Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Week 42: Doing Donuts on Free Lunch Drive

Never underestimate the 52 team. It turns out the business with the Anselmo gun actually is a reference to an old Elongated Man story--one in which the word "Anselmo" doesn't appear, and which appeared in one of the most obscure DC comics ever published, if "published" is the right word. An industry veteran who wishes to remain anonymous forwarded along a .cbr file of it, along with an explanation of how that particular comic came to be. He's asked me not to quote him, but says I can paraphrase his information. So here's the gist of it:

At some point in late 1966, Daisy--the company whose ads for BB guns appeared in decades' worth of comics--decided they wanted to publish a full-on licensed comic book series to promote their products to boys and girls. They approached DC to put together a very odd title, to be called Daisy Comics. The lead feature, "Daisy," would be a sort of Western/humor/romance hybrid about a young woman sharpshooter, a kind of cross between A Date With Judy and Annie Oakley, apparently suggested by the then-popular Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun. (The one story ever produced was drawn in a sort of Leave It to Binky-like style by the late, great Bob Oksner, who passed away last week.) The backup story was intended to be a rotating feature with various DC superhero characters in stories involving guns and firearms--the idea was evidently to cast guns in a more favorable light than usual for comics.

To make a long story short, things didn't go quite as planned. The first issue of Daisy Comics ran seriously late in production, and as it was on its way to the printing plant, DC got legal notification from Disney that they'd heard about the forthcoming comic, and that it had better not share its name with one of their more famous duck characters. There wasn't time to redesign the cover before it went to press, and whoever was tasked with fixing the problem took the shortest route: putting a big white bar over the word "Daisy" on the cover (and blanking out "Daisy" on the indicia for good measure). And so the first and only issue of Comics was printed. As you can imagine, that title makes it a little bit hard to Google.

Naturally, when Daisy saw the printed comic with their company's name removed, they went... well, "ballistic" probably is the right word. When DC brass saw the cover with the ugly white bar, they started to get cold feet too; then somebody read the comic itself. The "Daisy" story is nothing particularly notable--but then there's the Elongated Man story. The 10-page story, "The Secret of the Sorcerous Six-Shooters!," is uncredited--it sure doesn't look or read like a Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino story, although they were handling Ralph's solo adventures in Detective Comics at the time. The plot's a little on the incoherent side, but it involves Ralph investigating a string of mysterious robberies in Boston committed by a gang run by someone identified only as "Big Tony" (no "Anselmo"--apparently that is a Moonlighting reference after all), who's got a small armory full of guns he claims are enchanted (although we never see any evidence one way or the other, as this issue of 52 suggests). The climax features Ralph playing a round of Russian roulette with Big Tony.

Understandably, DC freaked. Since the sponsor was now out of the picture, the entire print run of Comics #1 was pulped. Only a few of the initial copies that went to the DC and Daisy offices survived, and it's not even listed in Overstreet. But somehow the 52 crew must have gotten hold of a copy...

Actually, no. I just made all of that up. As far as I know, there is no precedent for a "wishing gun" in any Elongated Man story. There is no precedent for a "wishing gun" in the DC canon. There is no precedent for a "wishing gun" in any fiction of which I'm aware. And that's a problem--as emotionally satisfying as the conclusion to Ralph's mystery plot here is (assuming it is the conclusion, since there's obviously some loose ends to be tied up at the very least), it's intellectually unsatisfying.

To explain why, I'm going to have to quote a little bit from vintage detective-fiction theory. This page by Michael Grost is a pretty interesting summing-up of the "realist" and "intuitionist" schools of detective fiction, especially starting about 3/4 of the way down the page. "Realist" fictional detectives solve crimes as police tend to, by methodical, scientific examinations of evidence; "intuitionists" solve them by leaps of perception. (The "intuitionist" label is Grost's own, although the division reminds me a bit of Colson Whitehead's novel The Intuitionist, in which elevator inspectors are divided into "intuitionists" and "empiricists."

