Monday, November 24, 2008

Justice Incorporated!

I haven't been getting Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon for some years, but the cover for the upcoming issue has me intrigued enough to get it. The storyline has had the Dragon teaming up with some other Image luminaries (Spawn, Witchblade, Invincible and Shadowhawk) to take down the Superman-esque Solarman who has been using unnecessary lethal force on villains. And, seems willing to do the same to heroes who stand in his way. In the next issue various golden-age characters seem to be jumping in to lend a hand. Featured on the cover: from Fox are Thor, the Flame, and Samson; Standard's Black Terror, Pyroman and Wonder Man; Lev Gleason's Silver Streak and Daredevil; Columbia's Skyman, Harvey's Captain Freedom; and Fawcett's Bulletman. If nothing else, the story ought to be fun.

Don't know what happened to Image's Issue After Next project, the series that was doing the "next" issue of public domain comics and characters, featuring all new stories of golden-age characters. The first, Fantastic Comics was a very mixed bag of pastiche, parody and not-sure-what. They were all too self-aware, self referential; none really being just plain stories featuring the characters.

Thankfully, Moonstone pretty much dodges that bullet with The Avenger Chronicles, their tpb collection of short-stories featuring the Street & Smith pulp hero. It's a great collection of writers, drawing from pulp historians, comics, fantasy and sci fi writers, and even a new story by Ron Goulart who had penned a few new Avenger novels back when the character was being reprinted in the 1970's. I've not gotten completely through the book, but the stories seem to capture the feel of the original pulp stories without being mocking, even in a gently manner. The creators take the character and their stories seriously even while delivering plots that would have been at home 60 years ago. The flaws in the stories would be flaws regardless. Will Murray is writing a bit more like he's writing one of his Doc Savage epics and the format doesn't have room for his prose. Thus, the reader is short-changed on the resolution. The motivation and unmasking of the villain hinges on personal information that was always known by the Avenger but is kept from the reader until the big reveal. It's a cheat and lazy writing. Several stories all have elements of the Avenger's past, from before the days of his war on crime. The Avenger always was a bit more psychological of pulp characters, but this is a bit of modern writing creeping in, the desire to mine the past, to delve further into the character's history and past. While one or two of these type stories are interesting, when you get several in a row, it telegraphs the twist and ending of the story to a degree. M. Night's The Sixth Sense works largely because he was a new creator, one wasn't expecting a twist. But, once you know what to look for, that twist doesn't come as a surprise.

Interestingly, when this came out, I was halfway through one of those 1970s paperback reprints of the Avenger: Midnight Murder. The story is a bit more of an espionage thriller than I would normally expect but that seems to be one of the strengths of the Avenger character. Created by committee of Walter "Shadow" Gibson and Lester "Doc Savage" Dent, the character embodies character concepts of both and is at home as both a detective and scientific hero. The plot is an airplane is testing a top secret device and seems to deliberately crash into a mountain. Crooks seem to be after the device, the scientists are striving to recover and keep it secret, and the Avenger and his crew are trying to find out what truly caused the plane to crash and put this gang of international crooks out of business. The two head crooks are portrayed in a wonderful over the top suave and dangerous manner that would serve them well in a James Bond flick. What's also great about this novel are the Avenger's aides. They come across as being efficient and capable, not needing his constant rescuing even though they get into as much trouble as any pulp's second bananas.

I feel I should at least give some props to the latest issue of Golden-Age Men of Mystery by AC Comics. Issue 11 has what initially attracted me to these reprints. The inside cover gives a history of the stories contained therein, credit to where the stories AND reprints came from. It tells how the Cat-Man story is a completely second and incompatible version of his and Kitten's origins as well as how the Phantom Lady story reprinted was originally a story of a non-costumed heroine called Spitfire Sanders with the lead re-drawn and the script changed so that it referenced the Commies and not the Nazis. When he lately seems to more often confuse history by making changes to stories and texts, it's refreshing to see him shedding light on some of the often convoluted real history of the characters and stories.

My Own Worst Enemy has gotten the axe in the first round of cancellations it appears. This is one of those shows where the central concept has interest but it's badly thought out, yet the stories and characters are interesting and sympathetic. The conceit is that Christian Slater plays a man entering the intelligence field (at some point in college apparently), and agrees to a procedure that will split his personality into two. Henry, his second personality is given a whole new background and he's free to marry and have kids without knowing about his other self, Edward who goes around as a super-spy. Edward knows about Henry, but as soon as a mission is over, he goes to sleep and Henry wakes up and goes about his life until Edward is needed again and he's awoken by the agency. The problem is that the characters are now waking up on their own in each other's lives. Henry isn't good at the spy stuff and Edward isn't all that good at being a faithful husband and dependable dad.

