worse, with resounding indifference. Pike is in it (the trailer casts him as a father-figure to Kirk), but the other “Cagers” are nowhere to be found. Neither is Mitchell or Number One. Furthermore, the sets are pristine, the Bridge is spacious, and the bulkheads are concave. It all looks familiar, but obviously it’s been changed — and for some, those changes are dealbreakers.

Now, I can speak only as a second-generation fan who grew up on the movies and ‘70s syndication, but the original Star Trek may be the last major bit of pop culture associated indelibly with unsocialized geeks. Not surprisingly, many fans have turned this perceived stigma on its head, charging that any attempt to update or “make cool” the Original Series is actually “dumbing it down.” Thus, like any other so-called cult phenomenon, Star Trek is too good for the unwashed, who must prove themselves worthy of it, and not it of them. Having spent most of my life trudging up such steep learning curves, I have some sympathy for this perspective. It’s only natural that, with our efforts rewarded, we want others to be rewarded similarly only after similar efforts.

However, when think about re-registering at the TrekBBS … well, it’s literally asking for trouble, isn’t it? The memories of debates gone by, and the spectacle of today’s polarized fanbase, are huge obstacles. Writing about comic books is much easier by comparison. For example, the Legion of Super-Heroes boasts a vocal fanbase doggedly supportive of, say, the Adventure Comics days and/or Levitz/Giffen, but to my knowledge they don’t go around making dark pronouncements like The Legion died in 1989.

No, these bitter, angry Trek fans are people who feel betrayed, and again I am sympathetic — but I have to ask, by what have they been betrayed? By the foreseeable effects of advances in time, age, and technology? By the business aspects of movie production, which necessarily demand stories with wide appeal? By the thought — and here I freely admit I’m speculating — that accepting a new version of Star Trek somehow betrays one’s fidelity to the original?

Look, I know what it’s like. Because there are fewer and fewer old-school fans out there, you think that if you don’t stand up for the good old days, pretty soon no one will. Although you came in late, you were converted just the same; and therefore others can be converted similarly. There’s nothing wrong with the basic ideas, just their execution. Above all, you don’t want the thing you love to sell out, because you don’t want it to lose that unquantifiable spark that makes it special.

Nevertheless, I am now officially stoked about ST09 because I can see Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock, even in the fewer-than-two-minutes they’re on the screen. The differences in the Enterprise, the bridge, etc., aren’t big enough to be distracting.

Besides, when you get down to it, Star Trek is about the boldly going. So what if the Enterprise doesn’t line up exactly with the original? It is still recognizable as the Enterprise NCC-1701, and these folks are recognizable as her crew. I’ve said before that the key to making Star Trek viable for new generations lies not so much in creating yet another new crew, which will be compared inevitably to the five previous — but in finding ways to re-acquaint the general public with the original. As much as I enjoyed having eighteen years’ (!) worth of TV sequels and spinoffs, at their core those shows could only riff on the original. For Star Trek to start over it had to do something like this …

… and for something like this to work, it can’t be hamstrung with minutiae. The Star Wars prequels had to hew to a certain structure, because they were parts of a single large story. Conversely, Star Trek takes an almost entirely opposite approach. It’s set up to tell individual stories, not one big one. ST09 may be concerned with the two biggest individuals in all of the series, but it’s not the final piece of any narrative puzzle.

Indeed, the earlier movies helped frame the exploits of Kirk and Spock in recognizable character arcs. The Motion Picture showed Spock reconciling the inner conflicts between logic and emotion; and The Wrath of Khan featured Kirk’s midlife crisis. Naturally, both movies built on the original series, but had less to do with character moments in individual episodes (“Space Seed” notwithstanding, of course) than a general sense of who the characters were. By that I mean that I can recall nothing in either movie which is a specific callback to, say, “The Naked Time,” but obviously Spock’s struggles in “Naked” (and “This Side Of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” “All Our Yesterdays,” etc.) inform his growth in TMP.

