Sunday, June 19, 2016

Notions Preconceived Can Lead to Utter Madness

I really don't know where the hell we are.

1. Once upon a time there was the comics blogosphere. Lots of smart and funny people who created blogs to write about comics. It was really cool. Now, though, it's... well, it's not over, because many of the titans of the field are still keeping on keeping on, just like always. But it's not the same. Was it ever as much of a community as I thought it was? Or maybe it was and I was just never in it? Maybe it still is and I'm still not in it. Which I can live with. But... I don't know.

2. Let's do this theoretically.

Here we have a comics company, So Cool Comics. Their flagship title is We Are Not Born, and it's a very good comic book. The primary creator on WANB is a person with the initials ZZ. ZZ is generally liked and respected and is strongly identified with both WANB and So Cool.

Here's the problem, though: it turns out that a little while ago ZZ did a very bad thing to a person with the initials QQ. QQ is also generally liked and respected, not that that matters, but just to set the scene. The thing ZZ did was very traumatic for QQ, and QQ is not doing so great in dealing with it. The facts of this event have all come out and there is no controversy as to the truth of them. ZZ has apologized and, so far as we know, taken lifestyle steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again; ZZ and So Cool have issued statements, legal avenues have been pursued to their conclusion, and QQ has gotten as much satisfaction out of the situation as there was available. The thing that happened has finished happening, and everybody's best understanding is that ZZ isn't going to do anything like that again. The only thing that hasn't been resolved is that QQ is still having problems and does not feel like things have ended well, but QQ is getting appropriate help and there's no way anything else is going to change.

As for WANB, ZZ is still in charge of it, and it's still as good as ever, although there's nobody else working on it who could be perceived as being on QQ's "side", to the extent that there can really be sides in this. And... looking back at some of the early issues of WANB... some of the stuff that a couple of the characters say... it seems a little creepy now if you read them in the context of what happened between ZZ and QQ. But that could be just us.

So where does all this leave us? Like, you and me us, the readers or potential readers of We Are Not Born.

Trick question! It doesn't matter where it leaves us, because the only really important thing here is QQ coping with the consequences of ZZ's mistreatment. Who the hell cares about us? Including us! This is the fate and health of a person we're talking about here, and everyone else can sit down and shut up.

Okay? We clear?

And that's it. That's the bottom line.

Except of course it's not. Oh, for QQ it is. But QQ's course of action is straightforward here: get better and find a way to move on. Easier said than done of course, but at least everyone understands that that's what the deal is, even if we don't fully grasp what goes into it.

But we, the fans, are in a much more comfortable but less well-defined position. It's not at all interesting or important, really, except that it's our position and we have to figure out what to do in it. Just because nobody gives a crap what we do doesn't mean that we know what to do.

Here are some of the questions facing us. Do we continue to read We Are Not Born? Or any comics published by So Cool? Can we continue to like ZZ? Do we forgive ZZ?

And my problem is I honestly don't know the answers.

Take the last question, 'do we forgive ZZ'.

On the one hand, forgiveness is generally regarded as a good thing. Not just a good thing, but a necessary thing: without forgiveness, we might as well have the death penalty for every crime. If the penalty box only has a one-way door on it, eventually we'll all be in there.

On the other hand. Where the hell do we get off forgiving ZZ? ZZ did a terrible thing! That QQ still isn't over! And that's okay with us? If we forgive ZZ, then that's a signal that we don't care about QQ, that ZZ might as well do the same thing again to somebody else, that anybody might as well do the same thing again to somebody else. It's also a signal to people similar to QQ that we are not going to be there for them if ZZ or whoever does something bad to them going forward. Forgiveness is... well, isn't it a lot like permission?

There are a lot of dead ends in this discussion. "Well, wouldn't you want someone to forgive you, if you were in that situation?" If I was in that situation? I wouldn't dare hope for forgiveness from anybody. I suspect I would not accept it if it were offered. But, again: easy for me to say. "You have to separate the artist from the art." Well, you can't. Or else, you have to. I don't know.

There's really only one thing I am confident of in this discussion, and that's that saying, "Well, screw it, everything's just terrible, I guess," is wrong, whether it leads you to rejecting everyone or disregarding any reason to reject anyone. That kind of cynicism is a privilege that's better not being exercised; not everyone is in a position to disengage and it's exactly the people who can who generally shouldn't. Let's stick with it, let's keep our hands on the wheels of our judgment, and if we get it wrong, then we'll know for next time. I guess. I don't know.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Legionnaires: Gates

How have I not done Gates yet?

