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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wonder Woman's Lib

A fellow I know recently told me about a conversation he had with a lady who claimed that Wonder Woman was a Feminist Icon. He asked how Wonder Woman could be considered such when she runs around all the time in that skimpy outfit. After all, real Feminists get all huffy about objectifying women, right?

The lady didn't have an answer to that, so my friend counted that as a “win”. I'm not sure if I agree with him, though. A lot depends on your definition of what being a “feminist” means. But it occurred to me that I could probably get a column out of it.

To me the question of whether or not Wonder Woman is a feminist seems obvious. Of course she is. The fact that Feminist Icons consider her a Feminist Icon seems to me more relevant than what Wonder Woman wears. Second Wave Feminist Gloria Steinem grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and regarded her as powerful, woman-affirming figure; and when she co-founded, Ms. Magazine, in 1972, she featured the Amazing Amazon prominently on one of the first covers.

But more importantly, Wonder Woman is a feminist because that's what her creator intended.

William Moulton Marston was, to put it mildly, an interesting guy. He studied psychology at Harvard in the 1910s and became interested in the suffragette movement. He contributed to the DISC theory of behavior assessment and developed and heavily promoted an early version of the lie detector. He believed that in many ways women are emotionally and intellectually superior to men and that in time, they would come to be the dominant sex in society.

The two important women in his life were also feminists. His wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, was a strong-minded “New Woman” who had become a lawyer after graduating from one of the oldest woman’s colleges in the country. His mistress, Olive Byrne, a one-time student of his who officially became a kind of live-in housekeeper/nanny but was unofficially more of a co-wife, was the niece of the woman's health advocate Margaret Sanger and her mother, Sanger's sister, helped open the first birth control clinic in America.

Byrne was also a writer and would do pieces appearing in the magazine Family Circle in which she'd interview the famous Dr. William Moulton Marston on a variety of subjects. One of them was on comic books, which already were beginning to worry parents and professional thinking persons. Superman was a fascist; Bat-Man was a violent vigilante. Are they corrupting our children?

Dr. Marston said no: for the most part, comics were simple wish-fulfillment and perfectly healthy. Surely a character like Superman, whose motivations are to protect the innocent and to defeat evil, couldn't possibly be a bad influence on children. The bad comics out there, Marston insisted were rare.

M. C. Gaines, the publisher of All-American Publications, (the company that became known as DC Comics), was impressed by the article and decided it would be a good idea to have a consulting psychologist on staff. He hired Marston to sit on an Editorial Advisory Board which would evaluate and endorse the comics his company put out. Marston soon persuaded him that what his company really needed was a female hero.

“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child's ideal become a superMAN who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing – LOVE. It's smart to be strong. It;s big to be generous. But it;s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. 'Aw, that's girl's stuff!' snorts our young comics reader. 'Who wants to be a GIRL?' And that's the point; not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don't want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Gaines liked the idea of publishing a comic that would appeal to girls as well as boys, so he gave Marston the task of creating this new feminine hero. But Marston's idea wasn't just to create a role-model for girls; he also wanted to introduce boys to a heroic archetype of womanhood, who would embody what he saw as women's positive attributes. Initially Marston called his heroine “Superba the Wonder Woman”, but this was quickly abbreviated to “Wonder Woman.”

It went without saying that Wonder Woman would be beautiful – “As lovely as Aphrodite “ is how Marston described her. Although an ambassador for Peace, she would be willing to fight for Democracy. Captain America had recently debuted over at Timely Comics, and they wanted Wonder Woman to have a similar flag-based costume. And, recognizing that cheesecake always sells, Gaines wanted her to wear as little as the postal regulations prohibiting delivery of obscene material would permit. Marston suggested their artist, Henry Peter, take inspiration from Antonio Vargas, who was drawing luscious pin-ups of women draped in brief, revealing outfits for Esquire magazine. Marston also gave Wonder Woman her iconic bracelets, inspired by similar bracelets always worn by his companion Olive Byrne.

The bracelets bring up another weird quirk about Wonder Woman's creator. He had a thing about bondage. Hardly an issue went by without Wonder Woman being tied up, chained up or bound in one way or another. Which you could simply put down to the convention of the Damsel in Distress from Adventure Fiction, if not for Wonder Woman's earnest musings on the Amazonian doctrines of Willing Submission. And spanking games. The modern reader can be weirded out by the not-terribly-subtle kinkiness of these Golden Age stories... and to be fair, some of the readers back then were too.

Marston answered these critics by saying that these kinds of fantasies were perfectly healthy and that he was a consulting psychologist so he knew what he was doing. It's a matter of conjecture whether his interest in bondage grew out of his theories about submissive and dominant behavior or if his theories were justification for his unconventional personal tastes.

Yet on another level, the theme of bondage fits in with Wonder Woman's feminist themes as well. The image of the woman shackled in the chains of Society goes back to the very beginning of the movement, when the Suffragettes were a sister group to the Abolitionists and shared many of the same goals and much of the same rhetoric. Every time Wonder Woman found herself chained up and had to break free, she was in a sense re-enacting one of the central narratives of feminist thought: that women are enslaved by male-dominated culture and society and need to liberate themselves.

In most of those Golden Age adventures, Wonder Woman is helping women who are trapped, or being exploited, or just plain brow-beaten. She aids them, not just with her mighty Amazonian strength, but also with her heroic example and her inspirational words.

“Oh you stupid girls! When you let your men bind you – you let yourself be bound by war, hate, greed, and lust for power! Think! And free yourselves! CONTROL those who would oppress others! YOU CAN DO IT!”

In another story, she helps a community of women overthrow the male tyrants who have conquered them. “You've shown us, Princess, that clever women can conquer the STRONGEST men!” they tell her. “And don't you ever forget that, girls!” she replies.

She doesn't just give inspirational lessons to the women she meets. A big part of her mission is teaching men to treat women with respect. Her awkward dance with clueless love-interest Steve Trevor reflects this theme. She really feels attracted towards him, but she generally keeps him at arm's length, like an adorable puppy who needs to be taught where not to poop.

“You'll never get an Amazon THAT way –“ she says stiff-arming him as he impulsively tries to embrace her; “try your cave man style on MAN'S World girls!”

“You were superb, Angel!” Steve says in another story. “If only you'd marry me ---!”

“If I married you, Steve, I'd have to pretend I'm WEAKER than you to make you happy--” she replies, “and that, NO woman should do!”

I wonder, though, if the most feminist character in WONDER WOMAN might be her sidekick, Etta Candy. She was a student at Holliday College, a girl's school inspired by Mount Holyoke, Elizabeth Marston's alma mater and by the women's college at Tufts University, where Martson taught; and belonged to the Beeta Lambda sorority. In contrast to the leggy Amazonian Etta was short and pudgy with a fondness for sweets. She had once been sickly and malnourished, but Wonder Woman had encouraged her to embrace the things that brought her joy. Which happened to be candy. Lots of it. Etta was no marshmallow; she had an irrepressible confidence and was fully capable of beating the ever-living snot out of any jerk, crook or Nazi who gave her grief. She once stormed a Nazi concentration camp single-handed, armed only with a box of chocolates, and on multiple occasions rescued Wonder Woman when she had been captured by bad guys.

She liked to say that she owed all her success to candy, and had no patience for body-shaming. “You ought to cut down on the candy,” Wonder Woman once told her. “It will ruin your constitution.”

“Nuts, dearie! My constitution has room for lots of amendments.”
“But Etta, if you get too fat you can't catch a man --”
“Who wants to? When you've got a man, there's nothing you can do with him --- but candy you can EAT!”

Etta did not object to men on principle – she had one or two boyfriends over the years and even almost got married once (to a Hungarian prince who turned out to be a Nazi spy; so she decked him) – but she clearly knew her priorities.

