Thursday, March 25, 2010

Robert Culp, Green Hornet & the Torch

Another childhood favorite of mine passed away. This time it was Robert Culp, 79, after a fall.

I first became aware of Culp in The Greatest American Hero and it was my parents that told me about his earlier and groundbreaking show, I-Spy with Bill Cosby. At the time, Cosby was more well known to me as the guy from Fat Albert.

Culp excelled playing the conservative gung-ho, and often exasperated, FBI Agent Bill Maxwell opposite the unassuming liberal Ralph Hinkley who had the super-suit. As a kid and super-hero geek, I loved the show and its theme song. And, who didn't have a crush on Hinkley's fiance played by Connie Sellecca?

I got to see episodes of I Spy in syndication years later, after the advent of cable. A solid and fairly serious spy tv show that Hollywood in typical wisdom turned into a comedy on the big screen ala Starsky & Hutch and Charlie's Angels. See, we accept it with Charlie's Angels because the premise already was a bit ludicrous and straddled being both sexist and empowering when it came out. With that kind of thinking, I'm surprised that the movie version of Dukes of Hazzard wasn't more like Deliverance. I loved how years after the television series, Cosby has Culp making a guest appearance on The Cosby Show, basically as his I Spy character and all the little references to them playing tennis together (their cover identities in the series). While looking for images to use in this blog, I came across a reference to a Diagnosis Murder episode that featured actors from various tv spy shows: Robert Culp (I Spy), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), and Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible). Never saw it, but love the idea.

I saw an old made-for-tv movie several years ago starring Culp called Outrage where he plays a suburban father whose family is harassed by neighborhood kids to the point they kill the family dog but the police and the parents won't do anything to curb them. At which point, Culp takes matters in his own hand. Wonderful stuff.

Of more recent vintage, Culp played the slightly uptight and pretentious father of Patricia Heaton's character on Everybody Loves Raymond, with his charismatic affable charm softening the edges of a character that would probably be annoying to know in real life. Of course, that describes most of the characters on that show with all of their various neuroses.

In addition to starring in a series about a comicbook type hero and in another series that got made into comics as shown here, Robert Culp has another connection to comics. Culp starred in several episodes of The Outer Limits including one called "The Architects of Fear" where a group of scientists decide to trick the world into thinking an alien invasion is imminent with the hopes that the world leaders would set aside their differences and come together in light of the perceived bigger threat. This is, of course, Ozymandias' scheme in Alan Moore's Watchmen. The episode is referenced at the end as it is airing on the tv in the background when Dan and Laurie in their new guises visit her mother.

Green Hornet: Year One: It's interesting to note how terms become part of the lexicon and how each industry or a group will develop their own specialized language. Such as DC coming up with the hardcover reprint line called "Archives", the term now applying pretty much to any hardback collection of a title or character's original run. The look is even reproduced by Dark Horse in their volumes which would be a clear case of trademark infringement otherwise. Likewise Thomas coined the terms "retroactive-continuity" and "ret-con" though they have been in existence for almost as long as the form. It was just never given a name. What was originally a stunt to tie in with Zero Hour, we now have regular "zero issues" trotted out by almost every publisher. Likewise, the term "Year One" has grown apart from it's original meaning. Used by Frank Miller in his revamp origin of Batman in Batman: Year One, it now tends to mean any origin story set in the past of the current continuity.

Thus, this Green Hornet title is not about the first year of his activity but all the years leading up to it and his first outings that would set the tone of his career as masquerading as a masked crime boss preying on other gangs and organized crime.

In some ways, it covers the same ground as Kevin Smith's Green Hornet comic. It sets up the the concept of the Green Hornet as a fighter against organized crime, while being about fathers and sons and their responsibilities. However, Matt Wagner actually delivers the beginnings of a solid story as opposed to Smith's opening ten minutes of a movie.

Wagner layers his story by comparing the childhoods and father-son relationships of both Britt Reid and Kato. He lays out and starts weaving the threads of the two characters' stories into recurring thematic elements, so we see where the story is going. Wagner sets the stage of Britt's father crusading against organized crime through his newspaper, his focus on raising Britt to take up that mantle some day and emphasizing academics as well as athletics. This is contrasted against Kato who is not as adept at the academics and who focuses on training in the martial arts while his father also teaches him about loyalty and the way of the samurai in Japan. And the comic ends with each a young man on a collision course, taking the lessons of their fathers into directions their fathers had not intended. Against the scenes of their growing up, we also see them years later emerging as the Green Hornet and Kato starting their careers, the destination and point of the story being set before the reader.

