Monday, December 27, 2010

Three Little Indians

My family likes to forward me news articles relating to comics. This morning I was sent a link to the mainstream media’s coverage of an upcoming death in the Fantastic Four. Apparently Marvel is killing off yet another great character in the hope of driving up sales. While superheroes have been dying and coming back to life since the genre was created, some kind of threshold was crossed with the Death of Superman saga back in the 90s and the latest incarnation of this new level in hero-death was Captain America’s assassination a few years ago. We’ve already read that Spider-Man is getting “killed” this year, and I use scare quotes because, let’s be frank, none of these deaths ever stick. The one that should have stuck, Jim Starlin’s amazing Death of Captain Marvel, got rolled over and grilled by Peter David so, really, nothing’s sacred anymore.

But let’s get to the point of this post and turn our jaded eyes on the Fantastic Four and see if we can predict who will be flying that stolen rocket ship into the sky … permanently.

The Human Torch
When an old man dies it’s sad, but when a young kid dies it’s tragic. This is the only reason why a writer would kill Johnny Storm. Well, that and the possibility that you can’t think of anything else to do with the character. But usually, when you are stuck on what to do with a hero, you just give him new powers or take him in a Bold New Direction. Killing him is a pretty radical step and it’s an admission of failure. “Yeah, Johnny Storm is kind of boring. I don’t know what to do with him. So I’m gonna waste the fucker.” I have more faith in writers. But the truth remains: If Johnny Storm died, few people beyond the Richards family and Peter Parker would much care.
Chance of Death: 1/4

Mister Fantastic
Because Reed is the ostensible leader of the team, a husband and father, he would normally be a prime candidate for death. However, Reed has already “died”, and the last time wasn’t even that long ago. There are a lot of good stories to tell about a Fantastic Four without Reed Richards; the only trouble is that other people have already told them. The story about Sue as a widow, grieving for her husband has been done. The story in which she finally admits that she can love someone else (like Namor!) has been done. The story in which Sue steps up to officially lead the team has been done. They weren’t necessarily done very well, but they were done. So there’s some hunt left in this dog, because a writer might decide that all those other stories about dead Reed sucked, and this time we can do it right, and there might even be something to that, and I would like to read a good version of those stories, but the odds are that Reed is still enjoying death protection from his last dance with this particular girl.
Chance of Death: 2/4

The Thing
Ben Grimm is one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe, and as any reader of Tolkien knows, it’s always the most sympathetic character that gets pasted. If it was otherwise, the death would not be as effective. Ben is an everyman, and when he dies, we see ourselves dying. When everyone lines up to mourn their good friend, what we see is our own fantasy about the aftermath of our own death – a death attended by thousands of crying friends and family who say, “He may have been a little rough around the edges, but he was a good person. The best person we ever met.” Having gone through a long adjustment period in which he got used to being a monstrous freak, the Thing has become one of the most down to earth and normal guys in comics. He is everybody’s best friend. He is the guy who hosts the weekly poker night for superheroes. He wins the vote for “superhero I most want to have a beer with.” Not to mention he’s got a longtime steady girlfriend, a nephew who adores him (and whom he loves more than life itself), a neighborhood who sees him as their personal hero, a rabbi, and a noble self-sacrificing streak. If I were a classicist, I would kill Ben off only after he had finally been returned to normal. He’d probably be “human” for all of about 16 pages before he falls on a bomb or something to save everyone else on the team. But this would be removing his pathos, which is part of what makes him great. In any case, Ben is definitely a likely suspect for this year’s 4-chamber Russian roulette.
Chance of Death: 3/4

The Invisible Woman
As any follower of Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators can tell you, if there is one sure-fire method for building pathos and tragedy in superhero comics, it can be summed up as “Do something awful to the girl.” For this reason alone, the laser targeting system begins to turn on Susan Storm Richards, but to this we can add the fact that Sue is, and pretty much always has been, the lynchpin of this team. It would simply fall apart into a bunch of dysfunctional pieces were she to suddenly absent herself. And this story, too, has been told many times. Reed will become a closeted scientist working feverishly on his next project, going unshaven and progressively more crazy, reverting into the bizarre mash-up of Hank Pym and Mr. Freeze that he always would have been, had he no Susan to lure him back into the real world. Ben, who has always loved Sue, will be completely devastated but will remain the rock (har har) for the rest of the family, especially little Benjamin, who will have lost his mother. Even Johnny will have to grow up; they may even make him “dark and gritty” again. Heaven help us.

The story of a team’s breakup in the wake of the death of its mother figure has been told many times in many books, which is normally a reason to think this time will be otherwise. But the comic industry’s ability to pile pain, torture and death onto its female characters in the name of shock, pathos and tragedy is beyond measure.
Chance of Death: 4/4

If I were a gambling man, the money would be on Sue. But if I were living in the 21st century and I were instead an investment banker, I would securitize Ben just to cover my potential losses. Then, when Johnny Storm gets turned into the Human Doormat by Dr. Doom, I would get a Marvel bailout.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adrienne Roy

Adrienne Roy was the best colorist DC Comics ever had. She colored Batman and Detective Comics for something like 15-years each, accumulating 600 issues of the Bat-family in all. Her name appeared in more Bat-comics than anyone except Bob Kane. She also colored a little title called New Teen Titans, which in the humble opinion of this author was the best DC book of a generation. She was the first colorist to be signed to an exclusive contract for DC. She was the only freelancer to have her own desk at the Manhattan offices. She was one of the first female fans to break into the business. And, just to put icing on the cake, she was the centerfold for the premier issue of Tattoo magazine.

Adrienne Roy died last week after a year long fight with ovarian cancer. She was only 57.

A favorite of the convention circuit, beloved by those editors, writers and other artists who worked with her, not to mention her family, the list of memories invoked by those who knew her is both illuminating and touching.

You should read them, and all about Adrienne while you are at it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Lots of exciting things going on here, but I thought I would start with a hello to anyone who might be visiting from the Vigilance Press Podcast, sponsored by I had the pleasure of participating in this last evening with Mike Lafferty, Charles Rice, and Daniel Gallant, and after we talked about the Field Guide and Daniel's new ICONS character portfolio, we had a great time playing a little ICONS. I used the Bruin, who is from the second volume of the Field Guide, Mike made "The Whiz," a speedster trained by Tibetan monks in the paralyzing cobra strike, and Chuck had "Spartan," our resident Mutant Master of the Mind. Mr. Gallant (whom I envy on the basis of "If he got superhuman powers, his name would be his codename") was our GM. If you have not listened to it, you should give it a turn right here.

Before we got into playing, Chuck and I got into a bit of a discussion on superheroes and killing. It's an old debate, and a good one, and Mike was good to rein us in as we could have gone on for hours. Chuck's basic position, and it's a very understandable and common one, especially among players of superhero games, is that superheroes who swear they don't kill are being pretty naive and weak. When a criminal psychopath like the Joker has demonstrated his ability to escape from confinement time and time again, each time murdering dozens before being recaptured, only for Batman to defeat and not kill him, Batman must share some culpability for the Joker's crimes. The superhero who swears off killing is not only weak and ineffective, he's kind of a dope.

On my side, I tried to argue that while this argument makes a lot of sense on a visceral, "He killed so I can kill him" level, superheroes like Batman, Captain America, and the X-Men (all of whom are generally portrayed as No-Kill-Heroes, despite many notable exceptions to this rule) use their no-kill philosophy to teach us something: Just because someone else is evil, does not justify your own descent into evil to defeat them. Captain America has given this speech a hundred times if he has given it once. To execute an evil man is to lower yourself to his level. The superhero is a self-appointed agent of criminal apprehension, not a judge or jury. If a criminal is to be executed, that will be determined by a jury of his peers, not one man, no matter how justified that execution might appear. This is not weakness, it is a recognition of the essential character of the American criminal justice system. It's not Batman's fault that the Joker kills people. Batman does his part. That doesn't mean he doesn't feel guilty when the Joker kills. Of course he does. When the Joker killed Robin with a lead pipe, Batman wanted to kill him. But that would also be murder. Because Batman is not empowered by the American people to hand out sentences of execution. That right is reserved, not for Batman, Captain America, or the X-Men, but to you and me. We are the ones who decide if people live or die. And letting Batman do it for us is taking the cheap way out.

But in many ways, what is more interesting here is the long debate over superheroes and killing, which has been portrayed in many wonderfully thought-provoking books over the years. Chuck mentioned a panel from X-Men, and it is a famous one, so I thought I would represent it here and you saw it at the top of the page. Wolverine murders a guard in the Savage Land while Storm and Nightcrawler look on, the former saddened and the latter horrified. Claremont and Byrne are demonstrating their genius here, because it takes a thoughtful creative team to move the camera off of the murder and onto the reaction shot. Jim Lee would have kept the camera on Logan as he stuck his claws through this guy's back. Yawn. You see one merciless killing, you have seen them all. But the reaction shot illustrates the real drama of the scene. It's not the killing, it's the moral and ethical questions the killing raises. That's what makes this story so damn good.