Later writers made Etta shy and self-conscious about her weight, and maybe even a little envious of Wonder Woman. Marston's character had none of that. I like the fact that the Golden Age Etta had zero awe of Wonder Woman but that they regarded each other as equals and as friends. If Diana is a near-goddess and an unattainable ideal, Etta was more down-to-earth, yet still a strong, positive character.

Marston wrote WONDER WOMAN until his death in 1947. About this time, the popularity of super-hero comic books was waning, and one by one, the costumed crime-fighter comics of the Golden Age were being replaced by other genres, like westerns, science fiction, romance and funny animals. At National Comics, the only heroes to survive were their flagship characters, Superman and Batman, and also Wonder Woman. Under the agreement with Marston, the company was required to publish at least four Wonder Woman comics per year or the rights to the character would revert back to him. Even though her sales were not quite as high as those of her male colleagues, the company recognized that Wonder Woman was a valuable property and so they kept her in circulation.

Wonder Woman fell into the hands of writers who didn't get, or were uninterested in, Marston's vision of female empowerment. Robert Kanigher, perhaps best known for his war comics like SGT. ROCK, took over the book and wrote it for the next two decades. His Wonder Woman stories were sometimes imaginative, sometimes erratic, sometimes just weird, (he created the WW arch-foe Egg-Fu, a gigantic talking... uh... egg), but the Higher Purpose was missing.

Around 1968, artist Mike Sekowsky and writer Denny O'Neil undertook to revamp Wonder Woman for the Modern Era. They took her out of her skimpy star-spangled pinup girl outfit and into a mod Emma Peel jumpsuit and had her renounce her Amazon powers and train with an aged Kung-Fu master named I Ching. The idea was to make her more relevant for the Woman's Lib Era, but the Second Wave feminists who were embracing Wonder Woman at that time didn't see it that way. They argued that stripping Wonder Woman of her iconic costume and props diminished her identity; and stripping her of her super-powers diminished her as a hero. Eventually, Denny apologized for the re-vamp and Wonder Woman reverted to her old powers and costume.

DC tried re-booting her again, more successfully, in the late 1980s, following their CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS series. George Perez and Greg Potter combined elements of the Golden Age Wonder Woman with some of Robert Kanigher's additions and bits of Greek legend. This version emphasized her role as an ambassador from Themyscria, the Island of the Amazons, to the Man's World, with a mission to teach mankind to Give Peace a Chance. As part of this mission, she helps create a foundation devoted to helping young women develop their potential.

Since then other writers have offered their takes on the character, emphasizing different qualities. It's become more common in recent years to emphasize the Amazon's warrior culture, sometimes at the expense of her mission of Peace. For a time, recently, there was an attempt to have Superman and Wonder Woman date each other; a move which to me seemed more diminishing than the pants suit and the fortune-cookie oriental master.

And people are still ambivalent about the whole “feminist” label. A couple years ago, in an interview with writer Meredith Finch and her artist husband David, who were at the time taking over the creative duties on the comic, David Finch said: “We want her to be a strong – I don't want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful,but strong”. Even back at the very beginning, when Wonder Woman was first becoming popular, her editor, acting on a reader survey, decreed that she be added to the JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA comic. The writer, Gardener Fox, had to comply, but he made her the group's recording secretary only and never had her go out on missions with the rest of the team.

Still, no matter who is writing her and no matter what kind of an outfits she's wearing, Wonder Woman will always be a gal making it on her own in a Man's World, acting and succeeding in a predominantly male profession.

Not a bad aspiration for a feminist.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Captain America for President !

This election cycle there has been a considerable amount of dissatisfaction with the choices for president. I suppose this is nothing new; we've griped about our choices before. Still, it would be nice to have an Ideal Candidate someday. But what would such an Ideal look like? I think it would have to be someone who represented our country and what is best about us; someone who looks like America.

Maybe even like Captain America.

In the early 1980s there was a “Draft Cap” movement chronicled in a story by Roger Stern and John Byrne and appearing in CAPTAIN AMERICA #250. “Cap For President!” begins with a group of terrorists seizing a political convention in downtown New York City. Captain America is on the scene and swiftly takes out the terrorists and frees the hostages.

The convention chairman, Samuel T. Underwood, a jolly fellow with a used-car-salesman manner and a smile almost as big as his cigar, enthusiastically thanks Cap and introduces him to the rest of his staff. His organization is called the New Popularist Party, a recent Third Party movement holding its first national convention. As Cap politely schmoozes with his admirers, one of the staff jokingly asks if he is considering running for office. Underwood seizes on the idea: “Sure, that would work ! It would work like a charm – a fifty million vote charm!”

At first, Cap laughs the suggestion off. After all, he's not a politician. “The people don't want a politician … they want a leader!” Underwood insists. “The people want a change, Cap … And you could be that change!”

Underwood's staff agrees. “Who could refuse to vote for Captain America?” “People wouldn't have to vote for the lesser of two evils – they'd actually have someone to vote FOR !”

Cap makes polite noises and promises to think about it; but he doesn't take the suggestion too seriously. Underwood, however, is not going to let the matter drop; and as soon as Cap has left the room he gets on the phone to leak a story to the Press that Captain America is considering a run for President. If Cap seems reluctant about running, then maybe Public Opinion will make him change his mind.

Cap spends much of that afternoon in his civilian identity as Steve Rogers, along with another friend helping his girlfriend, Bernie, move. After a couple hours of moving boxes and furniture, Steve and his pals are relaxing a bit and wind up talking about local races in the upcoming election. The conversation is fairly vague – I suspect the writer didn't really want to specify who Steve Roger's congressman was, or even his district – but before it gets terribly far, another friend breaks in with the big news: one of the local tabloids has reported that Captain America is running for President !

Steve is dismayed by this turn of events, and even more so that his friends seem to think it's a great idea. “You'd actually vote for a man who is basically anonymous … who wears a mask?” Steve asks. “Hey, better than voting for some crook who doesn't wear a mask!” Steve's girlfriend agrees: “Wouldn't it be great to have a president you knew you could trust?”

When Cap shows up at Avenger's Mansion the next day, he finds a mob of reporters outside the gate. Once inside, the Mansion's butler, Jarvis, hands him telegrams from both the Democratic and the Republican Parties asking him to consider running as their candidate. “Jarvis, has the whole world gone crazy? What next?!”

He had to ask. His teammate, Hank McCoy, the Beast, greets him with a song and dance. “I heard the good news, and I'm ready to hit the campaign trail ! I can guarantee that you’ll sweep the mutant vote! And then of course there are my lady friends ! Their votes alone should carry New York !”

It seems that everyone has an opinion. Iron Man asks if he's really serious about running. “You of all people should know better than to get mixed up in politics! You know the kind of red tape and corruption you'd be faced with!”

Wasp disagrees. “You're just the kind of man this country needs! People look up to you … respect you … trust you! When was the last time we had a president like that?”

The Vision addresses the issue in a coldly logical fashion. “The question is not one of respect, but of qualifications! You are a man out of time, Cap … 1940s solutions will not work for today's problems!”

As Cap ponders this conflicting advice, we get a series of one-panel vignettes showing the opinions of people on the street: the old guy who remembers Cap from the War Years; the black professional who wonders where Cap stands on the issues of minority rights, housing and education; the punk kid who thinks that Captain America is a hoax invented by the C.I.A. We get reactions from other super-heroes in the Greater New York Metro Area: Nick Fury, who worked with Cap during the War; Daredevil, Spider-Man, even Doctor Strange.

A full page is devoted to the offices of the Daily Bugle, where publisher J. Jonah Jameson discusses Cap's presidential run with his friend, City Editor “Robbie” Robeson. “Cap's a good man...” Jonah muses, “But you remember what happened when movie stars started running for office? It was like a flood gate! It seemed like they were all running for something. If Cap should run, Lord knows who else would! I can see it now … Iron Man for Governor … Mr. Fantastic for Senator!”

“Or even Spider-Man for Mayor?” Robbie teases.