This is the Green Hornet comic Dynamite should have started with. In one issue, we get the underpinnings of the motivations and forces that drive the characters as well as the facts of the world that they inhabit. Aaron Campbell's artwork is more expressionistic and stylish than his previous work on the publisher's Sherlock Holmes book and looking a lot less blotchy in the inks. The coloring by Francesco Francavilla goes a long way to reinforcing the style and mood through limited color use (the book is almost all orange and green).

The Torch #6: Alex Ross and Mike Carey use a similar plot structure that was in Ross' and Jim Krueger's Avengers/Invaders and that is found in many role playing video games. The story is broken down in distinct Acts with a clear resolution to each Act that sets up the action and story for the following Act. This helps in keeping a story from feeling a little too complex or meandering too terribly much, breaking it down into smaller stories with an over-arcing plot and theme. Issue six is the beginning of Act III. The Torch has been reactivated, he and Toro have their powers back and with the help of the Fantastic Four, stopped an experiment by the Mad Thinker from running completely amok and enslaving the human race. The downfall is that the solution is slowly killing the original Human Torch, with days to live. Meanwhile, the Mad Thinker is still at large and Toro is looking into his mother's role in the Torch's origins.

While not a bad story, it lacks certain logic in human nature. The last issue brought the Torch and the Sub-Mariner together in battle. But, there is no logical follow-up. Namor doesn't feature at all once that aspect of the plot is over with even though he is an old friend and ally of the two from their days in the Invaders and All-Winners Squad and he witnessed Toro's last days and death before this resurrection. Likewise, Toro shows no interest in contacting his wife who was last seen hanging around with the Torch. It's been years for us, but his marriage should be like yesterday to him. At first, I thought that maybe the woman he was with in the diner was her, but it's someone else. Who she is, and how she has contacts with an older spy is not clear. Maybe, if I go back and re-read some of the earlier issues, I'll see that she was introduced earlier.

It's part of a tendency of many modern comics that set up heroes as being just the heroes. The Torch and Toro are back in the land of the living but they seem to be living off of the FF's dime. Take the scene in the diner. Toro has no money, no job and apparently no clothes beyond the new generic outfit given by Reed Richards (I'll grant that his last costume was equally generic). How does he afford to eat out in New York City, even if it's a diner? He shows more interest in getting his powers back and solving the decades old mystery concerning his mother than actually building a life for himself. It's like all of the Avengers who seem to live solely by virtue of the Avengers offering room and board. Toro's whole personality is solely mission based and defined by the plot.

The comic may go down as one of the most defining ones for the Mad Thinker. Of most of the super villain master minds, he's one of the few that never really had an extended story arc or series of appearances that really set him up as a foe to be reckoned with. In this mini, he gets ample room showing off his criminal genius. After the way he manhandled AIM in allowing him to pursue his own pet projects, he gets a little comeuppance here. And, he is in such fine form with his arrogance and superiority complex that at first the massive coincidences and glossed over plot-holes involved swept right by me. How did a dictator of a secreted, remote and almost completely isolated village get in touch with the Thinker? How did they know about his recent work with the Torch (otherwise, why contact him now instead of anytime in the last 20 years)? And, what a huge coincidence that this hitherto unknown leader just so happens to be the man that holds the secrets to Toro's past thus setting him and the Torch on path to another clash with the Mad Thinker.

Another little flaw in the storytelling, one that occurred to me when seeing the online previews, if you have characters speaking in translated word balloons as in the opening scenes, then none of the words in said balloons should be in the foreign language, even if their meaning is clear. It's not the same as if trying to get across someone of foreign background speaking English as their second language and thus peppering their language with foreign words and phrases such as Nightcrawler's exclamations of "Mein Gott" or Colossus calling his comrades "tovarishc". The translated conversation should not be:

"We're not even supposed to be here. It's a Verbotene Zone."
"Sophie, everything is verboten, Let's break the rules for once."
"Fantastisch! It's like a fairy tale!"

"We're not even supposed to be here. It's a Forbidden Zone."
"Sophie, everything is Forbidden, Let's break the rules for once."
"Fantastic! It's like a fairy tale!"
If you are translating, you translate every word apart from proper names.

Lastly, if the Torch is dying due to the destruction and breakdown of the Horton cells, shouldn't this affect Toro's powers. Maybe by the end of the story, we'll see Toro sacrifice his life or his powers in order to save the Torch. After all, do we really need three almost identical flaming heroes in the M.U.?

Still, a solid enough read and it stands on its own, no need to be getting all those other tie-ins, other mini's and one-shots or titles you don't normally read in order to get the full story.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fess Parker RIP

One of my tv heroes passed away. Fess Parker was 85 y.o.