It bears repeating too that the Kirk and Spock of ST09 are not quite the characters who appear in those episodes, or for that matter in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Instead, by coming to know each other they are in the process of becoming those characters. While it might be informative to see how Gary Mitchell or Number One affected that process, it’s not necessary, and in fact those characters might be more of a distraction to the casual moviegoer than a redesigned Bridge will be to a hardcore fan.

So, with all due respect to my fellow Trekkies and Trekkers, I say engage! to this version of Star Trek. As a certain velvet-voiced officer once said, “any chance to go aboard the Enterprise…!”

[P.S. I know that the trailer shows a familiar-looking starship being constructed out in an open field — but are we sure that this ship is the Enterprise, and not one of her sisters?]

July 26, 2008

New comics 7/23/08

Apropos to the release today of the new X Files movie, let’s start with The X Files vol. 2 #0, written by show writer/producer Frank Spotnitz and drawn by Brian Denham. It’s a 22-page comic book which tells a self-contained story that — as far as I know — doesn’t tie into the movie at all. Instead, it’s chock fulla references to the show, including the “Post Modern Prometheus” episode and the “I made this!” sound bite. Most of its first page is a sequence of images pulled from the opening titles. In short, it seems to want most to say how great!, just great! it is to be back in the saddle.

And an old saddle it is, too — this is an episode which could have taken place at any time after “PoMoPro” and before Mulder’s abduction. I could try to pinpoint it from Scully’s hairdo, but I don’t have all my DVDs at the moment. The story won’t be unfamiliar to fans of the series, since it involves kidnapping, body-hopping, and arrested aging. I wish I could say it was a more lively affair, but what would probably sound natural coming from the actors just comes across flat on the page. Maybe it’s because there is little space for anything but the main plot — very little humor, and nothing in the way of meaningful Mulder/Scully interaction. The plot itself is hard to keep straight, mostly since one of the main players is never seen.

The art, however, is fairly good, and it gets a big boost from Kelsey Shannon’s coloring. Shannon keeps things moody for the most part, but occasionally enhances the wide-open spaces which helped convey the show’s sense of isolation. (Clouds reflected on a car hood are a nice touch.) Denham does likenesses well, although at times his faces seem two-dimensional. Honestly, this issue reads like one of those 8-page stories TV Guide would advertise in some Special Collector’s Issue. I read a good bit of Topps’ X Files comic back when the show was in its heyday, so I know that translation need not be a problem. I want to believe (sorry) that this issue’s done-in-one format contributed to my problems. This creative team is certainly worth watching, and I’ll probably pick up X Files #1.

And as long as we’re talking about licensed properties, Star Trek: New Frontier #5 (written by Peter David, drawn by Stephen Thompson) wraps up the current miniseries with an issue which does little to untangle any of its confusing bits. I might read it again, and if I ever decide to catch up on the prose NF offerings, I might find this miniseries more enjoyable. Wish I didn’t have to have those conditions, though.

In a nice change of pace from wacky setting-based antics, The Spirit #19 offers three stories, each written by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier. They’re all fairly pleasant. The first (drawn by Jason Armstrong) reveals how the Spirit dealt with a childhood bully; the second (pencilled by Aluir Amancio and inked by Terry Austin) finds the Spirit catching up to a reformed criminal; and the third (drawn by Paul Rivoche) is a whodunit about the murder of a comic-book artist. Again, it’s not that they’re done poorly — far from it — but nothing strikes me as especially innovative.

I hesitate to say that something like Batman: Gotham After Midnight (#3 written by Steve Niles and drawn by Kelley Jones) comes closer to what I expect from a Spirit book, but GAM does have a unique sense of design. This particular issue features a monstrous Clayface, engorged on the bodies of random Gothamites, and a very silly ending. It’s a superhero comic book which isn’t ashamed to be a superhero comic book. As part of that aforementioned silly ending, Clayface calls the screaming rabble “puny humans,” and Batman commands him to “pick on someone [his] own size.” If you don’t mind that level of dialogue, and you like Kelley Jones, you’ll like this book. In any event, it’s better than the Millar/Hitch Fantastic Four.