That decides it. The Bugle will not be endorsing Cap.

As evening falls, Cap goes out patrolling the rooftops of the Lower East Side, trying to think through his situation. He comes across an old abandoned school, which has somehow avoided the wrecking ball, that he recognizes as the school he went to as a boy, back during the Great Depression. As he walks through the empty, dusty classroom, he recalls a teacher he had, Mrs. Crosley, who had tried to instill a sense of civic responsibility in her students.

“The United States offers its citizens more rights than any other nation in the world!” he remembers her saying. “But along with those rights come certain duties as well! It's the duty of each one of you to see that this land stays free … to see that Justice is extended to all!”

As he reminisces about Mrs. Crosley's Civics class, his course of action becomes clear to him. He will call Underwood. He has a speech to make.

A couple hours later, he is back at the convention center, standing at a podium in front of a gigantic poster of himself and addressing an enthusiastic crowd. He speaks of the decision he has been asked to make and of what that decision means:

“The presidency is one of the most important jobs in the world. The holder of that job must represent the best interests of the entire nation. He must be ready to negotiate – to compromise – 24 hours a day, to preserve the Republic at all costs!”

Against that responsibility, he sets his personal mission:

“I have worked and fought all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream. And I believe that my duty to the Dream would severely limit any abilities I might have to preserve the reality.”

I'm not sure if I buy Cap's rhetoric here. I think he could make a much better argument for refusing the call to run for office. But in the end, he decides that his mission as Captain America was important, and that he could not remain faithful to that mission and at the same time conscientiously fulfill the duties of President. If Captain America is going to represent America, he needs to remain above politics.

But although Cap pretty decisively rejects the idea of running for office, other writers have played with the idea. An issue of WHAT IF tells a story about what might have happened if Cap had taken up the New Populist Party's offer. It ends tragically, as the alternate histories in WHAT IF generally do. In Ben Dunn's manga-style re-imagining of the Marvel Universe, MARVEL MANGAVERSE, Steve Rogers is President and also leads the Avengers in his secret identity as Captain America. And in the universe of the MARVEL ULTIMATES titles, Captain America did run for President and won. Which is unfortunate, because Ultimate Captain America is something of a jerk.

But in this universe, Cap rejects the call to throw his hood into the ring. The convention-goers are disappointed and the final image of the comic is a discarded “Captain America for President” sign lying on the floor, as Cap walks past.

The rest is history. The N.P.P. Presumably went with John Anderson for their candidate. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide, confirming Jonah Jameson's worries about actors in politics.

More recently, Marvel had Steve Rogers step down as Captain America as his advanced age began to catch up with him. He passed on his mantle and his shield to his friend and long-time partner, Sam Wilson, the Falcon. And in the first issue of the new Captain America, Sam challenged Steve's stance on staying above politics:

In all these struggles, all these debates, and all these things tearing us apart -- I have a side. That's right. I have opinions. Strongly held beliefs, even. And here's the thing -- the more I saw the people I believed I was standing up for being walked on -- the more I heard a noise machine spouting intolerance and fear, drowning common sense out -- the more I wondered -- shouldn't Captain America be more than just a symbol? 
Steve always tried to stay above the fray, and I respected him for it. He took a stand when he had to, but as far as politics went -- he played it close to the vest. But if I really believed I could make a difference -- if I really believed I could change some minds, do some good -- then wasn't I obligated to try?

Perhaps if Marvel re-visited Cap for President today, he might make a different decision. But the original Stern & Byrne tale from 1980 is still an interesting read and touches on questions of why elections are important and what it means to run for public office that we don't often see in comics.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

You Can't Keep a Bad Man Down Under

I've been a long time fan of John Ostrander and Kim Yale's comic book SUICIDE SQUAD, their brilliant combination of “Mission Impossible” and “The Dirty Dozen”... with super-villains. And so I was interested when I heard about the movie that was released last summer.  Going into it, I had three main concerns. (1) They had to get Amanda Waller right. They did; Viola Davis did a superb job of playing the Squad's indomitable administrator. (2) They had to convince me about the Joker. I didn't think he belonged on the team. As it turned out, he wasn't; he had only a small part in the film to explain Harley's backstory. A lot of viewers were annoyed by this, but I was just as happy. (3) The movie had to have Captain Boomerang in it.

Why Boomerang? He had only a minor role in the movie. Most critics reviewing the film didn't even mention him, and those who did thought that he was irrelevant to the plot and that the movie could well have done without him. But although Boomerang might have been superfluous to the movie, he is still an essential part of the team. Captain Boomerang is the very Heart of the Suicide Squad.

Well, maybe “Heart” is the wrong word. More like the Spleen. Or maybe the Gall Bladder. Yes; if there's one thing Boomerang has, it's a lot of gall.

Captain Boomerang started off as a member of the Flash's Rogues Gallery. A lot of super-heroes have colorful villains, often employing weird gimmicks; but the Flash's villains have always been more colorful than most. And the term “Rogues Gallery” isn't just an umbrella category; they really are a kind of group. Batman's villains may know each other socially, but they don't as a rule hang out together. The Flash's villains have a kind of camaraderie based on their shared arch-enemy.

And just as the citizens of Central City take pride in their hero, the Rogues take pride in the fact that they aren't just any crooks; they are enemies of the Flash. They don't rob banks for the money; okay, yes they do; but more importantly, they want to outwit the Flash; they want to beat the Flash.

Like many Silver Age villains, Captain Boomerang was based on a gimmick. (Two, really, if you count his annoying Australian accent). He threw boomerangs. He was an Australian named George “Digger” Harkness who had come to America and got a job working for the Wiggins Toy Company. The owner, W.W. Wiggins, thought that boomerangs would be the next Hula Hoop and hired Harkness to be the company spokesman. Harkness saw the “Captain Boomerang” persona as a flashy way to get into the newspapers and began robbing jewelry stores in his costume. Okay, there's a slight gap in the logic there, but if you're a criminal in Central City it helps to have an insane amount of ego.

In SUICIDE SQUAD, John Ostrander expanded on Boomerang's origin a bit. Wiggins was actually his illegitimate father, something he didn't learn until many years later. He grew up in poverty in the outback and taught himself how to carve boomerangs for fun and engaged in petty crimes. As he became an adult and his scrapes with the law became more serious, his mother urged him to go to Central City and ask Wiggins for a job, not telling him about their connection.

Unfortunately, this fresh start wasn't much help. Harkness quickly grew bored with the Wiggins gig, demonstrating boomerang tricks at county fairs. At one such event, he picked a guy's pocket just for amusement and was spotted by the Flash. When the Flash confronted him, Harkness threw a boomerang at him. The Flash easily dodged the boomerang, but didn't expect it to come back. The boomerang conked him on the head on its return, knocking him out.

This was an epiphany for Harkness. He had just beaten the Flash, the Hero of Central City and the Fastest Man Alive. Sure, he had mostly just gotten lucky; but he instantly saw for himself a new career. Instead of committing petty crimes, he would be a Super-Criminal, pulling off Big Crimes. With boomerangs.

Okay, the boomerang thing is pretty silly; but a lot of Silver Age villains had gimmicks no less goofy. Another member of the Rogue's Gallery was named the Top and he used, you guessed it, spinning tops to commit his crimes. Then there was Captain Cold's sister, the Golden Glider, who committed crimes with her brother on ice skates. (He provided the ice, naturally, and she skated on it).

And as lame as boomerangs might seem, Captain Boomerang managed to jazz up his arsenal by creating a variety of specialty ones. He had razor-edged boomerangs for slicing through things; exploding boomerangs for blowing things up; boomerangs containing cartridges of knockout gas; boomerangs with sonic emitters that could stun people. Really, his trick boomerangs are hardly any sillier than the Green Arrow's “Boxing Glove Arrow”; and Batman uses “Batarangs” all the time, yet no one calls him lame. Okay, so the early appearance where Boomerang tied the Flash to a giant boomerang with rockets on it designed to fling Flash and boomerang into orbit was doofy; but it was epic doofy.