I remember watching his portrayal of Davy Crockett on The Wide World of Disney growing up and I even had a coonskin hat which generally was a little too warm. His portrayal of Crockett and the battle of the Alamo that got me interested in the Alamo and would read almost anything I could concerning it. When I was 15, I headed out to the Philmont Boy Scout camp in New Mexico, and one of the highlights was going to San Antonio and walking around the Alamo and being surprised at just how small it was. Reading about the real Davy Crockett and he seems like he was larger than life in reality too. Homespun but firm in his convictions, honest in his treatment of others and expecting the same, one can see why he was a hero. His meeting up with Jim Bowie, another legend in his own time, and their both dying at the Alamo has all of the underpinnings of myth, an American version of the Illiad. At 6'5" with a slow deliberate way of talking, one can see why Fess Parker was chosen to portray the man.

The show was influential in another way, the ending. Of all the movies that have been done concerning the Alamo, none top Disney's. It chooses not to end by showing his actual death though. It ends with Davy defiant, surrounded by the enemy, he stands tall and starts swinging his rifle around his head. Cue music and fade-out. Sure, he dies, but it ends leaving you invigorated, excited, pumped up. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid chose a similar ending. To go one minute further and you completely change the emotion that you leave the audience with.

This on the heels of the death of Peter Graves days shy of his 84th birthday. I remember seeing Mission Impossible in re-runs, which I always enjoyed. And, always enjoyed seeing him popping up in small roles such as a funny turn in House MD. As fun as the Tom Cruise movies were, they missed much of the charm of the original series and committed the crime of taking the hero of the books and turning him into the villain of the movie. Makes it forgivable that Graves wasn't cast as Phelps in it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Twelve: Spearhead

The Twelve: Spearhead is in many ways a successful one-shot. Minus the writer of the maxi-series, Chris Weston steps in the writer's shoes and produces a title that fits fairly seamlessly with the maxi, aided by the fact that he's also doing the artwork. He manages to keep the same sensibilities, the characters on model as far as the other series is concerned. He ably apes the language and individual voices and styles of the various characters, to the point that they are almost parodies, especially Dynamic Man.

And, it's part of the failure of the book as well. He manages to tell a story showing a bit of what the heroes did during the War, but without revealing much that is new regarding the characters' motivations and story. At best, he provides some context for the characters, where they fit in with the heroes we do know about. We find that the Phantom Reporter has had a thing for the Black Widow before now, how Electro got "Berlin or Bust" on his chest, and Rockman's real history has gotten a little murkier as JMS has set him up as someone who is a bit delusional, that his background as being from an underground race being a fiction of an addled mind. But, if that's the case, where did he get the burrowing machine? Other than that, the characters don't really do anything that they haven't been shown to do so far. Thus, the Fiery Mask who should be one of the most powerful characters does nothing as his "real" origin and back-story haven't been revealed yet. Mr. E is just a hanger-on, to show reaction to the extermination of the Jews, the Blue Blade does entertainment and the Laughing Mask kills captured soldiers.

Weston's not a writer. On one hand, it works as we get more action in this one book than we've gotten in 8 issues of the maxi-series. But, he wants to tie it in to as much continuity minutiae as possible. We have references to the death of Citizen V, the "death" of Captain America & Bucky, the Human Torch's assignment to kill Hitler, the Whizzer & Miss America being a couple, Rockman being called the Underground Secret Agent, Nick Fury's loss of eye and his postwar career, etc. The Phantom Reporter comments about feeling like a tourist while Dynamic Man keeps spouting homosexual slurs and references in every word balloon. None of the heroes yet to appear in a modern Marvel comic appear though there is a reference to Captain Daring. This attention to detail is jarringly derailed when we have a scene showing the exceptional but normal Patriot and the Black Marvel lifting an anti-aircraft gun over their heads. Weston also confuses "underworld" with "underground" at one point in referencing the Phantom Reporter.

And, it's saddled with the weaknesses of the main maxi as well. The original characters and their stories are full of wonder and backstory which the maxi-series alternately ignores or chooses to contradict. Likewise, this one-shot doesn't really capture why these characters can be so cool or dynamic. Part of that is because this title and the maxi are about getting across a hyper-realism. It's about being serious and adult and thus we have the homosexual innuendos spouted by Dynamic Man, a scene clearly implying the sexual relationship between the Whizzer and Miss America but not the romance. Heroes use guns to shoot unarmed men, Electro is shown graphically ripping a man in two when he could just as easily knocked him for a loop (and more quickly if you want to be "realistic" whereas the time spent on this brutality would allow the other soldiers time to keep firing at you and those you're trying to protect) . Even the talk about the extermination of the Jews doesn't really display the horror of that act as much as it's played for the reaction of Mr. E who denies his heritage. What we have is NOT something about the horrors of the War, that gets across the brutality of the War and the heroism of the super-heroes and the soldiers despite some lip service, but is really about showcasing the feet of clay of the heroes and their flaws. Instead of being a superhero story set in the milieu of WWII, it's more of a story about superheroes, looking at them through post-modernist eyes with a backdrop of the War.

