Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hornets and Savages

Astro City Dark Ages Book 4 #2: I admit to tiring of the Williams brother saga. I like the various characters and character designs that we've been getting such as the neon Mirage and the green goo Floo. I like the pseudo costumes the brothers wear, very Steranko inspired. However, as their story went from being normal men to actually ingratiating themselves into the super-villain community and acting more and more like the dark heroes they profess to despise, their story has grown uninteresting. Part of it is that it has meandered and expanded with all of these little threads of other things into including a time jumping Silver Agent and a empathic threat from another dimension. Their tight, personal story of tragedy, vengeance and transformation has become more one note. The brothers started off with individual voices, individual outlooks; but, now, like the uniforms they wear they've become interchangeable. I find myself more interested in all the little side characters in the story than the main plot and had to struggle to get through the opening narration that just seemed verbose and dense to communicate a simple question of meta-storytelling, did dark heroes call to the other dimension's dark force (ie the real world and fans/creators of that particular storytelling) or did the dimension make the characters dark (ie the characters simply reflected a shift that was going on in the real world)? Yet, for all that, it's a dense read. Busiek knows just how much is needed to communicate secondary and tertiary characters to move a story forward without them all just being cyphers.

First Wave #1: Take your average movie adaptation of a book, series character, comic character or even of other movies, and more often than not you are left wondering about the changes that the writers and directors make to the source material. Some, if you are truly honest, were needed or necessary to make the transition from one format to another as well as to bridge the years and changes in storytelling voices. More often than not, most leave you wondering why they accepted the project in the first place, that it misses the point, the spirit of the original work. That's this book.

I give Azzarello props in that he understood at least one thing, that it's possible to write Doc Savage or the Spirit as actual characters and not just archetypes, that he didn't set out to write a pulp pastiche or a Eisner pastiche which the last Spirit book turned into once Cooke left it. A pity he failed everywhere else.

The first problem isn't the story but the whole idea of a separate continuity and reality for the pulp heroes. One, it means Dan Didio basically lied when he first announced DC was going to do Doc Savage and have him be in continuity. That implies that he's going to be in the mainstream DCU not a separate Earth. It recognizes the problem of the non-powered heroes but comes up with the wrong solution, or at least one on faulty logic. Doc has to be on his own Earth because on the main Earth, he'd be second rate to Superman? What does that make Batman? Or Captain Marvel? The problem is, that's how DC has treated almost every character since Crisis put everyone on the same Earth, made them second rate to DC's first tier of Silver-Age heroes. But, it's not an inherent flaw in the characters or the idea of them all on one Earth. It's in the basic treatment by the creators, the constant elevation of the original JLA into some kind of holy pantheon of gods and the rest lesser. Some writers got it. Grell wanted to write a more serious, street level Green Arrow. He just set him clear across country and wrote the blamed stories. He didn't get tied up in every cross-over down the pike. Ditto for Gerard Jones El Diablo comic, O'Neil's Question series and even Ordway's Power of Shazam. The trick to telling such stories "in-continuity" is to simply don't write things that violate continuity but maintain the style and spirit you're aiming for. The last Doc Savage and Shadow series could have easily been considered in-continuity if so-desired because they didn't actually violate any major DC continuity. The trick is they weren't actually about continuity, they were not continuity stories which is sadly what most of the mainstream DCU is about.

And, in a sense, that's what First Wave is about too. By launching this and not the individual titles, it's a story about continuity, about the continuity of this Earth. Instead of just being a rolicking good adventure. Which is where Azzarello drops the ball. By being placed on another Earth, there's zero context. It's not the world of the 1930s, that's easily seen through various fashions and automobiles. Neither is it modern day though, the world outside our window. There are references to a recent war that's in the past. Also, someone asks Doc if space travel is possible. It's neither fish nor fowl.