When Barry Allen died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, many of his Rogues went straight for a time. With the Flash gone, crime just wasn't as much fun. Yes, Barry's sidekick Wally West took over his mantle, but it wasn't the same. Boomerang was not one of the Rogues who went straight, by the way. That's not how Boomer rolls. But he didn't really do much until the LEGENDS mini-series which introduced the modern version of the Suicide Squad.

There had been a previous, Silver Age team called the Suicide Squad which appeared in BRAVE AND THE BOLD; a team of non-powered adventurers who fought weird opponents like dinosaurs and monsters. There was also a feature in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES about a group called the Suicide Squadron, a unit of elite soldiers who were sent on top-secret missions, such as to the dinosaur-infested island of “The War That Time Forgot”. John Ostrander linked these previous Squads to a secret government agency called Task Force X to give a background for his incarnation of the Squad.

A tough-minded Washington bureaucrat named Amanda Waller finds a dossier on Task Force X and re-activates it with the idea of using imprisoned super-criminals to perform secret, highly dangerous missions for the government in exchange for reduced sentences. Captain Boomerang was one of the criminals she chose for the initial team.

From the very beginning, Boomerang proved to be treacherous, betraying the Squad to the villain Glorious Godfrey in their very first mission. On another early mission, he stood by and let his teammate Mindboggler get shot in the back because she had earlier humiliated him for acting like a jerk.

And yet, I thought he had his endearing qualities as well. On a mission to destroy a training camp for super-powered terrorists, he was assigned to take out a speedster. He managed it by simply sneaking up behind the guy and shoving him off the edge of a tall building overlooking a high cliff. As his opponent plummeted, he leaned over the edge and called out: “Y'know what ol' Flasheroo would do in situations like this? He'd whirl around at super-speed and create air currents to stop his fall. You could try that.” There is a pause for a panel, then he turns away. “I guess you're not in ol' Flasheroo's league. You ain't even in mine.”

On another early mission, the Squad found itself surrounded on all side by killer androids. “I think I'll come over by you,” he says to Deadshot. “I just threw me last boomerang.” Deadshot shrugs. “Suits me. I'm almost out of ammo.” As the androids converge on them, Boomerang utters possibly the greatest “Pot-Meet-Kettle” line in all comics: “You're not much bleedin' use without yer bloody gimmick, are you!”

In his earliest Silver Age appearances, Captain Boomerang spoke with a standard American accent, but Ostrander followed the practice of Chris Claremont in X-MEN of giving foreign characters distinctive accents; and Boomerang's was definitely distinctive. On one letters page, Ostrander told about how a friend of his from Australia had complained about Boomer's dialogue. “I looked it up,” Ostrander insisted. “Everything Captain Boomerang says is authentic Australian slang.” “Yeah,” his friend replied, “But we don't use 'em all in the same sentence!”

But to be honest, Captain Boomerang has few if any redeeming qualities. The staff psychiatrist at the Belle Reeves prison that serves as the Squad's base of operations once called him “an unprincipled sociopath with little or no moral sense of right and wrong,” yet conceded that he was also probably the most well-adjusted member of the Squad because he was perfectly comfortable with what he was.

I like to think of Captain Boomerang as the Doctor Zachary Smith of the Suicide Squad. You'd think that Waller would have gotten rid of Boomerang long ago. Heck, have him deported back to Australia, except that probably the Australians don't want him either.

Boomerang was never really happy unless he was putting something over on somebody. He once persuaded fellow teammate Slipknot to make a break for freedom during a mission, as an experiment to see if the Squad leader would really detonate the explosive bracelets that were supposed to keep the criminals in line. He did. Granted permission to live off-campus in an apartment of his own, Boomerang abused the privilege, first by constantly “losing” his pager so that he couldn't be summoned on missions, and later by adopting the costume of a deceased fellow Rogue, the Mirror Master, so that he could continue committing crimes without Waller knowing that it was him doing it. (This led to the inevitable result of getting arrested as “Mirror Master” and then having to go on a mission both as himself and as his bogus identity. Hilarity ensued.) He once managed to lose Deadshot's luggage containing Deadshot's armor and weapons on a mission into Israel; and he carried on an affair with a married teammate and possibly got her pregnant; (the true father was never revealed).

When constrained from committing crimes, he got creative. At one point he embarked on a new career throwing pies at his his teammates when no one was looking. Okay, that sounds dumb; but it was also funny, and Boomer managed to keep his identity as the Mad Pie-Thrower a secret for several issues.

After SUICIDE SQUAD ended its run, Boomerang fell back into obscurity for a while. He had a small but significant subplot in the mini-series IDENTITY CRISIS, in which he's a has-been villain, overweight and over-the-hill, cadging drinks at a villain's watering hole and conning newbie villains into buying fake superpower-enhancing drugs. He discovers that he has a son, and the two have a bonding moment when Boomerang learns that the young man shares his affinity for thrown aboriginal weapons. But before he can introduce his boy into the family business, Boomerang gets caught up in the machinations of the main villain who sets him up to be killed. The boy takes up his dead father's doofy hat and becomes the New Captain Boomerang.

Not that Boomer stayed dead. He was resurrected a couple times in the next few years; and in the “New 52” reboot, his death was ret-conned away. With his inclusion in the new SUICIDE SQUAD movie, he is bound to continue to be a presence in the DC Universe.

One of the base premises of the Suicide Squad is that anyone can die at any time on any mission. Boomerang is the guy everyone hopes will be the one who doesn't make it. And yet, somehow he always does.

That's the thing about boomerangs.

They always come back.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Tintin and the Fascists

One of my favorite comic book characters as a kid wasn't a mutant, didn't have super-powers and didn't wear spandex.   He did have weird hair, though.   He was Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter created by the Belgian cartoonist George Remi, better known by his pen name, Hergé.   Through much of the 20th Century he was an international super-star with his adventures translated into over a dozen languages.

Since the 1960s, some revisionist critics have called Hergé's hero an apologist for colonialism and a symbol of racist attitudes.   This is largely based on some of his earlier stories and do not take into account his development as a writer.   But what is not as well-known is that Hergé was actually arrested and imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator and that the defeat of the Germans in WWII almost ended his career.

Tintin a Nazi?   Well, not quite.   It's a little more complicated than that.

Hergé started out working as a draughtsman and jack-of-all-trades for a Catholic newspaper in Brussels called  Le XXe Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”).   The newspaper's director, Father Norbert Wallez, decided to begin publishing a supplement to the paper for young people, titled Le Petit Vingtième (“The Little Twentieth”) and commissioned Hergé to create a comic strip for the new magazine.   Hergé named his hero Tintin, and envisioned him as a young globe-trotting reporter.   As a lad, Hergé had been a boy scout, and he gave Tintin all the best qualities of a scout.

Le Petit Vingtième  was meant to be educational as well as entertaining, and since Father Wallez was strongly conservative in his politics, and he told Hergé to have his boy hero educate children about the evils of Communism.   The first Tintin story,”Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, was largely based on an exposé of Bolshevism entitled “Moscou sans Voiles”    (“Moscow Unveiled”).

For his second adventure, Hergé wanted to send Tintin to America and do a story with cowboys and Indians; but Father Wallez insisted on another "educational" storyline.   This time Tintin went to Africa in order to justify the Belgian colony in the Congo.   “Tintin in the Congo”  was an embarrassment on several levels.   For one thing, the Belgian colony was exploitative and bloody even by the standards of other European colonies in Africa.   For another, Hergé was familiar with Africa only as it appeared in popular culture, and so he relied heavily on stereotypes.   (The Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka had the same problem with his early work  “Jungle Emperor”/”Kimba the White Lion”; he only knew African natives from racist movies and cartoons).   Plus, Hergé wasn't really that interested in the subject matter, and his lack of enthusiasm shows.