And, just to add insult to injury, Captain America is shown wearing one of his retconned uniforms with a stencil style A on his mask, a military belt, stitching down the sides of his boots. More "realism" at the expense of sense of wonder that comes with superheroes and their costumes.

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.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Looking at the JSA

JSA #36: A little late, but I tend to only get comics once a week or so now. In this case it gives a little added perspective in that I've read other reviews or seen the absence of reviews and comments on boards and so, when reading this, I was struck by something that many seem to have missed.

The story opens in the future where the villains have already won and a captured and graying Mr. Terrific is relating the story of how the JSA fell. It then flashbacks to the present day and the super-powered Fourth Reich launch an all out attack on the JSA starting with a trap laid out for Green Lantern, killing him almost instantly. From there, it's all out action and the heroes not faring too badly. The story is told well enough, giving an entertaining read and yet eager to see what happens next, how they are going to reset everything back to the status quo. Willingham knows how to pace the story with multiple characters without making it feel padded. We get little character bits and interaction, forward movement, sense of danger and conflict. It's not exactly pitch perfect, but it doesn't have the plodding feel of a Johns epic nor the sense of equating characterization to plotting. Characters are allowed to shine beyond the plot spotlight. The last two-parter was about Mordru and the new Dr. Fate, but we see the other characters doing more than chewing scenery, especially Green Lantern. Which plays off well here where he's taken out quickly but the Flash and Wildcat are shown off to great effect.

Only a few minor quibbles in writing and art. We see Lightning and Mr. America suiting up to join the battle but apparently arrive too late to do anything as the fight and comic is over without seeing them again. The villains are at least named this time out, so we have a scorecard but don't know anything about them. And, we get another character cameo with little context that seems out of the blue. Who the heck is the Veteran that the JSA are talking to who seems to be working for the US government? A generic government cog would have worked better than a writer's obscure pet character in such a manner. Likewise, we really don't know anything about the "Fourth Reich". Is it just a gathering of like-minded modern day Nazi supervillains or is there an actual movement with a leader, this group just being the assault team? The Red Skull and the later Baron Zemo worked as being masterminds, we can see them setting themselves up as rulers. The modern-day Captain Nazi doesn't have that kind of cred. Partly because he's not the original but also because we don't really see him leading or manipulating others to do the fighting for him. He comes across as a field leader but not the spiritual leader or mastermind of such a group.

Likewise with the heroes, Willingham seems to struggle with the more normal people being part of the team. Mr. America had been given a whip that is super-destructive, Sand has been absent from both teams though ostensibly still a member, Doctor Mid-nite is purposely given something else to do and Mr. Terrific is uberfied even more than he has been. Soon, a story is going to have to be told that tells us just who and why Mr. America is beyond the cypher that he was a friend of the previous title-holder and why that rates membership in the JSA. Especially, as he is usually one of the first taken out in any fight so far. When telling an epic styled story, characterization is allowed a little sliding, but many of the better writers of the past balanced the big arcs with small arcs or character focused stories in-between.

The art has a wonderful classic feel, the elder heroes are gray but still dynamic and heroic looking. Jay Garrick finally has gotten his hair cut. The coloring doesn't over power the art except for the scenes where Wildcat and Mr. Terrific are fighting Captain Nazi. As the heroes are wearing dark costumes, the backgrounds and the Christmas colored Captain Nazi also become very dark and hard to see. Makes you wonder if people coloring comics actually read the printed product in normal lighting. The glossy paper and dark/dense coloring combination can make the books harder to read except under specific conditions as the pages can be too dark to read without turning on bright lights or having to deal with the glare caused by light and the glossy pages turning dark pages into silhouettes with a bright glow in the middle and word balloons.

What I found especially interesting were the members of the Fourth Reich itself. See, the JSA in the forties didn't really fight that many WWII inspired bad guys. The publishers at DC thought that readers would like to escape from the realities of the War, not read about it. It is probably why DC didn't really have many patriotic inspired heroes of its own. It is hard to qualify Wonder Woman as one since she wasn't even really American and her stories had their own odd influences. That pretty much leaves Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, and Mr. America/Americommando as men inspired by Old Glory and patriotism to become heroes. This is a bit unique to DC in that almost every other company's heroes were clearly fighting the War as well as criminals on the homefront.