Green Lantern Corps #26 (written by Peter Tomasi, pencilled by Patrick Gleason, inked by Drew Geraci) concludes the Black Mercy/Mongul storyline in a way that, were Alan Moore dead, might just get him spinning in his grave. I didn’t mind it, but I’m a little more forgiving. Mongul suffers an ironic punishment, and Mother Mercy herself … well, that’s the part which I suspect would offend whatever’s left in him that hasn’t yet been offended by DC. Aah, I’m probably making too much of it. The issue was fine. Tomasi seems to fit better here than at Nightwing, and Gleason and Geraci are reliably good.

Penciller Renato Guedes, inker Wilson Magalhaes, and colorist Hi-Fi provide a nice Jack Kirby pastiche in Superman #678 (written by James Robinson). It fills in the background of Kirby’s one-off character Atlas, revealing who brought him into the 21st Century, plus why and how. The rest of the issue continues the fight between Atlas and Superman, ending (much as #677 did) with the promise of more fighting. For his part, Robinson’s omniscient narration gives Atlas’ story a somewhat wistful tone, although Atlas doesn’t seem entirely sympathetic. The present-day scenes are pretty good too — Atlas is basically a big slab of muscle, drawn beefy and bulky so that he can stand believably against Superman. This is basic superhero stuff — active figures against believable backgrounds — but it’s all done very well.

More action in Justice League of America #23 (written by Dwayne McDuffie, drawn by Ed Benes), as the JLA takes on Amazo. This time, though, Benes doesn’t seem as concerned with his female figures, and the issue benefits as a result. Practically the whole thing is devoted to the fight, with a dozen or so Justice Leaguers each getting their licks in, but Benes keeps everything moving. There are a couple of awkward panels (one where Amazo holds a helpless Flash, one where perspective makes Wonder Woman look about 8 feet tall), but on the whole it was a good issue. McDuffie’s script makes Amazo a credible threat and the Leaguers capable opponents.

It wasn’t until about halfway through The Brave and the Bold #15 (written by Mark Waid, drawn by Scott Kolins) that I realized this issue’s headliners (Nightwing and Hawkman) were intended to match up with last issue’s (Deadman and Green Arrow). Nightwing and Deadman both come from the circus (Deadman’s costume even inspired Nightwing’s first one), and Green Arrow and Hawkman have a longstanding friendly rivalry. Anyway, this issue boils down to pushing the Reset Button, but first, Nightwing must trick every other superhero (including Ambush Bug!) into leaving the planet. Therefore, he and Hawkman (the designated expert on magic) have no backup as they storm the demon-possessed Nanda Parbat. Like JLA, it’s well-choreographed action backed up by snappy dialogue.

And finally, if snappy dialogue is what you crave, look no farther than to Ambush Bug: Year None #1 (plotted and pencilled by Keith Giffen, scripted by Robert Loren Fleming, inked by Al Milgrom). Its sense of humor might not be for everyone. This particular issue mocks DC’s alleged misogyny, with the Bug asking right off the bat “[d]o you have any major appliances that don’t come with a dead body in it?” and the female salesperson replying “It’s a standard feature.” Indeed, throughout the issue female corpses are used as cannon fodder (which I think refers to something tasteless Bill Willingham said last year in San Diego). Anyway, ABYN‘s targets are many and varied, but modern storytelling techniques get hit pretty hard, especially narrative-caption boxes. Oh, how I laughed. This may be 2008’s Architecture and Mortality; and if you remember how much I liked that story, that’s pretty high praise.

July 25, 2008

To Ramble Boldly Where Others Have Rambled Before

Filed under: dissertations, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 1:24 am
Everybody’s talkin’ Next Generation — hey, me too!

It took me about six months, but I watched every episode of TNG, DS9, and “Voyager,” plus the four TNG movies, in a rough Stardate order. (I had to use a spreadsheet.)

