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The Lair Of Gary James

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And Thanks To Some Awesome People…

Posted by BigWords on August 16, 2013

The British Comics Database is now pretty.

Mostly. There is still some tinkering to be done, but everyone seems happy with it at the moment, and I don’t have time to oversee things as I should.

Seriously, seriously awesome people.

I don’t often say this, and I know that I should, but the folks who are willing to spend time on my insane projects without questioning my sanity make me feel less conscious about the fact that so many of the things I had intended to spend the year doing have gone rather pear shaped.

As things stand, the website not being a mess is the sole achievement of the year.

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The Black Terror: Roundup 1

Posted by BigWords on May 24, 2013

So, you may be wondering – if this all fell together so easily, why am I not doing anything with the character? Well, because others are still working with The Black Terror. They may not be using the character to his full potential, and – in all likelihood – there will never be a proper exploitation of all the things that make him so interesting, but that doesn’t matter. I can’t play with the character while there are stories published elsewhere. One of the main elements that makes me excited about a property is being out there on the sidelines of what people are doing, taking characters in new directions and ignoring the (often insipid) popular movements. Maybe there’s room for a comic-book title featuring the character which is less mainstream, but as long as he is appearing elsewhere I won’t be involved in the character.

This example isn’t a particularly unique insight into how I patchwork a grand story together from thin material, and I could have done an equally in-depth piece on The Lady In Red, or even Robin Hood (if anyone is using the character, please get the historic “great forest” feeling in there somewhere), but it shows how a great story can be told about even minor characters. When I have expressed dissatisfaction with the stories which I have been reading, it is mainly because people aren’t being either as bold or as intuitive in their extrapolation of characters as they should be. I want the wild and intelligent elements to come to the forefront, and be played with – I need more intelligent material to pore over than many people are willing to write. It is neither difficult nor time consuming.

There’s a lot of stuff I won’t touch. I dislike the thought of writing something just because it is popular at the moment. I could do a helluva vampire novel, but what’s the point? There’s already too many mediocre attempts at Twilight-lite fiction, and by adding to the considerable number of titles muddying the genre I would merely be committing the same literary necrophilia as those who I am irritated by. Playing follow-the-leader is fine for children, but for authors it is a sign of desperation and lack of strength. Standing clear of the traffic already clogging up genres is the only way for people to grow as writers, and avoiding any confusion is paramount to establishing that most important of credentials – originality. I know people are gonna be headdesking at that word, as there is nothing truly original left, but having a degree of originality in the writing is different to plot.

I scratched the notion of doing something with Black Terror rather quickly, so I never got to the point where I had a page-by-page breakdown, and had I managed to quell the feeling that I was stepping on the work being done with the character elsewhere I would have created a tighter focus on the conspiracy drawing him to The Spider (or his niece, as she will have that name by the 1940s). The problems inherent in bringing any character back from the public domain are that they aren’t controllable – others have the ability to go ahead and use the characters in any way they see fit, and there is no right or wrong in their use. There might be entirely uninteresting uses, but those aren’t “wrong” per se. Just not to my taste.

There’s a lot of characters which I have a passing interest in the future of. Most of them are in the public domain, and freely available for use, though it is a hard sell convincing myself to tackle them when there are others utilizing them. One of the most neglected Golden Age areas is the Egyptian characters. This bleeds into the pulps as well, infusing the magnificent discoveries with a sense of wonder, mystery and horror. The use of Egyptian heroes (Ibis and Kalkor in comics, right through to low-budget films) have always felt as if they were slightly underdeveloped. I’ll go so far as to make note that modern comics don’t have a grasp on just how much there is still to be done. Hawkman, long an Egyptian-tinged hero, never felt as if he was truly connected to anything approaching reality.

For anyone writing characters tied to Egypt of the 40s, reading Montet’s 1958 record of his expedition is pretty much essential background research. And as for the lighter depictions of WWII – really, are people sitting down with a DVD of Saving Private Ryan and claiming to have done the necessary historical research? Yes, I may be overstating just how irritated I am with much of the comics on the market right now, and there are good things appearing, but there seems to be too many light and breezy versions of history which are presented as having some validity when they merely reprise what has gone before. Like anything else, this results in lowered fidelity with each removal from the source material.

Although it should be obvious, I have no intention of writing for DC or Marvel. I know most people would be desperate to get their hands on those characters, but the quality of the writing – overall – has been rather low from what I have read, and I would feel bad if people following the adventures of a character were subjected to one of the intermittent crossovers through anything I did. There hasn’t been a worthwhile one since the original Crisis back in the 80s, with each money-grabbing, poorly plotted mess becoming more and more irrelevant to the mainstream. Mainstream readers don’t care about superheroes, and they care even less for stories built on the continuity snarls of superheroes.

For a while now I have been concentrating on developing and building up material for my own titles, but… Yeah. This hasn’t been a good couple of years. There will be a proper something appearing at some point which will go some way to answering what has been happening with that material, but it is a ways off just yet. And it won’t be the kind of things that you can go get anywhere else.

Having laid all that out, I think I have covered everything I set out to do. Time to leave this via a nice, relaxing piece of music…

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The Black Terror, Part Three

Posted by BigWords on May 23, 2013

Back to the Skull & Crossbones… Man, that is so full of potential. And it opens in to a lot of things that can add depth to the character. It was while sketching out a basic timeline that I realized that I could strengthen the ties back and forth between the stitched together elements. Going back to the Herbert West story, and the explosion that aborts the experiments on Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, D.S.O., I had another feverish moment of canon-welding. There’s a funky character called Phantom Raider Of The Sky whose visuals and history fit the tone and mood which I was going for. And it fitted with the general theme of the characters being bound by events from the past, unable to escape the consequences of actions taken by others.

