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Dance of the Puppets

Like a bat on a hot tin roof since August 2005

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sense of Wonder (Woman)

Robert Kanigher wrote Wonder Woman in a peculiar steam-of-consciousness way that reads a lot like dreams in comic form. In the second story in the Showcase collection Steve Trevor is for no explained reason now piloting a rocket plane to chase and observe an experimental rocket. (1). Unexpectedly, Steve's plane accelerates faster than the rocket and disappears into space, so Wonder Woman gets her invisible plane a quick refit at Paradise Island and follows, also becoming caught by the strange effect and sent hurtling across space.

Once she's retrieved her wayward boyfriend, she observes the Earth being destroyed by a flaming meteor, except no, it's only a cardboard cutout of the Earth that evil aliens were using for target practice, because they feed on planetary fragments, and Earth is next on the menu, even though it's 200 light years away and there are plenty of uninhabited planets closer (2). And they appear to have brought the reluctant astronauts from their home purely to gloat at them (3). Tough for them that Wonder Woman can fashion a giant magnet out of the nearby landscape and use it to pull the meteors off course and send them crashing back to the planet that launched them (4).

Of course now Wondy and Steve are stranded in space, hundreds of light years from home, except what's this? Could it be a handy spacewarp that will return them to Earth space? You can bet it is.

It's only with the third story that some of Kanigher's less entertaining themes become explicit. The problem is the relationship between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Personally I've never been able to understand why she puts up with his nagging. The situation is that Steve wants Wondy to marry him and settle down, i.e. stop going out and doing hero stuff. Wondy's response is that she cannot marry him until she is no longer needed to battle crimes and injustice. Only then can she think about herself.

This is a twist on silver age Superman's lame excuse for refusing to marry Lois Lane. Here Wonder Woman has to put the concerns of the whole world before herself until she is no longer needed, and her definition of being needed is impossible to fulfil, since it not only requires there to be no crime and injustice, but no natural disasters too. And yet rather than challenge this absurd notion, Steve instead repeatedly attempts to trick the woman he claims to love into marrying him. It seems to be far more about control than love, and it's my least favourite aspect of these stories.

But back to the plot: this story completely rewrites part of the origin story, with an entirely new telling of how Wonder Woman became Diana Prince and came to work at Steve's office in Military Intelligence. In this variation Steve bets Wondy that if he can find her three times in 24 hours, regardless of how she is disguised or hidden, then she will marry him. When she finds that he has tricked her, she gets her own back by applying for a job in his own office (5) so that she'll be right under his nose all the time without him recognising her.

Would I recommend this as a book to give to kids? On the one hand the stories are light and fantastic, bursting with sense of wonder and fairytale logic, while short and self-contained, but on the other they have some underlying values that I would be uncomfortable exposing to someone who was not experienced enough to recognise them as the BS they are and able to reject them while still enjoying the rest of the story. Don't get me wrong, I love this stuff, but that doesn't mean I don't see elements in it I don't like.

Notes.

1) We are told that the plane is slower than the rocket, so I doubt it can be observing it for very long.
2) I can only assume that Earth is a particularly tasty morsel on the galactic menu, since it seems to attract planet eaters from across the galaxy.
3) no better explanation is given, and that's all they actually do with them.
4) She never did have an actual code against killing, did she?
5) and only in a Kanigher story would an office worker have to take part in an underwater race as part of the application process

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Showcase of wonders

For some, the publishing event of the year might be the final adventure of some schoolboy wizard, but for me it was the Wonder Woman Showcase. And although I wasn't queuing at my local comic shop for my copy at midnight (because I knew it wasn't going to be delivered until around 10am), I was there to pick it off the shelf before it had time to get comfortable.

Just to point out how important this collection is, I want to remind you that while Batman and Superman have enjoyed reprint collections from throughout their history, Wonder Woman has not been so lucky. There was a collection of golden age adventures published in the early 1970's, and four volumes of DC Archives that got up as far as Wonder Woman #9, but nothing has ever been reprinted from the late 1940's to 1986 in any substantial form. Robert Kanigher was writer on Wonder Woman for over 150 issues and yet there has never been a collection of his work available until now.

But be warned: before you read this book you will need to rise above all thoughts of logic and continuity. There is no place for them here.

The volume opens with Kanigher's retelling of Wonder Woman's origin in Wonder Woman #98. This is a good starting point as not only does it give us an origin, it's also the first issue with full art by long time WW artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, and is arguably the point where Wonder Woman enters the Silver Age.