A.A. Milne--yes, that one--was also a mystery novelist, and his 1928 introduction to his novel The Red House Mystery created (or made explicit) that particular schism in detective fiction. To quote Grost's essay: "Milne claims that it is almost impossible for a typical reader to anticipate the ideas of a detective who has scientific means at his disposal to solve stories. He feels that such stories are therefore unfair to readers. He prefers stories in which the detective solves the mystery through pure intellect, reasoning upon facts which are known to the reader. Such an emphasis on pure human reason is the core of the intuitionist approach."

As Waid suggested in his origin for the Elongated Man, Ralph is an intuitionist all the way: his specialty is eccentric but brilliant bounds of logic. (Even the bit with dusting the helmet for prints is a great, contrarian bit of intuition: faced with something he knows is in the realm of the uncanny, he thinks about it in purely physical terms.) But the flaw of the Anselmo gun as a mystery-plot device was outlined by both the realists and the "intuitionists." In 1924, R. Austin Freeman (one of the realists) wrote in "The Art of the Detective Story" that "the author should be scrupulously fair in his conduct of the game. Each card as it is played should be set down squarely, face upwards, in full view of the reader... The production of a leading fact near the end of the book is unfair to the reader."

Then, in 1928, the mystery writer S.S. Van Dine (an intuitionist) published his "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." The first one is that "the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described." Then there's rule #8: " The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio."

Slightly later, in 1929, Ronald Knox, one of the founders of the Detection Club, wrote his "Ten Commandments for Detective Novelists", one of which is that "all supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course." (Admittedly, some of the others are not terribly useful, and one is outright terrible: "No Chinaman must figure in the story." So much for the Perfect Physician--!)

All of which is to say that if we see Ralph sticking the barrel of an ordinary-looking pistol in his mouth while crying, it's a fair assumption that he intends to kill himself by firing a bullet through his brain; it's a dodgier but still reasonably fair proposition if the solution to the Anselmo-gun mystery relies on it being, I don't know, some kind of water pistol; it's not particularly fair at all if it turns out to be a wish-granting machine that just happens to be shaped like an ordinary-looking pistol, especially if its context--not just the storyline of 52, but the entire fictional universe in which it's set--has made no previous mention of a pistol-shaped wish-granting device.

Now, the Ralph plot has been running up against the "world of spirits" conundrum from the beginning: it's a detective story that takes place in that very world. But we've also been told that in the Tenth Age, magic has new rules, and that one of them is TANSTAAFL--a "fair play" rule worthy of Mr. Terrific. (Yet somehow the Anselmo gun, from the Ninth Age, still works fine--!) As far as the "mystery" here is "who's behind what's been happening to Ralph," the answer is Faust, and 52 has been playing fair with us--obviously, since even I was able to figure it out. But the Magical Wishing Gun is just ridiculous. Not even the loopiest intuitionist in the audience would have been able to guess that one. (It does make a few earlier bits of Ralph's story make more sense, though. In his scene with Rama Kushna, note that she said "You wished to be with her again"--not "wish" but "wished." Perhaps what she showed him was how to defeat Faust, as he'd predestined by making his bullet-wish back at the Ambassador?)

While we're at it, the Magical Wishing Gun--in contrast even to the Green Lantern ring, which is limited by force of will and the user's specific conception--is a very, very, very dangerous artifact to have lying around as a souvenir in one's house, or even in the Flash Museum. It's potentially as powerful as the Miracle Machine; why wouldn't Ralph have turned it over to, say, Zatanna, or tried using it before to reverse all kinds of bad things that have happened?

Of course, all these objections may well be rendered moot by something we haven't seen yet, since Neron and Faust aren't going to stay put forever. We also know from Justice League of America that Felix Faust is back on Earth, which means that somebody figured out how to bring Ralph back to life and made it worth his while to break the circle. And I do like the traditional device of the circle that can only be broken by the person who drew it--as the Seven Soldiers Zatanna puts it, one of the rules of magic is "don't bring it up if you can't keep it down." Plus there are other yet-unanswered questions about this plot: who was the friend who pulled Ralph through after the wicker-doll thing, and who is the unidentified person that Wizard told us Ralph was going to hook up with at some point? Would one or both of them be Bea?

