Monday, May 18, 2009

Doc Savage!

One of my favorite comics of all time is Marvel Two-in-One #21. It features a team-up between the Thing and Doc Savage, not a natural team-up considering the different worlds and time periods they operate in. It's a fun book and strangely enough, it works.

When Marvel had the rights to Doc Savage, they put out two versions. One was a color comic series that adapted some of the pulp stories with wonderful art by the dependable Ross Andru. The other was a b/w magazine sized book that featured all new stories. The latter was the better of the two.

In both, Marvel made a few concessions to the fact these were comic books, and Doc was a pseudo superhero. Not only was their more action, but Doc and his villains tended to at least look a bit super-heroic: the color comic with the vest and bare chest and arms and in the b/w magazine with a form fitting short sleeved shirt (though the covers followed the Bantam paperback covers by Bama lead and had him in ripped shirts) , all to maximize his musculature and the visual visceral action contained within the pages. Not really very true to the pulps, but, still, it more or less worked because they didn't really change the characters any. Now, years later and Marvel and DC are reprinting everything in sight, there has been a snag with all of those licensed comics Marvel did. See, Marvel had a habit of using the licensed characters as part of their continuity. With Doc, he only had two crossovers into the Marvel U., but both Micronauts and Rom interacted rather heavily with the rest of their universe. But, they no longer have the rights to those characters. This was a problem when Marvel Two-in-One was recently reprinted in the Essentials format. There is one issue missing, because Mavel couldn't or wouldn't pay extra for the rights to reprint that one team-up with Doc Savage. They can use Bug in Guardians of the Galaxy because the character was created for the Micronauts comic and not based on any toy as was the character Captain Universe.

You'd think that would be enough to give a publisher pause to pursuing and bringing in a character into continuity, especially these days with the secondary market of reprinting everything in trades. But, nope, DC is doing exactly that with Doc Savage. They did some comics in the 90s based on Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Avenger which were a bit hit and miss. However, they didn't bring any of those characters into their continuity. In the 70s, when they had the Shadow and Avenger license, DC did have the Shadow cross over into a couple of Batman titles. One of those stories brought an angle to Batman that has been a key part of his persona ever since, his mania over not using guns.

Dan DiDio has said that Doc Savage will allow telling superhero stories from a completely different perspective. “The way Doc Savage works is that when he is in a world where people don't have superpowers, he becomes the superman of that world. You put him next to Superman, he's just a guy. He loses his value. A place needs to be created where he is the pinnacle of achievement, just as Superman is in the main DCU.”

Which is pretty much the whole problem in a nutshell. 20, 30 years ago when continuity wasn't so anal, DC was a little more forgiving at having multiple characters that overlapped their M.Os. You could have a Batman that operated in the same world as the Shadow, Doc Savage could exist on the same world as Reed Richards. There wasn't the need to have niches so narrowly defined that if Superman existed on a world, then everyone close to Superman had to be changed and/or marginalized ala Captain Atom and Captain Marvel. Doc wouldn't be able to exist at modern Marvel because he upsets the hierarchy of scientists, modern fans and creators are quick to point out that Henry Pym is stupid compared to Stark and Mr. Fantastic (and by default, Doctor Doom). Even 20 years ago, a Doc in continuity would have worked because stories weren't by default always about continuity, characters could operate in a corner of the world and be in continuity without having to constantly reference it ala Grell's Green Arrow and O'Neil's Question series. One could easily say that their modern day Doc Savage series was in-continuity in that it really doesn't contradict anything published in their comics elsewhere. For the purpose of his book, he's top gun and just let it go at that.

Add the other wrinkle that in the modern continuity universes, even the most basic scientist is able to build extra-dimensional rooms, teleporters, faster than light space-ships, Doc is going to need a serious upgrade to not come off as remedial next to every one else.

So, it would seem that I agree with Didio, but somehow I expect DC to still get it wrong. After all, they have with almost every other character. They recognize the problem, but not the solution. The solution is not to have to create some kind of world around him, but to simply focus on the character and write him true to that. Some concessions have to be made, it is a comic book. A super-hero comic book. And he now exists in a world where magic and such does exist. Not that Doc has to face mystical threats, but that he shouldn't discount magic out of hand as it was in the pulps. But, if you just concentrate on telling good Doc Savage stories and not fanfic of Doc meets superheroes, the continuity issues will take care of themselves.