Lethality in comics has gone on big pendulum swings through the decades. In the Golden Age, no one batted an eye when the bad guy got killed. By the 1960s, however -- and I am tempted to say this was largely the result of the Comics Code, but I may just be taking the easy way out -- Superman had become the Blue Boy Scout and even Batman was having his goofy period. When Wolverine killed in the pages of the X-Men it created tension and a moral quandary which built for a while, peaked, and finally collapsed by the 1990s. Later writers tried to portray this split in comics; the Avengers ended up splitting into two teams when one half (led by Black Knight) decided to kill the Kree Supreme Intelligence and the other half (led by Captain America) refused to. But really this was all just the pitiful thrashings of a crippled giant. Marvel was deep into its darkest days by this period, and it seemed as if every hero and team was now carrying guns and wearing armor. Don't tell me you have forgotten Fantastic Force. When a superhero team founded on principles of exploration, imagination, and adventure has been turned into a Rob Liefeld book, you know you have gone far off the reservation.

The reason that cover looks so crappy, by the way? Foil. Nuff said.

These days, even Captain America kills. It is, after all, war. And no one should mistake me for some kind of super-pacifist who wants to trash any superhero who kills. That's not my point at all. Rather, I am mostly interested in a good story. And tension -- between those heroes who kill, and those who do not -- makes great story. In order for that tension to work, both heroes have to have some kind of authority. They have to be successful at what they do. If only one of those two approaches works, then obviously it is the only correct one and the tension evaporates. We need more panels with Storm and Nightcrawler cringing as Wolverine murders a guard. That's great comics.

But, in the end, neither of these approaches succeed. At least in comics. It doesn't matter if the Batman kills, or Captain America kills, or even if Wolverine kills, because Batman, Captain America and Wolverine have to appear in comic books every month, and every story requires more antagonists, more evil men who deserve killing. Put the Joker in prison and he escapes. Kill him and he just comes back from the dead. Ultimately, both approaches are doomed to failure. The comic book superhero will never bring justice to the city ... until his book is cancelled. See James Robinson's Starman.

More soon. I am teaching an upper division English course at UCR next quarter on graphic novels and comics, and a course in the spring on the superhero narrative. So you will see a lot on these pages about those courses. You may even be one of my students!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Field Guide to Superheroes, Volume 2

The first piece of the Field Guide has gotten us all great reviews both from RPGNow and from Steve Kenson, the creator of ICONS, who you can hear on the latest Vigilance Press podcast. Now that I am back in town, I am working furiously on the final edits for Volume 2, which will add ten more archetypes and complete the first half of the project.

Art is starting to come in from my collaborator, Dan Houser, and as you can see it's some great stuff. The art for the Field Guide is already a great fit, because Dan has defined the house style for ICONS, but now it's going to be, quite frankly, better than anything in ICONS.

For those watching at home, volume 2 will detail:

  • The Descendant is a hero who has inherited his title from an older hero who has died, lost his powers, turned to evil or retired. This gives the new version a history, but also big shoes to fill. He may have started off as a Sidekick.
  • The Divine Hero is a character whose powers stem directly from a living religion like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.
  • An Embodiment personifies a universal force, such as Justice, the Earth, or Speed. He or she is very powerful but also has to answer to an even more powerful boss.
  • The Ex-Con is a former villain or petty criminal who now fights crime. He may be a good guy who got mixed up with the wrong crowd or a real scoundrel who is working for justice only under duress.
  • The Femme Feline is an especially popular sort of Animal Hero. A woman with a cat motif, she is morally ambiguous and flirty.
  • The Feral Hero is a Jeckyll & Hyde character who tries to do good but struggles with a dark, animal nature which leads him to kill.
  • The Focused Hero is a normal person with one super-power – such as flight, invisibility or great strength -- which he has learned to master.
  • A Gadget Guy or Gadget Girl is usually a scientist with a collection of weapons and other equipment, including a vehicle.
  • The Handicapped Hero overcomes a serious disability through advanced training, superpowers, or just raw guts.
  • The Jungle Hero is a Tarzan-style hero who is caretaker of a hidden land and who often has animal-related powers

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Comics & the Graphic Novel in America and Britain"

So a couple days ago I got a call from Deborah Willis, who is Department Chair in English at UCR now but who I will always remember as the woman who taught me Marlowe, and she asked if I would like to teach a class on, well, pretty much anything I wanted. Ordinarily I am kind of a dope when offered awesome things, but this time I had the sense to say yes. The course number we are using is supposed to be 20th century American and British lit, and she suggested something on graphic novels, so I put those two ideas together and decided to do half the class on American creators and the other half on British creators. UCR has 10 week quarters, so our reading list is painfully short. It was easy to come up with the British half: Moore, Gaiman, Morrison and Ennis gave me a great cross-section and every one of them are amazingly talented, active, and accessible.

The second half of the roster was harder to figure. I really wanted to use some old school comics creators, maybe get some Lee & Kirby on there, but it's hard to imagine what sort of self-contained narrative I could use. Silver Surfer maybe? I don't know. Sounds like kind of a reach. So I went back to the big picture and thought, well, who do I have to include? So Eisner went on the list, and I went with Frank Miller because, even if he basically only tells one kind of story, that's become a pretty quintessentially American story in whatever form it takes and for sheer influence on the superhero medium he's huge. Appalled at my lack of female creators on the reading list, I decided to take the chance to read some Gail Simone, whom I have long admired and wanted to showcase. Finally, I picked Jaime Hernandez, because it has been forever since I got to teach Death of Speedy and I just love that god-damn book.

So here's the final reading list. No doubt imperfect, but I'm going to go with it and try to learn from the inevitable failures.
  • Scott McLoud, Understanding Comics
  • Will Eisner, A Contract with God
  • Jaime Hernandez, Love & Rockets: The Girl from HOPPERS
  • Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns
  • Gail Simone, Welcome to Tranquility
  • Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Dream Country
  • Garth Ennis, Hellblazer: Damnation's Flame
  • Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
  • Grant Morrison, All-Star Superman
There's a thousand other books I could use if I wanted, but you know, "world enough and time." All I can do is assign a term paper which sends the students to works beyond this list, show them the Eaton Collection of comics here at UCR, and let them write on whatever they want to read.

I should have 50 students. That's going to be a lot of papers. But it'll be a fun class and I'm very excited. No doubt I will learn much.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quick Plug for Usagi Yojimbo

I first discovered Usagi Yojimbo as an undergrad, and I have to admit that when I first read it I considered it something of a guilty pleasure. I mean, this is a comic about a rabbit. It felt ... so childish to be reading a comic about a rabbit. Except, of course, that the comic is "about a rabbit" to the same degree that Maus is "about mice." Which is to say: not at all.

By now, everyone who reads comics should know about Sakai and his wonderful story of a wandering samurai who just happens to be a rabbit. The story is wonderful, and Sakai has a way of teaching us about Feudal Japan in a way that never feels heavy handed or boring. The art is so delightfully smooth, simple, and expressive, how can we not be touched by it?

No one but Stan Sakai could draw those panels. Usagi is bouncing on top of a giant drum, by the way.

The Beat is plugging Usagi today as part of their "30 days of previews" feature. You should check them out. But more importantly, check out Usagi Yojimbo. It's a treasure in 24 volumes (and counting!)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vigilance Press Podcast

I had the real pleasure last night of participating in a podcast with Mike Lafferty (the self-described "Stephen Wright of gaming"), the highly-entertaining and wonderfully talented Dan Houser, and the distinguished Charles Rice, President Emeritus of Vigilance Press. We talked about ICONS, a relatively new superhero RPG system with a rules-lite, fun-heavy approach.

You should check it out.

ICONS is the platform for my Field Guide to Superheroes project. I began work on this about eleven or twelve years ago while studying at UNLV and I initially had the help of Darren Miguez, a good friend and fellow comics nerd who is now off corrupting the minds of children from behind a librarian's desk in New Jersey. At the time, Champions was pretty much the only RPG out there for playing superhero games, and although I played Champions and its related games throughout my college years, I was tired of watching the eyes of my players glaze over whenever I tried to teach the game. And Champions has only gotten more fine grain over the years, so I feel fairly justified in my desire for something which was more intuitive, which beter simulates thie high-speed and energy of superhero comics, and something which is just plain easier to play. When even Ken Hite calls Champions, "the best game I never learned how to play," I know I'm on to something.

Anyway, my idea was originally for a diceless superhero RPG system, but while I was working on that I started coming up with a long list of superhero archetypes. Many gamers have worked up superhero archetypes since then, and I don't especially claim to be doing anything new, but my approach was different than other authors. I did not want to categorize heroes by their powers necessarily; I wanted to work with story role instead. So, for example, my archetype list did not -- and still does not -- have entries like "Strong Guy" or "Speedster". Because, to my eye, the powers the character has are less important than how he got them or what kind of stories he appears in. That "Strong Guy" could be an Alien Hero like the original Superman, a Mythic Hero like Gilgamesh, or a Spin-Off Heroine like She-Hulk, and the fact that he's from another planet, thinks he's a god, or is a female version of a male hero is far more important than the fact that these heroes just happen to be strong.