Gates, aka Ti'julk M'rasz of Vyrga. Created by Tom McCraw, Lee Moder, and Mark Waid.

Gates was one of several new Legion candidates introduced early in the reboot. He was (is!) a giant bug with claws and a hood, who also happens to have the power of teleportation. You could if you liked consider him to be an effort to get Nightcrawler into the Legion long after Dave Cockrum had left the book.

Once Gates joined the Legion, he was basically on the team right through the end of the reboot, and after Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, he shifted membership to the retroboot Legion, where the writers seemed not to know what to do with him. Then he was trapped in the 21st century as part of the Legion Lost title, about which the less said the better.

The great thing about Gates was his politics. He wasn't serving in the Legion voluntarily; he had been drafted by his planet, and was very skeptical about the Legion's role. Plus he either was an extreme leftist or he thought he was. Plus he's a snarky son of a gun.

Another important point: he's one of the very few nonhumanoid Legionnaires in their history. I'd like to see a lot more such characters.

I miss that Gates. If there's ever a Legion comic again, and if they bring back Gates in it, I hope they use that side of his personality. It's useful as well as fun, and I was disappointed when the retroboot writers didn't use it. Here's his first appearance.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Key Fields

The consensus best Legion of Super-Heroes story is "The Great Darkness Saga" of the early 1980s, by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. There are many reasons why this is so, but at the moment I want to focus on one that you might not have thought of before.

One of the things that they tell you* is that your language places constraints on the thoughts you can think. Example: in Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon one of the characters gets addicted to morphine. This doesn't go well for him. At one point one of the other characters starts talking to him about it, trying to help him get a handle on it. I don't have the book in front of me, but what he tells him is something like this: "In English, we would call you a morphine addict. That suggests that your basic nature is as a creature that is addicted to morphine. I prefer how they say it in German, which translates to something like, 'you are morphine-seeky'. The suggestion is that you are still you, but you have the quality of being addicted to morphine."

You get my point? The words and terms that are available to you will influence the course of your thoughts. Here's another example: heat vision. If we were listing superpowers, or if you were designing a superhero, "heat vision" would likely be one of the things that occurred to you as an option. Because you perceive it as a superpower. You have a term for it. But it wasn't always so: look at the early Superman stories and he talks about melting things with "the heat of my X-ray vision". X-ray vision was a superpower; heat vision wasn't even a thing.

Back to the Legion. When you are considering which are the good stories and which are the less good stories, your list will be influenced--determined!--by which stories you can identify as distinct stories, based on which ones have names. And, for the longest time, comic-book stories didn't really have names, mostly. Each individual issue would have its title, but nobody paid much attention to them usually. But multi-issue stories tended not to have names that stuck. This persists today, to some extent, although the titles given to trade paperback collections have some prominence.

Anyway, "The Great Darkness Saga" has a great name, that was used prominently on the covers of the original comics. People who read it got into the habit of thinking of it as a single unit, because they had a term that they could apply to it. So when they were thinking of great Legion stories, or, really, great comics stories in general, it was easy for them to come up with "The Great Darkness Saga".

During Paul Levitz's second run, he didn't do a lot of stories that stood out as units like that. His writing technique had various subplots bubbling along at different stages, and in each issue one of them would rise to the surface and command our attention, and then recede to make room for the next thing, which had been steadily building for the past five issues itself. It's hard to isolate a specific great story in the middle of that. But there was certainly some great stuff in there.

If you ask people now what another great Legion story from that era is, they might name "An Eye for an Eye". Because now they have a title for the story. Before the trade paperback with that title came out, they would have had to refer to it as "the LSV war" or something. They'd be less likely to refer to it, because they were less likely to perceive it as a distinct choice.

Or take "Omen and the Prophet". "Omen and the Prophet" is not that well-regarded, but it does have a title. So someone listing great Legion stories may well find a place for it somewhere down the list, because they do recognize it as a story. But there's lots of other stuff in Levitz's second run that was much better, but doesn't have a title to use as a hook. Or consider "The Lightning Saga"; same deal. "The Lightning Saga" was actually pretty lame in a lot of ways, but it does have a memorable name.

So this is not a slam at "The Great Darkness Saga", which after all really is a great story. It's got an interesting structure, an impressive scope, and some great moments. But one of the most important keys to its reputation has been simply that people knew what to call it.