The other problem is the same as with the MLJ, and Milestone heroes. Doc isn't needed in the DCU continuity. He doesn't bring anything but instead causes more head-aches and ultimately is marginalized because he is superfluous, a problem that Didio's comments would indicate that he recognizes but is continuing full steam ahead anyways. Doc DOES NOT ALLOW OTHER TYPES OF SUPERHERO STORIES TO BE TOLD BECAUSE DC ALREADY HAS CHARACTERS IN PLACE THAT CAN TELL THOSE STORIES. A hero that is the pinnacle of human achievement in detection and training? *cough* Batman *cough* both Mr. Terrifics, Paul Kirk Manhunter and his clone, Wildcat, the GA Atom, Mr. Scarlet, MLJ's Hangman and the Web. Science fiction style criminals, adventures and explorations with a team of exceptional but normal men: the original Challengers of the Unknown, Secret Six, Suicide Squad, Sea Devils, Atomic Knights, Blackhawks. Espionage tales with Superhero-esque twists: King Faraday, Sarge Steel, Nemesis, Checkmate, Human Target (coming to a small screen near you), the Unknown Soldier and pretty much all of the above. Super-science and gadget heroes: Ted Kord Blue Beetle, Odd Man, Mr. Terrific, Batman, MLJ's the Wizard, Challengers of the Uknown, Bulletman, Spy Smasher, Red Torpedo, the Blue Tracer, Technocrat. Like MLJ, Doc brings nothing to the table that DC hasn't already largely scrambled and squandered. Notice how many of those characters and concepts have been killed off, changed beyond recognition, or at the very least ignored. If they want to pursue Doc Savage because they want to tell some good Doc Savage comic book stories, that's great. But, focusing on making him part of the continuity, and they are approaching it all wrong-headed and don't impart much confidence because they haven't done too well with the characters they already have in continuity.

According to comments, they are looking at getting the Shadow as well. Same arguments apply. Although, if they are smart they'll get Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barretto to pick back up where they left off with The Shadow Strikes. From accounts, it was a profitable series for DC and a darn good one that incorporated the best of the pulps into the comics, but it was discontinued because Street & Smith increased the asking price for the license.

If they decide also get the Whisperer, one can just see how they reconcile his secret identity as Police Commissioner James "Wildcat" Gordon.

DC has released the promos for their upcoming comics. Here's how they describe JMS' Red Circle comics:

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Tom Derenick & Bill Sienkiewicz
Cover by Jesus Saiz
The Civil War claimed many lives…but one of those lives still hasn’t ended! Union doctor Robert Dickering found himself on the wrong side of the battle lines, and despite his heroic treatment of a fallen enemy soldier, he also found himself on the wrong end of a noose! But a shadowy power stepped forth in the twilit moments between life and death and offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse: to forever roam the Earth, saving the lives of innocents condemned like himself – or hastening the deaths of the guilty! But in taking the seemingly righteous mission of the Hangman, has he accepted God’s work? Or has he become the vengeful fist of the Devil himself? Featuring art by Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz, the acclaimed team behind REIGN IN HELL!
On sale August 5 • 32 pg, one shot, FC, $2.99 US

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Greg Scott
Cover by Jesus Saiz
The mysterious stranger was brought into the hospital with one name on his lips: “Frank Verrano.” He has no memory of who he was, where he came from, or how he could possibly be the only survivor of a bombing attack on a cruise liner that killed hundreds of people. But as deep as that mystery runs, a violent attack on the hospital opens a deeper one. How can this man burst into flames…and survive? And why does the man who stands in those flames, the man know as the Inferno, look nothing like the one who stood in his place just seconds before? Blaze into this thrilling issue featuring art by Greg Scott (GOTHAM CENTRAL)!