The problem is the premise makes zero sense. Even if you buy that they would go to such expense and trouble for cover identities for just two spies, why give Henry a fake history and life when Edward is the one that's not really living a life? Much of the show is spent of Henry trying to figure out how much of his life and memories are really fake when it makes more sense to reverse the two.

Much of the show spends time dealing with the very obvious problems that anyone could predict would happen under this type of setup and that you'd think a competent spy organization spending this kind of money would know they couldn't keep a lid on. While the spies Edward and Tom know about their dual lives, their respective identities and spouses do not. Naturally, one spouse gets suspicious, especially when she decides to surprise him on one of his "business" trips by waiting for him in his hotel room in one city while he's really on the other side of the globe. That episode is further undermined by a later episode that reveals Henry's wife was not the woman that the company had picked out for him, he was supposed to marry another agent to help keep tabs on him. It follows then that the company had also picked out a wife for Tom, are we to assume this company was so inept that they failed twice in the same area?

Indeed, the setup would make far more sense if Henry is the real identity (as in the classic Jekyll-Hyde story). He agrees to the split personality, his real identity is brain-washed only to the degree to make him think he decided NOT to pursue a career in the intelligence field. Edward also does not realize he's two people or that he has a life outside of being a spy, the brainwashing is to prevent him from questioning his own lack of identity too closely. This makes him efficient and deadly as he doesn't realize he has any family ties, anything to lose. The tension arises as the brainwashing starts breaking down and the two become somewhat aware of each other. Henry is trying to find out just who he is and how much of his life is a lie (because the company does have to keep tabs on him) while Edward wants the life his other half has and thus at times is either sabotaging it or trying to take it over. And, then you have the mystery of just who this company really is or their goals, that some in it may have plans for Henry-Edward to be the ultimate sleeper terrorist with the right verbal command.

I've been enjoying Crusoe, more than I thought it would. Part of me hopes that it's really just a long mini-series as the central idea seems like it would be limiting in story types. Already the show had to take steps to address the Gilligan's Island scenario of having other people constantly finding the island to set up conflict between them and Crusoe and Friday yet end with them not getting off the island. In this case, they stranded a ship that had been taken over by mutineers also on the island. Some of the original crew get along fine with Crusoe but the mutineers are in charge and would kill him on sight. But, they respect his and Friday's knowledge of the island well enough to keep to the beach until they can get the ship repaired and leave. Thus the show has a cast and storytelling possibilities larger than two people on an island, even one as big as this one seems to be.

The flashbacks are also intriguing, that slowly give the story of how Crusoe ended up on the island and the life that he left behind. It serves as reminding each week how imperative it is to him to risk his life and leave this tropical paradise, that he has wife and family he loves and must get back to. Likewise, there are conspiracies afoot that slowly unfold. Is Sam Neil's character really the benevolent family friend he seems to be or is there something more sinister to him?

It's not without flaws. We are told that Friday is a cannibal, yet is able to speak six languages and picked up English very quickly. The creators strive to make Friday a sympathetic and strong character, reinforcing the fact that he is Crusoe's friend and equal and in some ways such as language as well as survival skills, his superior. Where would a cannibal become fluent in six languages? It has to be politically correct. Friday cannot be treated as a true native savage would be and their relationship has to be more palatable than what one from that time period would normally have been. As the show starts with them already friends, a lot of them coming to terms is glossed over. His intelligence is played up as is Crusoe's lack of cultural prejudices. In a sense, that's a shame as that would be quite a bit of fodder for story material. The show does give props in recognizing that the time period isn't one of racial and gender equality though. Even Crusoe can be shown to have some sexist attitudes, a more acceptable form of prejudice than racism.

The other chief flaw is the one that people made fun of concerning the Professor on Gilligan's Island: Crusoe is capable of making a huge tree house with so many gadgets feasible for the time and yet is unable to build a decent raft. Even when he has a small boat that is almost completely fixed, he's unable to make it water tight. And, Friday is equally deficient in this knowledge, even though he's from a culture that makes sea-worthy canoes. Sure, the tree house and gadgets are cool looking, but they over-ride the credibility of the central conceit of the show, the two are stranded on this island with no way off.

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