* "They". You know. Them. The ones who tell you stuff.

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Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Legionnaires: Dragonwing

Here's one who seemed to fall off the table.

Dragonwing, aka Marya Pai of Earth. Created by Paul Levitz and Phil Jimenez.

Dragonwing was one of the Academy graduates who joined the Legion as the New52 started. The new Legionnaires of this period seemed to be part of an effort to bring in more female and nonwhite Legionnaires, which was entirely appropriate.

Dragonwing herself was not super interesting. Her powers included flight, fire breath, and acid breath, which is workable. They gave her a little storyline where they had to go back and deal with some part of her backstory; her brother was in trouble or something. Then in the final storyline of LSHv7, with the Fatal Five, she disappeared. Like, she just stopped appearing in the story. I think Levitz and Giffen forgot about her.

There's nothing wrong with her as a character; she'd be a perfectly good Legionnaire if she appeared in any good Legion comics. (If and when they ever bring the Legion back, I'd like to see her era represented in the cast of characters just as much as all the other eras.) The one thing I found most notable about her was her costume. Look:

You see her cloak there? Transparent, with a dragon design on it? It's cool: futuristic, and unlike any other superhero costume I've ever seen. I must imagine that Phil Jimenez gets the credit for this; go ahead, Phil.

But here's the thing. Wouldn't it be a pain to draw?

If I was running a Legion comic, with the huge cast of characters, cosmic storylines, and futuristic setting, I wouldn't go out of my way to make the artists' jobs any harder than necessary. If you're a longtime Legion reader, you know how tough it is for artists to stay on schedule with this comic. Why don't they make the costumes as simple and distinctive as possible? Cripes, make something easy. So, Dragonwing: cool costume, no question, but I wouldn't sign off on it.

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Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Legionnaires: Dream Girl

Let's see if we can get back into the swing of these articles.

Dream Girl, aka Nura Nal of Naltor, aka Dreamer, Nura Schnappin. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

Dream Girl has the power of precognition. She originally joined the Legion in a story where she had foreseen a bunch of Legionnaires dying, and made herself obnoxious through some guardhouse-lawyering and had them all removed from duty. When that all got resolved, she resigned from the Legion, saying she had only become a Legionnaire as part of a trick so she had to go. But I never really got why. She had the powers, didn't she? She saved them all, sorta, didn't she? It's not like she was evil. She totally could have stayed on.

Anyway she rejoined later. For most of the '60s and '70s Dreamy was a pretty useless Legionnaire and got put into the fainting-damsel role a whole lot of times. This was a mistake, of course; subsequent Legion writers found lots of ways for her to be an awesome character. The first of these was Paul Levitz, who put her in a backup story in LSHv2 #285 in which she had to go back to her home planet of Naltor to solve a problem there. (This was her signature moment. I'd totally post a scan from that story except my scanner has decided not to cooperate with me in any way. Sorry.) She displayed some impressive fighting skills, strong willpower, and a talent for improvisation, and not coincidentally was voted in by the readers as Legion leader months later. She turned out to be one of the best leaders the Legion ever had.

Dreamy's personality is extremely flirtatious and sexy. She is exaggeratedly beautiful in appearance and plays that up as much as she can. This is probably one reason why the early Legion writers failed to take full advantage of her character; they figured she already had a role in the story and that role was "hot girl". But she's actually pretty great in a lot of ways more interesting than that.

It's really unfair how many advantages the Legion has, as a superhero group. They've got a rich and devoted sponsor in R.J. Brande, and they've got powerful characters like Saturn Girl and Brainiac 5 who handle a lot of inconvenient details for them. Dream Girl is another such unfair advantage: she gives the Legion a lot of important and timely information that makes them even more effective than they otherwise would be. This often goes unrecognized.

I've mostly been talking about original-Legion Dreamy here. Her alternate-universe variants are also interesting without being radically different. In the reboot universe, Dreamer started out as something of an airhead before becoming hardened by the pressures of war. Threeboot Dream Girl was more down-to-earth than original Dreamy, but often distracted by her nonstandard perception of the flow of time. And animated Dreamy was, as I recall, some kind of ex-charlatan whom the rest of the Legion didn't entirely trust. But, you know, it always worked. This is the beauty of the Legion: you can have characters like this who don't have enough to them to sustain their own comic book, but in the context of the Legion they can be developed enough over the years that they're more interesting than a lot of characters who do have their own titles. 31st-century hothouse.

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