Like the Red Tornado cover, this issue's cover was done very early on, according to the J.G. Jones blog. Like the Red Tornado cover, it's a lovely piece of work. And like the Red Tornado cover, it's not actually a scene that happens in the story itself--even symbolically, this time. As Jones notes, the random tentacles are the sign of a Cthulhu-like horror, and F. Faust doesn't represent any kind of profound too-much-for-senses-to-bear unknown--he's ultimately just a jerk with a tall hat and (as this issue points out) a thing about fingers. (But speaking of rubbery stretchy things: wouldn't Ralph's finger & chest just stretch instead of being severed/punctured?)

Oh yes: the Montoya plot! Well, we all knew she was going to say "good question" at some point, but this was a crisp little scene anyway. It even connects thematically with the Ralph material, in a way. Montoya and Ralph are the two characters in 52 for which identity is really important: Ralph has been losing himself and falling to pieces (since he defined himself by his relationship with Sue), and Montoya has essentially been blank for a while, as everyone makes sure to keep reminding her (to ask "what would Montoya do?" may be to not get an answer). But I'm intrigued by the idea of her somehow turning her blankness into her strength: does her facelessness make her a Woman Without Qualities? An Unknown Soldier? A Human Target? A Proxy? A Yankee Doodle? As one wag on the DC boards put it: Next Question.

No page-by-page notes this week, since there's really not a lot to point out other than that Ralph drinks with his right hand but shoots with his left, and that Green Arrow looks like he's got his eyes crossed in that last panel. Also: if you're at New York Comic-Con this weekend, I'll be around; I'm moderating the CEO 2007 Outlook panel on Friday morning (during the industry-only part of the Con) and the How To Draw Heartache panel on Saturday morning at 11 AM.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Week 41: Look to the Goblet, Ralph

From the Helmet of Fate stuff, as well as the Mark Waid interview over at IGN, I think it's fair to assume that the entity that's been hanging out with Ralph is not the actual Dr. Fate helmet. So what might it be? With the understanding that I might well be proven wrong next week, and that other people online have suggested the same theory, I suspect it's Felix Faust.

The key to this particular mystery is the Silver Wheel of Nyorlath, which first appeared here, in the same issue as Faust's first appearance. The Wheel, the Green Bell of Ulthool and the Red Jar of Calythos, are the three objects Faust collects to free the Demons Three: Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast. (In turn, they require some more objects of him: "The wing of a bat, the hide of a cat, a shell from the great sea shore! A mallet and a tusk and a white death's-head! Pomegranate! Goose feather! The skin of a sheep!") That story continues in the next issue of JLA, "One Hour to Doomsday!"--hey, it's a countdown!--which involves the Lord of Time and the years 3786 and 2062.

But back to Faust. The journey the helmet has taken Ralph on might not be a Virgil-and-Dante situation; I'm starting to suspect it's more like Mephisto's dealings with the original Faust (not this Faust, who's considerably more admirable, or this Faust, which is pretty great too), which increasingly corrupt him the way Ralph has been corrupted. They go to see the Seven Deadly Sins (as in the Rock of Eternity); they go to mess with the Pope; they go to see Helen of Troy... and then it's time for Dr. Faustus to go to hell, and he refuses the possibility of salvation. (Hence Ralph's disappearance this issue, and the Anselmo gun in the next-issue box.) If you like experimental film, start here for Jan Svankmajer's version; if you prefer things in easily-digested comic-strip form, see R. Sikoryak's "Mephistofield" in Hotwire Comix & Capers, which reduces Marlowe's version to three pages of "Garfield" dailies.