By incorporating other characters using the logo, I was able to form a timeline – John Perry of the Daily Clarion running a series of stories which seem to be using the Terror image, but it is Black Fury; a Japanese assassin of The Black Dragon Society trying to dirty Benton’s name; the actor Perry Knight appearing in a play in town… With the increasing appearance of the skull and crossbones surrounding Benton, it was also a way to increase his discomfort about having a secret identity, and the thought that someone might have discovered his role as Black Terror could be used to rack up the tension. It also led to a way to get other old properties tied into the continuity. Of course, having the plot set up through happy coincidences and conspiracy theories wasn’t enough. The basic reality of the character outside the fantasy has to be right for verisimilitude.

There are a few essential posts for anyone writing chemists working in a drugstore in the forties. There are not one, not two, but three posts which Sarah Sundin has written that are essential to capturing the atmosphere of the era. It was reading those posts that I realized I needed to show Benton in the white outfit (and that hat) which held so great an era-appropriate tinge. Nobody has really caught the forties flavor of the character, and it is stuff like the uniform which helps. Small details. I was reading books on vintage automobiles for something else a few years back, though I don’t have those to hand. Irrespective, there are places to get a feeling about the cars in play at the opening of WWII

One of the things which attracted me to the character was the political edge about the character. One of the foes was Alderman Peters, lining his pocket and providing shoddy constructions, then there was the fact that his girlfriend worked for the mayor – it was a milieu almost built for a heady mix of corruption and political shenanigans. There isn’t another character from the forties so readily adaptable into a clever, in-depth examination of the ways that the war impacted on life. Even the throwaway element of his professor turning to crime for funds due to his research being appropriated for the war effort was strong enough to drag in some other character moments. It had the potential to be the forties version of The Wire if handled correctly.

When I talk about being able to see the connections which exist under the surface of a story, it is all this stuff I am talking about. It isn’t difficult to whip up something so complex and intelligent in a couple of days. I mentioned that there was a need for something more personal in the character – the original comics present a remarkably solitary figure despite friends – and it was in family that the character would face his greatest fears. He needed a brother. There’s a film which has slipped into the public domain that felt like the work of a divine hand, a narrative that tied itself into the character so well that there was little choice other than to accept Charles Benton as Robert’s erstwhile brother.

And the serum in that film is soooo right.

So, with all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place remarkably easy, it was time to address those guns. I am not adverse to characters wielding firearms, and in stories which take place in a pulpy, film noir world, there needs to be at least one scene where a character empties a revolver. But all the time? It gets too similar and tired, and there isn’t a link to the character’s other moments – with being a chemist, I had the notion that there might be more to the use of knockout gas or something… Small vials of milky liquid thrown at enemies rather than gunplay also fits with the attention paid to pugilistic tradition. This, in turn, keeps the character fresh and interesting when paired with characters who are more closely associated with carrying firearms.

Oh, and because he’s into boxing, it opens the door for Costigan to make an appearance at some point.

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The Black Terror, Part Two

Posted by BigWords on May 22, 2013

I am not, never have been, and probably never will be a full-blown conspiracy theorist, but I know people who are. It is handy to know such people, as having complex, and contradictory, plots by secret organizations explained is something I never tire of. Honestly, that shit is hilarious. It is all the fault of the Masons, the Bilderbergers and… IDK. Disney. Whatever. But the thought that there could be some agency behind certain events made me think of cool and interesting ways to weave an air of uncertainty through things. Hence the requirement that the ideology of the conspiracy peeps bleed into everything from an early point and get more pronounced as Robert Benton is dragged into the middle of the whole mess. The CIA would not come into existence until 1947, so I started thinking.

The organization started as the OSS in WWII (concurrent with the timeline of the Black Terror), and as I needed a face for the OSS I settled on The Spider’s niece, Silvia Rodney. She linked the voracious information-gathering and the complex manipulation elements together, and I decided to recast her and (post mortem) her uncle as members of an offshoot of a secret society. The skull and crossbones emblem, having a degree of relevance to this, meant I could pepper the number 322 and 42 in various permutations throughout the story. In the use of the chest emblem, even though there was the existing chemistry relevance, the added symbolism that the new threads brought meant I could explore some of that yummy Lovecraftian goodness with good reason.

Having this secret organization funneling research into superpowers, reanimation and other psuedoscientific things seemed highly amusing. And, in my mind anyways, Herbert was somehow still alive after encountering his misbegotten creations – possibly yelling “Nades, Suradis, Maniner” before the undead figures could dismember him. Regardless, the thoughts were flowing about the potion, the heroic persona, and the boxing connections. The most important element of all being the potion, which had felt too contrived and simplistic for a character who was quickly becoming more than a mere superhero in my mind. Transformation sequences in comics, film and literature are ten-a-penny, and normally don’t interest me as much as the question of identity and… well, stories which can be done.

Lets just step back for a moment and look at transformations.

