comics

Imagined X-Men Speeches, Part One

Storm: “Here’s the thing none of you seem to realise, Captain. We’re going to win. You can kill our best and brightest, you can “accidentally” sterilise us with poison gas, you can be damn sure we’re going to get in our own way and fight ourselves and make a mess of things. But we’re going to win. We’ve always found a way before. Life has always found a way before. Because we’re the future. And you of all people should know you can’t fight it. The X-Men are just here to help ease the transition for you.”

 

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Superman (vs Batman?)

I’ve been thinking a bit about Superman this weekend. I’ve been reading the tie-in miniseries to DC’s big summer event “Convergence” (I haven’t touched Convergence itself, which everything seems to be screaming was a wise instinct). On Saturday, I got the back half of a set of two-part miniseries’ I was particularly interested in. Goodbyes to Renee Montoya (in a poignant piece bringing what is, effectively, several characters’ two-decade story to an end), Wally West and his kids, and Barbara Gordon as Oracle, complete with her two strongest relationships intact: Black Canary and Dick Grayson. All these comics meant a lot – not the least for the way in which the creative teams managed to craft some great stories around the limitations of a crossover – but also for the fact that, for these characters, who have been gone for a while, they served as a proper goodbye, rather than the truncated semi-appearances that they had in the immediate pre-Flashpoint era.

I also read Dan Jurgens and Norm Rampund’s Convergence: Superman. As much as this was a goodbye (and indeed, it promises a new status quo for those characters were we ever to see them again which might well change the nature of things), it also felt like saying hello again, because this was Superman, in a way I hadn’t seen him for a while. Whatever your opinion of the merits of the story (which I liked a lot), its greatest strength was the deployment of Superman in a way that was authentic to his character and served by it. Though there have been some offshoots and some derivatives we’ve seen lately – some of whom call themselves Superman, right enough – it felt like seeing an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.

It was only natural to contrast this with the dominant Superman images of late – the post-Convergence Superman of the bloody knuckles and the buzzcut, the rainswept wrathful god of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (vs, damn it, it’s not a court case) and wondering how it keeps coming to that.

I’m not – exactly – going to post a full exegesis of Superman’s character, because fundamentally everyone reading this is likely to know what it is, or at least what I’m suggesting it is, in its core aspects. Honesty, decency, integrity, selflessness, bravery and compassion. Superman. You know what he’s supposed to represent.

Why do people keep trying to change him? That isn’t an empty rhetorical question, nor an implied attack. I’m not even saying people are wrong to – I’m just thinking about why they do. And I think, fundamentally, I’ve arrived at an answer today.

The common objections to Superman tend to amount to the idea that he’s boring, usually expressed by the idea that nothing ever challenges him, that everything is too easy to be interesting. I’ve always found that to be a pretty fallacious argument, because superhero stories generally manage questions of scale effectively. You can say that you find the threats faced by Superman unbelievable, but not that he’s not threatened – he’s routinely put up against his betters in power, or his ostensible equals in ingenuity. He often wins, but that’s because he’s the hero of the story, and they usually do, at least in superhero stories. There’s no qualitative difference in six guys with sticks fighting Daredevil and six guys with space lasers fighting Superman in terms of the threat; the actual threat level is zero, it’s an invented scenario, and the characters are in the same amount of danger at all times – whatever the author wants to happen to them will happen. No-one ever says The Hulk isn’t threatened, or at least, not in the way they talk about Superman.

If your argument is that he’s too “cosmic”, that space aliens and herculean feats feel too “big” for you, that’s a different story, and I hear that argument bandied about a bit too. I’d be much more inclined to believe it if I heard it more often about any of the other fundamentally implausible superhero characters. But while there are always personal preferences, the numbers don’t stack up – readers (in so far as the word ‘droves’ can apply to comic books nowadays) flock to equally implausible premises, the Flash has proven successful on TV and for all the complaints leveled at the Thor films, the fantastic setting is rarely among them.

So, what are we left with? That he’s a milquetoast, a goody-goody. For all the jokes about it, however, no-one seems to count that as a principle mark against Captain America, or Captain Marvel, or any other character you might choose to seek to raise to moral stakes. These are stories about heroes for the most part after all, and heroes tend to be – on average – good folks.

These are all questions, and I said I was thinking about answers, I know. So, what do I think it is?

I think it comes down to the assumed nature of the audience, and the assumed nature of their wish-fulfillment fantasy.

It’s no secret that WB/DC is actively courting, as its primary demographic, males between 15 and 35. Studies suggest that the lower end of that age range may not be their core demographic at all – at the very least- but it’s the demographic where they’re targeting their marketing and their aimed appeal. So, why don’t they want Superman?

It’s part of the reason that DC places such a primacy on Batman (to be fair, to usually significant success) because the nature of the fantasy in that demographic has changed from what DC comics were originally designed for. In his initial incarnation, Superman was aimed at kids, usually just preadolescent, and was a power fantasy. The essence was pure wish fulfillment: what if I secretly had the power to reshape the world as I saw fit?

Superman’s moral sense made that acceptable, rather than monstrous – the audience knew Superman was genuinely looking to help others and would generally succeed. Rendered palatable, it becomes a scenario of power capable of surmounting challenges, a fantasy not restricted to, but common to children.

Batman, on the other hand, has become a fantasy not just of power, but of defiance. Criminals run Gotham City, but Batman defies them. The media say that he’s a menace, but he defies them. The police hunt him as a vigilante, but he defies them. Wronged grievously, now he’s going to set everybody straight about what’s what, even if they hate and fear him. It’s why arguably the longest shadows cast over Batman come from The Dark Knight Returns, because that book is fundamentally a fuck you to everyone: street gangs and the urban poor who comprise them, disaffected yuppies, the government, the military, the establishment, Superman, lovers and friends. All of them are responsible for part of the world Batman lives in, all of them are trying to restrain him, all must be defied. Batman’s not just about fixing the world, he’s about beating people to do it – and I don’t just mean violently. Batman punches up against authority figures, and down against criminals – he is, quintessentially, a man going it alone. In The Dark Knight Returns, Robin and the Sons of the Bat both volunteer, but ultimately there’s no sense of peerage there – they try and fail to fully comprehend and live in Batman’s shadow, carried on in his wake – and that is the best anyone can do, in that narrative.  This is reinforced in tonnes of ways in other Bat-narratives in varying degrees of subtlety: it’s why Batman falls on goons and they’re just out cold, or why he disappears when his friends are halfway through talking to him. It’s why Alfred and Robin are around, most often nowadays, to be pushed away in the service of “the mission”, so Batman can have people he cares about, but who just “don’t understand”.

It’s not just about power, it’s about feelings of persecution and alienation. “Screw all of you. I can handle this without you.” Spider-Man feels a continual tension with how much the community dislikes him, but Batman to a degree relishes it – it’s his chosen modus operandi. He doesn’t play well with others, and more and more the narratives that surround him suggest that he’s right not to, because they’re holding him back.

It’s not the only construction of Batman’s character by a long chalk, but it’s a common one. It’s so common, I think, because it speaks to elements of the demographic DC are attempting to chase, and it’s the element that translates well into that version of adolescent angst and persecution complex. Batman as a two-fisted Holden Caulfield.

It’s a notable aside, by the way, that this is particularly true of Batman, who exists in a bubble of rarified privilege – a straight, white, physically perfect, genius billionaire tough-guy. This is the guy who modern society most wants to embrace as a part of the community, the dominant paradigm of “people like us”. Bruce Wayne is effectively as far from an “outsider” as one can really be – which is probably why his “alienation” narratives are so easily appropriated by privileged people who still want to feel like their anger and difficulty with isolation is justified; an audience crying out that despite all these advantages they have it worse off than anyone knows.

This is the narrative of “the badass antihero”, a dominant cultural icon I’m sure I don’t need to analyse or explain. Badassery tends to be a function of being capable of “playing by your own rules”, walking away from the conventions that restrain you from being all you can be. That’s the fantasy – that you could take all comers, and march your own route without people being able to stop you.

Although I’ve spoken about this as an adolescent fantasy (particularly a male adolescent fantasy, and particularly still a privileged male adolescent fantasy), it’s not the only walk of life it translates to. Particularly following the path of DC’s assumed secondary demographic – men between 30 and 50, say, they’re also a demographic who are attracted to the narratives of how they’re being unfairly oppressed by strictures, and how “badasses” break out of them. Call it the Breaking Bad effect, men restricted and feeling isolated by economic pressures, unfeeling bosses, an uncertain world, and the sense that they don’t have the opportunities that their parents had.

None of this is to say, by the way, that these are bad metaphors, or wrong topics to analyse – I love Batman (though I prefer him less like this, which he often is) and Breaking Bad was great. I do, however, think that because of the culture of privilege with which the idea of this coveted outsider status often interrelates, and because of the reprehensible behaviours it can be used to justify (particularly towards the genuinely disenfranchised), it needs to be analysed, and not uncritically presented as a heroic narrative.