Now I’m on “Enterprise,” heading into the home stretch after polishing off the season-long Xindi storyline … but there’ll be time for that later. Back to the 24C shows.

I feel pretty confident in saying that TNG’s greatest asset was Patrick Stewart. Stewart sold even the goofy early-season episodes with a great combination of calm and charm, taking that stuff seriously, although not to the point of camp. Plus, he had that British accent which, with us Yankees, counts for a lot. Stewart made Picard cool, so Picard helped make TNG cool.

TNG also benefited from Paramount’s seven-year commitment. Despite how you count the Original Series episodes, TNG had almost one hundred more. Clearly this provided room for all those character spotlights and political arcs. Yes, traveling from one mission to another no doubt leaves a lot of down time — perfect for rehearsing that play or practicing that instrument — but sometimes it felt like Picard’s crew spent as much time with their hobbies as they did with the lateral sensor array.

Allow me to digress for a moment. As it happens, here’s plok/pillock, commenting on his own post:

[…] clearly the main problem that faces the crew of the Enterprise-D is that they’ve got entirely too much free time on their hands. Christ, don’t these people have jobs? Everybody plays the violin, and everybody reads Shakespeare, and an awful lot of the military personnel of the future seem to be heavy into sculpting…and all the chicks wear high heels, and there! I’ve just summarized their culture pretty decently, I think. BOOOOOO-RING!

Of course, Riker’s trombone and Crusher’s dancing were meant to round out the characters precisely by getting them away from gadgets and technobabble. Still, when the Season 6 opener featured the crew hiding out in old San Francisco as a wobegone troupe of frustrated actors …well, I suspect you either thought that was an hilarious extrapolation of all those shipboard plays, or you wondered how much time there was on the Enterprise to kill.

And yet, the one character on TNG who I wouldn’t have expected to be exported so well was O’Brien. Sure, there was his star turn with his old captain in “The Wounded,” and his and Keiko’s wedding in “Data’s Day,” and he was showing up pretty reliably by the time he left. However, watching all those TNG DVDs, I was on the lookout for signs of DS9’s O’Brien, and I didn’t see too many.

It’s funny, and a little cruel, to realize that O’Brien — the guy TNG fans could look to on DS9, at least until Season 4, for a familiar Enterprise face — becomes DS9’s designated punching bag. He’s thrown into two different Jails Of No Return. He has to face the possibility of a suddenly-grown, feral daughter. His wife is possessed by a Pagh-Wraith. He’s briefly, but intensely, attracted to Kira while she’s carrying his child. He’s even replaced with a time-displaced duplicate about halfway through the series. Naturally, DS9 respected O’Brien’s TNG hobbies (kayaking, the cello), but pairing him with Bashir both expanded his horizons and gave his free time some structure.

Maybe that’s part of my frustration with the TNG cast’s free time — those hobbies are all so random. Picard loved literature, archaeology, and the theater, but had a wild streak finally curbed by that Nausicaan. Riker loved jazz and cooking, Crusher the performing arts, and Troi chocolate. Even O’Brien’s TNG hobbies seem to have come off some wheel of fortune.

What annoys me about the hobbies is that they distract from the more interesting parts of the show. Remember when the crew’s memory gets wiped by the new First Officer, and Riker and Ro theorize that maybe they were really lovahs? That never went anywhere. (Heck, nothing with Ro ever went much of anywhere.) Instead, we got Worf/Troi … which also went nowhere, except to show (in “All Good Things”) how much Riker still lurved her. Furthermore, would it have killed TNG to explain Geordi’s transition from navigator to engineer a little better? What about an episode where Wesley hijacks the holodeck for his own onanistic purposes? Yes, that’s what Barclay was doing, but who’s to say a desperate Wesley, petrified of his secrets being laid bare before a crew of a thousand, might not just blame the malfunctions on poor ol’ Reg?