In interviews Azzarello constantly talks about how bad the original pulps were and how he's not writing that Doc. He comes across as a writer who only has disdain for the original material, and this storyline is about "doing it right." Which makes you wonder why he's doing it anyway? Why give him the job, why did he accept? Why did Didio actually want to pay to get the rights to the characters? He doesn't want to write the pulp Doc but he sets out to cover the same ground and do his version of the story of "Man of Bronze", reinventing the wheel. In the process, it removes all context of the character, all history. By strip-mining the original material like this, it's not him writing the character of Doc Savage as much as him just creating his own Doc Savage character. Likewise, his Spirit and Dolan are provided nice modern kinks in that Dolan is apparently a bad cop, maybe a corrupt one. He's not just avoiding writing an Eisner pastiche Spirit, but avoiding writing a version that's faithful to the actual character, the spirit of the Spirit.

Related to this is the flaw of having Batman on this Earth (he's not in this issue by the way, but already established through the earlier one-shot). By setting up multiple versions of Batman, with each one, you lessen the concept of Batman as a flesh and blood, breathing character whose stories matter and reinforce Batman as an artificial construct that can just be plugged in. It doesn't matter that he's dead in the mainstream continuity because he's healthy in so many other equally valid continuities. By launching various titles that are new continuities of the character, none of them really matter or carry weight. The character is diluted to the point of being meaningless. Again, there's a difference in telling stories that just don't tie in to the ongoing continuity but don't necessarily violate it as opposed to making up multiple versions being about continuity because they all reference how they are different from the core character. DC has been doing this through their constant revamps of the Legion, the multiple Superman and Batman continuities such as the All-Star line, their launching of the Red Circle heroes. By constantly re-writing characters' histories and backstories and continuities, they actually lose all the context that the characters actually have as opposed to creating new ones. What makes characters rich are their stories. It's the difference between a series like Byrne's X-Men: The Hidden Years or Busiek's Untold Tales of Spider-man and Marvel's Ultimate line.

Then you get the Blackhawks. Keep in mind, the whole reasoning behind this new pulp Earth was that it would be a place where these type of characters would work. Why, then do we not have the original Blackhawks? By giving a team that would fit in with the post-modern sensibilities of DCU continuity, it pretty much violates the whole basic reasoning behind this separate Earth. We also see it a bit with Rima, as she's over literalized, losing the basic spirit of the Sheenas and Tarzans of literature for one that's more realistic.

The end result is that it's not a world where these type of characters are allowed to shine and be themselves, but a world that allows the writers and creators the freedom from being held accountable to writing the characters on model beyond superficialities. And, here's the rub. Like DC's Red Circle line, the writer hired to do the hatchet job and create the bible for these characters isn't even in it for the long haul. He's only on the opening arc and establishing the whole worldview and characters. And, in both cases, it's writers with not much of a background showing that they have that level of creativity. Kirby and Ditko, yes, the two of them were constantly creating new concepts and characters. Even Jim Shooter has a background of world-creation although it's often of establishing limitations rather than themes that will excite and fire creativity.

Green Hornet #1: Once upon a time, a publisher got the license to the Green Hornet comic. They decided to make the character a generational one, embracing the previous incarnations of the GA radio and comicbook character and the 1960s' television version. The new guy would be the son of the 1960s guy and he'd be reluctant to take on the role. He'd be overshadowed a bit by Kato who would be a much better fighter and dynamic character, especially when they make Kato a woman, all dressed in black leather. Finding a hit on their hands, they'd launch spin-offs. Green Hornet in the 1940s. Green Hornet in the future. A title focusing on Kato. Only the year is 1989 not 2010 and the publisher is Now Comics not Dynamite.

That's the chief flaw with the book. It's not horrible. There is potential, but it is all a bit cliched. The deja-vu is magnified by all of the ads for the other Green Hornet books before this one is even out of the gate proper and all exploring the exact same ground that Now Comics did. Can you say "Rip Off"? I thought you could.

The story itself is a bit dull and by the numbers. The hero choosing to retire because he managed to put the last of the major crime families out of business. On one hand it limits the scope of the character, his mission. On the other it's naive and superficial reasoning, that other criminals won't fill the void, that there could and would always be work for the Hornet if he wishes to continue. Just as making the son just a tabloid bad-boy is dull. Sure, there's apparently some good in him, we see it in his ex-girlfriend being with him longer than two weeks. But, what's missing is a sense that there is enough depth to him that would really warrant him taking up the role. In the few pages he's in, we see petulance and possibly good intentions, but we don't see passion.