There have been a bazillion transformation sequences in television, on film and in comics – ranging from the fetishistic Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Transformers sequences which lavish attention on shiny, shiny weapons and vehicles, through to… Well, the obvious character. There’s a reason I chose that video to highlight the problems of making a worthwhile transformation sequence. There are any number of examples to choose from, but in looking at The Black Terror’s appearance, there needed to be something extra. There are all kinds of reference material available about the effects of certain compounds on the human body, though this is one area where anything is permitted. Outside the remit of reality, and open to any interpretation, it is the most truly free elements the character permits.

The classic transformation sequence in fiction is rather… bland. Just take a look at the recent Captain America film to see my problems with the traditional form – it is too clean and simple. I like the idea of something more dramatic. I had a two page sequence planned, with thirty panels depicting the veins standing up in Benton’s neck, face reddening, a mad grimace twisting his features. His forearms pulling up in decorticate response as foam comes from his mouth, then twisting his head to one side, jaw clenched, before slumping to the ground. It is here that the big departure from the established continuity was required – I wanted to make Timothy Roland older, maybe in his early twenties. And that let me use the line “No doctors. And don’t tell anyone about the compound. If anyone asks, then… tell them it was formic acid or something.” A nice nod to the original comics, while keeping the horror elements.

Having laid out most of the main elements, there was one lingering problem that kept coming back to me. I hate masks. They are all too easy, and muddy the boundary between the adventure heroes and more stereotypical superheroes. I dislike superheroes, and the inclusion of the mask bothered me. Having established that Benton is a master chemist with access to potentially game-changing compounds, it made sense to make another leap for the sake of drama. There’s an exciting difference between a mask and a “visage of terror” (a line used repeatedly in Weird Tales). The use of chemicals to transform his face into an ashen, horrible image of pure terror – completely unlike his normal face – while in costume was the hook I needed to get into the story.

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The Black Terror, Part One

Posted by BigWords on May 21, 2013

When I point out that I don’t see characters in isolation, it can be rather confusing for those who may not be au fait with the Wold Newton conceit. Accepting that there needs to be examples here, I’ll use the bare bones of the script I had played with at the beginning of December. First though, I have to explain why the character in question was considered. I want to get through this as cleanly as possible, though I may accidentally omit some piece of vital information, and leave some of my research or references obscure. There are a lot of things that I used to flesh out the concept, and even though it is all in files on the computer, most of it is buried in pages and pages of plot and notes on important (to me) details irrelevant to this post. Nudge me if I am being too obscure.

Back when Dynamite Entertainment started getting attention, I was (understandably) excited at the prospect of various characters being brought out of limbo and returned to print. The final products were, unfortunately, not handled to their full potential. No specifics. Just… Disappointing comics, from where I was sitting. That basic problem I highlighted about research was hampering my enjoyment, but more than that, there was a feeling that not enough fun was being had with the main characters. Whatever the final products, the fact that they are willing to explore unconventional characters makes me feel rather warm and fuzzy. Dynamite, in time, might turn out to be the company whose titles I am going to read most of.

Well… Aside from the glorious mayhem Dark Horse publish. I’m always going to have a soft spot for those guys.

So here’s the thing – Black Terror didn’t feel right to me. I had first encountered the character in the Golden Age comics I have been collecting, and it came as a bit of a surprise to see Alan Moore kinda miss the point with his use in Terra Obscura. It wasn’t a bad series, by any means, but it didn’t feel like he had his heart in the reinvention of the character. Then I saw the Dynamite version, and… Oh dear. In the original comics, he states at one point that he didn’t usually use firearms, though he was proficient in their use. I liked that. Something in not routinely using guns felt completely in line with my thoughts on heroes. He didn’t need to be packing heat to defend himself.

Which made me think, for some reason, that boxing might be a sport that he was interested in. It made sense to me that he would have been working out to get his physique, and it fixed a minor plot point that I had been pondering, though it also opened up an explanation for his name – happy coincidences figure a lot in the way I put stories together. Small hooks bring in new ideas, generate plots, character moments and explain relationships. The boxing angle needed another element, and it was when I began looking into his occupation that I got the notion that his “lucky accident” in the lab wasn’t so much of an accident. Then I realized that he needed a family. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Black Terror, originally created by Richard E. Hughes (a very prolific author) and Don Gabrielson, and continued for a while by Patricia Highsmith, was a natural choice for my taste. The skull and crossbones costume, a career in chemistry that lent itself to some interesting and original stories, and a supporting cast which spoke to small town Americana of the early forties. There’s an incredible amount of minor detail present in the original comics, with numerous political angles creeping into the otherwise traditional superhero comic elements. It took me about a year to finally see something in the character that I had missed, though within a day I had the complete origin down in my head, beginning with the most unlikely of moments.

Robert Benton is a genius. He’s able to put chemicals together to craft elixirs granting him great strength, but we never find out much more about the potion from any of the Nedor comics. I have limited interest in the use of the character in modern titles, and my focus was entirely built around what could be done with the character in a new way, so I purposefully ignored modern material. The question of why this great mind had been sidelined to a small town when he could have been an asset to the war effort bothered me. It was a question which required answering in order to make anything of his life hang together. The answer was boxing. Being a medical student in the thirties couldn’t have been cheap, and the answer was obvious when I started connecting the dots.