As an origin story, it's quite different from the usual version; the Amazons hold their contest to decide who will be sent into the outside world before Steve Trevor even arrives, and to avoid favouritism, all the contestants are dressed in Wonder Woman costume, including masks of Diana's face so that they will all look alike. But having won the contest, our heroine must prove herself by turning a penny into a million dollars, to finance the building of a summer camp to be donated to children's charities, because Pallas Athena is very big on healthy summer fun for children in rich first world countries.

The more bizarre aspects of the story start to become apparent when Steve Trevor arrives on the scene, parachuting down from his stricken aircraft. Since men are forbidden to set foot on Paradise Island, our plucky heroine launches herself into the air, and then catching Steve, she blows his parachute all the way back to America.

If at this point you are considering how many laws of physics this breaks then you should probably stop now, as it only gets worse. Wonder Woman's adventures with the penny she has been entrusted with, and her ultimate solution to her dilemma are so bonkers that I'm not even going to tell you about them. I wouldn't want to spoil the fun.

And that's just the opening story.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

No Batgirl review

I was intending to do a big review, or several, of the Batgirl Showcase, but I'm probably not.

Fact is, it's pretty much what I expected. There's some crashingly sexist bits, and a lot of it is silly, coming from the era of the Batman TV show, and occasionally it's quite good. But so far there's nothing I feel moved to dwell on at any length.

Of course this may be influenced by the fact that the Wonder Woman Showcase is due out next week, and I have been looking forward to that since before the Showcase reprint series began.

At least there shouldn't be a problem with the cover of that one...

Bland Gordon

Whenever I see an adaptation of some story I like, I play this game: how much would I have to change before it was so far removed from the original as to be not considered a copyright infringement?

Your mileage may vary, but the all time champion for me is the 1970's Doctor Strange TV movie, where I reckon that all connection to the source material could be lost by changing two (1) names. The new Flash Gordon TV show isn't up to that level, but on the basis of the first episode, it's not far off.

First off: this Flash Gordon may be a marathon runner, but he is still way too nerdy to be the kind of hero associated with this role. Flash Gordon needs to be big and dumb: physically strong enough to have boundless self-confidence in his own abilities, and dumb enough to have a narrow vision of what is right and to go for it undeterred by the more complex issues. This version is more Clark Kent than Superman. And then Doctor Zarkov now seems to be reduced to lab assistant comedy sidekick, whose wacky inventions are hit and miss, but which I predict will usually come through when the plot depends on them. And Dale Arden seems to be channeling Lois Lane.

And then there is Ming. No, this isn't Ming. Ming is grand and capricious. This is some cheap stereotype dictator in quasi military uniform from any number of bad SF TV shows. And of course he is white, because it would be racist to have one of the most entertaining character roles in Science Fiction be a non-white person (2). So he is white. His daughter is so white I have trouble telling her apart from Dale. The guards are white. Most of the various different races of Mongo I could spot were white but in different ethnic costumes. The evil scientist is white. In fact the only non-white characters are Flash's buddy who doesn't get to be part of the adventure, and a black Mongo woman who only appears long enough to give Ming an opportunity to show how mean and petty he is.

Now it's just a personal opinion here, but I think Ming ought to be oriental (3). He should be oriental and grand and wear lavish costumes and laugh a lot, and throw people to the crocodiles on a whim. And his daughter should be oriental too, and spoilt and slutty, and maybe sides with the good guys in the end for all the wrong reasons, or gets redeemed at the end if you really must. And quite a lot of other people in Ming's court should be oriental. Yes, they are villains. Well, Aura is sometimes a villain. Either way, I think it's pathetic and racist to recast iconically oriental characters as white, purely because they are villains. What next? A white Fu Manchu? (4) The way to make these characters non-racist is not by making them white, but by writing them well.

And there weren't any spaceships.

How the hell can you do Flash Gordon with no spaceships? They are an intrinsic aspect of the story, but here we just get a cheap Stargateish rippled air cgi effect. I realise this production is low budget, but then so was the 1930's serial (5) and it looked better than this.

Notes

1. or possibly three, it's a long time since I've seen it


2. Or perhaps the subtext here is that white people are evil and bad.

3. I'm aware that the term "oriental" is considered offensive by some in the USA, though I'm not clear why. To Americans "Asian" may have the same meaning, but in the UK it is used purely to refer to inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent. In the UK "oriental" has no negative connotations and is used by the BBC, which is good enough for me.

4. okay, technically both Ming and Fu Manchu have historically been played by white guys pretending to be chinese, but you know what I mean

5. By modern standards.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Strange and unusual

Fletcher Hanks: I shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets

The amazing thing about Fletcher Hanks' stories is how they are at the same time repetitive and unique. Fantomah and Stardust are essentially the same vengeful god figure in different trappings, Stardust the science hero fighting organised crime, Fantomah the jungle goddess with magic powers. In almost every story some villain has big plans, and often a private army to carry them out.

