Monday, November 10, 2008

When comics were good

One of the "great" things going into Fall and the holidays, the weekends are full of activities and opportunities: plays, music, events, and such.

I saw the Broach theatre of Greensboro do "Almost Blue". Now, most of my experiences at the Broach has been to see comedies and outright farces (A Tuna Christmas, Moon Over Buffalo) though there have been a few dramas. And, generally the stories are enjoyable.

"Almost Blue" is a complete departure. The action takes place in an apartment of Phil, an ex-con trying to drink himself into oblivion and trying to be left alone. But, that's difficult to do as he has a man called Blue as a neighbor who is working on his mysterious history and constantly intrudes on Phil uninvited; Liz, a mysterious woman fem-fatale and Steve, her ex-husband who was a fellow prisoner that is reputed to be dead.

It's a bit of dark film noir. The theater does a great job with a minimalist stage of thrown together furniture, constant sounds of the city and rain in the background, setting the mood perfectly.

The actors do a good job with their parts, coming across in their roles naturally. A big accomplishment as the male and female leads were just seen in the farce "Moon Over Buffalo".

Where it falls apart is in the story itself. I don't know if it's in the original play script or in the production, but the story does a poor job in setting up the story. It's never really explained why Liz suddenly looks Phil up. They go on a long car ride and talk, but the audience isn't privy to that conversation. It doesn't help that the characters all have their secrets and lie to each other as well the audience, so one is never sure what exactly is going on in the story and what motivates any of the characters.

Since we don't really know where they come from, it's hard to gain empathy for the characters. The tough talk and dialogue doesn't flow naturally; written to sound tough but not as if it was something anybody would really say. The romance between Liz and Phil is equally contrived since they never have anything that resembles a real conversation.

This inconsistency and lack of substantiality to the characters and situations leads to different possibilities and interpretations. Are the characters other than Phil actually real or just manifestations of different parts of his tortured psyche? If real, you have a story that's incomplete, plot holes glossed over as nothing the characters say can be taken at face value. But, if fragments of Phil's mind, you have a man that's at war with himself. The contradictions and combative nature of the characters make sense. Heck, even the title makes sense as Blue is the most dominant force in Phil's life at the start of the play, his only "friend". Blue is Phil's opposite, thus he hates what Phil has become and sits as an example of what could be. He has had a shady past, but he's exerted control. He dresses neatly, his life is orderly, he spends his time constructively and with comportment, but he also represents the insular nature of a life shut off from the wider world. Phil hates himself already, and this illusion holds no comfort. He resents this conscience constantly intruding on his life. Thus, you have Liz, the woman who has nothing but disdain for Blue and vice versa. She's more like Phil's self-image. She's tough but tender on the inside. Says and does whatever she thinks. She represents escape from the shell. But, when an uneasy equilibrium is reached, Phil's psyche produces another persona. His convict self exemplified in the Liz' husband who is supposed to be dead. He was the tough guy that Phil became to survive prison and he sees this new Phil as a weakling and a coward and offers Phil one way out, kill Liz. Liz doesn't want to die, she wants to leave and start over. Blue doesn't want to see Phil revert back to the savage he once was, but he doesn't want Liz around either, as he likes Phil as being shut off from the world.

The problem with that interpretation is that while it doesn't conflict with the given information, it is not really supported. It is simply a byzantine line of reasoning on my part, reshaping the story as if all the shortcomings were deliberate as opposed to just bad writing. We become accustomed to bad writing. It is why that for the most part, I didn't pick up on all of the clues in The Sixth Sense that plays fair with the viewer. Imagine if M. Night ended the film without revealing the twist, without the aha moment of the wedding ring at the end. You'd have a good movie but one with some holes, inconsistent actions on the parts of the characters such as why doesn't the mother inform the hospital her son is seeing a shrink? The play doesn't need that aha moment to spell everything out, it can be ambiguous if it wants. But, the fact that it's ambiguous needs to be obvious, some kind of subtext that shows the questionable interpretation of it all is deliberate. So, when viewers or readers come out of the story with more questions than going in, they know they are supposed to be unsettled.

Down at the street in time for Halloween, the Triad Stage did a production of Dracula. An ambitious undertaking as 4 actors played 10 roles. Caitlin Watkins (with a wonderful singing voice) plays the part of Lucy, Mina, and one of Dracula's brides; Lee Spencer plays Van Helsing and Dracula in Transylvania; Joshua Purvis is Seward, Innkeeper, and one of Dracula's vampires; Alexander Windner Lieberman plays Renfield, Jonathan Harker, and Dracula in London.

Some liberties are taken to bring the story to stage with such a minimal cast and setting, but the spirit of the story is kept. The experience is moody and spooky, thrilling and exciting. It's been so long since I've read the original, I'm not sure if the lines of Van Helsing are from Bram Stoker or Anthony Hopkins, but an enjoyable experience.