(Speaking of whom, note how easily Barclay transfers to late-period “Voyager,” which also constructed episodes out of the crew’s leisure-time pursuits. Now, obviously the Voyager crew has more justifiable reasons for their hobbies, but still.)

I realize I’m not addressing either Tim’s central point (TNG was trapped by its fidelity to the sensibilities which millions of Trekkies held dear) or plok’s (TNG ignores its own implications about the universe in favor of a bland status quo). Well, from what I understand, TNG’s relentless devotion to camaraderie came from Gene Roddenberry’s directive that there is no conflict in Starfleet. (This, of course, led pretty directly to the built-in three-way crew conflicts of “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”)

However, another Roddenberry directive, going back to the original “Star Trek,” was that Kirk et al. needed to be recognizable as 20th-Century humans. David Gerrold’s The World Of Star Trek quotes Roddenberry’s Star Trek Guide:

[T]he only Westerns which failed miserably [at the time] were those which authentically portrayed the men, values, and morals of 1870. The audience applauds John Wayne playing what is essentially a 1966 man. It laughed when Gregory Peck, not a bad actor in his own right, came in wearing an authentic moustache of the period [emphasis in original].

Gerrold then goes on to say, “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables — morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background. The background is subordinate to the fable [emphasis in original].”

Now, to me that sounds more like “Galactica 2.0” than any of the 24C Trek shows. Just about every installment of the current “Battlestar Galactica” fits into the macro-plot. It has never engaged in the kind of navel-gazing, look-how-this-works episodes which were staples of Ron Moore’s previous employment, because by and large the show uses familiar, even retro gadgets. Sure, there are FTL spaceships and the corners have been cut off the paper, but one of the early Caprica episodes had Starbuck driving a Hummer, f’r goshsakes. There are no salt shakers standing in for laser-scalpels — the scalpels look like scalpels, and the salt shakers like salt shakers. The tech is not the point — “the background is subordinate.”

Of course, that could also have been the mantra of much of “Voyager,” with its self-repairing corridors and spontaneously-reproducing shuttlecraft. Ironically, I think of “Galactica 2.0” as “Voyager” crossed with late-period “Deep Space Nine” — all politics, intrigue, and survival, with a dollop of religious commentary. However, “Voyager’s” weekly renewals were in the service of its secondary message; namely Janeway’s desire to preserve Federation ideals and protocols thousands of light-years from home. “Galactica,” like DS9 before it, ponders what kinds of catastrophes must necessarily alter a society’s most cherished beliefs. “Voyager” responds overwhelmingly in the negative: the Federation is what we know, and true to the Federation we will remain, right down to steam-cleaning the carpets and replacing the lightbulbs after each week’s space battle.

And yet, “Voyager” is known for that episode where Tom Paris evolves into the lizard (making lizard-babies with Lizard-Janeway), plus a good bit of altered timelines and holodeck emergencies. Remember the 29th-Century Captain Braxton, stuck for 30 years as a homeless person in 20th-Century Los Angeles, cursing Janeway’s name the entire time? “Gritty Voyager” gets explored via “Year of Hell’s” alternate timeline, and in a roundabout way through the beleaguered crew of the Equinox [not Phoenix — must proofread more!]. The alt-crew even gets mashed up with the holodeck in “The Killing Game,” when they’re brainwashed into thinking they’re fighting Nazis in WWII France. Seven threatens to re-Borgify, the Doctor becomes an entertainer on two different planets, Janeway fancies herself da Vinci’s assistant. For a while the whole ship is even duplicated, and the duplicates have their own set of adventures before dying anonymous, ignominious deaths. Trek lore holds that Kirk’s Enterprise was the only Constitution-class starship (out of twelve!) to return from its five-year mission relatively intact — well, Voyager spit itself out of that Borg transwarp conduit better than new. No wonder Janeway (again, like Kirk) was made an Admiral….