Eventually I settled on 40 Archetypes -- not because that's all there is, but because I had to stop somewhere -- and spent a page or so talking about each one. To illustrate the project, I filled it with black-and-white con art depicting all our favorite examples of these archetypes. For this, I owe the internet. And in this state the Field Guide saw a lot of use. Whenever I ran a superhero game, I trotted out the Field Guide to help new players get character ideas. When I helped organize and GM for Crucible City MUX, an online RPG for the Mutants & Masterminds system (now long closed), these archetypes became a game feature. And, since M&M also happened to be a pretty darn good superhero RPG, my need for a system of my own was happily resolved.

About five years ago I set out to publish the Field Guide for M&M. I made up a sample character for each archetype, 40 in all, and in the process created a superhero setting which I call Worlds of Wonder. But, again, the real stumbling block here was the art. I certainly could not use all the internet sketches I had downloaded in the real book! Emboldened by the success of Escape from Alcatraz, I got Bill Jackson to do some pieces for the Field Guide, but it was just such a large project, and I had so many other things going on at the time -- like a dissertation -- that it fizzled out and never was completed. And there the Field Guide sat for years while I finished my degree and became a Doctor of Comics.

When ICONS came out it didn't at first get much notice from me, because I am in the middle of a D&D 4E campaign and I don't expect to have time to run anything else for about a year. And if I was going to run something, it would probably be M&M, which I love, and which worked out so very well in my 2008 POTUS campaign, also in the Worlds of Wonder setting. But Chuck started talking ICONS up to me, and what I realized is that this is a game that doesn't have a whole lot of support already. When I was working up the Field Guide for M&M, Phil Reed had already done dozens of more traditional archetypes (Strong Guy, Speedster, etc.) for the system. But here there would be no competition. I had the opportunity to get into a game on the ground floor. Which is very cool. Then I read the game, and realized it was based on FATE, which I have wanted to work with for a while. And then, after I turned in the first part of the manuscript and Chuck recovered from his, "This is FIFTY PAGES!" moment, he told me Dan was doing the art. This is very, very good news because -- as you have picked up by now -- I can't draw and with Dan involved I knew I'd be getting someone who understands comics, their artistic history, and who would be instantly recognized as the ICONS house artist. When people look at the Field Guide, it will be familiar to them. It will look like ICONS.

The first volume of the Field Guide covers the first 10 archetypes (Alien Hero through Defender) and a good chunk of the Worlds of Wonder setting. It's got 10 fully developed characters suitable for PCs or NPCs, and they all have plot hooks so they're useful to the GM. I've had enormous fun writing the Field Guide, it's been such a useful reference for me when I run or play superhero games, the setting has been tested to success in more than one campaign over the years, and I cannot wait for you all to see it.

My thanks to Chuck, Mike and Dan for giving me a chance to do so.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Morning After Magicians

My good friends and regular D&D partners celebrated a birthday with a trip to an Indian reservation and a 12-hour peyote trip, which led to a mystical experience involving aliens, telepathy, and "rolling" states of altered consciousness which I cannot help but -- in at least a small way -- envy. For while I study and read and write about magic and magicians, and no doubt will continue to do so till the end of my life, I will never perform a magical working for the simple fact that I'm too square to do drugs. When I left home, and my Dad packed up all my belongings and drove me to my college in another state, he had only one piece of advice for me, and it was "Stay away from drugs." So I have. I'm that kind of guy.

But M's wonderfully artistic description of the event and L's later elaboration between rounds of initiative prompted me to say "You need to read the Invisibles" so often that I felt like a goddamn idiot. But it's true. And what I need to do is respect the magic that took place in that smoky chamber by taking a few minutes to write about magic in comics, specifically comics written by practicing magicians. Because it seems like it would be a real shame for this lovely, intelligent, outrageously funny couple to waste a perfectly good initiation experience by not following up on the pointers which arcane forces beyond our understanding have so graciously provided by means of a dozen peyote buttons.

There are three practicing magician comic creators that I know of, but I can only write effectively about two of them. Steve Moore, whose wikipedia entry is here, can justly brag about teaching Alan Moore how to write comics and is Alan's long time friend. Although he has written many stories for Britain's long-running magazine 2000AD, as well as books for Marvel UK, what is most interesting to me is that he was an editor for Fortean Times and Fortean Studies (its academic counterpart, 2994-2001), which is a topic I find endlessly fascinating. Lately he has more or less retired from comics, but considering how much of his work is in other forms, I don't think we should take that as anything less than a re-direction of his efforts and current interests. Besides, Alan has been taking nothing but curmudgeonly pot-shots at the comics industry for the last five years, and Steve has got to be tired of hearing it. So best to just let it go.

But the other two creators, and the ones I can talk about, are Alan himself and Grant Morrison. Since we've already mentioned Alan, let's go right to him.

Alan Moore's decision to become a practicing magician is a direct result of one of his most hard-to-read and literate comics, From Hell. In that book, William Gull, who is the serial killer and transformative mystic known to us now as Jack the Ripper, notes to his carriage driver that there's only one place we know that gods certainly exist, and that is in our minds. Moore was 40 years old at the time, and he decided that line out of From Hell was an inarguable truth. It was true, and if he was going to continue living an honest life he had better adjust to that truth. He started to think about the next step in his life and he decided he could either have a nervous breakdown or become a magician and he picked Door #2. At first he used psychedelic drugs but these days, I have it from a reliable source, Alan just relies on high quality Amsterdam hash. We shouldn't laugh, because magic has always involved drug use, and there's plenty of peyote-drinking medicine men over the centuries who could tell us more about that, I imagine. Anyway, Alan proceeded to try to answer the question, "Where do ideas come from?", which is a question we all laugh at but which Alan decided, after some thought, is the only question really worth asking. And all this led to his idea that things we imagine are just as real as things which tax us, kiss us, and hit us in the street. And, when you think about it, he has kind of a point. After all, the Big Red S is instantly recognized around the world. People tattoo it on their bodies, they mark their clothes with it, and they try to live up to it. That symbol influences people, and not just to buy comics. In fact, very few of them buy comics. As a merchandising tool, it's a failure. But as a force of nature, it's a goddamn hurricane. Moore gets into this more in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when Prospero outlines the whole argument at the end of Vol2, but basically if, when you were growing up, you thought "I want to be like Captain Kirk or Sherlock Holmes or Spider-Man," then it's actually pretty bloody ungrateful to later decide those ideas aren't real when you have, by your own admission, allowed them to be your role models in your formative years.

Alan practices what he preaches, too, because his magic involves worship to Glycon, a Roman snake god, which everyone including Alan admits was a complete hoax at the time, basically a puppet snake which some Roman conman used to get drachma out of the rubes. But because Moore's philosophy insists that imaginary beings are still real, then Glycon, although a "Fake God" does exist. As an idea. And that idea has helped Alan write pretty much everything he has written for the last ten years.

No single book better illuminates Moore's attitude towards magic and creativity than Promethea, which went for precisely 32 issues from 1999-2005, because it just so happened that Alan's rising and inevitable disgust with comics collided with the fact that 32 is the Kaballah answer to the question, "How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man." Promethea was later collected in five paperback volumes. Now I have written about Promethea elsewhere, and I won't go into a serious plot summary here or anything, I'll just say that by the end of the first 12 issues the character of Promethea -- who is a living story, and whose tagline is "If she didn't exist, we would have had to invent her" -- goes on a tour of the mystical cosmos during which she walks the 32 paths of the Kabbalah on the way to becoming a magus. She learns tantric sex and she has a number of guides along the way (my favorite being a homage to Jaime Hernandez' brilliantly real Love & Rockets character, Maggie). Now, the book by this point had reached a point where most people had simply stopped reading, and I can't blame them, because it's not for ordinary joes any more. It is a book about magic; not wand and dragon magic, but real, honest to god, practicing magic in our real world, narrated by actual magicians famous and in-. Crowley makes an appearance, and in fact it is from one of these appearances that I got the name for my dissertation. Most of the meat of the magic chapters are, essentially, the main character asking questions and getting answers. It's a Socratic dialogue, if Socrates was drawn and colored by artists who, I am convinced, flew down from Heaven on pixie-dust and Xena DVDs.

Alan Moore is the most literate and high brow of comic writers. I suppose there might be a short list of people you could nominate for "The Shakespeare of Comics," but he sure fits the bill for me. (It can't be Eisner; he looked down on comics and always seemed to be slumming when he wrote one, and it can't be Kirby, who read Shakespeare and loved him but who had little interest in subtlety.) Until he and Steve Moore finish the Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, which is supposed to be a grimoire in comics format, this is the closest we are probably going to get to a how-to. It's not for the rubes. It's challenging and it's experimental. But it's calling.

Now if Alan Moore is the Shakespeare of comics, Grant Morrison is more like Kit Marlowe, if Marlowe had come after Shakespeare and not before. Like Marlowe, he's perpetually young, more handsome, and somehow far more hip than Shakespeare. He's sexier, not just in person but also in his language and his plots. Just as Shakespeare could never, ever, have written Edward II, so Alan Moore could never, ever, have written The Invisibles.