There’s that schooling to deal with, though. Where did he study? It was more for a humorous reference than anything else that I decided on Miskatonic University Medical School, but with Herbert West being a former student it felt right. When I had decided on him being reprimanded for attending illegal boxing matches as a medic, thus limiting his employment, it made sense he would end up in a small town rather than in a prestigious position in New York. When I was filling in the background, I also remembered a motto which felt like something that the university would have carved above the entrance to the chemistry wing – “Aureum Seculum Redivivum”. It isn’t often you can do a chemistry joke doubling as a comic book one…

The illegal boxing ring not only tied the character to one of West’s experiments, it also led to me thinking about the name, and the influence of Bill Richmond in his mind. The strength of this let me off the hook a little on the reason for such a dumb name. His love of boxing, and a sense of history would play into nearly everything, though a third element would soon distract me. Adding some Lovecraftian elements and boxing may, to any other writer, have been more than enough fleshing out, but that damn chest emblem needed elaboration. It was too simple to use piracy as a hook, and it left a bad taste in my mouth thinking about such a potentially powerful symbol being wasted. There was something much more powerful to play with right under my nose. An avenue leading straight into the middle of another plot generating idea.

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A Pause For Breath

Posted by BigWords on May 20, 2013

My brain does not work the same way as yours. Let me get that out of the way straight off.

When I read things, my brain is accessing a small network of related material, cross-referencing and indexing away thoughts. There are no stories which exist in isolation, and while it may appear that things are held apart from other properties by limitations, I can see past those constraints and apply a reading that is rather different from popular opinion. As I have been discussing comics, I’ll start there. Continuity, in varying degrees, is a perennial hot topic for readers and writers alike. Most publishers of comics these days have a sense of continuity – both direct and indirect references, jokes, plots arising from continuity…

I’m breaking ranks in a big way here, but I gotta say that continuity, by and large, is something that is more interesting when ignored completely.

There’s a lot more I could say about Flashpoint, or Civil War, or any of the recent – and tiresome – crossovers. You probably don’t need my assistance in seeing how pitiful the attention-grabbing storylines spanning multiple series have become, destroying the flow of individual titles and cramming in all kinds of idiocy. It started well, with the original Crisis, but they have become unwieldy, cumbersome and annoying. It is one of the reasons that I try to avoid superhero comics in favor of… Well, anything and everything that doesn’t have a surfeit of capes and splash panels. Go read everything Eddie Campbell has done. And Bryan Talbot. Hell, for that matter go read Harvey Pekar’s stuff. Genius. And no bloody tie-ins with ludicrous hyperbole.

I don’t need publishers adding details to things when I am more than capable of filling in the blanks myself. My concept of characters varies wildly from the official depictions anyway, so reading the adventures of a character (specifically superheroes, but other types can be included here) I am most likely mentally ticking off all the things wrong with the script. There are degrees of severity to the “mistakes”, though I get most annoyed at simple real-world references that are wildly off the mark. For example, police characters in many comics seem to have been written with Saturday morning cartoons as the main reference point in their construction. Likewise, archaeologists are largely depicted in the same manner as Indiana Jones. That is, with no real attempt at believability.

If you have read this blog before, then you will know that I am a) hesitant to play with other people’s toys, and b) love the public domain. This is not, as it may seem, a contradiction.

Writing characters which are identified with specific companies, or form the output of a specific creator (such as Mr. Monster now being more identified through Michael T. Gilbert than the Golden Age character), seems – to me, anyways – to be rather pointless. It is the reason that I find it incredibly difficult to even think of writing Batman or Spider-Man, for example. When others say that they have a great idea for a story featuring a character from the Big Two, I tend to try not to say anything. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to write for such companies, I just can’t see the attraction of tackling any of the long-runners. They have been around for so long that anything I could add to the narrative has probably already been done. It is time to move past tired and overused characters.

But the public domain? Gods, how I adore the public domain.

Look, you may not realize it, but you probably already own a fairly decent PD collection. You have the complete works of Shakespeare, right? Those plays are in the public domain. And everything Chaucer wrote. But it isn’t all old stuff, which may have difficulty attracting a younger audience, as you can see from my previous post about all the good things that you can legally download, upload, torrent and remix to your heart’s content. Go wild. In fact, I strongly urge you to keep uploading, downloading, torrenting, and remixing that stuff, as the continued exploitation of things which are freely yours to do with as you will keeps them from being taken back by unscrupulous companies. And yes, companies are trying to steal back things from the public domain.

I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t start lashing out at those assholes until I was 100% confident of my ability to be online and tackle them. I’m steering clear of the specifics, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out those to whom I am referring.

And I think I may have talked myself into writing an ethics post at some point. Add that to the To Do list.

With the Flashpoint read-through and this preamble, I have sufficiently prepared you for what is gonna come next. It is something I seriously considered for all of a week at the end of 2012 before scrubbing my brain and coming to my senses. Before I get into the swing of things, and may get rather involved in the details, I want to make one thing very, very clear – this is not a “look at how clever I am” thing. This isn’t about who is smarter, this is all about the very minimum authors should be doing. This is about how things should be. I want people to consider the titles on sale right now, and how much better they could be had a little more work been done. I’m not singling out people who aren’t living up to their abilities in the posts.

I have made comment about my war on mediocrity, and this is, partially, the outcome.

And thus we are ready for the main event.