The only detraction is the setting itself. Not quite a theater-in-the-round, the tables and chairs for the audience are on both sides of the minimalist stage. It doesn't have room for many and no view is perfect. Compounding that is the lighting was uneven and there are plenty of opportunities for a play of this type to do some creative things with lighting to heighten mood and tension. Instead, we had scenes that took place in almost complete darkness.

Followed up was seeing at NC State stage productions of the Orson Welles' radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" as well as the faux radio broadcast of ACD's "Lost World" developed by John De Lancie (Q of Star Trek: The Next Generation). Boasting actors from varieties of tv shows and movies (the one recognizeable was an early X-Files regular, Deep Throat aka Jerry Hardin). Both were loads of fun.


Just in time for Halloween, Marvel released a supernatural/horror Essentials with stories of the Mummy, Brother Voodoo, the Golem, Modred, and the Scarecrow (the supernatural protagonist, not the supercriminal). B/w is a great format for these tales. These aren't expensive comics to come by but I only have one or two of each of those characters tops. I've only gotten through the Mummy stories and the first two of the Brother Voodoo stories. There's storytelling here one doesn't see these days. The Mummy stories had almost as many writers as issues yet the story didn't suffer. It developed into a sprawling epic, a novel in comic form complete with developed secondary characters, interesting villains and characters with questionable loyalties. A few nods to continuity and the larger Marvel Universe, but it's about telling its story.

The Living Mummy himself is a twist as he's not Egyptian, but an African slave used to build the pyramids. Not a murderous monster, but a monstrous hero, much like the Thing or Swamp Thing. Seeking a cure or at least peace, he finds himself instead in a war between the Elementals, extra-dimensional sorcerers, and a small band of normal humans defending Cairo and all of Earth. A solid story over several issues with a definite beginning, middle, and end. And, not one you'd expect involving a mummy as the central character.

When I first encountered the Ted Kord Blue Beetle, my curiosity was sparked concerning the Dan Garrett Blue Beetle. I eventually found a story with him. I created my own character combining him with the Alan Scott Green Lantern and a bit of the look of Deadman, the Scarlet Scarab. He was a museum curator that came into possession of a mystical scarab that gave him energy powers ala Green Lantern but not as sophisticated. Years later, I'd find out that Roy Thomas had created a Scarlet Scarab in the pages of the Invaders. Here in the Mummy stories, the serendipity strikes again as a magical artifact that can cure the Mummy as well as defeat the the Elementals, is... a red ruby shaped into an Egyptian beetle, a scarlet scarab. The scarab was formed by ancient Egyptian sorcerers Dann and Garret. Turns out, this story is what Roy built his Scarlet Scarab upon.

Brother Voodoo makes for an interesting hero, walking dark paths. His origin reflects both Dr. Strange and the later Shaman of Alpha Flight, but he has his own niche and brand of magic. The moody Gene Colan artwork is perfectly appropriate, blending horror with super heroics, even when Voodoo is facing the Black Talon (a villain with a chicken theme). Unlike Strange, Voodoo's powers are more down to earth, making the character a bit more empathetic. He's formidable but doesn't have a hundred spells at his disposal, he's as likely to throw a punch as anything overtly mystical.

Brother Voodoo is a character I've thought that Marvel should look at transferring to novel form. Given the popularity of the Jim Butcher and Laurel Hamilton books, he seems like he could easily fit into a middle ground of horror and mystery, a natural protagonist against vampires, werewolves, zombies and what have you. Possibly better there than in the comics.

I can hardly wait to get to the rest of the stories.

Instead of talking directly about Superpowers or The Twelve, let's talk The Invaders. I had picked up a trade reprinting the middle stories of the comic from the 70s. Part of the compulsion was the great Gil Kane cover focusing on Union Jack. Another was I only had just a couple stories from this point, hardly the complete story. Trades are great ways to get back issues from the 70s. The printing and the paper is so much better, and it's nice to read the whole story.

The story starts off with the team rushing Lord Falsworth and Jacqueline to the hospital after the near fatal encounter with Baron Blood. We get soap opera as the Torch has a crush on Jackie. When her blood proves tainted by the vampire's bite and rendering normal transfusions useless, he gives her his blood and thus we get a new superhero. Meanwhile we have another scientist experimenting on some robotic armor and the debut of the menace of the Blue Bullet. This all leads up to the heart-broken Torch quitting the team temporarily while the rest go to the Warsaw ghetto to retrieve the scientist's pacifistic brother. Which gives us the golem legend and the debut of another character, mixing mysticism and science against the backdrop of the War. From there we get the unofficial 2-part crossover with DC's Freedom Fighters as the Invaders meet up with the mostly UK team of the Crusaders: Spirit of '76 (Uncle Sam), Dynamite (Doll Man), Thunderfist (Human Bomb), Ghost Girl (Phantom Lady), Captain Wings (Black Condor), and Tommy Lightning (the Ray). You have to give the man credit, it takes some doing to manage to borrow a legitimate golden-age character's name for EACH name and still have them reflect the Freedom Fighters, even if he had to get a few of the names from Canada. Most of these characters are extremely minor. However, the Spirit of '76 would turn out to be very important as he became a replacement Captain America explaining who had the adventures while the original was on ice. Dynamite would become a major subplot over several issues as to what happened to Lord Falsworth's son, Brian. From there we get the re-introduction of the Destroyer and the debut and origin of Warrior Woman. Oh, and worked in was a crossover with the Avengers.