Some years later, when the strips were reprinted in color albums, Hergé re-drew much of the art and tried to modify some of the more offensive bits.   For example, in one scene where Tintin is in a schoolhouse teaching the native children about  "de votre patrie: la Belgique"  ("our fatherland, Belgium"), the later version was altered so that he was giving a less controversial arithmetic lesson.   Didn't help much.   The story fell into disgrace during the de-colonization period of the '50s and '60s and quietly went out of print for many years.

Hergé himself later described the story this way:

'For the  Congo  as with  Tintin in the land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved ... It was 1930.   I only knew things about these countries that people were relating at the time:   Africans were great big children ... Thank goodness for them that we were there!   Etc.   And I portrayed these Africans according to these criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium."
(--  Interviews with Hergé  by Numa Sadoul)

To put  Congo  in perspective, Tintin's next adventure took him to America where he finally got to encounter cowboys and Indians and where he battled Al Capone.   Cowboys, Indians and Gangsters; that pretty much summed up the view of America in European pop culture of that day.   From there he traveled to Egypt in  Cigars of the Pharaoh  where he trailed drug traffickers to India, which was also marred by some bad stereotypes, (such as a couple Hindu priests trying to sacrifice Tintin's dog Snowy to the goddess Kali!)

But here, Tintin came to an important turning point.   Hergé had announced at the end of  Cigars  that Tintin's next adventure would be in China.   He received a letter from a priest named Father Gosset, who was chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Louvain.   He asked Hergé to be careful about what he said   about China and suggested that he do some research.   Father Gosset introduced him to a young Chinese art student named Chang Chong-Chen, who became close friends with Hergé and assisted him with the next adventure,  “The Blue Lotus”.   This story brought a new level of accuracy to Tintin, as well as respect and understanding of the people and culture of China.   Hergé even wrote Chang into the story as a boy Tintin befriends who becomes Tintin's -- and by extension the audience's -- guide to Chinese life.

Another thing Chang brought to the story was politics.   At the time, China was being invaded by the Japanese; and the Japanese invasion and occupation is an important element in the story.   An incident in the  The Blue Lotus  where Japanese soldiers blow up a rail line and use it an an excuse to invade, blaming the attack on bandits, was based on an actual incident on the Moukden railway.   Chang worked anti-Japanese slogans into many of the signs and bits of Chinese writing seen in the pages.

Hergé's next few adventures involved international intrigue as well.   “The Broken Ear”, set in a fictitious South American country, used elements taken from the Gran Chao War, a conflict between Paraguay and Bolivia over oil rights.   “King Ottokar's Sceptre”, set in the Ruritainian country of Syldavia was inspired by the  Anschluss, where Germany annexed Austria.

So in the 1930s, Tintin fought both the Japanese and expy-Nazis.   How then did he become associated with fascists?

Because about then, Germany invaded Belgium.   “Le XXe Siècle”  and  “Le Petit Vingtième” were shut down, and Hergé and Tintin found themselves without a home.   He found refuge in the newspaper  “Le Soir” (“The Evening”).

Working under Nazi occupation meant a lot of changes in the way Hergé worked.   Most significantly, it meant and end to the type of politically-inspired adventures he had been writing.   He had to abandon  “Tintin in the Land of Black Gold”, with its storyline about Mid-East tensions (and especially its German villain); he did not return to that one until after the War.   Instead, he turned to more fantastic adventures, looking for things that would not upset the Germans.   Whereas in  The Blue Lotus, the Japanese were depicted as invaders and enemies,  “The Crab with the Golden Claws”  featured a Japanese detective in a minor role as one of the good guys.

The Shooting Star”  is an almost Jules Vernesian science fiction story about an expedition to find a fallen meteor.   The team of scientists whom Tintin accompanies on the expedition is an international one, but tellingly, they all come from countries which are either German allies, like Italy, or neutral, like Sweden.   More significantly, the rival expedition racing against them to the meteor flies an American flag and is financed by a sinister banker named Blumenstein, drawn with stereotypical Jewish features.   Hergé later regretted the anti-semitism in the story and changed the villain's name to "Bohlwinkle", which he hoped would sound more harmless.  It didn't help much.

While working on  “The Seven Crystal Balls”, Hergé had a narrow escape.   He found an apparently vacant house on the edge of town which he decided to use as the model for villa in which the story takes place.   He spent the morning sketching the exterior.   Shortly after he and his assistant finished and left, two cars full of German soldiers pulled up.   The house had been requisitioned by the SS.   'If they had surprised us a few moments earlier while we were sketching, we would certainly have been closely questioned,' he later recalled.

Although he was never arrested by the Germans, after the War he was not so lucky.   Le Soir  had been a collaborationist newspaper under German control, and once the Germans were expelled, the Allied High Command issued an order banning journalists from working who had collaborated in the production of a newspaper under the Occupation.

Hergé was arrested after the war no fewer than four times, each time by a different service; each time having to face the possibility of a firing squad. He was fortunate; the Military Commissioner trying collaborationists refused to prosecute Tintin's papa, saying "But I would make myself ridiculous!"

Nevertheless, Hergé found himself unable to publish for two years, still under the ban and tainted by his association with the Occupation.   He spent this time re-drawing and adapting his older stories for reprint in England.   Then in 1946, publisher Raymond Leblanc provided the financial backing to start a new magazine, called appropriately enough,”Tintin”, to showcase the character.   Leblanc had been a Resistance fighter during the War, and so he also had the street cred to restore Hergé's reputation.

During the Post-war period Hergé wrote what are arguably some of the best of the Tintin adventures,  “Destination Moon”,  “The Calculus Affair”,  and  “Tintin in Tibet”.   He also oversaw revisions to his earlier stories for publication in color albums for the international market.   Here he cleaned up some of the more offensive elements of the older adventures.   Still, he couldn't always avoid charges of racism.   One of his post-war tales,  “Red Sea Sharks”, was inspired by reports he read about modern day slave trade in Africa.   Although his intent was to draw attention to a serious problem, he was criticized for having his native characters speaking in pidgin, and once again had to make revisions.

Much of the perceived racism and colonialism that can be found in Tintin's adventures, especially the early ones, can be blamed on ignorance rather than malice.
But was Hergé a collaborationist?  Strictly speaking, he was working for a Nazi propaganda outlet.  Yet apart from the one evil Jewish banker, I can't think of any points in Tintin's adventures during the Occupation where he used Tintin as a mouthpiece for Nazi ideology.

It's true that Tintin's failure to fight the Nazis, as he had the Japanese in “Blue Lotus” or the fascist Bourdurians in “King Ottokar's Sceptre” – his failure to mention the existence of the Nazis at all – can be taken as tacit support. But I'm not sure what alternatives Hergé had. Being a cartoonist without a publisher is a rather precarious position. I suppose he could have shut down his studio, fired his assistants and found honest work. Instead, he chose the path of least resistance, and I'm not sure if I could have done differently in his situation.

For what it's worth, Hergé's defenders argued that continuing to draw Tintin's adventures brought more joy to the children of Belgium during the dark days of the Occupation than it gave support to the Nazi regime.

In his final published adventure in 1976,  Tintin and the Picaros, Tintin had traded his traditional knickerbockers for jeans and had a "Peace" sign on his motorcycle helmet.   Even the ageless boy reporter managed to change with the times.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Etrigan for President

The grotesque figure with the smirking, orange-ish face approaches his podium on the debate platform. The other candidates regard him with a mixture of resentment, envy... and fear. Who is this upstart who dares to challenge them for their party's leadership? He didn't even belong to the party, not really. And yet, he is beating them.

What does Donald Trump have to do with comic books? Ah, but I'm not talking about Donald Trump.

I'm talking about the Demon.