And that brings us back to “Deep Space Nine,” a show that at times seemed all about the background. Not quite in the techno-philic way that TNG or “Voyager” were, but in the sense that a working knowledge of about a dozen characters’ backgrounds was really necessary to appreciating all the subtleties. There were no subtleties on the other two shows; at least not like on “Deep Space Nine.” Its characters, and I suppose its Starfleet characters particularly, were transformed from TNG’s brand of idealized-human into more recognizable people.

This was the exact opposite of “Voyager’s” secondary mission statement, which had Janeway and Chakotay reorienting their Maquis crew to regular Starfleet practices. Instead, DS9 found not just O’Brien, but Sisko, Bashir, the Daxes, and even Eddington, changed by their time on the station. The non-Starfleet characters (Kira, Jake, Odo, Quark) grow and change too, but their fundamental orientation to society isn’t challenged in the same way. (Well, okay, Odo’s is; but he’s a special case, needing first to find said orientation.)

See, if Starfleet represents the baseline code of ethics for the fictional Trek universe, it follows that challenging that code takes a lot. Even when Kirk or Picard runs up against Starfleet, it’s in the service of remaining true to the code itself, as opposed to the people trying to enforce an alternate interpretation. It didn’t take too long, though, for “Deep Space Nine” to have its characters explore those alternate interpretations themselves.

Both TNG and DS9 were self-referential. However, TNG concerned itself with refining the traditional Trek ethos whereas DS9 allowed itself to test the ethos’ limits. To appreciate those tests, though, required that aforementioned working knowledge of Trek.

Also, “Deep Space Nine” made much better use of its holodecks than did either TNG or “Voyager” (a baseball diamond! a Vegas nightclub!) … but I’m getting tired and this has gone on too long. I welcome your comments, because I hope it’ll help me focus my thoughts more.

July 13, 2008

New comics 7/2/08

I’ve been saying for a while that DC should (once again) just let the Marvel Family have its own little corner of the Multiverse where Billy and co. don’t have to age too quickly and whimsy can be the order of the day. Well, here’s Mike Kunkel’s Billy Batson And The Magic Of Shazam! #1, taking me up on it. Except not quite, because this is a Johnny DC title and therefore has no influence on the main-line Marvels. Instead, it’s a sequel to Jeff Smith’s Monster Society miniseries, picking up with Billy and Mary in their familiar roles.

Kunkel has redesigned Cap slightly, giving him a ridiculously broad chest and a how-you-doin’? look. This goes with Kunkel’s take on Billy, who always tries to do the right thing but who realizes without much prompting just how good he has it. For example, Captain Marvel poses as Billy and Mary’s father, but naturally favors Billy in parent/teacher conferences. Of course, hilarity ensues, especially since Kunkel shows that Mary is the smarter of the pair.

Kunkel also introduces Black Adam, but leaves the resolution of his subplot for a future issue. I haven’t read hardly any of the Johnny DC books, but I suspect BBMOS is one of the few to employ multi-issue storytelling; and it makes me wonder who the real target audience is. This is a dense book which aims for rapid-fire delivery through small panels and packed word balloons. Not being 10 years old, I can’t say whether this would appeal to kids, but it does seem like an older reader’s idea of what a kid’s comic book should be. Yes, that extends to the secret-code messages, which I thought were prohibitively long and which I still haven’t tried to unscramble. Even so, I appreciated Kunkel’s efforts, and I’ll be back at least for the next issue.

Part 3 of “Batman R.I.P.” hits in Batman #678 (written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Tony Daniel, inked by Sandu Florea), in which our hero is reduced to his lowest point before meeting his spirit guide (did it have to be a Magical Negro?) and starting to rebuild. Also, other bad things happen to Robin and Nightwing (poor Nightwing…). Morrison’s standard take on Batman in JLA was that “Batman always has a plan”. Well, here, he’s been completely cut off from his plans, thrown into a roiling sea of anarchy by the Black Glove, and made to put the pieces back together using stone knives and bearskins. As with Final Crisis, it’s pretty nerve-wracking stuff, but at least we’re at the halfway point.