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Flashpoint Read-Through, Part Five

Posted by BigWords on May 17, 2013

There’s a few things which this series has reminded me I need to address. Small details which have been horrendously overused in comics over the last decade or so, to the point that the mere use of such hooks instantly makes me hate the story. The most aggravating storytelling device, and one which has outlived its’ usefulness through misuse, is the habit of certain writers hanging the end of a sentence onto the first panel of the page following the dialogue. There’s a perfect example of the sloppy dialogue overlap here, but you can pick up any Superman comic from the late 90s – where this seemed to occur every second page – to see just how pointless and hopeless a stylistic tic it is. I stopped reading a whole bunch of titles around the same time when I continued reading panels which had dialogue continued from the previous page.

Now wait a second – I’m not saying never to do it. That ain’t a “hard and fast” for me. I’m not going to get pissed off and throw a comic across the room through the use of that device, but when it happens all the way through the issue it does make me think twice about picking up the following issue. There are ways to use it properly, such as for dramatic irony, a plot-relevant point, or for an insight into what a character is thinking. Most of the uses I have read have, unfortunately, been of the annoying and stupid variety. My spotty knowledge of recent (well… post-2006) DC Comics history is down to these kind of irritants. When I can almost feel my IQ take a dive while I am reading, then I know it is time to walk away.

As this is the final issue, I can also get another irritant out of the way. Multiple covers. Seriously? People are still stupid enough to go out and buy more than one copy of a comic just because there is a variant cover? What is this – 1993 or something? That kind of crap was one of the reasons people stopped buying comics en masse, leading to a restricted base of readers. It is one of the gimmicks, along with holograms (Spider-Man), die-cut covers (Reign Of The Supermen), comics shot through with bullets, or lasers or whatever (The Protectors), and sundry other moronic decisions (grim and gritty revamps galore) that enabled reporters to laugh at comics with articles with “Biff. Pow. Blamm.” articles. I don’t blame them.

This really is going somewhere. Bear with me.

When I talk of things needing to evolve to meet the demands of an increasingly sophisticated readership, I am specifically thinking of these things holding the form back. These are relics of an entirely pointless, and often desperate, era, and the fact that I have to point this out – in 2013 – is something that appalls me. This should be obvious. People should see cheap and tacky tactics for what they are. Bonding these blatant shows of desperation to DC’s major “event” makes the entire endeavor look like something that is not there so much for the story but for attention. It is difficult to see just how the multiple covers are meant to make this look more attractive to readers given the history of the marketing tool.

Man, I really miss the days when Marvel went bankrupt. At least they had the excuse of being run by a complete idiot to excuse the awful comics.

But I am slipping from the agenda. This is about Flashpoint.

Flashpoint 5: Ad Finem Diei

When I opened this issue the first time I thought that I had accidentally picked up the wrong comic. More than half of the story is filled with Zoom gloating, fighting the Flash, then discovering just how dangerous a war zone is for such antics. But… At no point did I ever get the feeling that they were in the middle of a war zone. The layout is too close on the protagonist and villain, and the random violence surrounding them is diluted to the point of the ongoing (and allegedly escalating) war being irrelevant. I’ve sat through enough footage taken during battles to know that there is no safe place to be when two groups want each other dead. Here, especially towards the sequence where Thomas Wayne shows his usefulness, there is no sense of epic, unholy death and destruction.

Even the return of Kal-El to the battle feels like a cheap way to end the fighting so the story can continue rather than being an organic outcome of earlier events. Back when I mentioned that both Barry and Thomas were really smart people, I may not have made my thoughts on their characterization clear enough, so I’ll add something else here – at no point, EVER, did I believe that they were acting as real people. It is not only a war zone filled with superpowered people having pretty much the worst day in the history of this AU, but there would be all kinds of secondary threats. Red hot pieces of shrapnel flying around, rocks and bricks whizzing past their heads, explosions… The actions of neither man seem to indicate any concern to their safety.

I want this to be over with already. My brain can’t take much more abuse.

When I thought about covering this series in detail, it was to prepare the way for something else, but as an examination (or indictment) of storytelling in the medium it serves its own valuable role. This is not the kind of comic I particularly have an interest in, and the only reason I read it was because it was thrown in free alongside a pile of other comics. There’s something rather sad about that. Has the importance of these crossovers dimmed away to a dull ember? Are the stars aligned just so now, that done-in-one storytelling can make a comeback? It is hard for me, being outside the main readership of DC, to see the point of something drags on endlessly. I like finite stories. I grew up reading comics which didn’t bleed characters dry through overuse.

So, the Cosmic Treadmill. Um. It… Ah. Fuck it. I have tried to word this politely an absurd number of times, and I can’t. It is impossible to take seriously. If you remember how stupid Black Racer looked on his skis, then seeing The Flash on the oversized piece of gym equipment is even more ridiculous. What next? Using a Stannah Stairlift to travel across space? I’m half expecting to turn the page and see a screencap from Monty Python with the word balloon reading “And now for something completely different.” Yes, it is that bad. Worse. It is the “fix” for the problems which Barry has been dealing with since the first issue, though the tension is so diluted by this point as to make anything and everything which follows less than epic.

These types of stories need to be EPIC.

Looking through the Flashpoint page on TV Tropes gives you some indication of just how much the creative team had to play with, and for it all to come down to a guy getting on a treadmill and burning off the coffee and doughnut diet is less than the optimum ending. It is made all the more mystifying by the massive deus ex machina to squeeze three *cough* continuities into one. Which I will relentlessly mock in a moment, but first there is the matter of the magic note to deal with. Restoring time completely obliterates the Flashpoint reality, causing the events to never have happened. But Barry, not being in the least scientifically minded, whips out the note from Bruce’s father as a gift.