Whew. Reading them in a chunk like that and one is struck by the sheer volume of detail and variety in the stories. The War is never far removed from these stories, serving as fertile ground for new heroes and villains of all types, slightly more complex motivations, and morality plays on racism and the times. Yet, it is all handled through being a superhero comic first and foremost. The heroes are heroes. The action is larger than life. There's no embarrassment at writing kid partners. One story even involves a little time travel.

The threats are varied and with almost every other issue, new characters are being constantly introduced. There are recurring threats but also new ones. Each opponent is not a Nazi. Thomas is using continuity, but the stories aren't about continuity (other than the annual with the Avengers). He's creating more than he's mining, adding to the tapestry that was the Marvel Universe. Each new character that's created, heroes and villains, their actions have motivations. You understand them and their abilities within pages.

Another thing struck me. I was reading this for fun, lost in the stories and got to the part about Dynamite as Lord Falsworth and Spitfire try to help him with his amnesia. And, they tell him about his friendship with Brian. Meanwhile we're getting not just the other side of that story but the other end of it as the Destroyer relates to how he became the Destroyer, coyly hiding the fact that he's also Brian Falsworth. And, it hits me. There is no way anybody could read these stories and think that Roy Thomas was implying that Roger and Brian were gay. A big part of that justification that proponents of the theory put forth is that it is implied by Lord Falsworth's disapproval over their friendship. Guess what? That's not in there. The falling out that the pater has with his son is covered in-story and is explicitly shown to be over Brian's pacifistic leanings to the point of backing appeasement with Hitler and even visiting the dictator. When Roger shows back up with amnesia and stuck in miniature size but willing to fight the Nazis, the elder Falsworth treats him as a second son. He risks his own life, parachuting into enemy territories in effort to help Roger regain his memory and natural size (and, to find out what happened to Brian, of course) even though he's paralyzed from the waist down. All of the subtext that people claim is in those original stories, completely absent. It really comes from just two panels of the art, when the elder Falsworth is relating about how Roger and Brian were best friends and fierce competitors and we see them walking off the polo field wearing cravats, with an arm across the shoulders. Never seen team-mates hug? Pat each others' butts? But, nowhere in the narration of said scene or what follows is anything that could be construed as sub-text for anything beyond the friendship that it says it is. It's here that we find out why there was a falling out between father and son, and it's very clear that Brian's relationship with Roger had absolutely nothing to do with it from both the father's words and deeds. It's all about readers with sex on the brains looking at that single panel and saying, "that looks so gay."

However, compare these tales to their counterparts today. There's variety in the stories as Roy Thomas uses the milieu of WWII to fuel his stories and address various story and character types. His stories are limited to just a few issues, with beginnings, middles, and end, allowing that variety. Compare the sheer amount of story (even with reprints) and characterization he gets in seven issues vs the seven issues of Superpowers, the first half of The Twelve or the first year of Brubaker's Captain America. He uses the medium of the comicbook to tell the stories effectively. If something is a mystery, it's supposed to be. Otherwise, characters are introduced showing them off in action while defining them. Compare the introduction of the Crusaders to the first issue of The Twelve, or the manner the heroes are brought back in Superpowers. Which is more exciting to read and instantly makes you curious about the characters, makes you want to see more of them? And, he creates new memorable characters, heroes and villains. He recognizes that the heroes are supposed to be that, the heroes of the book to root for. Retcons and storylines aren't used to compromise the integrity of the characters. The story progresses. A subplot or character point isn't introduced at the beginning only to re-appear three months down the road.


Chuck Wells said...

Someone should present this as a college thesis for what to and not to do when writing comics, Cash.

Great breakdown of what's been off with JMS The Twelve, as opposed to an old school writer like Thomas - - - who really does understand the serial nature of comics.

cash_gorman said...

I think THE INVADERS a good example of where many comics nowadays go wrong. When Thomas tells a continuity-driven story, it's usually adding not undoing continuity. When his stories are about continuity it's shoring the continuity up, making it stronger not just making sweeping changes. He'll later in the series use the ruby scarab from the Living Mummy tales, but it won't contradict or re-write that writer's series.

As I noted, both SUPERPOWERS and THE TWELVE do a very poor job at setting the characters up and introducing them. The prior makes huge changes to the characters, granting many new powers and abilities but is ambiguous about who the characters are/were as well as what their powers were before and now. THE TWELVE in the first issue chooses to TALK about the characters as they walk across a room and down stairs of a Nazi bunker and lab instead of SHOWING the characters in action. He's a writer so hung up with his words, he forgets the media that he's using to tell this story: a comic book and superheroes.