Etrigan the Demon was a character created by Jack Kirby during his brief sojourn at DC in the early '70s. During this period, he created the villain Darkseid, and the three books that were the core of his “Fourth World” saga: NEW GODS, FOREVER PEOPLE, and MISTER MIRACLE. In addition, DC requested that he do something with a horror theme. The supernatural was really big at the time; this was the era of “Rosemary's Baby” and “The Exorcist”, and both DC and Marvel published a number of titles reflecting this trend. Jack contribution was the DEMON,.

The Demon, Etrigan, was a hellish servant of the wizard Merlin; a yellow-skinned gargoyle-like creature with horns and glowing red eyes. He was evil, but used by Merlin to fight greater evils, like the sorceress Morgan le Fay. Foreseeing his own demise and the fall of Camelot, Merlin bound Etrigan within a mortal named Jason Blood, who thus became the demon's custodian and his alter ego. For the most part, Blood is happier to keep Etrigan chained; but at need, he can call forth the Demon by uttering the invocation:

“Gone, gone, O form of man,
And rise the demon, ETRIGAN!”

Interestingly enough, in Kirby's early issues, the magic wielded by Merlin and Morgan le Fay had a technological look to it, as if the devices of sorcery could have been borrowed from Reed Richard's laboratory. Did Kirby intend for Merlin and Morgan to be using alien tech? Was he invoking Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that a Sufficiently-Advanced Science is Indistinguishable from Magic? Or was that just the Kirby style, that he drew everything to look futuristic, even the Middle Ages? If that was his intent, later writers didn't follow up on it; (or did so only rarely).

Kirby's DEMON only lasted about a year or so. Kirby got fed up with DC and went back to Marvel. But the character would pop up again, now and then. Alan Moore used him occasionally in his startling re-visioning of SWAMP THING. Moore gave the character a habit of speaking in rhyme, the mark of a special order of demon, to which Etrigan had been promoted. He also made Etrigan a lot nastier, giving him a cruel and sadistic streak. Matt Wagner, creator of GRENDEL and MAGE, did a four-part DEMON series in the mid-'80s, revealing that Etrigan was Merlin's half-brother, and portraying him as devious trickster, scheming against both Blood and Merlin. Other writers played off his rhyming to give him a sense of humor, albeit a dark and cynical one.

All these qualities came together in the '90s DEMON series, written by Alan Grant and drawn, for the first few years, by Val Semeiks. Etrigan was a perfect character for the Dark 'n' Gritty '90s: an anti-hero with a wicked sense of humor, which was about as much relief from the unrelenting grim of the rest of the universe that DC was willing to give us.

Then, in the middle of Alan Grant's run came a four-part story arc written by Dwayne McDuffie titled “Political Asylum”. McDuffie was another of of those rare lights of the Grim 'n' Gritty Era willing to let some joy break the murk. He first came to my notice with his DAMAGE CONTROL series for Marvel, a workplace comedy about a construction firm that cleans up after super-hero slugfests. He later became one of the founding members of Milestone Media and created the characters Icon and Static, the latter of which became a fairly successful Saturday Morning cartoon. Later still, he worked in animation, as a writer and story editor for JUSTICE LEAUGE UNLIMITED and writing a number of DC's direct-to-video animated projects, until his untimely death in 2011.

The story starts of with an adamantine-hardline conservative zillionaire who has set his private political think-tank to find the perfect presidential candidate. In 1992, George Bush Sr. was running for re-election, but there was a considerable faction in the Republican Party who considered him too moderate. He faced a number of challengers in the Republican primaries that year, most notably from political pundit Pat Buchannen.

Dingle's staff puts all the qualities they want from a candidate into a computer to try to find the perfect man for the job. Then they do it again, and a third time just to be sure.

When you speak a demon's name three times, you risk summoning him. The same, apparently, is true of listing the demon's attributes; and it just so happens that all the qualities Dingle wanted in his candidate were qualities that Etrigan has in spades. And so they find a demon summoned in their midst.

Unexpectedly, Etrigan really does turn out to be the perfect candidate. He is forceful; he has charisma; he's not afraid to buck the system; and he promises to Take Back America.

“A caring soul has heard your cries of angry discontent.
When your country's gone to Hell you NEED a demon president!”

His combination of boast, bluster and flag-waving proves popular with the public He comes out with a best-selling book outlining his vision for the nation titled “America Rules: A New Vision for America's Future” (consisting of pictures of himself in patriotic poses accompanied by jingoistic quatrains). When questioned about the feasibility of his policies, (and the quality of his rhymes) by a pundit on a political talk show, he incinerates the reporter with a blast of fiery breath, which only boosts his popularity.

The problem of how the Religious Right will react to a demon candidate is neatly solved. Etrigan's handlers persuade a popular televangelist that it would be a tremendous coup to baptize an actual demon in his mega-church. True, the baptismal pool explodes at Etrigan's approach, and the demon emerges blistered and half-scalded to death from the ordeal; but as long as Etrigan utters the right catch-phrases about Traditional Values, the televangelist is more than happy to overlook the smell of brimstone.

At one point, Superman enters the picture, and Etrigan tries to make a deal for the Man of Steel's endorsement. Superman refuses; he does not endorse political candidates. “If you stay out of the game, it suits me just fine...” Etrigan shrugs. “...For if good men do nothing, victory will be mine!” As they trade blows and barbs, Etrigan taunts Superman by reminding him that Democracy means that if the people choose him, that is their right to do so. As H.L. Menken observed, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Since Superman won't comment publicly, Etrigan drops some broad hints to the media that he does have Superman's support. This forces Superman to deny the rumors, of course, but by then the damage has been done, and Etrigan's popularity has gone up even further.

By this time, Etrigan is crushing the other challengers for the nomination, and even Bush is feeling intimidated. The President considers naming Etrigan as his new running-mate in order to avoid the embarrassment of being beaten by gargoyle who speaks in verse. This fits in with Etrigan's plans just fine. Once he's become Vice-President, he can always ascend to the Oval Office by eating the President.

But what is Jason Blood doing during all this? At first, he and his friends thought that no one would take Etrigan seriously; but as the campaign commences, they become more and more concerned.

Then, at the Republican National Convention, just as Etrigan is about to deliver his big speech accepting the Vice-Presidential nomination, Jason's friends manage to trick Etrigan into changing back into Blood. Jason publicly withdraws from the race, and Etrigan's campaign is over.

At the end, Etrigan has one last conversation with Superman. He is not disappointed by his defeat at all. He's an immortal demon; he can take the long view.

“I offer this tidbit to add to your fears:
The lessons I've learned I'll apply in four years.
The problem I pose you can't possibly fix.
I'm here to serve notice: I'll be back in '96 !”

Well, as it turned out, the DEMON series ended before the next presidential cycle and so Etrigan never had another opportunity to try again. Although in 2000, Lex Luthor ran for president in the DC Universe and won, using tactics which could have come from Etrigan's playbook.

But is Etrigan really gone? Whenever I see Donald Trump on TV, I hear a voice in my head saying:

“Don't listen to those spineless fools;

We can't be stopped, AMERICA RULES !”

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Hi, Alex Ness here.  The question I have asked here, was the Alan Moore/SRBissette Swamp Thing run the best run of length ever.  I asked it to numerous people, including comic book writers and artists, and two of the respondents are former Vertigo stars… so I am excited to present the answers.  But before everyone else answers and I wrap up, I want to answer first, because if I answer last it seems, to some people, as if I am having the final and authoritative word.  I am by no means suggesting that, so here it is.

I think there were good and even great runs of comics prior to the Swamp Thing run.  But I don’t think there was one run that was so earth changing.  I would point to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on Batman, or Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen on Daredevil for runs of superb quality.  There have been long runs by talented people, Dave Sim and Erik Larson for instance, constantly produce/produced quality work and have done so for almost ever.