It is a little problem, which could have been fixed in dialogue. Though probably more sensitively handled than “Hey Brucie-baby – I met your dead dad, and he sends his regards.” And not only is the mere existence of the note a problem, but… That fourth panel – Bruce, asking “What is it?” *sigh* It is a letter, you idiot. Have you spent that much time in the Batcave that you no longer recognize these small remnants of civilization? The baffling panels are peppered throughout the series, almost as if Geoff Johns was playing a game with his audience to create memes from the panels. The Batman Doesn’t Know What A Letter Is one never really caught on, I guess.

The plot point about the three universes is something that is gonna take a bit of explaining for those who have better things to do than pore over the minutia of comic-book history. It isn’t really three universes. There is a whole bunch of characters from Fawcett, some from Charlton, a handful from Quality and other publishers, folded into the DC chronology at various points. By simplifying to this degree, it would seem that DC is taking credit for the creation of such timeless characters as Captain Marvel, when they shamelessly hounded Fawcett out of business for producing a superior product. Are the Milestone characters still in there somewhere? And the awful !mpact ones? I gave up on both lines of comics.

So that was that.

The DC universe of old ends not with a bang but with a whimper. A pitiful, mewing, “please put me out of my misery” refrain to anyone who can hear.

Flashpoint – the perfect jumping-off point for those who want to spend less money on a Wednesday.

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Flashpoint Read-Through, Part Four

Posted by BigWords on May 16, 2013

Backing up a moment, I want to highlight something about Flashpoint which has been bugging me since the second issue, though has only become an problem here in the penultimate issue of the series. While I have pointed out the irregularities in plotting and character, there has been something else lurking in the series which has the potential to irritate and aggravate other problems. This other niggle is something so slight as to have been overlookable. The thing about telling such a complex narrative in a confined number of pages is that some things will never get properly explored within those pages (leading naturally to other titles examining those events and locations), but to tease readers with non-story about those things? Ugh.

The world map in the second issue was an entirely skippable couple of pages. They were filler. Nothing of merit or note was contained therein for those who decided to purchase all of the tie-in titles – something I found remarkably easy to resist – but it was there, lurking with tantalizing glimpses of things which sounded infinitely more interesting than the story in that issue. Land Of The Dead? Hell yeah. That sounds like something that could make for a great story. Nazi-occupied Brazil? Gorilla-controlled Africa? That kind of pulp-infused insanity is the kind of thing sorely missing in the main title, which has, for three issues, been as pedestrian as possible in every regard. The title needed something like that.

With the third and fourth issues featuring full-page sketches, I have to raise a question here as to the popularity of such a wasted opportunity – who would rather have a few pages of these sketches rather than extra storytelling pages? Anyone? Come on, who is to blame for this kind of thing? It is endlessly annoying to find these things in regular issues. If I was even the slightest bit interested, I would go out and buy the shiny limited edition hardcovers or whatever, but no. I don’t care. I don’t want to see crappy sketches that detract from the story. I don’t want to be subjected to the prospect that I may have bought the wrong series – that Land Of The Dead story is looking better all the time – and I really don’t need the headache of working out how these things all fit together from the starting point of the main timeline.

Yes, this is another assault on common sense – an intelligent reading of Flashpoint.

Flashpoint 4: Blood, Sweat And Tears

Opening pages. Important, remember. Now, when I say that the dramatic potential of the first page in a comic has the ability to drive the reader along with any twists and turns, or to turn them off completely, it is the kind of first page as seen here that I am thinking of as an example of the latter. Skipping over the fact that it is a direct result of earlier scenes, I have to say that it isn’t an ideal opener. The final page of the last issue would have been massively improved with the smallest of restructuring – the immense force of the US flying off to face the Amazon threat. You remember the scene in Memphis Belle when all those giant planes were filling the sky as far as the eye could see? THAT. Times ten. Really ramp it up.

But no. We get a glimpse of a bunch of kids watching television. Then, to add insult to injury, we oversee a pilot chatting to a grease monkey about the former’s shit-eating grin. Goddammit, DC, are you trying to devalue your characters to the point where I actually want to watch as Batman is disemboweled by an Amazon blade? To get my pulse racing at the thought of Cyborg being turned into a bloody smear?

The mandatory chatter between characters has been the downfall of most of the “dramatic” scenes thus far, and the fourth issue is no different. The problem of Barry Allen’s memories being slowly overwritten – with agonizing pain – is fixed by, I kid you not, magic. Yes, a wizard really did it. This removes the main threat to the success of the mission at hand, and as a way to get to the end of the story it also kills any dramatic potential inherent in the ticking clock. Without the threat of his memory eroding further, there is ample time for a man who can move at the speed of light to do whatever the hell he wants to do. Such a major move so far from the close of the story does nothing in the series’ favor.

The scene with the kids rambles on for two or three unnecessary pages as time is killed and pages are filled, adding nothing to the narrative that couldn’t have been better played by being shown. We do, finally – thank the gods – get to where the action is, though it is via a double-page spread and then a pin-up page, so is ultimately rather a let-down. There are no small moments, no pained faces of people trying to get their breath, or nursing their wounds, no fear in the eyes of the combatants as they try to find cover. There’s no tension… All too quickly, the battle lulls into a pause with the defeat of Captain Thunder, and the death of Billy Batson contains no sense of momentous tragedy.