The Invisibles is a three-volume epic (it's packaged as 7 books, which is why Amazon says volumes 1-7, but it's really a three parter) which is widely considered Morrison's magnum opus, though I expect Grant himself is trying to break that conception with his current work on Batman, a character he has long identified with and wanted to write. It is a story of an occult conspiracy powered by drugs, guns, and rock and roll. Its characters undergo mystic initiations which allow them to see the truth of the world in a way impossible for the rest of us. Sometimes these initiations involve heavy quotation from King Lear and stepping off buildings. But other times they involve getting stoned on mountain tops or gray aliens who carry the Holy Grail. Morrison's conviction on things like the meta-textuality of the cosmos and his own certainty that he has been abducted by aliens, shown the true nature of the universe, and that this nature is, basically, "play and have fun," is unwavering, dizzying, and hypnotic.

Morrison also practices magic in his personal and daily life; he is, in many ways, a ten-year-younger version of Moore who hasn't alienated himself from the comics industry and who is responsible for far fewer movies that suck. He used magic to communicate with the evil entities he believes were responsible for his own near-fatal illness while writing the Invisibles, and he bargained for his own health and recovery by promising them that, if they would let him live, he would immortalize them forever in comics as the Baddest Shit Ever. And he did. You can see them for yourself. He used magic to cure Jill Thompson's cat of cancer. He used magic to save his own comic book from cancellation. (The Wankathon, as this magical act is known, is simply too awesome to share space with any other topic, and must wait for another time.) Needless to say, he did all of this while on some serious shit, and he has fully admitted that for parts of the Invisibles he was just taking pills and writing pages as fast as he could write them, basically letting whatever he was doing in his life dictate what went onto the page. Sort of like how Kevin Smith writes comics except, you know, not in a way that makes you want to stab your eyes out.

For a person who is, shall we say, "magic-curious," The Invisibles is perhaps a better place to go than Promethea because it is, frankly, a more exciting story. It's longer, and confusing as hell. Fortunately there are annotations to help us through; I recommend Anarchy for the Masses: The Disinformation Guide to the Invisibles. And the first volume is kind of shaky, too. The main story, the initiation, is quite good. And that's why it remains a great start for someone who might, say, have taken a 12-hour high and been rewarded with telepathy and who might want to know, "Hey, what's next?" But the subplots kind of wander and stumble around until Volume 2, when it becomes insanely good, and I'm not just saying that because King Mob throws his pistol into a lake in a pure-as-gold Arthurian moment. The later volumes of Invisibles get a lot more into how magic works as Morrison swaps out his kung fu me-characters for magical ones, and Morrison's own interviews in Anarchy for the Masses help here too. Magic, it turns out, is really a pretty simple idea of doing something to generate power, and then directing that power through effort. The trick is knowing what to ask for, and Grant will tell you through hard experience that we should always ask for what we NEED, not what we WANT. Because, let's face it, we're stupid men and we want things that are really very, very, bad for us.

If I were an aspiring magician -- and I never will be, thanks Dad -- I would read The Invisibles and Promethea, and see what I think of what their authors are saying. If nothing else, I'd be in for some of the best comics ever written, I shit you not. But they might also be on to something, something about creativity and human existence, about how we treat each other and what happens next, about things which are just out of earshot, and just beyond the corner of my eye.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Last Great Work of Alan Moore"

The last 24 hours have seen an outpouring of sympathy and, I imagine, scorn over the folding of Wildstorm's shutters. I don't have all that much to say about it, really. I mean, these were people getting paid to make comics, it's the best job in the world, they seemed to know that, and now those jobs are gone. That's about all that needs to be said about it.

But over at
Heidi McDonald's Comics Beat, buried near the tail end of a long tribute to Wildstorm by various creators and staff over the years, is this beauty by Rob Lefield.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen felt as important as Watchmen, a return to Alan Moore’s penchant of taking existing icons and pulling them together in a massive sprawling epic. It made it to screen, complete with condemnation from Moore, faster than any of his previous works. Had the film been and performed better, it’s legacy would be even more immense. For me, the last great work of Alan Moore.

Now, for many, the very fact that Rob Liefeld wants to critique Alan Moore is laughable on its face. We are forced to ask the question, "What, pray tell, is the last great work of Rob Liefeld?" But that's not really fair in this case. Liefeld isn't writing about Alan as a critic, or even as a peer in the comics industry, but rather as a fan. Reading the rest of Liefeld's comments, his love for these books, his enthusiasm, his sheer envy and fan-geekery, are unhidden. And that is a perfectly legit forum for Rob Liefeld to critique Alan Moore. As a guy who reads Alan's books, and who likes them, and who happens to think that everything after the first volume of League has been downhill.

It's certainly true that since Moore started ABC, artists and editors have been desperate for anything he has written, even going to the extent to publish old songs and poems he wrote years before. You get some amazing artist to illustrate Alan's text, which was never meant to be a comic, and people are bound to buy it because, well, it's Alan Frikkin' Moore. And most of the time it is still worth it, but no one would claim that something like "Another Suburban Romance" or "Hypothetical Lizard" are Great Comics.

So if we eliminate the obvious noncontenders, what are we left with? Well, there's everything else at ABC, including Top Ten, Tom Strong, and Promethea, and there's Lost Girls.

I love Top Ten. I've used it in the classroom, teaching it in a freshman composition & literature course where we could focus on textual analysis. It was the last book in the quarter, and it was there for a reason, because of all the comics we read it was the hardest for the students to understand. Gene Ha's art was just so damn busy, so damn rich, that the students were overwhelmed at first. The layouts made them seasick. It was awesome, but took some getting used to. They loved the characters, the sheer gutsiness of the book. When my students realized that Kemlo was a dog with a human girlfriend, and they were going home to have sex, I mean ... those moments are priceless. What other writer would DO that? And, while doing it, make it clear that this wasn't just done for shock value. It actually humanized the characters. We felt kind of sorry for her, because her previous guys had been such dicks to her, and Kemlo was basically a human being in a dog suit. He was a guy who happened to be a doberman, and he wore his Hawaiian shirts, and he was the complete opposite of, for example, the robot police officer who came around in volume 2, who didn't want to be human because, well, that would have been a step down.

Top Ten was a great comic. But it wasn't a Great Comic. It is tragically cut short by its conclusion at the end of volume 2, or "Season One," with many plot threads left unresolved and so much left to do or say. But, really, as a police procedural, could it really have ended any other way? It ended the same way Law & Order ended, with a sudden end-of-season cancellation and a couple of spin-off books which are decent, solid, but wholly unremarkable imitations of the original. Now I can't stop thinking of Sam Waterson as Smax. Think about it. It could have worked.

I was slow to warm up to Tom Strong. I didn't get it at first, when the various ABC titles were first being marketed and hyped. I didn't realize it was a Doc Savage/Tarzan/everything else mash-up which speculated, "What would superheroes be like if Superman had never been invented?" That's a brilliant concept, and it uses a bunch of wonderful titles I adore from the pulp era and before. The age of Victorian adventure fiction got new life in Tom Strong, and if his stories were wild fun and a little bit kooky and far-out, well, that was the point. It had a talking ape and a robot man who used wax cylinders for a voice box, it had Nazi super-vixens and an auto-gyro, and everything in that sentence is made of win. There's no question Tom Strong was fun. But where it started to get great, when it started to be real, were those moments when Tom came face to face with his father, his mother, and his attitude towards these people. Tom's father imprisoned his son in a gravity well for his entire childhood in order to make him into a superman. And every time Tom was forced to confront the fact that he loved his father, but also resented him, the book saw greatness. Tom was a father and a husband, and though his battles with colossal cybernetic snakes from an alternate dimension were never really in doubt, his real struggle was to be a better man, a better husband, and a better father than his own father. And he longed to reconnect with his mother who was gone, in a way that any reader of Maus can instantly recognize. If Art Spiegelman and Tom Strong sat down for lunch together, you know they would instantly recognize each other.

I don't claim to be a Lost Girls expert. There are some people who have written long and thoughtful pieces on the book, people like Kate Laity or Emily Mattingly and others. I've got it, I read it, and I thought it was interesting, but I've never opened it back up since I finished it the first time. I remember I didn't really know what I was getting when I bought it. I pretty much picked it up because:
  1. It was Alan Moore
  2. He had been working on it for years
  3. It had literary characters in it
  4. It was porn

This four-punch combo was irrestible to me. And there's no question that the time, the sheer number of man-and-woman hours involved, is clear on every page. Gebbie has created something unlike anything else that is out there. And I am sure there is plenty in the text that I would appreciate, if I were educated on it. Issues of gender, and race, and sexuality, and machines and technology, and all kinds of other important topics. But the simple fact is that Lost Girls does not turn me on. Which I was pretty surprised about, to be honest. No matter what else we might get out of Lost Girls, it is written to be porn. Really, really, high quality porn. Porn that costs you a hundred dollars in hardcover and which you keep for a lifetime. But if porn does not turn you on, it's a failure. For those who are turned on by Lost Girls, bully for you. Don't let Christine O'Donnell catch you.