But, this, to me, wasn’t about length of run, or the fact that it was great, but, that it was to me a comic run that changed how we think about what comic books could do.  I think Swamp Thing did that for me.  I have many comics that I like more than it, but had I not picked it up in the 7-11 on the way home from college, and my buddy and I read it two dozen times, awestruck, I might not have moved on to more great work.  For me, Swamp Thing by Moore, Bissette, Totleben and Veitch changed comics.

I asked the question, and I think this Swamp Thing run qualifies for the title.

Jamie Delano

It was being close to Alan Moore while he was writing these stories that first persuaded me that comics could be a medium through which I might also find an opportunity for uncompromised self-expression.  As I write this, I am looking at a framed original Bissette/Totelben page from the ‘menstrual werewolf’ story, whose published title escapes me- a generous gift from the artists in acknowledgement of some small hospitality offered when they visited Northampton more than twenty-five years ago.  It has been on my study wall since, overseeing my own haphazard efforts to live up to the example it represents.  I wrote an introduction to a volume of the collected editions of these stories in which I, no doubt clumsily, attempt express my thanks for the inspiration they gave me, and the resultant change in the course of my life.

Things change.  Moore and I are no longer close.  But my gratitude, and admiration for this seminal work remain undiminished.

Mike Carey

I think this was a defining run in its time. It was very bold and innovative storytelling, more ambitious than most ongoing titles of the time and - in terms of its style - more self-consciously literary.

"The best ever", though, is always going to be a tendentious claim when applied to anything. There are too many contenders. Is this better than Morrison's run on Doom Patrol or Animal Man. Gaiman's on Sandman? Vaughan's on Saga? You could make a case, especially if you exclude self-contained series with a single writer, but I'm not sure it's an argument that needs to be had. There isn't a single unarguable best in any category. It would be pretty sad if there were. What's the best Shakespeare play? The best sonnet? The best horror movie?

Neil Ottenstein

This Saga of the Swamp Thing run is definitely one of the best long runs of a series. They did some amazingly creative works with highlights in both writing and art.

Other contenders that come right to mind - The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists; The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez; The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Then there is what may be the ultimate long run - Cerebus by Dave Sim and Gerhard.

Peter Urkowitz

I don't like to tie myself down to "best" or other hard rankings, but it's definitely in the pantheon of among the very best.   I love that whole series inordinately!

Kurt Wilcken

Hm. I'll have to think about that. There's a distinction between the best long run in history and the best long run I've read.  And by 'long run' do you mean run of a title, or run of a specific creative team on that title? Well, limiting it to runs that I have read and enjoyed, because I can't really judge some titles that I know only from individual issues...

The first title that comes to mind is the Giffen/DeMatties era JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL; which was a fun comic in an era where things were starting to get overly serious. Which isn't to say that JLI couldn't be serious too; but both the drama and the goofiness was rooted in characterization.

COMICO's version of JONNY QUEST, written by William Messner-Loebs was also very good. Old School adventure with good characterization.

I enjoyed Epic's ALIEN LEGION when it first came out, and Lute has collected most of it in trade paperbacks, but somehow I've never gone back to it. I'm not sure why.

DC's rebooting of CAPTAIN ATOM in the '80s is maybe not a great run, but I have the complete run and it did some interesting things in the early issues. I never cared a whole lot for the art, though.

MAZE AGENCY by Mike W. Barr, again from COMICO, was a good "little comic" in a genre comics haven't done much in our lifetimes: a mystery series with some nice romantic chemistry between the two lead characters. This was where I first discovered the art of Adam Hughes

You only wanted one, didn't you.

Then there's BLUE DEVIL. That was one I started reading near the end of its run and actually went back to buy the back issues. Once again, a fun, mostly light-hearted series that came out just as the skies were about to turn red and the last vestiges of the Silver Age turn to grit.

Alex back here...

Thank you first to Jamie Delano and Mike Carey, for their time and insights into the question, particularly due to their proximity in many different ways to the subject.

Visit Jamie at LEPUS Books.

Visit Mike at MikeandPeter.

Thank you to Kurt, Peter, and Neil as well.  I had a number of people who were invited to join us, but sadly, a large number of people under 40 years old reported not having read Swamp Thing, nor even heard of the stellar run in question.

For my part, I will do better next time to define my question.  With so many long runs on comics, a 3 year run doesn't seem so a limiting factor.  Calling it a long run causes distractions from the main question, which is, was Swamp Thing's Alan Moore run* being more than a mini series, the best run of a regularly appearing comic.  *And, I should say, Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben made the run very special as well. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Zod Is Dead

A lot of fans like to gripe about the recent depictions of Superman in the movies. I know I do, and I haven't even seen them. Which in a rational universe would preclude me from having an opinion on the subject, but this is the Internet. One of the biggest gripes is how the Cinematic Superman is now a murderer. He defeats General Zod, the Kryptonian criminal escaped from the Phantom Zone, by killing him.

In Superman's defense, he did this as a last resort to save the lives of millions. And it's not like there hasn't been any precedent. Supeman has also killed in the comics. Not often, it's true, and always with a goodly amount of controversy, but he has on occasion done it. He's even had justification sometimes.

Let me tell you about the first time Superman killed Zod.

I suppose we'd better start with the Crisis. In the mid-'80s, DC Comics published CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, a ground-breaking, and reality-breaking maxi-series, the very first Company-Wide Crossover Event. Its purpose was no less than to re-structure the entire DC Universe, condensing the myriad alternate earths into a single, more manageable one. That was the plan, anyway. As the slogan said, “Earths will live; Earths will die; And the DC Universe will never be the same!”

Since they were re-organizing everything anyway, they decided to do the same to a couple of its most iconic character, stripping away decades of accumulated backstory and getting down to the essentials. To do this for Superman, DC scored a coup comparable to Jack Kirby's defection from Marvel a decade earlier. To redefine the biggest star in the DCU, they hired one of the biggest stars at that time at Marvel, John Byrne.

Byrne was probably most famous for his artwork on the All-New, All-Different X-MEN with writer Chris Claremont. He had gone on to draw and write other titles for Marvel, including ALPHA FLIGHT, which he created, AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and a well-regarded run on FANTASTIC FOUR. And I think he came from Marvel with a certain amount of snobbishness. A lot of Marvel fans had the opinion that DC comics were stodgy and unrealistic, while Marvel comics were more believable. Comparatively speaking, at least.

They had a point. During the era when Mort Weisinger edited the SUPERMAN comics, the character had accumulated what could be charitably called a Rich Mythology; (and less-charitably as a Lot of Goofy Stuff): Krypto the Superdog, the Bottle City of Kandor, Red Kryptonite and the broad spectrum of other colors, Clark's Mermaid Girlfriend Lori Lemaris.

Byrne had a mandate from DC to dich all the Weisinger Era stuff and rebuild the Man of Steel from the ground up; starting with a six-issue limited series titled, naturally enough, MAN OF STEEL, which retold Superman's origin and established key pints of his early career: the Destruction of Krypton, his adoption by the Kents; his first encounters with Lois Lane, with Batman, and of course, with Lex Luthor.

He made several changes. Some were trivial: Superman's cape was no longer indestructible. Some were beneficial: Ma and Pa Kent were still alive and able to give him advice from time to time and help keep him grounded. Some were significant: the Planet Krypton was altered from a world of scientific wonders to a cold, sterile dystopia; and Lex Luthor was changed from a criminal scientist to a corrupt zillionaire industrialist. And two of the changes caused severe complication further down the line.

For one thing, it was decreed that in the Post-Crisis Univers, Superman would be the sole survivor of the destruction of Krypton. No more Phantom Zone Criminals; no more Bottle City of Kandor; no more Krypto; and no more Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. This last made a little narrative sense, because Supergirl had been killed during the Crisis, so there was some justification for saying that she had been retroactively deleted from existence. It was still a disappointment for fans of heroines in mini-skirts, though.