And yet even though they may claim to be guarding or protecting the planet/jungle it is not until after the villain has caused great devestation and loss of life that the hero steps in, utterly destroying the villain in bizarre and peculiar ways. The biggest difference between Stardust and Fantomah is that Fantomah often warns the villain that the path he is taking will not be tolerated. Not that anyone ever pays attention to the flying girl (often just a disembodied head), and by the time those long blonde curls are framing a skull it's too late to say sorry.

But it is within the basic formula that Hanks' genius comes alive. Villains seek domination using invisible vacuum tubes or giants, invisible except for their flaming purple hands, or by pausing the rotation of the Earth to cause the entire population to be flung out into space. New York is a favourite target and gets bombed three times in this collection, as well as being attacked by a giant artificial tidal wave and a whirlwind, and in a Fantomah story, overrun by giant panthers.

If there is one thing that marks the storytelling out as being from the earliest days of the artform it is the lack of conflict. Hank's heroes are always so much more powerful than their enemies that the question is not so much "will our hero triumph?" as "what peculiar and ultimately terminal punishment will our hero hand out today once they have utterly crushed the villains' plans?"

And the punishment is often a big feature of the story. In some cases inflicting strange and unusual punishment on the villain takes up as much as half the pages.

It's a collection of strange and unusual ideas wrapped up in formulaic storylines.

But I still like Fantomah best.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

A match made in...

If you were going to create a comic book specifically to put me me off ever reading it, what would it contain? How about attempted rapist Power Boy written by non-misogynist Judd Winick, who we all know is all in favour of feminism and not the rape apologist suggested by Green Arrow #57 (or whatever. I can't be bothered to check again), with art by Ian Churchill, who can only draw one female character, who is blonde, with a big chin and ankles so thin you expect them to snap at any minute.

I begin to wonder if there aren't meetings at DC that start with "What can we do to piss Mari off?"

Similar meetings at Marvel involve Jeph Loeb and Greg Land but are less effective because there are so few of their comics I can be bothered to read anyway. In fact the only Marvel titles I've read in the last six months or so were written by Jeff Parker, who understands the concepts of both fun and telling a story in 20 pages.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Civilized planets, your days are numbered

I'm now working my way through Paul Karasik's book of Fletcher Hanks comics I shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets. It is a mighty collection of 15 stories, and I can only hope it is so successful as to prompt a second volume. There are another 9 Fantomah stories, and I have no idea how many Stardust, and others still languishing unseen for so many years.

Before I get on to tackling the individual stories I'd just like to get a little picky about the format of the collection. I can understand why Karasik didn't want to burden the reader with lengthy discussion of the work, but I would have liked to see some kind of introduction that gave basic information about the comics that are being reprinted. As it is all we have is an undated listing of where each originally appeared (in the contents page) and that's it. Not even a bibliography to tell us how many more stories are out there.

And then the order of the comics selected seems entirely arbitary. Although the volume opens with the first Stardust story, the Fantomah episodes are run in practically reverse order, which is a shame as there is a clear evolution in style as they progress, and this can only be properly appreciated by flipping backward and forward in the volume.

As a Fantomah fan I would have liked to see her first published appearance, but it's not included here. It may be that Karasik was unable to obtain a copy of it for publication, but as there is no accompanying text of any kind, we don't know. I'd also like to know more about how the character was taken in such a different direction after the departure of Hanks, and ultimately retconned into an entirely different character, but that's a personal thing and hardly within the remit of this volume.

What we do get is an autobiographical 16 page strip at the end by Paul Karasik about how he found Hank's son and interviewed him. It's an odd choice for the presentation of an interview; turning it into a comic makes it feel like a dramatisation, and I'm left wondering how much of it was fictional. Information about Fletcher Hanks seems to take second place to the author's slice of life adventure, and although it does convey his excitement about meeting Fletcher Hanks Jr. you are left feeling that if it had been done as a straightforward text piece it would have run to rather less than a page.

None of which takes away from the achievement of getting this stuff in print at all, but if there is a second volume I'm hoping it will contain some factual information like a bibliography and publication dates. It needn't be lengthy or intrusive, but it would be a nice extra for those of us that are interested in that stuff.

Enough with the petty complaints. Next I'll get on to the actual stories.

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Sleestaak, that's my skull

May I direct your attention over to one of my favourite blogs, Lady, That's My Skull, where I have contributed to Sleestaak's series of Final Panels from Canceled Comics, with my own favourite final panel.