And what are we left with? Well, there's the other League books and there's Promethea. Did Liefeld mean to include the second volume of League and the Black Dossier and the stalled Century when he praised League as Alan's last great work? I don't know for sure, but I tend to doubt it. None of these comics have been made into film, which seems to be one of the measures by which Liefeld makes his case, nor have they been printed at Wildstorm, which seems to be what Rob is talking about here. But, out of caution, I will not try to argue that League volume 2 is Great, or that the Black Dossier is Great, despite my true and sincere admiration for both these books, which I have written about extensively elsewhere.

And so, Promethea. She was an initial hit with readers, who saw in these pages an action-adventure comic with a strong female protagonist who didn't wear a thong. JH Williams III made this book into a transcendant masterpiece. The layouts, the gutter art, the design of the characters and everything else we saw told you that this, this, this was something worth reading. Something you would be talking about later. As the first story arc ended, people started to drift away from the book. Sophie started to wander the mystical universe, meeting a large cast of supporting characters drawn from history, occultism, and the imagination. She became a mouthpiece for exposition about how the cosmos was put together, how it worked. Or, rather, she asked all the questions, because she was the novice, the learner, and everyone else she encountered provided the answers. She was Dante and her guides were many. We began to learn what magic was. We learned its symbols and its voices. The book became impossibly dense. It experimented with art, with photo comics, with realism and cartoons. The book split into two different stories: Sophie continued her tour through the Sephiroth, walking the path of the magus, while her best friend became her rival back on Earth, kicking ass and taking names. But there wasn't enough ass-kicking for most readers, or for the comics media, who simply stopped reading. It became too high brow, even when the end came into sight and Alan suddenly reminded us that, oh yeah, Promethea looked like an Arab, which means she could be a Muslim terrorist, and the world we were living in, you and I, intruded into all that mystic mumbo-jumbo and reminded us that the cold equations are never far away.

Promethea is a Great Comic. It shoots higher than Tom Strong, than Top Ten, than Lost Girls. And it scores. It's not for everyone. It's never going to change the comic industry the way Watchmen did. And that means Rob Liefeld and the people like him are never going to love Promethea. That's because it does not speak to them. Those people are not its audience. Promethea speaks to the literati, to the student of history, of culture, to the magus and the aspiring magus. It reaches out to those of us who have read comics since we were six and it asks us, "Haven't you always thought there was something magical about comics?" And we quietly whisper, "Yes" where no one can hear us. Except Alan and Williams, who nod knowingly, pull back the curtain of the world, and usher us into the magnificant moon and serpent show of our dreams.

But even this, even this argument, is unfair. Because Alan Moore, despite his increasing grouchiness, is not yet done. I am not the first person to note that Moore has become increasingly ambivalent towards not only the comic industry, but even towards his fellow creators. I won't go into that here. But we know he has been working on a couple of major projects, and I for one am still hopeful that they will, someday, see the sun. One of those books is his novel, Jerusalem. Another is his grimoire in comic form. Will either of these two things be "Great"? I don't know, and maybe its just because I'm not a young man any more, but I would think twice before saying a creator like Alan Moore wrote his "last great work" over ten years ago, when the guy is still alive and still writing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Superhero Campaigns

I'm two-thirds of the way through my D&D4e campaign and everyone seems to be having a (mostly) good time, so it's not like I have any time to run anything else in the next, oh, year. But a casual remark by one of my players a month or so ago got me thinking that, if I were to run a new game, and if that game was a superhero game, what sort of game might I run?

This is a hard question, not an easy one, because despite my love for the superhero genre, and the man-years which I have spent enthusing over just this kind of question, I have already run so many of these games over the years that coming up with one which isn't a rehash of something I have already done is a real corker. Dark and gritty vigilantes? Done. Most powerful heroes in the world? Done. Play yourselves with super powers? Done. I have had to get fairly creative the last couple of times, and the result was my POTUS campaign (the heroes are secret service agents in the 2008 campaign) and a take on the "Kooky Quartet" in which every member of the World's Greatest Hero Team quits, and the only people left to stand up and fill the roster are little-known other guys who would have fit better in the Mystery Men than the Justice League.

Both games were fun, but what do I do now? I have a setting, one I call Worlds of Wonder, but that doesn't really tell me what sort of a game to run. My biggest regret is I never got to run my Tunguska 12 campaign idea, but it was always timed to the centennial of the Tunguska event and that has come and gone. But thinking about it, I now have two ideas, which is something at least.

I would like to do a "common origin" game, in which everyone gets their powers at more or less the same time, during the game, and this creates a bond between them that keeps them together even when they don't necessarily like each other all that much, or if one of them does something the others don't agree with. I've spent some time fiddling around with this in other games; Tunguska 12 would have accomplished this as well. But to make this work, you have to come up with an origin which doesn't restrict the players too much. I can't say, for example, "All right, you are all astronauts," because, well, what if you don't want to play an astronaut. Of course, none of the FF were astronauts and they all went into space on a rocket ship, but most players find that all pretty laughable. But I digress.

So my idea was to put all the players on jury duty together. I mean, if you have a driver's license, you can be called for jury duty. I suppose some people are exempt, but most of those people -- cops, government officials -- I could put in the courtroom anyway from their job. And jury duty is such a cross-section that is allows almost anyone. Also, if its 12 people plus other people in the court-room, then there's my cast of NPCs who recur throughout the series. That is, the guy who is on trial, he gets super powers too and becomes the villain of the series. Witnesses in the courtroom, the bailiff or court recorder, the lawyers, these all become recurring cast, because they all get powers too.

And heck, "The Jury" is even a pretty good name for a super team.

I have no idea what powers the Jury would get. I'd like to leave that up to the players. I don't know what suddenly causes them to develop super powers. It must have something to do with the case that is on trial. Maybe there's some high tech gizmo as Exhibit A. Maybe the defendant is the victim of a poison gas attack. Maybe terrorists try to blow up the court room. No idea. Aliens, maybe it's aliens! Nah.

The other idea came to me today as I was finally reading Morrison's "Black Glove" trade, in which the Batmen of Many Nations appear. I think it might be kind of neat to do a "Let's get the Band back together" story, in which the players have all been superheroes for ten years or so, and they used to be on a team, but the team broke up, and now they are all called back together. Maybe it's for a dopey reason like a reunion or a publicity pic. Maybe someone is making a movie or a new book is coming out, and its all for the press. Or maybe someone has called them all together in true 12 Little Indians style. But the point of this game would be that we would not know, when the game started, why the Band broke up. We would figure that out during the course of the campaign, maybe using flashbacks or parallel stories in which some clue from a current case reminds people of their Last Case way back in '99 or whatever, and it slowly gets spooled out a little thread at a time.

And, again, The Band isn't a bad name for a superhero group.

So those are the two superhero games I kind of want to run, right now. Or, rather, they're the two games I think have good possibility, and would be fun, and workable, if I had time to run a superhero game. Which I don't. But you know. I can't stop thinking.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arthur Lives, Going Savage

So I have been spending my spare hours this week working on the Savage Worlds version of Arthur Lives. The two games are very different, not least because only one has classes and levels. True20 has a certain presumption of action-worthiness built into the system; your character cannot go up in level and be completely helpless, because your attack bonus, defense, and saves all go up with you. Yes, you could pick useless powers, and no doubt some players do that, put if you put a gun in the hand of a 16th level expert, even if that character has refused to acquire Firearm Proficiency, he'll still be practically invulnerable to low-level attackers and be able to shoot them dead.

Savage Worlds doesn't work like that. Instead of using rules to push your abilities higher, it relies on carrots and sticks. You want to improve your Fighting skill? You'll have to pay a penalty unless you also increase your Agility. And as soon as you do that, you've made yourself better at all kinds of things, not just Fighting.

True20 has long lists of feats, and characters accumulate a lot of them as they go up in level. Savage Worlds uses edges instead, but there are fewer of them and an individual character will have fewer of them on his sheet.

But the really big thing I am noticing is that Savage World's emphasis on what they call "Fast! Furious! Fun!" means that the only magic is combat magic, and the rules are very thin on anything that doesn't involve fighting. True20 lavishes effort on crafting, for example, so a character can make magical items, potions, explosives, and what have you. None of that exists in Savage Worlds. True20 has all these ways for characters with high Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma to hold their own in combat; in Savage Worlds, none of those alternate combat routes exist. Some of these mechanics I can let go, but others I have to create, because Arthur Lives is essentially a game of occult conspiracy. There's plenty of action. It's a cinematic game. But it also needs to have things like ritual magic, the creation of enchanted items, magic potions, and more.

At the same time, I'm glad to have a game system with rules for chases and vehicle combat. That will help out the knights in AL, who tend to have vehicle skills and who want to put those skills to use. Each system is different, and I certainly recognize that and am happy to work around it. But I do worry that Savage Worlds players are going to see this game, with all its ritual magic, its crafting, its non-combat spells like supernatural travel and faerie refuges, and they're going to accuse me of "not being Savage Worlds enough."

Time will tell, I suppose.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Strictly Non-Aryan

Sometimes I stumble across images that grab me and make me write about them. This is one. It's from Look Magazine's 1940 two-page comic, "What if Superman Ended the War?", which you can read in its entirety here.