Also largely unique to DC was the general lack of super-villains during the early forties. There were a few, but most of the colorful and memorable villains didn't show up until near the end of the War and afterwards. This was partially true of most of the companies. In the early days, the tendency seemed to be the more fantastic the hero, the more generic his foes and vice-versa. The bulk of bad guys were mad scientists, gangsters and spies. But, it seemed especially true for DC over other companies, that the majority of their villains were as unmemorable and generic as their heroes weren't. Thus, when Thomas wrote All-Star Squadron, quite a few villains were ones that had been created since then. Especially the ones that related directly to the War effort. His opening arc included various time-tossed villains just to provide some colorful adversaries that wouldn't pop up for another couple of years.

This ties in to the Fourth Reich in that it's membership is largely of characters from other companies! The exceptions: Baroness Blitzkrieg has her roots in DC. Taking a page from Roy Thomas' book where he took Hillman's Baroness Blood name and used it for a whole new male character Baron Blood to bedevil the Invaders, the Baroness here takes her name from Baron Blitzkrieg that figured prominently in Thomas' All-Star Squadron (though his creation was prior to that). Her costume and powers are homage to another Thomas villain Der Zyklon. As far as I can tell, Shadow of War is an all new character while White Dragon appeared elsewhere in the DCU though the name was also of a GA villain that the Whip fought. Captain Nazi is a Fawcett villain that fought Captain Marvel and Bulletman before becoming the cause of the creation of his most recurring sparring partner, Captain Marvel Jr.

Green Ghoul, Captain Murder, Count Berlin, Hunter, Captain Swastika, Baron Gestapo are all actual GA villains (though visibly pretty different than here) and from MLJ comics! Dr. Demon is a name of a foe from the company when it was known as Archie in their 1960s and published The Shadow as a costumed hero. There was also a Doctor Deemon from the forties that fought Harvey's Captain Freedom. It's interesting that while DC is publishing all new tales of the MLJ heroes and promoting them, that the company's villains would crop up in the JSA with little to no fanfare whatsoever. And, no one seems to have noticed.

One of the big shames is that the DCU honors their golden-age heroes, have in place storytelling engines to utilize them and fit them into the continuity and history instead have decided to scrap the original characters in favor of all new versions. The JSA would have been a natural place to see one or two of the original MLJ heroes. Then again, we've not seen any of the original Quality or Fawcett characters become members either. It gives credence that the characters are public domain though. While the DC versions of the Archie heroes are taking place in-continuity as it were, they haven't been used outside of their own books. This makes sense as Archie will own the trademarks to the heroes after the license or books finally cease. So, reprints of the books with the heroes would be problematic as far as promoting or putting them on the cover. The villains, on the other hand... if they are public domain copyright-wise, there's no problem with creating new villains based on the old ones, it won't cause any trouble down the road. If you'd like a little history on some of these guys, I'll just point you to my site on them

JSA Annual #2: Nothing like being dropped into the middle of a JSA All-Stars story with little to no clue as to what's going on. Heck, it might be that the first part of this story is actually from Magog. It also plays up the stupidity that is the Magog character. David Reid was interesting. There aren't that many modern superheroes who don't wear costumes at all and so he had potential of being a normal guy superhero. He's got the powers, the training, and even the motivation of being a stand-up guy. But, he's not about the theatrics. He'd be just as happy using his powers as part of the police force or in the armed forces. His transition to Magog resulted in a whole personality change that never felt natural or logical enough to get across the sense of tragicness that I think they were going for. No internal conflict, no sacrifice. He just went from embodying the best of the patriotic soldier archetype to embodying all of the negative aspects. He was just part of the whole bad idea of bringing Kingdom Come into continuity and part of the JSA continuity.

So, his removal from the JSA should be a cause for rejoicing just as the team has had to repeatedly dump Hawkman-the-barbarian from their roster. The problem is that Magog was pretty much the motivating plot device to divide the JSA into two teams and two books. Removing him from the team and there's no in-story reasoning behind a long-term division between the two teams. I don't care as it removes many of the other bad-idea legacy characters that lately were introduced: Citizen Steel, Judomaster, Chimera, whatever Wildcat's son calls himself, the damaged Damage (isn't he dead in other books going on right now?). I'd chalk Cyclone up there but I find her personality to be both annoying and refreshing so that she is at least interesting to have around.