What we see is the path that made previous versions dull and seems to fuel the future movie as well. One, a Green Hornet that is secondary to Kato. Remember, Kato is the side-kick. He can be the best friend. He can be capable. But, the number one man, the most interesting character should be the Green Hornet. His motivations, drive and passion should be number one. Kato is not Bruce Lee.

Two, the Green Hornet is more than fighting gangsters. He appeared at a time and in a format that didn't readily lend itself to really colorful villains. But, he's still a pulp inspired hero, he solved impossible crimes, pirates that had their own submarine, and even a few costumed crooks in the comics for example. Gangsters and mobsters and mafia can be interesting characters, but they need to be larger than life as well, compelling visually and physically for a comic book superhero. Every villain need not be a Joker, Lex Luthor, or with super-powers. But they need to be more than your average gun wielding killer or drug dealer. Want to write a kick-butt Green Hornet series? Listen to some of the radio shows, read various GA comics by Simon & Kirby and finish off by a marathon of watching Bruce Timm's animated Batman series. That has the proper mixture of pulp and jazz with super hero comics and humor. Just remember that Green Hornet is Batman and Kato is a cross between Alfred and Robin.

What's interesting in looking at the Now Comics again, I am struck by the similarity between their story and James Robinson's Starman, at least in the opening arc. Both set up the heroes as generational heroes, the elder too old to continue. An old foe strikes back at the city and family. The current generation has two brothers. One wants to be the hero, dresses up and goes out to fight crime and is promptly killed. Leaving the other brother, the one with the more artistic soul and who doesn't want a life of crime fighting to step in the shoes and learn on the fly. And, while Now Comics explored details of the Green Hornet generations and extended family with the Kato connections mostly through limited series, Robinson would explore all the various Starmen of the DCU and their different decades and both touching what the legacy would be in the future.


Chuck Wells said...

I'm very glad that you covered the new First Wave and Green Hornet books here.

Now I won't bother picking either of these up, because what you've reported is "exactly" what I expected from these projects right from the get go.

It's been astonishing to me to watch all of the pre-release info on Green Hornet filtering out that completely channeled the earlier Now Comics series. This is shameful on a grand scale and even today's short-attention-span mindset running rampant among the fanboy population doesn't excuse the utter lack of creativity and originality coming from this series creators.

First Wave is altogether different and if your review is spot on, then I would have to entirely agree with you. Azzarello's opinion of the original Lester Dent (& others) pulp stories pisses me off. I loved those books and still hold them in very high regard. Doc Savage deserves much better than allowing a professional sock puppet getting his sleazy mitts on him, only to do so by disrespecting the far better original source material.

I'm taking a pass on both of these titles and no, I don't feel the need to read them for myself.

cash_gorman said...

Green Hornet isn't bad just a bit predictable. It's strange to see them promoting all of these side series before this one has at least proven a hit. Now Comics at least first developed the core book and built on that success.

Rip Jagger said...

Good commentary. I agree on the Hornet. The NOW Comics connection seems overwhelming to me based on the ads I've seen. They even have the future-Hornet story scheduled.

As for First Wave, I'm tempted only because of Rags Morales. Putting Batman in the mix really limits my already meager interest in this "universe". I might get this one in trade when that becomes available, but I'm for sure not buying the monthly.

Interesting reviews.

Ron Fortier said...

Interesting stuff. I applaud your dissection of FIRST WAVE. The onus against pulps is obvious and the writer should write things he likes, not things he despises. As Green Hornet, I'm the fellow who conceived and wrote the Now series. I'm totally confused with the lack of continuity within Dynamite's offerings. They really should have started the book with Wagner's Hornet year one, then made it connect with Smith's movie-script comic.
Alas, they are now left with several Hornet books that simply do not connect. Sigh.

cash_gorman said...