There's a lot to think and talk about here; Corey Creekmur uses these two pages to bring up ethical issues concerning the ramifications of super powers. I don't know specifically where he goes with this, but I imagine it might start with something like, "Isn't Superman an American citizen? And if he is, and America isn't at war with Germany in 1940, then why is he invading that country?" Because in 1940, this was not yet our war.

But, of course, that was exactly what Siegel and Schuster -- two Jewish kids -- wanted to change. If I were using this story in class, I think I'd have less to say about the ethics of superpowers (interesting and geopolitical as they may be) and more to say about propaganda and the way that comics and popular culture are used to influence popular will. This comic, and many more like them, were a collective shout on the part of young Jewish men who were riding the crest of a new media wave. There were millions of people reading what these guys were writing, and these were guys who were not used to attention. When they spoke, they did not command the ears of the general multitude. But now, suddenly, what they wrote and what they drew were burning up the news stands, being passed around from hand to hand to hand, between both kids and their dads. So, naturally, these creators, heady with new audience and the electric power sparking from their fingertips, started to talk louder and louder, with more and more passion.

Still, one can't help but read the comic and wonder, "What if?" Superman ends World War II in two pages, before America is even drawn into it, before Pearl Harbor. We don't see him round up Mussolini and Hirohito, but presumably he could if they weren't smart enough to stop fighting on their own. He's sort of a one-man A-bomb, in the sense that he forces an end to the war through the fear of an overwhelming superior force. If we were making a new comic story about war today -- in Afghanistan perhaps -- we should not hold back or pull punches. We should not keep our hero out of that war. We should throw him in. With X-Ray Vision, Super Hearing, and Super-Speed our hero could round up Osama bin Laden with equal alacrity. But ... then what? Then what would happen?

I think we can all agree that the story that happened next would take more than two pages.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cut Till it Hurts

I'm in the process of revising Superhero Comics and the Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance with an eye towards removing images I can live without. This will make my editor happy, which is a good thing, and might make it easier to get permissions, which is also a good thing. What's tough about this is that comics are about text and image, and my natural instinct whenever I am talking about a page is to show it to you, so I can just point and say, "See? See!" I wrote the Shakespeare/ Moore/ Claremont/ David chapter with knowledge of my image requirements in mind, and used far fewer than I otherwise would have, but when I was writing for my dissertation committee I didn't see any reason to hold back. Now I pay for that by making painful cuts. Every one of them makes the end result a less perfect book, but you just do what you can and hold your nose.

But as I am working my way through the manuscript, I came across Jack Kirby's scathing commentary on the modern evangelical movement. Kirby understood first that there is a dark side to every one of us. Remember that great scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy, the quintessential "beer hero", is getting himself plastered in the wake of Marion Ravenwood's death, and Belloq, the "champagne villain", confronts him?
It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.
To which, of course, Indy growls, "Now you're gettin' nasty." Because he knows that Belloq is right. And Kirby knew that too. That's why, when Glorious Godfrey appears in the pages of The Forever People, he's soon got average Americans just like you and me eating out of his hand, their eyes blanked out like Little Orphan Annie as they recite slogans of hate.

But Kirby also understood that if people are sometimes weak and afraid, and they are prone to give in to their own worst side, they slide down that slippery slope much faster when someone is pushing them. It's not the ordinary folk who make up these groups who are ultimately to blame, it's the knowing puppeteers who are pulling their strings and getting rich and powerful in the process. To watch Glen Beck on television is to watch a painful clown act; when he wants to look like a don for his self-created and self-titled Glen Beck University, he puts on his glasses and adopts his best professorial tone. When he wants to convince his audience of his sincerity, he cries and fills his voice with the earnest pleading of a man who is just concerned for his country. And when he wants to plant the seeds of doubt, he accuses the President of being a "Liberation Theologian" and not a Christian because, let's face it, the vast majority of the American population doesn't know what the hell Liberation Theology is. If they did, they might realize that this would make the President a Christian who reads the Gospel and believes that when Jesus said poor people were more likely to get into Heaven, he might not have been, you know, pulling that shit out of his ass.

It was while looking through these pages that I realized that Kirby had prophesied Mr. Beck in the person of Glorious Godfrey. No modern evangelical figure has captured the popular imagination in quite the way Beck has. He can take his hats on and off with amazing alacrity, insisting we need to return America to its values without ever naming what any of those values are. (Because if he did, it would be clear he means Republican values, and he could no longer claim his project was "not political".) He can call on the country to return to God, as if the United States wasn't already the most religious Western nation in the world. As if a President who didn't go to church could be elected in this country. As if ordinary people who go to church are somehow persecuted or terrorized. (Because, when he says the country needs to return to God, he can in this way imply that the President and the country are Godless.) He can insist that his activities are not political, then go on Fox News -- which breezily donated one million dollars to elect Republican governors, putting the money where it's mouth has long been.

I'm pretty astounded by someone who can lie to that many people, lie right to their faces, and get them to applaud while he's picking their pockets, while he's sending round the collection plate. It's not as if he hasn't been caught; there are dozens of reliable investigations into Mr. Beck's various scams and long cons. But the people he's talking to, they want to believe him. He's pushed them "out of the light." No amount of evidence shown to them will convince them that they are at the mercy of a hate-monger, a man who wants them to be afraid because it is only when they live their lives in fear that he can continue to steal from them and ride a tidal wave of populist anger all the way to ... well ... wherever it is that evangelical masters go. A sex scandal, I suppose, though none of that would ever kick Mr. Beck out of the super-rich plutocracy to which he has managed to ingratiate himself, walking on the backs of folks who ought to know better, but who have fallen for the patter -- for a painfully transparent salesman routine. In so doing, they turn their anger and fear towards an "other" whose only crime is that they aren't like us, and so they're easy to pick on, and when we pick on them, we have a vent for all our pent-up frustration and disappointment over a world that's just too damn complicated for comfort.

Monday, August 23, 2010

7 Minutes to Midnight

The book deadline looms; there is no way that I will finish everything and have the project ready to be mailed by the 1st of September, but if I am fortunate I will have all the text written, and will only need to complete a few final steps, including:
  • Going through the text for a final pass to remove any un-necessary illustrations, in order to make getting permissions easier.
  • Working through Pete Coogan's Institute for Comic Studies to get my art permissions easily and quickly.
  • Making a final pass through the notes and bibliography, to make sure everything has been included and cited.
This project began the transition from dissertation to book as a 65,000 word manuscript that needed to be 75,000. It's now 85,000 and the new chapter I have written is the longest in the book. On the topic of Shakespeare, especially interpretations of Tempest, in comics, it is now literally central, being chapter 3 of 5 and filling the middle of the text. I probably should have not bitten off as large a topic as I did, and perhaps I could have cut one of the four sub-sections that make up this increasingly large chapter, but I think the end result is worth it and what I like about it is that it touches on characters and writers I didn't get a chance to deal with elsewhere in the book, such as Claremont, David, and Moore, the Hulk and the X-Men, perhaps making the book useful to people who otherwise would not have had much reason for it.

Along the way, I have essentially created three conference papers, which I suppose will get me rolling through PCA, next year's Comic Arts Conference, and any additional conference I can get myself invited to.

The road has not been without disappointments. I have been surprised at every turn by how comic writers -- usually a pretty verbose bunch who are happy to answer emails and questions -- don't seem interested in talking to me. Peter David, who is very active online, left me hanging weeks ago. Claremont never answered my emails. Moore turned down my request for an interview. This has, at times, been demoralizing and I admit to becoming increasingly jaded. It is tough to admit that a book like this simply may not be useful or important, no matter how much hard work it is. Editors have quotas and holes in their schedules which need filling; they'll sell a dozen copies to libraries here and there, and no one will ever see this book again. And yet, this is part of what we do to get position and tenure, and while we're doing it we take pride to make it as good as we can possibly make it. You have to find a sort of zen place when working on an academic project like this -- you have to be proud of it for what it is, because you're certainly not going to get rich nor famous, and with the way some great comic scholars have been savaged by critics in the academic press over the last few years, it's increasingly unlikely that one will earn the respect of one's peers.

But while you're on the journey, while you're making, it is fun and engaging and you have those moments where you look at what you are writing and admit to yourself that, man, that's not bad.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Claremont's "Tempest": X-Men 147-150

[ This is quite long. But what the hell. ]

As we search for superhero comics that appropriate, re-enact, manipulate or comment on Shakespeare, it’s easy to restrict ourselves to those in which Shakespeare is actually quoted. “Tempest Fugit” throws us a lifeline of another sort; by making the title of the story into a pun on The Tempest, David sends up a signal that says, “Here there be Shakespeare.” (In case we did not yet notice, he also does quote the play’s most famous lines in a couple of places.) Similarly, characters are sometimes named after Shakespearean characters. When Aquaman’s former sidekick, Aqualad, grew up and became a wizard with magical control over the elements, he renamed himself Tempest. But the most famous use of Shakespeare in this sense is probably the sympathetic monster Caliban, created by Chris Claremont as part of his unforgettable seventeen year run writing
The Uncanny X-Men. Although Caliban would remain a member of the X-Men mythos for decades, his first appearance in Uncanny X-Men #148 (August 1981) is the earliest stage of Claremont’s larger riff on “The Tempest”, which would last through issue #150.

