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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.