The other change seemed more trivial but had far from trivial repercussions. Back during the Silver Age, DC had expanded the Super-Franchise with SUPERBOY, the adventures of Superman, when he was a boy. With the Byrne reboot, it was decided that Post-Crisis, Clark Kent did not don the Big Red “S” costume and begin a public career as a super-hero until he was an adult. Superboy and all his wacky teen super-exploits in Smallville, were chucked down the memory hole, along with Supergirl, Krypto and the Legion of Super-Pets.

Ah, the Legion. There was the rub.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of super-powered teens from the 30th Century, first appeared in a Superboy story in ADVENTURE COMICS. They had been inspired by the example of the Boy of Steel's legend, and so traveled back to the 20th Century to invite young Clark to join their super-club. Superboy became an integral part of Legion history; but with Superboy gone, where did that leave the Legion?

The explanation the writers came up with involved an old Legion villain called the Time Trapper who lived at the End of the Universe. Not the geographic end; the chronological end. It turns out the the Trapper had created a Pocket Universe, similar to our universe in many respects, except that it only contains two inhabited planets: Earth and Krypton. Oh, and the pocket universe has a Superboy. And it turns out that every time the Legion traveled back in time to visit the 20th Century, the Time Trapper was shunting them off into this pocket dimension. Why? He lives at the End of Time, a place almost as boring as Des Moines. He has to do something for amusement.

Superman finds out about the Pocket Universe when that world's Superboy crosses over to his world (along with Krypto!) and appears in Smallville. After some initial confusion, (including a panel which rivals anything in the Weisinger Era for goofiness, in which Krypto tries to stop Superman by pulling on his cape. Superman comments on how odd it is that the flying dog seems surprised that his cape ripped), the Time Trapper's role in this is revealed, and Superboy is returned to the Pocket Universe.

This explanation for the continued existence of Superboy was ingenious, but inelegant. The whole point of the Crisis was to do away with all those extraneous universes. Superboy's Earth was a loose end; and calling it a “Pocket Universe” did not make it any neater.

I don't know if John Byrne received an editorial mandate to eliminate the Pocket Universe, or if he decided to do it on his own initiative; but within a year of the Superboy cross-over, he began a multi-part storyline to ensure that Superman was once again the Last Son of Krypton – any Krypton.
It begins with the appearance of a mysterious new Supergirl. She is not from Krypton, nor from the other Krypton either. Her name is Matrix and she is an artificial life-form created by the Lex Luthor of the Pocket Universe. In her natural state, Matrix looks like an anthropomorphic wad of bubble gum, but she is a shape-shifter and at first appears in the form of Lana Lang, Clark Kent's high school crush, because John Byrne has a thing for redheads.

Matrix has been sent to this world because the Pocket Universe needs Superman's help. Her Earth has been attacked by the three Phantom Zone Criminals led by General Zod and all but conquered.

A quick digression about the Phantom Zone. As old-timers who remember the Christopher Reeves SUPERMAN will recall, the Phantom Zone is an other-dimensional limbo where the Kryptonians used to exile their worst criminals. Superman's father, Jor-El, devised a means of sending criminals to the Phantom Zone as a humane alternative to execution. The idea was that the Kryptonian parole board would periodically check in on the Zone to release those who had served their sentence. Then Krypton blew up. Oops. No parole for you, Zod.

In the Pocket Universe, Zod and some of his followers have escaped from the Phantom Zone and have laid waste to the Earth. By the time Superman gets there, they have wiped out all life on the planet, except for a small enclave built by Luthor, who is a good guy in the Pocket Universe. Superman is just in time to participate in their desperate last stand.

And it is their last stand. In that final battle, pretty much everybody dies: Luthor, Superboy, the works. Zod and his cohorts are defeated, but apart from Matrix, who is badly wounded, only Superman survives on the good guy's side.

And here is where it comes. Zod is captured, at Superman's mercy. Zod has just killed the entire population of the Pocket Universe's Earth; (which, since Krypton has already blown up, is the entire population of the Pocket Universe). It falls to Superman to decide what to do with these criminals.

He goes into Luthor's lab and gets out the kryptonite.

It had been previously established that the kryptonite of the Pocket Universe did not affect Superman any, but it would affect Kryptonians of that universe. Superman takes the kryptonite out of its lead container and exposes Zod and his companions to it until the radiation from the kryptonite kills them. The last survivors of the Pocket Universe are dead.

And Superman broke his most sacred oath; to protect life and to never kill.

But surely, could he be blamed? These criminals had just killed an entire planet full of people; billions of them. Surely they deserved death. You could even make the argument that the relatively quick, if excruciating, death by kryptonite poisoning Superman gave them was more merciful than they deserved. But did Superman have to do it that way?

He could have just banished them to the Phantom Zone again, like Jor-El did years ago. It's not like there was anybody in the Pocket Universe who could bring them back anymore. They would spend the rest of eternity in a dimensional limbo as bodiless phantoms.

Perhaps crueler still, Superman could have just walked away. He could have just gone back to his home universe and left Zod to be emperor of a ruined, lifeless planet. Of course, Superman would want to make sure that Zod couldn't use Luthor's technology to follow him back to Earth, but that wouldn't be all that hard. Or so you would think.

No, comic book narrative logic insists that Zod would find a way out of the Pocket Universe eventually, just as soon as some other writer wanted to use him. Which is why he had to die. The whole point of the story was to get rid of the Pocket Universe, and eliminate all those pesky loose ends.

Byrne could have had Zod killed by a twist of fate; by an act of hubris that proved fatal. He could have had Superman kill him in the heat of battle, as Superman later did with Doomsday. Instead, he chose to have Superman execute Zod, with cold-blooded deliberation. I think that's what stuck in the craw of many fans. I know it bugged me.

And then Byrne left and went back to Marvel. The issue in which Superman kills Zod was the last one John Byrne wrote on his run of SUPERMAN; his farewell to the Last Son of Krypton. Later on he did other stories for DC, such as a decent WONDER WOMAN run during the '90s, and the Green Lantern graphic novel GANTHET'S TALE, written by Larry Niven; but his re-defining of the Post-Crisis Superman, and the bitter ending to his reign, marks a significant era in Superman history.

Afterwards, the Legion of Super-Heroes dealt with the Time Trapper, which wound up retroactively messing up their history further.

One character from the Pocket Universe survived: Matrix, who now formally adopted the identity of Supergirl, because DC has to keep the trademark active so that they can continue to license Supergirl Underoos; and who adopted the Supergirl look and hair color the fans knew and loved, because parents aren't going to buy their daughters Lana Lang Underoos. Supergirl dated Lex Luthor Jr. for a while, until she learned that he was actually Lex Luthor Sr. in a cloned body. Gross. Then she merged with an angel, (which was not as doofy as that sounds) and after a while faded away to be replaced by a more traditional version of Supergirl in a later DC re-boot.

And what about Super-Judge, Jury and Executioner? The writing team that replaced Byrne had Clark grapple with an enormous amount of guilt after killing Zod. He killed one dangerous enemy. What would he do the next time he was in such a situation? Would it become the easy way out? Troubled by his conscience, Clark began unconsciously fighting crime in his sleep, taking on the identity of a non-powered street-level hero because he was afraid of misusing his powers. Finally, worrying that he might become a danger to the public, he left Earth for a time, wandering space in a self-imposed penance. It was a while before he regained his equilibrium.

I guess at heart I'm a bit like Jim Kirk. I've never liked the Kobiyashi Maru, the “No-Win” situation, ever since the time in a college writing class we were given such a situation to write about. (I came up with a third option which the instructor hadn't given us; I had the option fail because under the premise we were given it couldn't work, but by Crumb I insisted on making a third option).

I can understand a writer wanting to challenge his hero by putting him in a situation where he has to make hard choices that test his ethical principles. And you can argue that allowing the hero to come up with an escape that lets him out of those choices is contrived and unrealistic. But it seems to me that the situations some writers come up with to force heroes like Superman into these choices is just as contrived.

And that's how I felt about the First Death of Zod.