It is difficult to overstate Chris Claremont’s influence on modern superhero comics, especially through the 1980s when the X-Men were the best-selling characters on the stands. An American born in England and educated at Bard College, Claremont came to the X-Men after the book had been cancelled due to poor sales and only recently re-launched with a new, more international and ethnically diverse, cast. As we have seen in other books, this gave Claremont considerable leeway when it came to finding a new direction for the X-Men, since expectations based on previous sales were low. The X-Men, of course, are “mutants”, which is to say they are born with special powers which usually surface during puberty, and these powers make them hated and feared by ordinary people. Claremont’s genius was to make “mutant” a metaphor for almost any discriminated group, so that any reader who felt he had been outcast by society could instantly identify with the heroic, noble, but long-suffering X-Men. By 1991, however, Claremont’s verbose and melodramatic writing style had been upstaged by more popular action-oriented artists, and conflict with Marvel’s editorial team prompted him to leave the X-Men and Marvel Comics.

“Rogue Storm”, issue #147, finds the former leader of the X-Men, the superhero known as Cyclops, working on the fishing trawler Arcadia, captained by the beautiful Alytys “Lee” Forester. A freak storm comes out of nowhere and washes both Cyclops and Lee overboard. “Two score ships were lost the night they were swept overboard,” we later learn. “It’s a miracle their trawler, Arcadia, made it back to port at all. We had freak squalls, sea quakes, islands being raised, or sunk.” This is the source of the mysterious island in Claremont’s vision: rather than being the home of a witch and her fishy son, the island is itself raised from the bottom of the sea by its master. It takes only a few pages for these events to be related, and most of the book is given over to a larger plot in which a member of the X-Men, Storm, loses control of her powers, but in the 1980s it was not uncommon for stories to take a long time to mature and develop. Today’s comic book market is aimed at stories like “Tempest Fugit”, which begin suddenly, last five to eight issues, and then end firmly, so that they can be collected into a single volume, wrapped with a cover, and sold on Amazon or from the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But in the days when Claremont wrote on The Uncanny X-Men, the audience was being lured back to specialty comic book shops every month by the promise of slowly-unfolding plots and subplots, in a way not unlike today’s serial television epics such as Lost.

The following issue begins with Cyclops and his companion, Lee, washing ashore on a mysterious island which, the redoubtable Captain Forester assures us, “wasn’t here” only a day ago. “It didn’t exist!” Cyclops and Lee explore the fantastic ruined city located on the island, a city made of green stone and decorated with squid-motifs that evoke H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and its sunken island of R’lyeh. In the final pages of the book, Cyclops and Lee Forester discover the island’s terrible secret: its master is none other than Magneto, the X-Men’s “oldest, deadliest foe.” So we can see, already, the basic skeleton of Shakespeare’s plot: a nearly-omnipotent mastermind has lured his enemies to a fantastic island, where he intends to carry out his vengeance. But throughout this issue Cyclops and Lee are still firmly in the subplot position, and most of the comic is taken up with a self-contained story which would seem to have nothing at all to do with The Tempest, were it for the fact that the protagonist of this story is a monster named Caliban.

In the same issue where Cyclops and Lee are exploring Magneto’s island, an all-female cast of X-Men and their amazing friends encounter the monstrous Caliban. While these characters include the spin-off heroine Spider-Woman, a disco-inspired superhero named Dazzler, and the X-Men’s strong African-American character, the woman named Storm, the focus is on Kitty Pryde, who is the center of Caliban’s attention. Kitty’s role in the X-Men is that of the ingénue; she is perpetually fourteen years old, fresh-faced and naïve, curious about the brave new world of superheroics to which she has been introduced. She is, in other words, the Miranda of the X-Men. But, as we saw with “Tempest Fugit”, it is not enough to be Miranda, because Miranda has no superhuman powers and would not be able to keep up with the high-flying X-Men. Instead, Chris Claremont and his collaborators drew both from Miranda and from Ariel, so that Kitty’s superhuman power is the ability to become like a spirit and thus walk through solid objects or even walk on air. When Kitty first earned the right to her own superhero code-name (in X-Men #139), her mentor Professor Xavier explicitly suggested the name “Ariel” to her, wearing Claremont’s Shakespearean influence on his sleeve as it were. But for Claremont, a name based on classic literature isn’t necessarily a name a fourteen year old girl would like, and the need to write consistent and realistic personalities trumps any desire to wave the banner of high culture. Thus, the name “Ariel’ may have literary pedigree, but Kitty reacts to it with “Yuck.” Instead, she chooses the more “childish” name of “Sprite”, a word that still appears in Shakespeare, though not in The Tempest. But regardless of her official code-name – and she would move through Sprite, Ariel, and more in her long career – Kitty was usually addressed as Kitty. It was by this name that she was introduced to the X-Men and to fans, and it was by this name that she would continue to be remembered.

Claremont’s Caliban is a “hulking, rag-clad manform” in a cloak and wide-brim hat who lives in the sewers beneath Manhattan and refers to himself in the third person. His name is expressly a reference to Shakespeare’s play, as we learn when Caliban tells us, “His father named him for a monster!” Presumably, Caliban’s father read the Bard, and it is easy to imagine Claremont’s reference here sending legions of teenage readers to the nearest encyclopedia to look up what “monster” Caliban might be referring to. In any case, Caliban is a mutant, a person born with a superhuman power, though he has spent his entire life in the sewers and seems to know nothing about human society. His unusual talent is that he can sense the presence of other mutants, though because Caliban is so isolated, he does not know that word, referring to mutants as people “like Caliban”, in contrast to “humans” who are not like Caliban. Claremont’s representation of Caliban is, as we might expect from the writer of the X-Men, a sympathetic take on the social outcast. Caliban is motivated by loneliness and fear. He can sense Kitty Pryde and the other X-Men nearby, and is drawn to them out of a desire to find his own kind, but his certainty that he will be chased by any human beings who happen to spot him is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Caliban has another mutant ability which makes his sojourn out of the sewers more problematic: negative emotions such as fear cause him extreme pain while also granting him superhuman strength. When he emerges from the sewer and is confronted by policemen, the fear they feel due to Caliban’s menacing appearance causes the “monster” to lash out in pain. This becomes an elaborate justification for superheroic action, so that Caliban’s violence can be waved away as self-defense, an understandable reaction to being misunderstood by people he does not wish to hurt. Like the Hulk, he wants only to be left alone, but lashes out at those who pursue and harry him.

Kitty re-enacts the role of Miranda to Claremont’s Caliban, though he calls her “Sprite-child”. In the play, Caliban’s lust for Miranda is an instrument of revenge against Prospero; he would populate the island with Calibans as a way of regaining control of his inheritance. But Claremont’s Caliban sees Kitty as a kindred spirit. “You are like Caliban!” he proclaims. “You will come with him, stay with him, be his friend!” The last thing Shakespeare’s Caliban wants is Miranda’s friendship. There, Miranda is protected by her powerful father, but Kitty has no father figure in this story. Instead, her surrogate mother, Storm, comes to her rescue. Ever the sympathetic Beast to Kitty’s Beauty, Caliban knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he cannot help himself. “If Caliban leaves the Sprite-child,” he admits, “perhaps they will not follow. Will not try to hurt Caliban anymore.” But he is at the mercy of his loneliness, revealed as he follows this line of thought to its conclusion: “But then Caliban will be alone again, as he has always been alone. It would be better to die.” Confronted by Caliban, Kitty passes out, collapsing into a convenient and sudden slumber that would do Miranda proud. But before Caliban can whisk her back into the sewers, Storm and the other women of the book rescue her and realize Caliban is not an enemy so much as a lost soul. Beneath his rags, Caliban is white-skinned and hairless, not at all “fishy” but, rather, a kind of Morlock with bulging lidless eyes and albino features. Hated by his own father due to his appearance, Caliban thought he was the only one of his kind, but was forced to follow his urges when he sensed other mutants in the city above.

On the surface, Chris Claremont’s Caliban seems to have little to do with Shakespeare’s. One is a kind but tormented Morlock, living underground and lonely for company, the other is a mean-spirited and fish-like drunkard who would like nothing so much as to be left alone on his island for all time. Claremont’s vision is certainly a rehabilitation of the character, an unapologetic attempt to cast this “monster” in a new light, a more obviously enlightened and sympathetic light in which Caliban’s antisocial behavior (threats of rape or kidnapping) are blamed at least somewhat on his strange appearance and the way in which ordinary society has exiled him. Claremont says, by implication, that if Caliban had been embraced by Prospero or by his father then he would not have become the creature he became. Of course, Prospero claims that he has done just this, that he welcomed Caliban into his home and treated him with kindness until Caliban betrayed that trust; it is not Prospero who calls Caliban a “monster”. But in Claremont’s story, it is. Or, rather, it is Caliban’s mysterious off-stage father who christened him with both name and monstrous description. Claremont suggests that Prospero’s insistence he treated Caliban fairly is a pretense, a ruse which denies Prospero’s own culpability as new master of an island which already had a native occupant. The wizard doth protest too much, and he ignores his own role in Caliban’s vengeance.