I’m getting frustrated with House Of Mystery (#3 written by Matthew Sturges and drawn mostly by Luca Rossi). Its first arc seems determined to establish that Fig can’t leave the House. However, we know this to be true, because that’s the point of the book. Thankfully, that also seems to be the point of the issue, so I hope that settles it for Fig for a while. The issue does introduce a new antagonist, with a callback to the mysterious couple seen earlier, so maybe there’ll be a more entertaining twist next time out. Still, if this arc ends only with Fig accepting her new status, I’ll be pretty disappointed. I’m getting tired of books which take five issues to lay out what could have been one issue’s worth of setup. I do like the art, though.

I’m also getting a little tired of Nightwing (#146 written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Don Kramer, inked by Sandu Florea), likewise because “Freefall” seems to have gone on for a couple issues too many. Yes, Dr. Kendall was a bad man; yes, it’s good that Dick stopped him. However, the story seemed rather lifeless (no pun intended), and I don’t know if that’s due to Don Kramer’s art not being quite as expressive as Rags Morales’; or Tomasi’s talky scripts sapping the energy out of the action. Next up is a “Batman R.I.P.” tie-in, so maybe things will pick up.

I did like Supergirl #31 (written by Kelley Puckett, pencilled by Brad Walker, inked by Jon Sibal and Jesse Delperdang), despite the jarring change in art style from the soft lines of Drew Johnson and Ron Randall to the quirkier combination of Walker et al. Basically, Supergirl convinces the dying boy’s mother to accept the Resurrection Man’s treatment by a) flying her to a distant mountaintop and b) telling her how her parents shot her into space. It’s the kind of thing which has to be handled very carefully, because once superhero comics get into real-world ramifications of godlike behavior, they’re already pretty far down a mighty slippery slope. This time I bought Supergirl’s argument and the mom’s response, but next time might be different. As it is, this time the argument had to get past Supergirl’s bare midriff.

I continue to like Manhunter (#32 written by Mark Andreyko and drawn by Michael Gaydos). The current issue tracks Kate’s continuing investigations into the women’s disappearances, and features a couple of good scenes with Blue Beetle (super-suits hissing at each other like unfriendly dogs!) and Mr. Bones. Gaydos’ art is “realistic” without sacrificing expression, and Andreyko has a good feel for the dialogue of a superheroic world.

Finally, I bought Star Trek: New Frontier #4 (written by Peter David, drawn by Stephen Thompson), the penultimate issue of the miniseries. Thankfully, things start to happen at a little more rapid pace this issue. However, the plot deals with duplicates of people; and the scenes shift so abruptly you’re never sure whether, say, the Lefler who was on that planet is the same Lefler who’s on this ship. I guess I have to get issue #5 to see whether the whole thing makes sense.

June 10, 2008

New comics 6/4/08

Filed under: batman, house of mystery, manhunter, nightwing, star trek, supergirl, tor, trinity, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 1:51 am
Hey, it’s June! Who knew?

Lots of books this time, so no time for chit-chat.

Obviously I spent a lot of time with Trinity #1 (written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert), so it wasn’t too bad, but OH DEAR LORD another scene of table talk! First Meltzer, then Dwayne McDuffie a couple of weeks ago, and now Busiek. I’m hoping this is the only such scene for, say, fifty issues. It’s not like the Four Horsemen miniseries felt the need to sit the Trinitarians down for a Continental breakfast.

Other than that, I will say that I won’t mind spending the next year with Busiek and Bagley. For his first big DC outing, Bagley shows he has the chops to do the company’s most familiar characters. His Wonder Woman and Flash look especially good. I’m predisposed to like Busiek, so there you go.

Once again I get the feeling that Star Trek: New Frontier #3 (written by Peter David, drawn by Stephen Thompson) would mean a lot more to me had I been reading the NF books. This issue’s plot features shocking! revelations about who’s being impersonated, or who might be impersonated. The last page had me particularly confused. Two issues to go, so I might as well stick with it.