It also doesn’t work at all when transposed to Superman. Superman, unlike Batman, is not motivated by a sense of alienation. It’s antithetical to almost everything about the character – because unlike Batman he has every reason to be alienated and manages to overcome it. A literal alien, he nevertheless ends up with two sets of parents, a best friend, a devoted girlfriend/spouse, a set of allies and friends who respect and love him and a community that embraces him. Superman has the power to do anything, and nobody to defy. There are tyrants and villains for him to fight, absolutely, and in some stories they seem to be winning, but fundamentally, his core narrative is about how people will embrace you, if you give them the chance, and if you care about them back.

Batman’s afraid. This isn’t particularly deep analysis, it comes up all the time. He’s afraid, and he uses his fear to drive him to make a world he finds less scary. The shadowy forces of nameless crime, twisted monster criminals determined to commit atrocities, allies more powerful than you who you can’t really trust: the Other, who might be plotting against you. Superman, on the other hand, has no reason to be afraid. To borrow from Grant Morrison’s commentary about All-Star Superman:

“He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”

Superman doesn’t need to be afraid, to put up walls, to go it alone. Superman isn’t being pushed aside by necessity, it’s his whole goal to draw people close to him – and the narrative reinforces that this is a rewarding experience. That’s part of what makes him do things like ask people to stop fighting him all the time – because he’s had an opportunity to consider that care and co-operation is what gives you the best outcome. He’s not afraid of weakness, so he can afford to care about and trust people. He can be open without being vulnerable, because he’s invulnerable.

And openness is antithetical to the anti-hero narrative, because the anti-hero narrative presupposes that people are out to get you. It plays into your sense of being wronged, so you can feel justified about it. Perhaps the best thing about Superman is he’s genuinely above that impulse, which is pretty unworthy, when you think about it.

Unless you change him. You make a world that hates and fears Superman, that scrawls “false god”  on his statues, that hunts him down with secret government projects. You isolate him by making him an “unwilling killer”. You make him scowl, and you put blood beneath him, suggesting that he’s keeping people out, in anticipation of the next violent confrontation. Suddenly, it’s about “badassery” again – Superman may be hated and feared, but he’s going to do things his own way, damn the detractors, who just don’t understand him.

He’s gone across to the demographic I was talking about before, because he doesn’t challenge their sense of isolation, he reinforces it. He’s trying to make them buy Superman comics, and (from a financial perspective, more importantly) see Superman movies, because he’s telling a subcategory of alienated young men that they’re right to feel alienated, that the best heroes are persecuted.

The tragedy, of course, is that this is a pretty terrible idea. For three reasons:

1) Because it’s going to reinforce a “heroic” narrative that rejects co-operation and understanding in favour of apex predator competitiveness and resentment.

2) Because – and this is important – it’s going to create a message that the most privileged group (Superman’s a white straight American male, remember) is the one who is the most persecuted. Note that, in so far as we see superheroes of colour on the big screen (noted exception of Blade but that’s nearly 20 years ago now in his first incarnation) they’re fundamentally well-integrated co-operative types – Anthony Mackie’s easy-going, community spirited VA counselor Falcon, and Terence Howard/Don Cheadle’s decorated and establishment War Machine – they’re not complaining about how they’ve got the short end of the stick. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is allowed a degree of angst and inner turmoil (to the credit of the character) but note how it is all couched in a narrative of atonement – when Black Widow went it alone, she was a “monster”, and she’s trying to make up for that by becoming part of a community; the same goes for Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, in ways I won’t detail because Age of Ultron is just out. The exception to this is Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent Mystique, who in the for some reason glossed-over Days of Future Past is allowed to walk her own path as an actualised person despite the “handicap” of being a woman (though the X-Men are always a special case).

3) Because it’s been pretty much proven to be wholly ineffectual. Man of Steel made money, and in many ways wasn’t a bad movie (there’s a lot of good in there, which I’m willing to discuss another time), but it didn’t do Marvel business really, nor draw anywhere near as much affection from the broader audience or critics (though there are vocal defenders, who, interestingly enough from a wholly unscientific observer analysis seem to group in the demographic who enjoy “badass antiheroes). The aggregating complaint over time? Not necessarily that it was “too dark” (although that’s common) but that it’s joyless. This feeling of joylessness doesn’t come from the disaster or the stakes (no-one says that about the full scale alien invasion in The Avengers or the fact that the American government is planning to kill everybody in Winter Soldier), or even the civilian casualties (which are played sadly more as a non-entity than a plot point) but because the narrative is an isolating one. The Marvel movies have successfully perfected, at the least, one formula – ostensibly isolated characters coming together, co-operating and letting other people in. The wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy ended with our ragtag hero team literally joining hands and winning with the power of love. There are tensions in letting other people in, but the Marvel movie universe also posits distinct rewards, and the audiences respond. While it doesn’t always hit the mark, the MCU at least, I would say, generally tries to be an inclusive one, rather than an exclusive one. It’s exclusionary elements seem to be bugs, not features. This might be why the Marvel movies seem to be more popular with a more diverse movie-going audience.

It’s no coincidence that DC chose Zack Snyder as their centrepiece director, and the blame can’t be laid at his feet, because this is the man who made a version of Watchmen that pretty clearly posited Rorschach as the hero of the piece and Warners knew what they were getting when they hired him. The manner in which the direction of DC has refocused implies a degree of line-wide refocusing on “badass rebels”: look at the concept art of the DC Cinematic Wonder Woman, scowl and sword aloft in grimy armor, ready to fight all comers. No open-handed diplomat there. (Big aside: They’ve done this for Aquaman too, but he’s actually a perfect character to do it with, so I have less qualms about it – Aquaman’s narrative is that of an outsider, and he has the 21st century Western World pretty much constantly fucking up his protectorate, mixed with the responsibility of being a sole and absolute ruler – he is alienated and has reasons to be angry, plus by virtue of standing for the environment and by casting a person of colour, they change the goalpost of what being a rebellious outsider means. I actually dig this construction a fair bit – pending script).

They’re trying to get lightning to strike twice (or more, remember how many Batbooks we ended up after the launch of the New 52?), but the problem is they kill the distinctiveness and interest of their universe by doing so, and more, that this is unlikely to be out of a great artistic fidelity to the cynical, but out of a cynical cash-grab itself. It’s using cynicism for cynical ends, and it’s scaring the fearful, Othering the Othered, and alienating the alienated to do so. That’s pretty much the antithesis of everything Superman stands for.

The Eggs At The Buffet

If you’ve been paying attention to comics culture lately, you will have noticed two furors breaking out over the last 72 hours.

For those who tune into this blog and notice that, aside from occasional jokes, etc, I usually use this blog to comment on furore of one kind or another (and yes, it has turned out that way), that’s a function of having a professional space to review and comment, and this, personal space which has become increasingly used for venting.

Sorry, but them’s, as they say, the breaks.

Anyway, the recent problems can be pretty easily summarised:

1) A known comics professional said he was tired of a “vocal minority” being appeased in the form of costume redesigns for female characters; and

2) A variant cover to Batgirl was released referencing her sexual assault at the hands of the Joker in The Killing Joke, was objected to, and was withdrawn by its artist and the company, amid cries that the artist and the company were “capitulating to [eugh] SJWs”.

I’m not going to comment on the merits of either position in detail, but to be clear on a few dot points:

  • The creators of the “example” costume redesigns listed have come out and said they were come up with by the professionals for their own reasons – in some cases, clearly, those reasons were to combat sexist costuming, but that’s not precisely the same as pressure; and
  • The variant cover in question did not reflect or comment upon the issue inside, was against the wishes of the core creative team who were pushing for a particular direction, and was, to say the least very problematic.

That being said, I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics: there have been better thought-pieces. I want to talk about the tone of the objections, which are the same objections that form the backbone of the GamerGate crisis facing gaming, and a proliferation of other sexist complaints. To boil it down in a nutshell, the myth is this:

“Minorities are taking X away from us!”

It’s not often phrased precisely that way, but it comes close enough ever time to be clear. The objection to giving people what they’re looking for (like, say, representation), is that, by the objector’s argument, that means a missed opportunity to give something more to the objector.

This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of any commercial enterprise as it exists in the modern world AND fundamentally misunderstands the culture of privilege surrounding white, heterosexual, cisgender males between 18 – 45, the most powerful and wealthiest demographic.

I’m going to dig into this using one of my favourite metaphors: food.

The Objector sees himself (and lets not lie, statistically, it’s VERY likely to be himself), as a paying customer at a buffet. It’s not all you can eat, he needs to pay for each item/trip, but he’s not under any time pressure and can be at the buffet as long as he wants.

Our guy refuses to eat eggs. He claims sometimes claims to be allergic, or to object to the practices of the egg industry, but this is cover for the fact that eggs aren’t to his taste. We know this, because he’s been known to eat cake containing a little bit of egg, even when he knows it’s there, because he likes the cake so much. He won’t eat eggs on their own though, because he doesn’t like them. They’re not “for” him.

People often talk about the benefits of eggs, how good they are for you, but because he doesn’t like them, he tries to find all kinds of reasons why eggs are pernicious (I know about the actual problems too much egg consumption might cause, this is a metaphor, folks [yolks? haha] {these asides are why things like this don’t make it to the other blog}), but ultimately it’s because he doesn’t like how eggs taste, make him feel, and he’d rather eat the other things that the buffet has to offer.