This self-contained story ends as a very simple, yet poignant, morality play, for Caliban is far from the only unusual-looking member of the X-Men’s cast. Kitty comes to see how her fear of Caliban is very much like her fear of one of her own teammates, the demonic Nightcrawler, who has been unfailingly kind to her but from whom she continues to recoil in fear even after years of acquaintance. Claremont shows us that if we do not fear Caliban, then he will not lash out at us in pain. From Caliban’s confession, Kitty realizes that appearance should not matter and that fear and hatred only cause further fear and hatred. She resolves to be kinder and more accepting of Nightcrawler, just as we, the readers, are thus encouraged to be more accepting of those who are least like us, who are most “fishy”. Although Claremont’s play on The Tempest will continue through the next two issues, Caliban’s story goes on a long hiatus after this single appearance only to reappear and climax two years later in a marriage-plot where Kitty resumes her role as Beauty to Caliban’s Beast. Eventually Caliban releases her from her vow of marriage when he comes to understand that she does not really want to live forever with him in the sewers, but is only doing so out of a sense of duty and obligation. But that story is a re-enactment of a fairy tale, and has less to do with our current examination.

Having completed his rehabilitation of Caliban, Claremont elevates his Tempest re-enactment to center stage in the issues that follow. From a story angle, issue #149 is largely concerned with getting the rest of the X-Men to the same place where their leader, Cyclops, is already stranded: Magneto’s mysterious island. The character of Magneto has been one of the most enduring antagonists in superhero literature, and he was designed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the first issue of The X-Men when they debuted in 1963. While Magneto was a mutant like Professor Xavier and the X-Men, he had no desire to cohabitate peacefully with human beings. Rather, he saw his mutant nature as the mark of a superior being, and while the X-Men felt morally obliged to protect a humanity which hated and feared them, Magneto sought world conquest and rule over a society in which mutants were a new aristocracy. But in Claremont’s hands, and even in the issue that concerns us, Magneto’s character would be deepened to make him a far more sympathetic character, a man who, like Prospero, has no small cause for what he does. The difference between Prospero and Magneto, we will see, comes largely in the capacity for repentance and forgiveness.

Magneto’s island is protected by special devices which not only augment his already-considerable superhuman powers – so that he can create volcanoes anywhere in the world – but also strip Cyclops and any other mutant of their powers, leaving Magneto the only superhuman individual on the island. It is this sophisticated defense system which finally brings the X-Men to his island when, in Uncanny X-Men #150, they happen to be flying nearby and their jet crashes. Magneto’s island is in the Bermudas, and it was a fortunate coincidence for Claremont that these islands, mentioned in The Tempest, are now associated with missing aircraft and other unexplained phenomena, so that placing Prospero’s island in the Bermuda Triangle is a perfect alignment of myth and literature. And like the potent weapons of the Krell race in Forbidden Planet, it is Magneto’s science fiction hardware which fills the role of Ariel, bringing Magneto/Prospero’s enemies to his island and keeping them under his power. So long as the machines obey Magneto’s will, the X-Men are deprived of their abilities and trapped. There is one key difference in Claremont’s story: the X-Men’s crash on the island goes unnoticed by the island’s master, so that they have the opportunity to thwart Magneto’s latest attempt at world domination if they can only succeed in destroying his machines without the use of their vaunted powers.

Considering the rehabilitation which Claremont has already performed on Caliban, it comes as no surprise to see Magneto reformed in a similar way in the pages that follow, making him a sympathetic character more in line with our intellectual Duke of Milan. Magneto’s plan to blackmail the nations of the world with his volcano-machine turns out to be all for good of mankind. He explains himself to Lee Forrester after issuing his demands:
“The nations of the world spend over a trillion dollars a year on armaments. I intend to deny them that indulgence. The money and energy devoted now to war will be turned instead to the eradication of hunger, disease, poverty. I offer a Golden Age, the like of which humanity has never imagined!”
“What about freedom?”
“Freedom, Ms. Forrester? There are more people starving today than there are those who can truly call themselves free. I offer peace and a good life … or a swift and terrible death. The choice is theirs.”
Reading these stories today, when the United States is embroiled in two foreign wars and a simultaneous “Great Recession”, it is remarkably easy to see the logic in Magneto’s goals, if not his melodramatic means, and Claremont goes further when he establishes the reason for Magneto’s personal commitment to this seemingly impossible goal: he is himself a member of a repressed minority. Not just a mutant, Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. In words which could have come from Prospero himself, as he laments his exile from Milan, he tells Cyclops, “Search throughout my homeland, you will find none who bear my name. Mine was a large family, and it was slaughtered – without mercy, without remorse. So speak to me not of grief, boy. You know not the meaning of the word!” This is not the first mention Magneto will make of grief, a theme which the King of Naples and his wandering son often invoke as they each mourn the other, seemingly lost forever.

The bulk of Uncanny X-Men #150 is taken up with the X-Men’s heroic but fatally doomed effort to thwart Magneto’s scheme. As in Shakespeare’s play, they are split up into small groups who wander the island. Storm has a wonderful moment in which, echoing Caliban’s plot, she finds Magneto asleep and contemplates assassinating him with a steak knife. But while in The Tempest Caliban’s scheme is thwarted by his foolish co-conspirators, who would rather play-act as noblemen than get down to bloody business, Storm’s hesitation is more noble and more in character for her: as an X-Man she has sworn a vow never to take the life of another. Briefly she debates whether it is right to kill one man to save thousands, but before she can put her newfound resolution to the test Magneto awakens and hurls her out the window, much as Prospero arrives and punishes those who dared attempt his life.

The climax to the tale comes a few pages later. If Magneto’s machines are fulfilling the role of Ariel – the supernatural enabler which allows Magneto’s vengeance to be enacted – then it is fitting that Kitty Pryde, the X-Men’s Ariel and Miranda figure, be the agent which puts that enabler out of work. Kitty shuts down the machines while Magneto is distracted by the other X-Men, and in so doing she throws the mastermind into a rage. He confronts her alone and, furious, wounds her so grievously that he believes her dead. But now, cradling the dead girl in his arms, Magneto is stunned back to his senses, and he suddenly reveals another link to Prospero: like Shakespeare’s character, he had a wife and a daughter:
She – she is a child! What have I done?! Why did you resist? Why did you not understand?! Magda – my beloved wife – did not understand. When she saw me use my powers, she ran from me in terror. It did not matter that I was defending her…. That I was avenging our murdered daughter. I swore then that I would not rest ‘til I had created a world where my kind – mutants – could live free and safe and unafraid. Where such as you, little one, could be happy. Instead, I have slain you.
This is Magneto’s great soliloquy moment, when he confesses to Kitty’s dead body that he has become a monster, the very thing he has all his life most hated. He laments his exile from his homeland, the death of his family, and how the need for revenge has burned in him since that day, in a way that Shakespeare’s Prospero eventually outgrew through a desire for reconciliation, happiness, and peace.
I remember my own childhood – the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the guards joking as they herded my family to their death. As our lives were nothing to them, so human lives became nothing to me. … I believed so much in my own destiny, in my own personal vision, that I was prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice to achieve it. But I forgot the innocents who would suffer in the process. … In my zeal to remake the world, I have become much like those I have always hated and despised.
This is, perhaps, Prospero as he might have been: not a man released by the forgiving heart of an audience after three hours of play, but instead a man whose “ending is despair,” bound by the conventions of his genre and the expectations of audience. Magneto cannot be freed because then the X-Men would lose their antagonist and the story would end. Periodically over the years writers have experimented with making Magneto turn himself in, be tried for his crimes, even join the X-Men or occasionally die; such moves are always ephemeral and temporary. Comics must be printed, writers and artists must be employed, t-shirts and video games must be sold, Hollywood blockbusters must be produced, millions of dollars must be made, and so the audience, while they may applaud, grant not freedom but further imprisonment, an endlessly extended sentence.

“We are such things,” Prospero assures us, “as dreams are made on,” and Magneto agrees, at one point assuring Cyclops and Captain Forrester that, “I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dreams reality. And that I shall do.” It is, fittingly, Storm herself who interrupts Magneto’s speech; when she sees his honest repentance, she proves herself a better man than Hamlet and extends forgiveness of her own. “The dream was good. Is good,” she clarifies, in a way that speaks to the whole of Claremont’s Tempest as much as to Magneto’s goal. “Only the dreamer has become corrupted.” In Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont presents a vision of The Tempest in which the dream of Prospero’s peaceful reconciliation between two long standing enemies has been corrupted by the antagonistic role which Magneto is forced to play within the confines of his rival’s monthly serial. He can see the evil in his actions, but he cannot change. “It is too late to change, Ororo. I am too old. I have lived too long with my hatred.” Prospero’s dream has become Magneto’s nightmare, a hellish life in which he knows he is a morally bankrupt and ironic doppleganger of the same Nazis whose ideas of racial purity destroyed his family. But there is no way out of this nightmare for Magneto; repentance is impossible, and he will continue to be the thing he is until, one day, his tortured life is at last rounded by a sleep.