Since when did DC decree that killing kids in their comics had to be played for laughs? It is the single most hilarious scene in the series so far, with lightning spurting from his mouth and eyes – reminding me of Doctor Who more than anything – amid some sort of poorly illustrated explosion, with no scale or horror to it. This isn’t even up to the level of the opening gambit of Civil War, never mind the beautiful, moving scenes of destruction from Akira or Marvelman. Explosions, more especially these days than ever, should be entirely fucking terrifying. People should feel their guts lurch, their head swim with thoughts – there should be some real impact in their use.

The really annoying aspect of Flashpoint is the wasted potential. This really could have been an important and watershed moment in the history of DC, but the constant and complete waste of that potential renders all of the promise naught.

Then we get a final page which all but says “forget the dead kid – here’s a supervillain!”

Why am I reading this with the Benny Hill tune rattling through my head? For that matter, why the hell am I still reading? I… am not actually all that sure by this point, although I am sure I’ll come to some amazing conclusion when this farrago concludes tomorrow. Same Bat-Time. Same Bat-Channel. Or something.

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Flashpoint Read-Through, Part Three

Posted by BigWords on May 15, 2013

There are two extremely important pages in any comic – pages which the retention of reader interest is won or lost. The first page has to have something to keep the reader turning the pages, and the final page must be shocking, or intriguing, or… anything – so long as people are prompted to pick up the next issue, then the page has done its’ work. Looking through the first three issues, past the midway point in the series, we have a fairly good hit rate. The first issue opens with a “day in the life” moment that is forgettable (I had to go check how the story began), and closed with Batman grabbing Barry Allen. It isn’t the best issue to choose for such an example.

By the second issue we get a dramatic confrontation at sea, pulling us into the wider story, and closes with Barry badly burned in an attempt to regain his powers. It is the perfect way to keep people guessing as to the sweep of the story, and shows the heights this comic could have achieved routinely with a little more attention. Is this a bad series? No. It is a troubling example of the slapdash nature of superhero comics these days, which are increasingly pandering to an audience which is largely unconcerned with the traditional merits of narrative in place of the eternal question of which character is stronger.

Man, am I ever digging a hole for myself here…

And off we go, further into the rabbit hole.

Flashpoint 3: Λονδινιου

Opening, rather bizarrely, with a scene in which Cyborg gets metaphorically bitch-slapped by the President of the United States. It could have served to show the desperate nature of events, or to impart an understanding of where Cyborg has been positioned in this timeline, but like everything else it is more of a vignette than a scene, tapering off before we can discover anything interesting. Some may want to point out the tie-in comics to this series, but as I have made clear elsewhere, that stuff doesn’t count. If, while watching a film, a question is posed and unanswered, then it remains unanswered even if the answer is in a tie-in novel. Even the official soundtrack, should it contain the answer, is not sufficient. Everything should be present.

Making people go buy other books to enjoy a deeper understanding of plot and character is not something to be shied away from, but to insult the audience by offering such a flimsy handful of scenes is. The whole should be greater than the sum of its’ parts, with spin-off tales forming naturally from undeveloped branches, but here we are not presented with even the rudimentary elements required to piece together a reason for the arbitrary ticking clock. The invasion against an overwhelming enemy is not presented with even the slightest bit of common sense, and it appears from all the evidence we are given that there is a suicidal element at work.

This is the issue in which The Flash finally regains his powers, but it also presents something of a problem. Thomas Wayne explicitly states that Barry has suffered third degree burns over seventy-five percent of his body, though this doesn’t stop Barry from getting up from his bed and walking – with a little help – back to the electric chair where he will attempt to recreate the accident which gave him his powers. Lets just look at that for a moment. These are burns which have penetrated to the deepest layer of skin, over most of his body. In his condition, and with the drugs being pumped into him, Barry should not be able to do much except moan feebly.

Whatever. People in tights are gonna be hitting each other soon, which is why people bought this. Fuck the logic.

Immediately following is the reveal which should have been. Had the location of Wonder Woman’s opened this issue, with a dramatic enough scene, then I could have forgiven the mishandling of other elements, but we don’t get such style here. The rationale for Britain being the site of her battleground has not been brought up thus far, and it holds so many possibilities – none of which we get to enjoy. It would have made sense (to me) that the marrying of DC Comics history and the history of London should be intertwined to allow for something approaching a unified history.

Let me dig into this a little. I’ll be very brief. I mentioned the importance of the opening and closing pages in keeping the momentum of the story going, and there was the perfect opportunity present with the midway point to really drive home the difference between this reality and the one in which The Flash was part of the Justice League alongside Superman and Batman. We could have seen a full-page illustration of Wonder Woman, in full battle armor, standing in front of the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the dome symbolically smashed in a recreation of the damage done in WWII. There is history which ties the fictional character to the site in the form of a Temple Of Diana which is said to have been situated on the site of the cathedral.

Intelligent use of location is not something we are dealing with much in this series. It is the small details, the minute reality, which lends authenticity to the most spectacular and unbelievable scenes. When reality is stripped away, we are left with what amounts to a four-color transposition of a Michael Bay film. The narrative even manages to contradict itself in the telling – the place where the action takes is alternatively named London and New Themiscyra. You do NOT call a place a former name. I know this. Numerous European places have changed names in the last couple of decades, and when you use the old name people get annoyed. Some rigidity should have been followed in this regard.