Every time the buffet adds a plate of eggs, the Objector objects. Because he’s looking at that part of the buffet at any given moment – all he sees is that there are more eggs, and that the eggs are “filling” a spot at the buffet where something he likes could go.

But here’s the trick: NOTHING has been subtracted. There has only been the addition of a plate to the buffet. The portion to which he has access hasn’t diminished at all. It’s only the percentage which caters to his tastes – and his alone – which has been altered.

This is often referred to as “the slice of the pie”, but I don’t want to mix my food metaphors (eggs and pie?! Is this a quiche?!), so let’s keep calling it a percentage. This is the key point where the category error creeps in, and it’s the thinking that underlines all these problems.

“Wait a minute!” cries the Objector, turning to camera and breaking the Fourth Wall. “If my percentage has decreased, then what I actually get has decreased, because surely there are only so many plates that can be served at the buffet!”

Well, here’s the thing, Objector. The beauty (and the monstrosity) of capitalism is that the producers of product want all the money. Products are sold to us at inflated prices for many reasons, but one of these reasons is so that in addition to a profit, there are funds available to source the ingredients for the meals at the buffet and the staff to prepare them. In other words, as long as the buffet is making money from a product, they will find a way to make more of the product. That’s called expansion, and although there are a bunch of market forces which pressure it one way or another, it remains a fundamental truth. If there is demand, and the product is profitable, the maker of that product will make more of it to service the demand. For our hypothetical buffet, they buy more tables so they can keep selling more of the food being bought. And bigger kitchens. Eventually a bigger building. Then a chain of buildings across the land. And so on, and so on.

A little simplistic, but until such time as how capitalism works fundamentally changes, or we consume everything, the company will keep pumping out the buffet in order to make more money. That’s what companies do.

So far, so good, right? Pretty easy to establish that the Objector can eat whatever he likes, and ignore eggs, and people can still get their eggs and he can have his fill.

There’s two riders to this, though, that need to be addressed:

1) The buffet needs to be prepared ahead of time. Not in the grand scheme of things, of course, because the buffet is eternal and you have unlimited time to eat it (I mentioned that before), but because the meals have preparation time, and the restaurant needs to gauge, moment by moment, what the demand for a certain item will be before they start preparing it. Are people coming in for hearty winter soups? Do they just want a brownie and a cup of coffee? Hard to tell, because the restaurant needs to forecast for trends, which means that sometimes products go away uneaten, and, to that degree, prep-time is used up which could’ve been (hypothetically) used to make something else the Objector would eat.

But guess what? This issue is self-correctingCompanies don’t want to lose money incorrectly forecasting products no-one will buy! That’s against their whole “get all the money” ethos. All they need is a few dishes of chicken feet to go uneaten (I straight up love chicken feet, by the by, but they can be an acquired taste) and they’ll stop serving it. That’s what “vote with your dollar” means.

Here’s what that means (and this is a big one): There’s no point in crying about how the industry or company has “changed” or “betrayed” you, because it hasn’t changed at all. It wants what it has always wanted – the maximum number of people to buy its products, so it can get all the money. The company has changed nothing.

The customer base has changed. Then, the company responds to that customer base – the same way it has always done – and the customer base changes further. That’s not the company turning its back on you, that’s the world passing you by.

And that’s scary. It is. No-one likes the creeping fear that their perspective is becoming obsolete. But since, Objector, you often pride yourself on “objectivity” or “rationality” you should put your money where your mouth is and realise that your fear of no-longer being a tastemaker isn’t the company’s fault, or the artist’s fault, or even the world’s fault. It’s a natural thing, as inevitable as the seasons, to a degree. The world changes, and tastes change with it. To quote the Wisdom of the Ancient (Grandpa Simpson): “I used to be ‘with it’, but now what I’m ‘with’ isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.”

2) There’s a silver lining to this cloud, Objector: you’ve still got VASTLY more power than the egg buying public of the world and you’ve had a damn good run up to this point. People just like you are admitting that, hey, they like eggs just fine. Maybe even better than some of the things you like – but anti-egg purists are still a coveted, powerful demographic, well catered for. There’s NO SIGN of the customer base pushing you out entirely, or even (and this brings us around again) the dishes being served to you diminishing. This is all about percentages, remember? It’s pretty rare that a product is taken away from you. It’s just the people who are demanding eggs and are willing to pay for them are going to get them, sooner or later.

In fact, the restaurant has doubled down on trying to serve the foods you specifically like in the hope of getting attendance back to where it was in the old days – but that technique has failed. They’ve tried it a bunch of times, but you never ended up buying appreciably more food, because, after all, there was only so much you could hold in your stomach at any one time. And there’s all these people out there clamouring for eggs!

Hegemony means that the manifestation of eggs at the buffet is slow – because sometimes the manager of the restaurant decides that he really hates eggs too, and he won’t serve them no matter how much money he might make! But that manager will, eventually, get fired when the board gets wise to the money that they’re losing. You can also try and forestall the process by threatening not to eat at the buffet until they stop serving eggs, but you need to think about that one carefully, because:

1) You better mean it. The restaurant is recording what’s happening, remember, and if the money coming in from you doesn’t actually decrease, they’ll learn that those threats were empty. Every time you come in and buy a plate of non-egg foods, they’ll politely listen to your egg complaints, nod and tell you that they’re sorry you feel that way, and then go right on serving eggs. Because they are after all the money.

2) If you do mean it, and you go through with it, you better hope that the money coming in from eggs doesn’t outstrip the money lost from your walk away. Because, again, they’re after all the money, and if it turns out that they can make it by turning themselves into the International House of Eggs, they’re going to do it. They only DON’T do it now, because they think they’ll make money serving a variety. That’s nothing new.

So, if you’re really certain that only a “vocal minority” wants eggs, there’s an easy way to prove it: stop going to the buffet.

Unless the real minority is you, Objector, the person who hates other people having what they want so much that they’ll become extremely vocal about how egg lovers are ruining the industry.

But that would be ludicrous, right?

Right?

Aquaman is cool, okay?

This will form the basis, and subject of another, later blog, most likely on Nerdspan.

In the interim, though, I went on a bit of a rant about Aquaman today, because sometimes there’s nothing like flogging a dead horse. I include here, for ease of reference, the rant in its entirety.

I picture an Aquaman with unlimited storytelling potential, and distinct from the other superhero comics out there, whilst still falling as part of the oeuvre. Put in Arthurian and Classical Legend, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Lord of the Rings, Journey to the West, A Game of Thrones and its historical basis, the 1001 Nights, Conan, the West Wing, Starman, Indiana Jones and the Phantom Stranger and then allow to simmer.

Aquaman could be more mirthful and warmer, but also wiser and grander. Less gruff and more commanding. Less grim and more titantic. He’s challenging the King of the Coral Forest to single combat to save the city of Tytanos from his Eyeless Legions. He’s unmasking a plot by the surface to buy Atlantean weapons technology in return for changing shipping lanes to shadow undersea cropland belonging to a robber baron’s political enemies. He’s delving into a haunted undersea pyramid to rescue two children lost and doomed. He’s travelling into the Marianas Trench to forge an alliance with the rebels of Yost, who demand a democratic parliament ameliorating his absolute monarchy. When the stars align, the City of Drowned Men, made of moonlight, appears below the Bermuda Triangle, and Arthur must brave it to solve a twenty-year old murder – with a terrifying oracle for his future thrown into the bargain!

Once a year Aquaman disguises himself like Haroun Al Raschid and goes out amongst the populace as an information gatherer and good Samaritan. Mera is Queen. Vulko is Prime Minister. Joseph Curry is Atlantean Ambassador to the UN. Neptune Perkins is the UN Ambassador to Atlantis.

Aquaman and Queen Mera try to pacify a land that does not accept his return. An empire fractured into warring states who will not bow to a man they do not accept. Hekiatos, Captain of the Red Tide and Lady Brax of Felm, rulers of a million men agree to accept Arthur as King only if he completes Seven (like the Seas, see?) challenges: tame Spawns-in-Darkness, the Shadow of the Sea, beat Old Man Turtle in a game of chess (he wins thanks to a com-link with Mr. Terrific!), find the only once blooming bioluminescent Flower of the Madrigals, and wind it in Hekiatos’ paramour’s hair, and so on, and so on. After succeeding Hekiatos accepts and bends the knee, but Brax declares that “time and tide” draw all men hence, and takes her army with all haste to join with Orm, Heir Apparent to the throne of Poseidonis!

Members of Arthur’s court turn up murdered with three black lines tattooed across their foreheads. It seems like a conspiracy of assassins bent on bringing down his court – until it turns out to be the work of a group of fanatical Aquaman loyalists bent on suppressing dissent! Unfortunately, they’ve been co-opted by the Confessors of Dyss, who are, in fact, awakening Jorumgard from his slumber deep beneath Atlantis – and even as Aquaman condemns his own fanatical supporters to death and leaves his newly formed elector parliament bereft of voices, a massive seaquake strikes the City and the beast rears forth! 