Next week's cover preview, with tentacle-thingies bursting out of the Fate helmet, echoes the snakes where Count Marisius's head should've been in Ralph's scene in Week 25--the scene in which the helmet shows Ralph a version of Felix Faust's fate that had previously been unknown to us. What Ralph says he's gotten out of the lesson is that "this is what happens to suckers who think they can beat the devil"; Faust's mistake had been to "misrepresent" his side of the deal to Neron, and the suggestion of the story is that if you're going to do magic you'd better stick to the precise letter and spirit of your deal. Curiously, the suggestion of the first Faust story in JLA is that magic is rather loosey-goosey, and that a symbolic gesture is precisely as useful as the real thing. How magic works in the current Age isn't entirely clear yet, but I'm guessing that the same principle applies: Ralph's trade of the wicker ring for the shackle, for instance, is an example of the "more or less the same thing" principle of magic.

Looking at Mogo's first appearance reminded me that those tentacles under Fate's helmet also recall the sort of flower one gets for the man who has everything (another Moore/Gibbons story that recently got refried over in Green Lantern). I don't think they're that, but the idea of experiencing one's heart's desire as a vicious illusion suggested that what Faust (or whoever) may be doing is preying on Ralph's vanity as a detective. He doesn't just want his wife back; he wants to do it himself, to bring his wife back, through his mastery of information and logic.

Great cover this issue--it manages to incorporate five different boxes within a box, as well as the fine bit of business of Montoya's question-mark ponytail, and it still looks simple and eye-catching. That Adam-and-Kory pose, by the way, reminds me of some old Frazetta or Alex Raymond image, but I can't quite tell what. (Here, by the way, is the scene from The Lady from Shanghai that J.G. Jones mentions in his piece about this week's cover.)

"Miracles & Wonders," aside from the nod to Diana's appearance probably isn't a reference to this or this or (despite its references to "a personal journey with cancer") this, and it's definitely not this. But this site is a little closer--the miraculously surviving Isis-rose could fit right next to the name of Allah in an eggplant. Note also that one place references to wonders and miracles turn up is in Revelation 13:13-14, in which the Beast creates deceptive miracles. Then, of course, there's the singular form, as in this song.

As the clock is ticking down, it's worth running down the characters we were told a year ago would appear in 52 who haven't shown up yet. The ones the writing team gave a positive response to: Snapper Carr, Captain Atom, Gentleman Ghost, Anarky (who I'm guessing shows up in or around Week 48 from the @ symbol on the solicited cover's wall), the Haunted Tank, and Vigilante/Linda Danvers. (And let's not forget Most Excellent Super-Bat!) Not that I'm going to feel ripped off if we don't get a Gentleman Ghost appearance or anything; this might be a useful list for thinking about what might be coming up, though.

More notes:

Pg. 1: "Pet-thing": nice! I don't think Molek the Hunter has appeared anywhere before; perhaps he's friends with Devilance the Pursuer. Or the recently-resurfaced Bolphunga the Unrelenting, considering Mogo's presence this time.

Pg. 2: For a blind guy, Adam is remarkably adept at hand-to-hand combat.

Pg. 5: "Cantos of Crippen": anyone have any idea what these would be?

Pg. 6: What Montoya's wearing isn't quite a traditional gi--or, speaking of Dave Gibbons co-creations, a G.I.

Pg. 8: In panel 4, Ralph's nose is twitching; it also looks longer than usual. Maybe there is some gingold in his flask. If he's elastic enough, might he be able to survive a bullet--? And would Mr. Dewhurst really know what teleportation microcircuitry looks like?

Pg. 9: Prof. Milo hasn't appeared all that much before--although his notable appearances include his debut (in which he gave Batman a temporary phobia of bats), this identity-crisis special, this Neal Adams-drawn story (in which he got his terrible bowl haircut), a two-part story that concluded behind this excellent Joe Kubert cover, and a cameo in the Morrison-written Arkham Asylum graphic novel. As far as I can tell, his deal is less dabbling in magic than playing mind games with people; please fill me in on appearances I haven't taken into account. He doesn't appear to have been called a "technomancer" before, either. But that fits in with Ralph being sort of delusional, too.