Yeah, I find it interesting that the 1960s version of the Green Hornet is referred to as the "original" in promotions but the "Year One" title seems to be of the 1940s. Which is it going to be?

As this is based on Smith's movie treatment, I can see where the pacing would work for the movie. The scene of the older Hornet's last case would only take five minutes or so and then move on to the son who gets fleshed out more. For the comic, it doesn't quite work as it runs out of space and ends before giving us a reason to care for the son or a plot or menace to be drawn into, it's a whole issue of background info, but no story yet. For purposes of the story, I don't think we needed to see the last case of the previous Green Hornet, at least not yet, not until it becomes relevant plotwise. If the son is to be the central character, bring him and his discovery of his legacy to the forefront in issue 1 as well as the plight that leads him to taking up the mantle.

The Loserface said...

Speaking of pulps and Ron Fortier, are you familiar at all with the new pulps from Airship 27?

I recently wrote for the Green Lama Anthology and currently writing a follow-up novel. These books might be up your alley!

cash_gorman said...

I've heard of them, but not seen a copy at any of the comic stores I frequent. And since my layoff, have had to curtail my hunting down various books.

I do have two similar books from Moonstone with new stories of the Spider and the Avenger.

emb021 said...

I liked your review of First Wave. I have my issues with them, and I think our views are pretty close, but I think you put it better then I did (those interesting in what I said, check out the DC Blog, as I posted it there).

FLAMEAPE said...

I think the reason that DC is placing Doc Savage, Shadow and The Avenger in a separate world is to cover themselves if they were to ever lose the rights to publish the characters. Pragmatically, I would imagine that DC/Warner doesn't want to jeopardize a future Batman collection or what have you on a few appearances of a character whose essentially on loan from Condé Nast. That isn't how you spin the project publicly, you push the "freedom of having a separate continuity" angle. There are allot of odd decisions made at DC that I'm sure are at least 50% from the legal-dept.

cash_gorman said...

Back in the 70s when Marvel had Doc Savage and DC had the Shadow and the Avenger, the characters were in-continuity. Marvel had Doc "team-up" with the Thing and Spider-man in two different stories through a little time manipulation while the Shadow would meet up with the Avenger and an older Shadow would meet up with Batman.

Indeed one of the two Batman stories could be considered integral to the modern concept of Batman, his almost mania attitude towards guns and why he doesn't use them. At least, it's the first instance I've seen where it's actually addressed in the comic that Batman has psychological reasons for not carrying a gun other than it's just a trope of modern comic code authority of superhero fiction.

The chief difference is that the individual titles of the characters were not about how they fit in the superhero universe, they didn't interact with other superheroes of the times, Doc didn't join the Invaders or Liberty Legion, the Shadow didn't team up with the Sandman or Crimson Avenger. Someone decided to do a story with them interacting with the mainstream heroes, and it was easily done without it wrecking the continuity of the universe or the characters' own books.

The problem is nowadays, the main universe books are about continuity more than ever. It's not enough to just have a consistent world. Doc Savage in the main u. would be expected to pop up in the Batman books, in the Darkest Night crossovers, in the Red Circle books, etc. It would be dictated by obsessive continuity considerations as opposed to just storytelling.

Notice, the Red Circle heroes are supposed to be in-continuity, but so far not a one has appeared outside of their trio of books. No reason they couldn't have done that with Doc and company as well, and have any appearances of DCU continuity just happen in their own books but not outside of it. If they can manage that with the Shield and Web, why not elsewhere? Or are the characters just a bit too new to be drawn into the hooplah?

If anything, I'd have expected the decisions to be reversed. The Red Circle guys are more firmly entrenched into being superheroes, thus there's more expectation of seeing them joining the JLA, JSA, Outsiders, etc and taking part in the sci-fi fantasy adventures. The very nature of Doc and the pulp heroes and the stories that are their strengths limits them from such considerations. You don't have to go out of your way to explain away their absence whereas it makes the Red Circle heroes seem third-rate that they don't warrant a Darkest Night crossover mini or that not a single one of them is good enough to join the new JLA.