Aquaman must fight to maintain primacy, govern justly, and at the same time, protect 70% of the Earth’s population from the wonders and horrors of the Outer Depths. Aquaman  will be (ideally) in the Justice League, and free to cross-over with his fellow DC heroes, but in his own title they will be calls to ascend – half diplomatic trips, half quests for the Grail, taking him, though necessarily, away from his kingdom.

DC Comics’ Yesteryear That Never Was

It’s been a busy week, and I have a few other projects in the pipeline at the moment, some of which I hope to announce shortly. That’s left me little time for blogging, and my mental energy has been thoroughly divested by some other stuff that I’ve needed to do.

At the same time, I had a window and a prompt to dig around in my archives and committed as I am to bringing content to this blog, I thought I’d cheat, and re-introduce/re-evaluate material from a bygone era.

One of the things that I did regularly when my time was more plentiful was participate in the RPG.net Comic Book Drafts. Effectively, this was a cross between fan fiction and fantasy football, in which existing superheroes are ‘drafted’ based on a random order, taken out of circulation and added to the writer’s ‘team’. A fictional history/backstory is invented and, in some cases, actual issues in comic script format were written and posted up on the forum. It’s quite a fun game to play, as you carefully structure plot arcs with certain characters in mind, only to be gazumped at the last minute by someone who is doing something similar, or perhaps even vastly different.

Though the tradition initially started with straight lifts from the continuity of the Marvel and DC Universes, it became such a popular past-time around the boards that variants began to be introduced. One of those variants was the “Alternate Universe” version of the DCU, similar to the Tangent Universe – reusing or varying codenames and characters based on recontextualising where they come from and key points in their life. This wasn’t a detailed “what if” scenario, where a specific altering event occurred, but more a general guide for developing variants on the DC characters. The whole draft can be found here.

Anyway, this brings us around to my own contributions. But before that, a brief digression!

Back when the DCU had a history, as opposed to the still (theoretically) to be filled in melange of influences and eras it has now, the history of the (old) DCU contained the Justice Society. This team fought in WWII and had the original superheroes (Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, Ted Grant, etc, etc), who semi-retired after a brush with McCarthy-ism. Sometime later came the Justice League of America, and its contemporaries – the heroes of the modern era.

Unfortunately, given the longevity of DC Comics characters, there was a problem with the elasticity of the ever moving now. When the Justice League was created in the 1960s, the heroes of the ’40s required no special explanation for their role as elders of the community. In their 20s and 30s in the ’40s, in the ’60s, they were in their ’40s and ’50s, still legitimately active, if older, and requiring no special factors to explain their interaction with the younger heroes following in their wake. As the “present” moved forward though, the explanations became harder and harder to manage. By the ’80s, the Justice Society heroes should have been in their 60s and 70s, but the 90s, their 70s and 80s.

Given the range of fantastic elements in comic books, explanations were found for the Justice Society to still be active in the present. Life extending vita-rays, sojourns in parallel dimensions, superpowers that prevented aging, etc, etc. As, however, the “modern” superheroes clearly didn’t start in the ’60 and instead started somewhere between 5 and 10 years before wherever the present was, there was a gap. A big gap.

If the DCU had all these superheroic elements in the ’40s, what happened between then and the ’90s (or the ’00s)? Did supervillains just decide to go into retirement? Did all those supersoldier programs vanish? DC danced around the question for a number of years in a number of different ways. The New 52 has removed the question by erasing the Justice Society and all its WWII-era adventures. Superheroes started five to ten years ago. The end.

But in the old DCU, one of the solutions proposed was that there had BEEN no such gap. That after a brief fallow period between the decline of the Justice Society in the ’50s, the late ’60s through late ’70s had been the purview of the hilariously named ‘Justice Experience’ a hippy-disco-heavy-metal superteam including a disguised Martian Manhunter and various other themed baby boomers, including:

  • Acro-Bat
  • Bronze Wraith (aka Martian Manhunter)
  • Major Flashback
  • Mister Action
  • The Manx
  • Song Bird
  • The Who

Very naff, but possessed (to me at least) of an undeniable charm. They only had a few appearances in flashbacks, either through Martian Manhunter’s shortlived solo title, or in the pages of Chase (a great series about a government agent assigned to track superheroes, who was descended from one of the JE’s roster. She’s reappeared in the DCU, though her backstory is as yet unresolved). I think it’s safe to say in principle at least, that I’m a fan.

Every member of the team, except the Martian Manhunter, was KIA, and the issue of the era gap seemed largely unimportant enough to the reading public that it was left alone. Aside from those rare appearances, which didn’t really provide personalities, or even complete assessments of the powers and origins of those heroes, the Justice Experience was effectively forgotten. It always struck me though, as an opportunity to add something to the DCU mythos, an area of a crowded universe that was largely untouched.

Which – to bring us back on point- is why when I was involved in drafting a tangent universe, I came up with my own spin on the Justice Experience. Given that it’s floating around, disorganised, on an internet forum, I thought it was worth indexing before it’s lost in time (like tears in rain). You’ll get the most out of this if you’re aware of the DC characters involved and can see how they’ve been turned around, but I like to think the team is interesting enough on its own. Enjoy!

SGT ROCK AND THE JUSTICE EXPERIENCE

1. Sergeant Rock

What, you want the REAL story of how we got out? It’s a big story, I’ll tell you that.

I don’t know really where to start. America was tired. Straight from WWII into a Cold War. Paranoia, everyone on the back foot.  We didn’t know what superpeople the Reds were planning to send against us, but we knew we were worried. It was like we needed some kind of shitkicking just to get our act together. What that says about the American psyche I don’t know.

So, when China started up with Russia in the mid-40s, the next thing we had to worry about was Communist spread. When Vietnam started acting up, it seemed natural for us to go in. The U S of A and friends, up against the red scare of the Great Ten and the Rocket Reds. A few hundred thousand GIs, packed off to the jungles and swamps. Including me.

I’m not gonna waste your time with what happened in the war. We all know how that turned out. But after WWII and Korea – all those drawn out superpowered conflicts wore us down. In the late 1960’s, we finally abandoned trying to produce atomic technology in weapons for upscaling the superhuman arms race.

Maybe something about that, the new race of ‘superpeople’ stirred something in our home. The times, they were a-changing, and the flower power movement was stirring things up. Across the sea, our boys wanted to come home.

So, flash to me. It’s 1969. I’m a kid running through the jungles near Hanoi. My platoon’s in lousy shape. Our CO bought it a couple of days ago. Our sergeant, he’s a negro, a big guy called Mal Duncan. Loved records, even if we couldn’t take ’em with us.  He’s got a cool head, keeping us all together. We all knew Duncan didn’t think much of the war – but he wanted us all to survive. I remember our call signs were all Jim Morrison lyrics.

Anyway, we’re tear-assin’ through this jungle, Charlie on our collective tail, and we know we’re about to get it. We can hear them, streaking over-head. When suddenly, I realise it’s NOT Charlie.

There’s a streak of light, and something comes crashing down in the jungle. We run towards it, and – there’s this guy. Big. Shaggy black hair. What looks like a leather jacket. Pale,  grey skin. Like KISS had taken some super-soldier-serum and joined the war effort. He was hurt, pretty bad. And smashed in ruins around him, looked like some kind of motorcycle.

He was holding something. A beautiful guitar, black and chrome and cherry red. His voice, it was like the throttle of an engine. We didn’t know much about him, but we knew that he was dying.

“Which one of you bastiches is Mal Duncan?” he asked.

Mal walked forward, poleaxed. He knelt down by the dying alien. We all stared. It was like the jungle was silent.

“It’s too late for me. I’ve been fragged good. But the main man did good for once. I’ve got it – the greatest treasure the Czarnians ever produced. And it’s singin’ for me…”

The alien coughed, and blood came up. Shaking his head, he held forth the guitar. “It’s tellin’ me that you, Mal Duncan, are the hardest-rockin’ bastich in this part of the universe. It’s chosen you, Duncan.”

As the alien said it, the guitar hummed. An eerie sound, on the edge of hearing. But beautiful.

An expression like rapture came over Duncan’s face. He reached out, and took it. With a shudder, the alien fell silent, and we knew he was dead.

There was no sound around us. We hardly dared to breathe. But then, I heard the sound I thought of before – Rocket Reds, overhead and close.

Duncan didn’t even blink. He set the guitar against his chest, and snapped off a riff like B.B. King.

There was a white light, and me and the rest of my platoon felt ourselves lifted up in the air, by some weird, impossible force. There was a wall of sound, all around us, shielding us from enemy fire. The Rocket Reds shattered against it – but I saw the operators coasting gently back to Earth.

Mal Duncan played that guitar, and played us all the way back to base camp. He played himself home, and into history.

Mal Duncan might have led us through the jungle. But Sgt. Rock led us out of it.

– From “Memories of a Rock Superhero – by ‘Airwave’ Jordan.