House Of Mystery #2 (written by Matthew Sturges, drawn by Luca Rossi) doesn’t spend a lot of time on the “nested” story (written by Bill Willingham), which is good. The nested story isn’t that compelling, despite some pretty Jill Thompson art. However, nothing much happens in the main story either. Its big emotional moment involves Fig, our heroine, discovering that she can’t leave the HoM, but we kinda already knew that. The secondary emotional moment, where she starts to spill her guts to one of the housemates and ends up berating him, also doesn’t ring quite true. The rest of the issue finds the housemates acting quirky without much to show for it. While I’d otherwise probably fault the book for being too broad, the characters haven’t distinguished themselves from one another yet. Mostly issue #2 was just Fig acting out against a bland backdrop.

Much of Tor #2 (by Joe Kubert) is a flashback detailing Tor’s pre-issue-#1 journey, which is fine; but it gets a little loopy towards the end and eventually acknowledges that maybe those psychotropic leaves might be affecting it. As with issue #1, Tor fights a prehistoric monster in order to protect his new little friend. Accordingly, as with issue #1, I appreciated #2 for its craft, because who am I to criticize Joe Kubert? Besides, I have to get #3 to figure out what’s going on.

I don’t have any strong feelings about issue #3 of Batman: Death Mask (by Yoshinori Natsume), so I’ll just say it’s nice for what it is — an above-average Legends of the Dark Knight-style story — and it is getting me used to reading manga. Learning can be fun!

With her own title cancelled, Catwoman is more free to roam around the main line Bat-books, so the cover of Detective Comics #845 (written by Paul Dini, pencilled by Dustin Nguyen, inked by Derek Fridolfs) plays up her appearance. However, the story itself is a nice little whodunit which manages to withstand its conclusory leaps of logic. As such, it focuses on the Riddler, who’s been trying to upstage Batman at the whole consulting-detective thing. It also introduces a group who I can’t help but think is the Internet version of the old Mystery Analysts of Gotham City. The idea that Batman has a group of online buddies who only know him through a generic username is still a terribly appealing one, so if you like that, you’ll like this story.

Rounding out this week’s Bat-books is Nightwing #145 (written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Rags Morales, inked by Michael Bair), an issue which starts to stretch the “Freefall” storyline past its point of usefulness. It wasn’t too long ago that Nightwing and Robin brought this particular storyline to a stop, but we’re apparently not done with it yet. The issue even appears to bring things back to that same point. Now, to be fair, this time around deals more with Talia al Ghul and Mother of Champions, incorporates Batman, and features the surprising return of another Bat-foe, but still. The concept of a mad scientist creating super-powered soldiers isn’t specific enough to Nightwing to warrant this much focus. At least Rags and Bair are back for the whole issue.

Speaking of which, Supergirl #30 finds relief artist Ron Randall drawing the whole issue, with Will Pfeifer taking the place of regular writer Kelley Puckett. Looks like a fill-in issue to me, but it’s not a bad one. It helps define the character in relation to Superman in a way which puts Puckett’s storyline in a much different perspective, and it even incorporates the Box O’ Universe from Puckett’s first issue. Randall’s art is clean and simple, although it flirts with being stiff and bland at times.

Overall, though, the issue I enjoyed the most was Manhunter #31 (written by Marc Andreyko, drawn by Michael Gaydos). It’s the triumphant return of a title which has seen two long hiatuses (hiatii?), so it opens with an efficient two-page recap of the character’s history. I’m not that familiar with Gaydos, but his work reminds me of early J.H. Williams, John Paul Leon, or maybe Tommy Lee Edwards — thick lines and lots of blacks. The main story does proportionately as well with its 20 pages. After opening with the requisite superhero battle, it reintroduces our heroine’s family and supporting cast, and through them sets up the current immigration-related arc. Last time I praised the new Action Comics for using its 22 pages well. This time, however, Manhunter really does a great job showing what a single issue can mean to a long-running superhero serial. High marks all around!

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