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Roger Robinson & Hilary Barta
Cover by Jesus Saiz
Billionaire John Raymond has it all – fame, fortune, and a brilliant mind! He also has a brother with the one trait John lacks: compassion. No matter how relentlessly awe-inspiring John’s achievements get, it’s his brother who’s always seen as the hero. So John sets out to upstage his brother one more time. He’ll show the world just how much heroism money can buy as the amazing (and suspiciously well-equipped) Web. But when a dark fate arrives for his brother, John learns first-hand what a hero leaves on the line, and that there are worse losses than the ones that hit your checkbook! Featuring art by Roger Robinson (THE BRAVE & THE BOLD, BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS)!

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens
Cover by Jesus Saiz
Lieutenant Joe Higgins was dying in the dirt of a battlefield in Afghanistan when they whisked him away to a top-secret facility and saved his life with nanotechnology so experimental they couldn’t dare to use it on a living man. Now Higgins has been enlisted to a whole new mission – to be the public face of the American fighting man as the patriotic Shield! But today’s grueling military battles test the limits of patriotism and the limits of the technology that keeps him alive. And the shocking secret behind that technology may be too much for his bullet-riddled heart to bear. Featuring art from Marco Rudy (FINAL CRISIS)!

Yeah, that pretty much has NOTHING in common with the original characters other than their names. Takes balls to say otherwise. And, this should fill us with optimism over how they will handle incorporating Doc Savage into their continuity how?

DC has also announced that Steel will be on the backburner while Hardware is getting focused on with the bringing in the Milestone characters into continuity. Think I mentioned exactly that would happen. Although, it's not like we have seen much of Steel lately. A good thing that Mr. Terrific doesn't wear armor and is part of a decent selling team book or we'd probably see him also sidelined as well. We had Dale Gunn in JLDetroit who disappeared completely off scene once that team was considered an embarrassment, then Technocrat who was gone and forgotten once that version of Outsiders failed, then Steel and his star waned as Mr. Terrific's rose. And, amongst them we had Josiah Power and Skyrocket who didn't last long enough to threaten any of the others. Guess there's only so much room for African American versions of Tony Stark whether as a business man, intelligence level or super-power motifs.

DC's Wednesday Comics does look very interesting though. I wish there wasn't quite so much a focus on characters that already have their own books. I understand the need to have a few that are proven leaders, but 75% of it stars characters that already have outlets for their stories.

At Marvel, Howard Chaykin is returning to do Dominic Fortune set in the 30's. How cool is that?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Supermen! and Impact redux?

I lambaste quite a few comics from the current wave so I think I should also mention a few that seem to hit the right spots for me. Or, at least closer to the mark.

Such as John Byrne's Angel: Blood in the Trenches. Wasn't too long ago that based on a movie we saw that kinda missed the mark, I mentioned to my brother that a vampire story set during WWI in the trenches of No Man's Land could be a very interesting tale. It could even be done from the enemy's perspective. Turns out that Byrne seemed to be thinking along the same wavelengths and we get a comic set in the Buffy-verse of what the long-lived Angel was up to during the days of WWI. There are a few other nods to the continuity such as the inclusion of one of Wesley's ancestors and a demon that had appeared on television.

Byrne's art style has changed over the years. His line is more organic, his people more individualistic and natural. He's also loosened up the lines in some of the comics to make way for the more elaborate colorings of the day. Strangely enough, this has lead me to being not really as satisfied with his superhero work as the characters look more like caricatures, not as solid and iconic but strangely more stiff looking.

However, it works perfectly here. Shot directly from the pencils, there's detail and texture and line variety and capturing the grittiness of war as well as your 70's Kubert tales. The b/w quality is works wonderfully, showing off what his pencils and line can really do. Not exactly pleased with the idea of coloring the blood though, maybe if it was a deeper, darker red. Otherwise, I'd love to have the book all in b/w and drop the price on the cover (printing in color is a huge expense). Likewise, Byrne is suited well for telling horror stories such as this, perfectly at home with the macabre and bizarre.

Star Trek: Crew is also interesting. Each issue is a done-in-one tale much as his Assignment: Earth mini. The art doesn't work as well for me here, but he does manage to remain faithful to the general look and style of the original Star Trek series without actually looking anachronistic.

Sometimes books are so long between issues and series, that I forget it's even on my pull list. Thus, I am surprised when it appears in my bag. Such is the case of the usually excellent Black Coat which came out with a one-shot. It tries to promote itself on the basis of being only $2 and yet in color, but that's a bit wasted on me since it was in my bag automatically. But, it's an enjoyable series of a masked hero during the Revolutionary War where the war was a little stranger than you might realize.