2. Death, the Atomic Spectre

In the late 1950’s the world was desperate to crack the next stage in the superhuman arms race. The decline of the attempts at the nuclear bomb allowed the great scientific minds of the day to focus on the methods of crafting the next superhuman.

The Trinity Tests, cobbled together from the last vestiges of the failed Manhattan Project, were designed to make the atomic man.

It was not to be.

In the dustbowl valley where the poor soldier was strung to the particle accelerator and doomed forever, J Robert Oppenheimer looked out at what he was about to build and had his mind echo the words of the Bhagavad Gita “Kalo Asmi Loka-ksaya-krit Pravardho, Lokan Samartum iha Pravattah: Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

The test was a failure. The research team was killed to a man. But the words of the Gita attracted the attention of Rama Kushna, the Goddess of Nanda Parbat. She took pity, mixed equal in wrath, on the soul of Oppenheimer, and elected to return him to Earth, to spread the word that nuclear weapons and nuclear people might destroy the planet. She also imbued him with enough power to fight off the wayward superbeings of today and tomorrow.

Returned in the horrific, skeletal, wraithlike form of a nuclear victim, behind the horrifying visage was a heart of sadness, warning, and regret. The power to level mountains, the courage and compassion to instead hold a dialogue with the world.

J Robert Oppenheimer was Death, the Atomic Spectre!

3. Brother Power the Geek

Like Swamp Thing, living Elemental embodiment of the Green, Brother Power the Geek is the Elemental, or para-Elemental, of Dolls. Although he was, at first, thought to be ‘simply’ a mannequin enchanted to life, the greatest mystics in the world uncovered that, in fact, he was connected to all representations of anthropomorphic life in three dimensional representations – dolls, mannequins, statues, gargoyles, dummies.

It’s unfortunate that this incarnation of cosmic (or semi-cosmic) power had the easy distractability and difficulty in comprehension of a life-long drug abuser. It’s however very fortunate that he has the belief in the fundamental brotherhood of humankind, of peace and love and good times that his hippy owners installed in him. It’s also handy that he’s effectively immortal and invulnerable – even if his body were to be destroyed, there’s literally millions of vessels for him to jump into.

Although Death, the Atomic Spectre is readily seen as the most powerful member of the team, ask him candidly and he’ll admit that Brother Power has capabilities undreamt of. The freewheeling free-love freak-out prophet is the exact antithesis of the portentous, deeply concerned Spectre, but they share a love of nature and a desire to protect all living things. The Justice Experience works hard to keep Brother Power focussed, but when they succeed, he’s one of the post potent tools in their arsenal.

4. Doctor Double-X

When biologist Dr. Larry Trainor began his research into the human genome in the mid-1970’s, he, like so many others, had no idea of how close he was to unleashing the miraculous.

But, patterned by an obsession with the super-starlets of yesteryear, Dr. Trainor sequenced the perfect female gene sequence. The XX. Decades ahead of his time, Dr. Trainor was able to devise a serum to ‘unleash’ this potent female force – derived from the ‘feminine mystique’ inside his own body.

Doctor Double-X, as she became known, was Trainor’s vision of the perfect woman – a vision derived from his own subconscious. Amazingly powerful, but at the same time possessed of a unique vulnerability, the Doctor was everything gruff, masculine Trainor was not, but perhaps, secretly hoped he could be.

Endowed with the power to phase through objects and project energy blasts, Double-X became a fixture of the mid-generation superteams, and a long-time companion to Sgt. Rock.

5. Adam Queer, the Hero from the Planet Rann

A’dham was an unparralled adventurer on the planet Rann. Master of the warrior-poet arts of their people, he bestrode the world like a collosus. The monsters of the Outer Dark fell beneath his blade. Cities rejoiced in his passing. The snare-beast haunted towers of mystery were his to plunder. Many men flocked beneath his banner, and his blankets.

In time, A’dham’s prowess, and his hubris, grew so great that he rose to challenge the Synn – the Seven Unknown Gods of Rann.

He won.

Broken and defeated, the Gods passed to him the Eyespider, the Bow of Perfect Aim, the Myrra Crown and the Zeta Blade – the everlasting energy sword that could foretell danger and cut anything.

But the blade carried with it a curse. Or a blessing.

Linked with Rann’s cousin-planet from the far side of the universe – Earth – the Zeta Blade teleported A’dham to that brave, new world to conquer.

Where instead, he was conquered himself. A’dham fell in love. With a quiet, gentle man, with the eyes of an angel and the hands (and career) of an artist. His name was Terry Berg. Soon, A’dham (or Adam as Earthlings insisted on pronouncing his name) dreaded not when the Zeta Blade would draw him to Earth, but when it would send him back to Rann.

One fateful trip though, came too late. Adam returned too late to save Terry, set upon by bigots in the home they shared, left to die amongst the shattered ruins of his art.

Red-eyed and red-handed, Adam swore vengance. Donning his jetpack and taking up the Zeta Blade, Adam took to the nights of the city – turning the hunters to the hunted – the haters to his prey.

Even after he had found and finished those who had killed Terry, Adam was unsatisfied. He knew then that he need to not only help those not free to love as they chose to love, but any and all who might fall victim to the callous night. He became a grim protector of the streets of San Fransisco. This was 1972.

Knowing that it was not enough to punish the guilty, Adam knew he had to change the innocent. He took the suffix ‘queer’ with which the papers had labelled him and turned it into a name. He began to speak out, to fight back, to educate.

In time, he was joined in his quest by a man all the way from New York City – Danny Brickwell, who called himself “Stonewall”.

A grim figure of terror to the San Francisco underground, an epic figure in the battle for LGBT rights, Adam Queer also serves as the Justice Experience’s tracker, vigilante and detective.

6. Funky Flashman (aka Krakkl of Kwyzz)

This one’s the new one from the BeeGees, goin’ out to all you groovy babies in Radioland…

Was this it? Had the humans finally made contact with the vibrational substratum of Frequency X? Did they perceive the dimension that dwelt below them, in the humming waves of radio. The sphere of sound – the planet Kwyzz?

No. Just interference from one of their primitive transmitters – a cargo cult to the Radio Force – that prime mover of electromagnetism that made Kwyzz’s denizens the fast things in four dimensions.

But wait – what is it that Krakkl HEARS? What dread drum beat portent, what siren song. That bass. That treble. That falsetto. The music of Kwyzz is nothing like this!

Travel to the upper stratum is forbidden. The Klan of Kwyzz commands it, for our own protection! Unforeseen consequences to the poor transmission that phases into their range!

But…that music.

Krakkl has no choice.

Down, down, down to limbo town, where that funky sound is goin’ around! This is disco. This is what radio is FOR!

Krakkl is in one of their transmitters – Krakkl’s beautiful radio-self bound down in copper chains. There is someone with his ear close to it – someone listening, and funelled like a cannon-shot Krakkl is speeding…

…inwards. Krakkl has a body now! Krakkl cannot come loose. Who is this man? Krakkl cannot say. His consciousness is gone! Back, perhaps, to Kwyzz, the first explorer of his kind to Frequency X? Who knows?

Krakkl has a body now. A human body. But the song of radio – the true Krakkl, he still flickers and hums in this new body. Krakkl can talk like them – Krakkl must eat and drink like them. But Krakkl can run. Run like his old self. And, foxy momma, Krakkl can dance.

7. Earth Girl

Miami. 2017.

Vandal Savage glanced at the last remaining members of his survey team. The human cannonade, Big Shot. The Peacemaker legacy hero, Billy the Kid. The Entertainer.

I wanted to steer the world to safety. Look at me now..

The red haze was coming across the horizon. Cities vanished beneath that eerie scarlet wall. Here, in the Last Fortress, they waited for the end.

Suddenly, there was a hiss, like sands pouring through an hourglass. The Sandman, once an assassin for justice, but now endowed with the mysterious energy of night, guardian of the world of dream, materialised before them, downshifting into regular consciousness.

“There is no egress through the River of Dreams,” he intoned, “Whatever we do, we do here.”

Dick Grayson, Sky Pirate, looked out the window at the no man’s land and smiled a rueful smile. He did not speak. Beside him, Arsenal, Oliver Queen cracked the knuckles on his cybernetic arm. “That’s it? Farewell Leicester Square? Goodnight Saigon? Say goodbye to Hollywood?”

Vandal Savage nodded. “And so it goes. As I witness the first, we witness the last. Worse comes to worst. The end of history.”

A calm, level voice echoed from the red. “No. It will not end here.”

They whirled to see the Kryptonian appear from a localized time vortex, flanked by two women. “I believe you know Natasha Irons, the Atomic Woman and inheritor of Oppenheimer’s mantle. She’s got a way to save us all.”

Natasha Irons looked across at the assembly of Earth’s last champions, most of whom she had known since childhood. “Okay. It’s a long shot. But this is Weeja Dell. She’s the Monitrix of Earth-69. An exile of the Fourth Dimension. And, as far as we can gauge, the spirit of this planet.”

Big Shot stood up, his high voice in contrast to his massive metal frame. “The Monitors? I thought they were all wiped out.”

The Kryptonian shook his head. “You thought wrong. The Fourth Dimension collapsed back into ours in an absolute time-space anomaly. The cracks have been appearing across the universe as far as 40,000 years in either direction.”