Pg. 10: If the house-arrest scanners are looking for "stray nanites," they'd have found the teleportation microcircuitry, wouldn't they?

Pg. 12: Nice pickup line, Renee. Who's Diana's friend? Might he be Batman, who's also been hanging out in Nanda Parbat as of the solicitation for #665?

Pg. 14: This has been building since the beginning of the series, and I assume it's going to keep building for another month or two, but what could Montoya's revelation about her identity possibly be? "I'm a superhero. I've always been a superhero..."?

Pg. 16: A "K-type sun" is also known as a "K star."

Pg. 17: It's six days since she got shot and she's still "leaking vital life essence"? Oh dear. "Four light years" is about how far Alpha Centauri, around which Rann used to orbit, is from our solar system. (It now orbits Polaris, which is 431 light years away.) I am not as up on my Adam Strange as I might be, as those of you who saw me getting sonned a few weeks ago know, but I think the first time Alanna came back to Earth with Adam was this issue--"not long after we met" would have to refer to Adam meeting Kory (when was that?), since it's a good long distance into Adam's history. And what's happening to Kory's injured shoulder in the final panel?

Pg. 19: The second time this issue somebody says "strange" to mean "odd" in Adam Strange's presence.

Pg. 20: Have we seen Opto3o9v before? Anyone know? Mogo first appeared in this issue, in a story that... oh, how convenient! somebody's posted the whole thing! It's worth reading if you don't know it already.

The Origin of Starfire: Excellent compression--the facts of Kory's background, along with some neat psychological angles (very sharp observation about her partnership with Dick). I'm glad to see she can still officially absorb languages through touch, as ridiculous as that power is. And that third panel on the second page is, of course, a variation on this image.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Week 40: Man of Steel, Consistency of Kleenex

The title of this week's issue is a line from the song "John Henry," specifically the line that Alan Lomax called "the Bill of Rights [in] one phrase." If, perhaps, you are not familiar with the original "John Henry," you might acquaint yourself with the amazing Josh White's rendition, Mississippi Fred McDowell's fragment of a version, or Mississippi John Hurt's less conventional one. Or have a look around this comprehensive "John Henry" site.

There. Now, back to the other John Henry. Sadly, aside from its excellent cover, this was probably my least favorite issue so far: a messy, awkwardly drawn, mostly incoherent resolution to the weakest plot thread of the series, with very little of the whirlwind-tour-of-the-DCU stuff that's 52's strong point. And it really does look like a resolution--there's nowhere much left for the Steel/Nat/Luthor plot to go after this. My hope had been that it would eventually dovetail with the overarching plot of 52 (in more than a "Supernova drops by to snarl at Luthor" way), and I could still be surprised, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

Overaching plot? Yeah, it's finally starting to come together: the big things 52 seems to be setting up are a) the return of the parallel Earths (most obviously in the Booster/Supernova arc, but there are hints of it in Ralph's story and its theme of life after death, which turns up elsewhere too) and b) some kind of interconnected Darkseid/Fourth World/Intergang/Lady Styx/Crime Bible scenario (the space-castaways thing, Montoya/Question/Batwoman, Black Adam/Isis, Oolong Island).

So how does Steel's story connect to all of this? It doesn't--at least unless something big comes out of it in the next 12 weeks, which doesn't look likely. And the plot has backtracked on every advance it's made. Nat's built a super-powered suit of armor! No, wait, she isn't using it. John Henry's got powers! Wait--not any more. Luthor's scored a PR coup and changed the fabric of American society by making thousands of super-types! But actually, as of One Year Later, we already knew that didn't take, and everybody was back to hating him.