While I am at it, I may as well speak to the use of mainland Europe as Aquaman’s stomping ground. This… Strangely doesn’t bother me so much. It would have been a nice touch to elaborate more on the societies surrounding the Amazon and Atlantean hostility, and why the situation has become so perilous. More of a solid background would have made the conflict at least slightly less random than it feels. A proper name for Aquaman’s land-grab – or sea-grab, or whatever – would have made sense in this regard. Personally speaking, naming the reclaimed area Ghotichora or something would have been awesome.

We are desperately in need of a character unseen thus far – one who has historically been the center of the DC universe. Unfortunately, Superman is nowhere to be found. The US government in this timeline have stashed him away in an underground hodymoke which only Cyborg can get Batman information on, much to the benefit of the plot. So far, this is ticking along with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The location of the secret base is soon uncovered, with an assault which leaves much to be desired in the way of difficulty. Of course, the combined forces of Batman, The Flash and Cyborg soon free the Big Blue from his predicament, letting him taste freedom for the first time.

Then the extraterrestrial gommeril decides – having tasted freedom – to fly off in search of… fresh underpants, I think. It was all the excitement that did it. For such a momentous turning point in the story it is not handled with any degree of importance. It is merely another scene played out in a story which is intent on disappointing at every turn. The final page, unlike the previous issue fudges any sense of tension by having three superheroes face off against… Wait for it, this is brilliant – a bunch of redshirts. Yes, really. The tension we are meant to feel at the prospect of a massive confrontation was probably higher than the “mediocre” setting.

Where are the giant robots for the heroes to face off against? Or something to keep my attention…

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Flashpoint Read-Through, Part Two

Posted by BigWords on May 14, 2013

or, Everything Is Better With Pirates

Yes, Pirates. Dear gods, the things I read… With Deathstroke, whose own title started out okay but descended into melodrama of the highest order, as the captain of a vessel sailing the deadly seas, the opening of the second issue strikes out in a different direction to what I expected. The atmosphere is really moody until we get back to Batman beating up Barry Allen, though I could have done without the inclusion of a terrible depiction of Clayface, who doesn’t look anything like Clayface. The chatter doesn’t flow as well as it could have, and it feels like there is a missing scene in the first part of the book.

But before we get further we need a proper title for this issue, published as merely Chapter Two.

Flashpoint 2: Siege Perilous

One of these days I will finally accept the low standards which DC have, but until then I will continue to look for intelligent, nuanced storytelling and deep characterization. Not that it is doing me any good with these superhero titles, which seemingly exist for the sole purpose of maintaining the characters in print for exploitation in video games, increasingly abysmal films and mediocre television shows. Yes, Smallville, I am talking about you. But back to Flashpoint, and the story at hand…

Barry gets off to a bad start with this universe’s Batman, winding up with a broken hand for his troubles in a scene which sounds better than it actually is. As memories flood his mind, The Man Who Would Be Flash realizes that time has been manipulated to bring about events as they are. There’s a certain line in the three-quarter page revelation which actually made me wrinkle my nose in frustration, “Wonder Woman leading the Amazons… On a blitzkrieg in London.” It is the kind of on-the-nose line which demands a red pencil in the editing stage, yet there it is.

Man, this is so disappointing in every regard – yes, even the art, which feels like it has been pulled from a late-90s title – that it is a wonder I can bring myself to continue past this point. It is waaaay too soon for that to be used, and the minimum point where it should have been revealed to be London is the third issue. The story has not gotten to the point where we need to know that Wonder Woman has taken Britain as New Themiscyra. And why the hell does DC continually screw up the spelling? Actually, given everything else I should have expected such sloppiness. This issue should have focused more on the moment, letting events play out towards the issue’s dénouement.

I’ll hold off on dealing with the Wonder Woman sequence until the next issue, but the prolonged scene in which Barry Allen sets about restoring his powers is one of the highlights of the issue – masterfully paced to set up the pay-off, though marred by a few ridiculous pieces of dialogue which fatally undermine the tension. Had it ran (no pun intended) without dialogue, it would have been perfect, but the lines kill the tension with unintentional comedy.

“They say lightning never strikes the same place twice.”
They say a lot of things.”

More than being overly-familiar to anyone who can read, the line smacks of being hastily sketched in to fill space rather than anything that speaks to character. That it is also patently stupid is another matter. Thomas Wayne is a doctor, and Barry Allen is a chemist who works with the police, and both men are undoubtedly intelligent. If anyone in the DC universe knows such a statement to be completely unfounded, it is these two individuals. There are numerous instances of people struck by lightning more than once, and it is a relatively well-known fact that both the Empire State Building and The Eiffel Tower are routinely hit by lightning.

Hell, there are a couple of thousand thunderstorms taking place right now.

It is this kind of writing which I get dragged out of the story by. Had this been Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, or other characters who have previously bounced the idiot ball back and forth, then I might have been more forgiving. But Batman and The Flash? Ugh. It does lead to the best cliffhanger of the series thus far, and for a final image it is well worth trudging through the rather turgid events. It is hard to imagine a more powerful closing scene, and it works perfectly to drag the reader along.

Some people may be wondering why I am expending so much energy on showing up the flaws in this story, but it is important to understand the conventions being used and those broken. To see the way the individual elements come together to make narrative. Even bad storytelling can teach about the way story evolves from events and characters, perhaps moreso than from expertly-told tales which are free from any criticism. By the time we reach the final issue, it should be clear that this could have been one of the most momentous events DC Comics had ever handled, had certain changes been made between plotting and publishing.

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