Weeja Dell’s voice carried a strange harmonic, like a finger dragged along a celestial wineglass. “We swore a pact of non-interference. Strict isolation. I know nothing. It was not until the dying of this planet drained the Bleed from my very veins that I knew something was amiss.”

Savage grew stony. “You did not think to check? Add your arts to ours? There may be something you could’ve done!”

The Kryptonian shook his head. “That’s not her style. As someone who operated for so many years in secret and isolation, you of all people should understand it.”

Billy the Kid spun a quantum six-shooter on his finger. “Besides, does she really know that much less than we do about it?”

Weeja Dell, soon to be refugee of two dimensions, watched the exhausted faces. “About what?”

Raven spoke up from her place near Grayson. “Tell her about it.”

Savage ran a hand through his hair, cleansing beads of sweat off his brow. His baritone voice kept level.  “I don’t know what to tell you about the Stranger event. I only wish I did. We lived through those times, but we’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact cause of the disaster. We didn’t start the fire. Manhunter, perhaps the greatest detective I’ve ever known, died in the pursuit of the cause of this ecological tragedy.” The immortal master sat down, sighing heavily. “Only the good die young.”

“We can only tell you that sometime, in the mid-80’s something happened to change the course of human events, irrevocably,” said Grayson. “Don’t ask me why. We almost didn’t notice it. We damned us all whilst we were busy playing cops and robbers.” He grinned again, half bitter, half nostalgic. “Me mostly robbers.”

Natasha couldn’t contain her excitement. “Don’t you see? Weeja Dell is the Captain of the Shiftship Travelling Prayer. All those things the Kryptonian has told us about solidified time, they don’t apply to her. The Monitors, the whole fourth dimension, they’re above it, beyond it.”

“They’re creatures of the Longest Time. Hypertime.” continued the Kryptonian for her.

Savage thumped on the table. “You can do it, can’t you? This is the time! This is our chance!”

Weeja Dell looked at the assembled demagogues and demigods. She drew a shaky breath.  “I’m scared. This is my life.”

Savage glowered at her. “We don’t have time for fear. An incalculable amount is resting on you.”

Oliver Queen stood up, blocked the path between Savage and the Monitrix. He glared at the immortal. “Way to put pressure on the woman.”

Savage snarled at him, his mask ripping with stress and inhuman savagery, a sound from the dawn of time. Jungle predator. “She’s a fourth dimensional entity and the only hope of saving not just everything that has been, but everything that could be. Whatever her personal feelings in the matter, they take a back seat to what is necessary. All our feelings do. She’s not a woman anymore.”

Unfazed, Oliver shot back. “Yeah well, she’s always a woman to me. You can’t intimidate her into handling this. It’s a matter of trust. You owe her honesty.”

All the fight seemed to drain out of Savage. “You’re only human, but you may be right.” He placed a scarred, coarse hand on Weeja Dell’s shoulder. “I know that you’re afraid. We all are. And the task we give you is a daunting one. But I know you can be capable of this. As a Monitrix, you will be inhumanly strong and fast. Almost invulnerable to all mortal hurt. That’s just the way you are. You’ll also have knowledge of Fourth Dimensional technology we can’t possibly match.”

The immortal paused, his voice softening. “And you’ll have the love and prayers of the last survivors of Earth going with you. Keeping the faith in you. Will you do it?”

Weeja Dell looked at those who had brought her here, then slowly bowed in acquiescence.

The Kryptonian checked a diode attached to his time-suit. “We estimate that our projected trajectory should put you in Allentown in 1980, though it’s possible you may stop in Nevada, instead.”

Natasha Irons patted the young Monitrix on the back, in encouragement. “Did you watch the archival footage we obtained for you? Read the histories? See that last Mnemonic Tube with those scenes from an Italian restaurant?”

Weeja Dell nodded. “I understand why you thought it so vital now.”

The Kryptonian looked up from his calculations, even as the Travelling Prayer rose into view outside, from nowhere. “What’s vital is that you master the New York state of mind. You’ll need to blend in. Convince them you’re their idea of an ordinary modern woman. An uptown girl. Shameless.”

Raven took off her hood, cutting off the Kryptonian mid-speech. “Don’t worry about him. His perspective on 80’s society is skewed. Just be yourself – it’s not that different from now.”

“Are you sure I can do this?” asked Weeja Dell.

The Dream Lord gave voice to their thoughts. “You must.”

After that it was a simple matter. Weeja Dell transitioned into the Shiftship. There was a humming noise then a sudden boom as it vanished.

“She’s on her way.” The Kryptonian looked sad at the announcement.

“You didn’t tell her, did you?” asked Vandal. “That the whole of existence, our timeline, will end if she corrects the problem.”

“She’s smart. She’ll figure it out. We were lost anyway.” In three short sentences Natasha Irons gave voice to the hope and despair of the human race. “My only worry is that the Stranger will catch up with us and disrupt the time-stream before she has a chance to resurface.”

There was a sudden coughing from a corner of the room. “V-Vandal?”

Savage turned, a desperate kind of hope kindling in his face. He almost leapt across the room.

Lady Liberty was gingerly sitting up on a cushioned pallet. A fine line of spider-web cracks, seeming to centre around her missing eye, but spreading across her body, were clearly visible. Flashes of the same red that consumed the world around them glowed through.

She and Savage stared at each other, for what seemed like an age, oblivious to the others.

“Uhhh…come on, kids,” said Oliver Queen, in the hush. “We should be movin’ out. See if we can buy our last, best hope a little more time.”

The Entertainer splayed his hands, and a jolly tune sprung from his sleeves. Circus music.

Grayson cuffed him across the head. “Jeez, James. Leave a tender moment alone.”

Queen’s armour rushed around him, segmented pieces calibrating themselves into a protected form. He leapt out the reddening window. The others followed after, leaving Liberty and Savage alone.

As soon as the last shadow fell out of sight, they moved closer. Vandal gazed down at her. “I have never been an innocent man. And I know I could not be another way. I go to extremes.” He took her hands. “But I will not deny that sometimes a fantasy comes to me. That we had not wasted all the long years in power, in struggle. That there could have been…something more…between us.”

Lady Liberty smiled at him, and raised a gentle, crumbling hand to his face. “Why so sad, my love? What your heart calls now, mine has always known. The night is still young.”

Savage smiled, afraid a little still of how much stronger she truly was. “Until the night ends, my valkyrie.”

They held each other, and watched the sky grow redder, and then dim. “Goodnight, my angel.”

The light faded.

Weeja Dell made it to 1980, arriving on Ellis Island with the rest of the tired, the poor and the huddled masses. Embodying the very soul of the Earth’s existence she fought tirelessly and endlessly to prevent any and all ecological disasters. Always in the vanguard of planetary defense, she made the acquaintance of the other powerful women tasked with the fortification of Earth, and modelling herself on them, took to wearing a costume and maintaining a secret identity as Kit Niedrigh, a.k.a “Earth-Girl”.

In time, she would guide the Justice Experience to the secret of the Stranger. But that was another story…

The Justice Experience, is of course, a supergroup, in both senses of the word. Once I decided I wanted to do my own version of the era, I wanted to put its social issues front and centre, whilst playing around with the pop culture representations of that generation in the margins. You may note, amongst other things, that Brother Power’s write-up is comparatively staid – I didn’t actually make any changes to him at all, and this write-up is just to record who he is for posterity and ease of reference. Everything in there comes from the great Neil Gaiman, who reworked the character in Swamp Thing some twenty-odd years ago. You’ll also notice that Weeja Dell’s future looks a little odd for two reasons, the first, because it’s populated by other drafted characters who themselves are “tangented” away from the core continuity, and because it’s composed entirely out of Billy Joel songs.

Anyway, those were my thoughts on what the superteam of the 70’s and 80’s might look like. Unusable, of course, as I don’t have any of the rights to ANY of these characters, and will likely never go anywhere near them. Nevertheless, in a market where the typical superhero stories are taken to be relatively repetitive, I think there’d be something to be said for an era appropriate mood piece. As a final part of the draft, I wrote a little vignette featuring the characters, which I produce below:

The Man that came to Gotham.

The fires were burning up in the Narrows.

Coming right down Kane Boulevard was a swarm of cars, moving with typical Gotham speed, which was to say, none. A haze of heat wafted across the city, the already blistering summer night wounded to the core, ripped raw and blazing.

This was the Midnight City in 1977.

Rioters hit the streets, screaming blood and thunder, because this night was, it seemed, to be the city’s last.

High atop the Statue of Liberation, Sergeant Rock looked across at the source of the madness. Astride Morrison Avenue like a Colossus erected to guard the homes of the fashionistas stood the 60ft capitalist who had caused this mess.

Gotham was in the worst economic crisis in American history. Crime was up over 81% and the city’s debts were through the proverbial. When the government bailout had been knocked back (‘Ford to City: Drop Dead!’ blasted the newspapers) things were bad enough that they’d even floated the idea of privatisation, not that anyone had taken it seriously.