Marvel's 70th Anniversary books are a bit of hit and miss. A definite hit was Sub-Mariner Comics. The two main stories set in the days of WWII are enjoyable and better written and drawn than almost all of Marvel's other books. Roy Thomas manages to actually tell a tale that doesn't get bogged down in meta-continuity while Mark Schultz is the one that gives us a little nod to a classic comic strip and the creator behind it as we meet an aviatrix by the name of Jenny Keaton (Flying Jenny by Russell Keaton). The artwork on that story by the ever wonderful Al Williamson who really should be doing more, even if it's just small stories like this. The only thing to mar it really is the reprint of Namor's origin. Couldn't we have gotten a story that hadn't been reprinted a dozen times already? Heck, 90% of it was a reprint when it first appeared in Marvel Comics #1.

For those fans of golden-age comics or whose interest might have been piqued by Dynamite's Project: Superpowers, Fantagraphics has published Supermen! The book looks at various heroes that came out between 1936 (Dr. Mystic) thru 1941. Heroes from various companies including Silver Streak, Daredevil vs. Claw, Blue Bolt, the Face, Skyman, the Flame, the Clock, Rex Dexter, the Comet, Stardust, Fantomah, among others with creators ranging from Shuster and Siegel, Simon & Kirby, Will Everett, Jack Cole, Lou Fine, Fletcher Hanks.

It isn't too surprising that there are no Timely or National/American (DC) characters, but with the inclusion of the Comet from MLJ, have to wonder why not an early Fawcett character or Quality. Standard is also completely ignored which seems very strange. Meanwhile the Centaur entries are among the least notable of characters available. Seriously, TWO stories of Dirk the Demon as opposed to Amazing Man by Everett, Iron Skull by Burgos and other luminaries as the Ferret, Fantom of the Fair, the Arrow, the Shark, etc? There's no Ace, Holyoke, Dell, Harvey, Hillman or Prize Publications either. Standard just struck me as being obvious because of the company's sheer size and variety of output compared to Columbia which is more than well represented.

Also notably missing are the patriotic heroes other than Skyman. Especially true if you read the notes delineating the history behind the characters and creators of each story, giving a nice progression of the history of the time. However, the way it ends talking about how the War would change things is more than a little misleading. Most of the super-patriots debuted BEFORE Pearl Harbor and many were fighting Nazi stand-ins and defending the Chinese from the Japanese (which makes for interesting reading when you move from the days of WWII to the Red Menace days half a decade later).

The other mis-step is the foreward which is just wasted space, not really talking about the book, the characters or time other than to say that it wasn't all pure and pearly white as our reminisces of any "golden-age" tend to make them.

Other than that, just ignore what's not there and enjoy it for what is: some great reprints in full color of some of the enjoyable heroes of the day.

Impact redux?

Sometime ago it was announced that the Archie heroes were being folded into the DCU continuity, in the pages of The Brave and the Bold written by J. Michael Straczynski. There have been a few snags and changes along the way. As B& B is an anthology series, don't really know why he felt that he couldn't really do it proper there and instead it is announced as a mini titled Red Circle. More details are found at an interview at Newsarama.

See, my problem is, while the structure of the mini sounds nice, these aren't the original Archie characters anymore than Impact was or the Heroes Reborn was really the Marvel characters. These are all NEW characters using the names of the originals and a bit of their modus operandi but nothing else. It might as well be a new take on Minute Man or Steel the Indestructible Man as the Shield. It's like not drawing any distinction between the Silver Age Hawkman and the Golden-Age Hawkman. Looks mostly the same, has the same name and alter ego, must be the same character. At least Simon & Kirby obviously created a whole new character with their Shield and not claim they were just updating the original charachters.

They start with the Hangman whose original story is dependent on another hero debuting first, the Comet. Take WWII out of the Shield, you lose a big part of what makes the character significant, his context. He was the first of the super-patriot super heroes, now he's just a copycat. Why go through the trouble of getting the rights when you're obviously not interested in what makes them great characters, their actual stories and history? All that richness and texture that could be brought in, completely gone with a writer's pen.