Anyone except the Auctioneer. Monitoring Earth transmissions, he’d understood that the city was part of the free market now. And he expected most of the rest of the world as optional extras.

Rock pressed a button by the side of his fret, and talked through his guitar like Peter Frampton. Strange harmonics carried his voice to his associates, half a city away. “Flashman. You got crowd control covered?”

Spinning disco crazy through the smashed glass parade of 31st and Carmine, the Funky Flashman hustled an elderly couple right across to Ennis Island. “Feelin’ groovy. The Doc’s holding up the 59th Street Bridge long enough for the cars to get past.”

Rock’s voice came floating back. “Slow down, you move too fast. We’ve got to make sure the Auctioneer doesn’t follow along.”

“Slow down? Not in my dictionary, baby. But relax – he’s waitin’ for it.”

That would have to do. Flashman, at least, would be able to react fast enough if this all went to hell – and Doctor Double-X would be able to curb any of his more…reckless excesses. They’d done well, and Sgt Rock would give it to them straight. “Cool.”.

Looking across the tiny tiered balcony on the statue’s crown, Rock gave a nod to Brother Power the Geek, lost god of the Flower Children and elemental zeitgeist. And secret weapon.

Brother Power smiled and gave a peace sign with one hand, and the thumbs up with the other.

Rock let his fingers slip onto the right chord. “Hit it.”

DanananananaaahNAHnah!

Brother Power slumped, his raggedy body crumpling. There was a moment of silence. Then a shudder, barely audible above the Sergeant’s shredding, but definitely palpable, rolling under foot.

Something like consciousness flickered in the Statue of Liberation’s eyes. The sword, held poised defensively, swung. Mammoth feet of stone and metal wrenched themselves from the platform.

Running lixx along the edge of hearing, Sgt Rock played a wall of sound. Shields hummed and wavered around the icon, wrapping it in a protective bubble of energy. The ground beneath her feet hissed and crackled, and then an impossible shower of sparks and energy poured off from beneath them.

The Statue, sword raised, took to the air. Adam Queer, hero from the Planet Rann, stood forward and released the straps on his tunic, letting it fall to the floor, and removed his winged cap, shaking loose his hair.

“You better be right about this, Rock.”

Hanging from a rafter was a hastily lifted Baron Big Belly mascot costume. Grimacing, Adam donned it.

The statue’s book thudded into the midst of Morrison Avenue, the traffic cleared by Funky Flashman scant seconds before. Sending up a cloud of dust, it coated the Auctioneer, who stumbled and stuttered.

Even as the statue touched down with elegance in the midst of downtown Gotham, and the Auctioneer turned with surprise on his face, the googly eyes of the Burger Burgher costume rolled downwards, and the leering, bun shaped head began to speak. “Howdy, Adam. It’ll work. Just, move as you would move, and I’ll make sure the statue does the same.”

Brother Power. Doll Elemental.

Adam Queer drew forth the Zeta Blade and flourished it. From outside, visions poured into his mind of what the statue would see, what the statue would feel.

They were right, it would work.

The Statue of Liberation whirled its simple toga as it dropped into an elegant kata. The titanic sword, enhanced with the rippling power of Sgt Rock’s music, spun as he spun the Zeta Blade.

The Auctioneer turned with shock on his face. Seeing the weapon at the ready, he raised his hands defensively. “Wait a picosecond! I’m a businessman!”

Adam Queer, and the statue, flashed a predatory smile. The statue’s free hand beckoned.

“Come then. Pay the price.”

PS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Kurt Busiek actually devoted a fair bit of time and effort to this in the excellent Astro City: The Dark Age. Freed from the limitations of a hidebound, big two, continuity, Kurt did what Astro City always does, and examines the pop culture and comics culture of the relevant eras through the lens of its superhero characters.

Comic Book Gender Studies Course Goes Global

Professor Christy Blanch of Ball State University in the US is launching an online course, open to the public and free of charge, in gender studies and comic books.

The course description involves an examination of “how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles”.

I, sadly, may not have an opportunity to take part in this: I have a full-time job, another time consuming writing gig, plus various other projects – and live lectures may not fit the buttoned down timeframe in which I now live if they’re coming from Indiana.

What I can say, however, is that this was drawn to my attention through Mark Waid (read his pitch at http://markwaid.com/guest-posts/so-im-asking-for-your-help/) one of the leading lights in redefining comics for access to the public and trying to open the doors of an increasingly insular medium. He’s also going to be lectured for this thing along with Gail Simone, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Snyder, Terry Moore and others.

If you know comics, I don’t need to describe to you these people and their work. They’re the very best. Additionally, thanks to the 21st Century (re,re,re,re,re,re) and the magic of social media I’ve had the opportunity to interact in a minor way with some of them and can tell you they’re as informed, articulate and warm as their work is brilliant. One of the first things I ever did in taking a more active role in social media was ask Gail Simone a question that I had been wondering about for years (in addition to Jen Van Meter and others) involving their use, as women writing superhero comics, of feminist theories of conflict resolution.

I didn’t notice it until I could draw the parallels, but ethic of care rather than ethic of justice principles seemed to guide Gail’s heroes in a close reading. They seemed to operate on a relational axis, motivated by understanding and individual moral choices. I think, often, that superheroes generally expound moral values by (literally) beating down those who hold opposing values. Adversarial system, all the way, making your arguments by defeating and beating down the other arguments. Whereas Gail’s heroes seem to concentrate less on the destruction of evil, and more on the promotion of individual personal good.

It’s certainly valid to say on paper that say, Superman inspires individual reformation, but in terms of show not tell we mainly see him taking down bad folks, or inspiring people secondhand (e.g. by his example), rather than by an active application of ethic of care principles.

Some casual examples:

  • Ryan Choi, the Atom, for example, aids a semi-supervillain with Alzheimers, lets Alien Invaders live in his apartment, despite frequent cries of “Death or Submission”; and, most importantly, defends Giganta, continues to date her, and gets her to skew towards going straight.
  • Wonder Woman comforts a weeping Captain Nazi, names her nameless traitorous enemy on their epic quest, redeems assailant gorillas into her closest allies, and well, in a hundred other ways demonstrates ethic of care principles. Indeed, Wonder Woman often articulates them.
  • Batgirl encounters a teenage car thief named Ricky, and after he’s severely injured in an arrest becomes a mentor/confidante/friend/possible romantic link. There’s none of Batman’s harsh remonstrances with Catwoman for engaging in a life of crime, but instead a tender study in relational ethics.

In noting this pattern, I couldn’t help but realise how neatly it mapped to Carol Gilligan’s “In A Different Voice” and the dispute resolution work of Carrie Menkel-Meadow. The meat of that theory is that women have a fundamentally different approach to conflict resolution than men, based not on a hierarchy of values, but on relational ethics.

Once I’d thought about that, I wanted to find out whether or not Gail had considered it, and whether or not other female comic book writers I knew were consciously or subconsciously operating in accordance with it’s terms. So I asked, and they answered me.

The ideas, which deal with gender essentialism, are pretty divisive. Given that the internet is “tone neutral”, it can often give rise to misunderstandings, particularly when you’re being digitally solicited by some random stranger. But not only did they take the time to answer me fully in a medium not really designed for long form responses, I could genuinely sense they cared about the question. (FYI, for those who did answer me, the answer appeared to be yes, it was both a conscious choice, and a reflection of subconscious inclinations in that direction anyway).

These were short conversations, but I still felt like I gained a real insight. I can’t imagine the value of a proper live-interview course to that effect. I urge you, if you’ve got any interest in this area, at least consider signing up. I still might try and find the time to do it, and if I don’t, I’ll be very envious of those who did.

Find out more by jumping on here: https://www.canvas.net/courses/gender-through-comic-books

Australians in Comics, A Primer

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Australian superheroes this week, along with Westerns and various other bits and bobs. For those who hoped that this would be about either (a) the tradition of homegrown Aussie superheroes (Crimson Comet and the Southern Squadron, anyone? [I didn’t say it was a PROUD tradition]) or (b) the far-flung Aussies who now make it their business to run the gaudy and captivating world of comic books. I’m talking, primarily, about those ‘mainstream’ American comics that feature Aussie characters, where they go right, and where they go wrong.  This is what I ended up with. Please note, that this list isn’t based on a particular set of researches, just my own memories and some mild internet trawling, so if I’ve missed someone, please tell me so. First commenter will win some form of valueless no-prize prize!

Before we begin, some facts/misconceptions about Australia that need to be dealt with:

  1. 89% of our population is urbanised. That’s 14% more urbanisation than in the US. We live in big, fancy cities.
  2. We have the highest rate of tertiary graduates in the OECD. We’re not, primarily “ocker”, and don’t feel compelled to correct most people about the size of their knives.
  3. 12% of the population are Asian Australians – six times the total of our aboriginal population. An Australian is twice as likely to be ethnically Chinese as they are to be aboriginal.
  4. There are a LOT of deadly animals here, but given Point 1, above, they’re pretty rarely seen in the average Aussie’s life. This means we’re not all reckless Steve Irwin wrangler types. Hell, I don’t even drink beer.

Please keep these facts in mind when we’re talking about portrayal, accuracy and representation. Without further ado: onto the bit!

1. The X-Men

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Gateway, Lifeguard, Barnacle, Red Lotus and Slipstream are all X-Men of relative standing. None have ever made the core “A-Team” (like say, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee, Wolverine), but Gateway, Lifeguard and Slipstream are all a big enough deal to make it onto Wikipedia with pictures. Brian Michael Bendis has just introduced the new X-Man Eva Bell, who seems to be running on a team with Cyclops, Emma Frost and Magneto, essential X-folk all.

Bad luck for Barnacle, whom we don’t see much of, but at least barnacles get everywhere, and there’s nothing stereotypical about an Australian hero in a hard shell. Gateway is an Australian aborigine, about which I’m a little divided – representation of a person of colour in superhero comics is always good, but representing that person of colour as a silent, non-speaking, wilderness dwelling “shaman” figure wise in ancient lore carries with it other, less positive connotations.

Like new X-Man Eva Bell, Lifeguard and Slipstream are both from Surfers Paradise, Australia (which SOUNDS like a beachside town, but is in fact a thriving suburb of a city of 600,000 people). Slipstream is a teleporting surfer, and Lifeguard, is well, the ultimate lifeguard. So you can see how their mutant powers and themes aren’t just one-note variations on their location at all. Slipstream lost his powers in M-Day, but Lifeguard’s still alive and kicking, and apparently tapped as a low-level X-Man into the future. Good for her.

Red Lotus was also a member of the X-Treme X-Men, and does fall within the 12% Asian Australian demographic I mentioned above. He unfortunately also represents that demographic by being the heir to a Triad gang with a very Sax Rohmer-y codename. Still, given so many X-Men have criminal pasts and there’s nothing inherently negative about the Lotus, maybe that’s not as bad as it could be. He did actually team up with a number of C-List X-Men and become involved in multiple stories, so that’s a proper service record.

Pyro_(St._John_Allerdyce)

In addition to the cited X-Men, no summation of the role of Aussies in the X-Universe would be complete without Pyro, a villain turned anti-hero turned hero. They may of made him American in the movies and British in the ’90s cartoon, but that’s skipping over the critical point that his profile is high enough to make it into the movies and the ’90s cartoon. That’s no small feat, unequaled by any of the heroic X-Men. Pyro is pretty much the KING of Aussie portrayals in the pure superhero world – he’s a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, fought the Avengers, caught the Legacy Virus, and CONVERTED SENATOR ROBERT KELLY INTO AN IDEAL OF PEACEFUL HUMAN/MUTANT COOPERATION BY SAVING HIS LIFE. If, like me, villainous Kelly is an archetypal part of your vision of the X-Universe, that’s a massive change to wreak. Pyro also gets a nice power, control over fire, and a name that’s linked to that power. He’s not linked to some external perspective of “Australian-ness” beyond the fact that he’s Australian.

Eva Bell looks like she’ll fall into this latter category (I’m hopeful) but it may still be too soon to tell. So far, she seems like a pretty prototypical teen, which given that it’s Bendis writing her is a good sign. She seems to be acquiring the name of “Tempus”, which relating to her time-stopping powers removes her solidly from the “regional character needs regional code name” listings.

Why so many X-Men? A lot of it has to do with the status of the X-Men as a global phenomenon. Being outside of the usual superhero milieu, they’re often portrayed without the trappings of superhero-dom – dedicated cities to protect, supercriminal nemeses, etc, etc. They can literally show up anywhere doing anything.

As the cultural parallel of the X-Men expanded to encompass a representation of the generally disenfranchised (and away from the strict civil rights movement reflection of its early years), it became important that the X-Men were both seen to be the prime exemplars of this new worldwide culture, but also that they could rely alternatively on support or criticism from unexpected quarters, no matter where they might be.

It’s somewhat notable that the X-Men don’t choose their destinies. Even for Marvel heroes, there tends to be much less “and now, I shall become a SUPERHERO” speechifying in their makeup.

The trend in American comics tends to be for the base unit of the superhero to be American, with other countries having nationally themed superhero representatives of that country rather than just having their own superheroes. There’s an element of branding about international heroes that the X-Men simply don’t need. They get everywhere.

2. Captain Boomerang

220px-CB_117

Aside from the X-Men, this is, to my mind, the big one. The portrayal of Australians in American superhero comics that supersedes all others. Why? Well, his name is CAPTAIN BOOMERANG so he’s got an almost necessarily Australian pedigree, but he also dates from smack in the middle of the Silver Age, when most ethnicities in comics were summarised by the moustache given to the character and some reductive form of declamation. That being said, John Ostrander did some significant work towards authenticity (he famously got all his slang right, but was told by an Aussie friend that, whilst accurate, it shouldn’t be used in every single sentence) and “Digger” is allowed both some degree of nuance (menace, joke, coward, opportunist and conflicted about all of the above) and a wider cultural context in which to be interpreted (the Suicide Squad actually visit Australia, where, despite a little bit of grating Crocodile Dundee-ism, we come off pretty well. Part of that Crocodile Dundeeism becomes excusable when you find out that Ostrander went to the trouble of adding in the note that Digger is from Korumburra, which makes his “country bumpkin” demeanour a little more explicable. Notable also is the fact that he’s only half-Australian – I can’t decide if that’s a plus or a minus.

3. Boomerang

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He’s an Australian Major League Baseball Player, which is pretty out there, but does show a certain degree of cultural diversity. Like Captain Boomerang, he has specialised Boomerangs, but unlike Digger, he’s a pretty competent and fierce opponent. Whilst less high profile than his Captain counterpart, Boomerang still remains a notable Marvel figure, with a slew of appearances including right up to last month’s Superior Spider-Man. He (haha) plays in the big leagues, even if they don’t entirely respect him. Aside from gaining the name “Outback” in the Fifty States Initiative, he’s a pretty solid representative of Alice Springs and there aren’t a lot of reasons for complaint. Except for the whole ruthless super-villain thing.

4. Dark Ranger

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I’m pretty fond of Dark Ranger II. An aboriginal tattoo artist by day and urban crimefighter by Melbourne night is a pretty good mix (the city notoriously has had some notable gangland wars and killings, but is also wealthy, sophisticated, etc). Grant Morrison went to the trouble to do some research for Batman Incorporated, so his principal adventure features Batman Park (named after significant historical figure John Batman who also lends his name to a wide variety of Australian places and things to weird effect for the comics fan) and depicts fairly accurately big parts of the city. Dark Ranger I (aka The Ranger) we know little about, beyond that he seems to skew less towards the joke end of the Club of Heroes.

5. Colleen Franklin

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Nick Spencer did a phenomenal job with another (half-)Australian, Colleen Franklin, the control figure from his short lived revival of the Thunder Agents. The portrayal was so naturalistic and removed from stereotype that I didn’t notice she was Australian until I did, at which point it became obvious that she had been so all along. So, many marks in your favour, Nick.

6. Mammoth

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Mammoth is pretty much one-note, but at least mammoths aren’t notably Australian and he hasn’t ended up with a marsupial codename or some such. He also gets some motivation out of his relationship with his sister, which makes him more than a one note Aussie gimmick.

7. Astro City

[NOT PICTURED]

Kurt Busiek did well with introducing a team of Aussie superheroes who fought off the Enelsians in Astro City. I asked Kurt the other day if we were going to see them again, and I got a somewhat coy “Anything’s possible.” There were, IIRC, four of them: Barrier, Bullroarer, Kookaburra and the Colonial. If Barrier isn’t a reference to the Great Barrier Reef, then it might rank up there with Pyro and Gateway as a name that any comic book character might be proud to bear, and Astro City gets extra points for giving almost ALL characters from regions other than Astro City a “locally themed” nickname, and providing a reason for doing so: most heroes live in Astro City and otherwise really are regional specialties. Besides, Astro City lovingly lampoons as much as it homages comics history as a whole, which means that we see a lot of less fortunate tropes with the edges gently sanded away and explained.

8. Tasmanian Devil

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Tasmanian Devil I’ve notably left underrepresented as I don’t know him terribly well. I understand he’s a vanguard for LGBTQ representation in superhero comics and a well-respected character to boot. So, all in all, that’s pretty good, even if he’s always going to share associations with the Warner Bros. cartoon.

How does that break down? Well, of the 17 characters listed here, 7 are X-Men. Three are villains, two of those villains with a special theme surrounding boomerangs. Four of them (let’s be generous to Barrier) have non-parochial super-IDs.

I think we’ve come off pretty well, representation-wise, but its by no means the best effort. I can’t complain, because we’ve done better than everyone except the British and the Canadians, and as the prominent native-English speaking, shared historical nations with America, the home of superhero comics. People are starting to sit up and take notice.

I’m not going to nitpick things about Australia, like the proper title of the Australian Federal Police or the fact (and this is important for almost anywhere else in the world) that we drive on the other side of the road to America, but I do think its worth considering Australia in more than a second-hand context as we turn up in more and more comics. Thankfully, we have a pretty thriving comics community, so the easiest thing to do to consider integration would be to ask someone.