Then there's the matter of Luthor's power-granting technology. It's cancelled by the press of a button, remotely (as with Eliza)! No, actually, it has a built-in expiration date! No, it actually kills people in six months! Except when it doesn't. (As in Nat's case--she got her powers in Week 8, as I recall, and that was more than six months ago.) Oh, actually, it needs a "close-range electrical pulse" to be deactivated (what?). But it can be turned off selectively (otherwise Mercy, last issue, wouldn't have been able to turn off Nat's powers and not Hannibal's, not to mention Lex switching off everyone's powers but InfInc's). Luthor's not eligible for it! No, he became eligible as a result of killing and spinal-tapping Luis Dominero! No, he was eligible in the first place! It takes hours! It takes seconds! It makes not a freaking whit of sense! I don't need everything in comics to be plausible as such--if I did, I'd have given up somewhere around "Rocketed as a child..." But I do need it to be at least sort of internally consistent, or I get yanked straight out of the story the way the Steel arc has been yanking me out almost from the get-go.

No origin this time, either (I have no idea if Waid Writes Everybody's Origin is going to continue in Countdown, but I really hope it does.) Yes, we got 23 pages of story, but the 21-page Steel scene felt dragged out to give it more of the sense of drama that comes with length, and we didn't even get Kala Avasti riding up on a Segway to give John Henry some crucial piece of information. Also, I know it's not cricket to theorize about who writes which parts of 52, but a lot of this issue's dialogue does seem awfully Morrisonian, especially Luthor's "Tt" and "No pain...," and the bit where he's being overwhelmed by his new super-senses' input.

If you haven't looked at last week's discussion, a couple of posters came up with a very good series of observations about Horseman #4: the "boom"/"krakoom" combo of a Boom Tube was previously heard during the thunderstorm in Week 26, when there was also talk of suspendium, and immediately thereafter Sobek made his first appearance in Sivana's lab, right about where Mr. Mind had earlier wrapped himself up in his cocoon.

Incidentally, I hope everyone got to read the other comic this week involving the Marvel Family and a talking crocodile--it's really excellent, even if Jeff Smith repeats his Bone gag of a character whose facial expression never changes.

More notes (not many of 'em this time):

Pg. 1: It took Luthor two days to get in touch with John Henry?

Pg. 5: How nice: Luthor even let Natasha change her clothes since last issue.

Pg. 6: When even the characters in the story mention twice in the course of one page that the people they're fighting are generic "redshirts," there's a problem.

Pg. 7: For a moment, as I turned the page, I thought Wonder Woman/mod-Diana-Rigg-type Diana Prince was going to be involved in this story, and I was excited... but no.

Pg. 10: When did Everyman manage to eat a lobster as big as the Ritz?

Pg. 11: Especially one that can shatter (not crush) all of Steel's armor as if it's a fortune cookie?

Pg. 12: Gar's crack about shapeshifters might make a little more sense if, for instance, he weren't standing right next to Offspring. Too bad about Everyman, if indeed he is dead: the over-the-top evil-cannibal thing was annoying, but "the completely creepy bad guy who can assume anyone's form" is always a useful archetype. (See also Mystique--looking at that series' covers, I get some sense of what the plot involved from exactly two out of 24.)

Pg. 15: Combine a sprinkler system going off and the sprays of lines Batista draws around any nexus of action or surprise, and you get... a whole lot of straight lines. "My laws, my philosophies... make the world a better place": See, this is where the Luthor I was talking about last week comes through: the one who believes he's the best-qualified to be a benevolent philosopher-king. (This is what differentiates him from the Crime Bible's acolytes: they don't care about making the world a better place, they apparently just want to prepare it for their Lovecraftian alien overlords to devour.) "Planet Lexor" is a nod to the pre-Crisis world that named itself after Lex out of gratitude (thanks to a job Superman did and Luthor took credit for in this issue).

Pg. 16: Was it Frank Miller who created the tradition of describing the hero's specific injuries in way too much detail? Again, this got lampooned expertly in the "Sacred Wars" sequence of Cerebus: "Cardiac arrest. Acute uremic failure. Leakage in the left ventricle. Mustn't. Black. Out." Maybe this is one of Lex's auxiliary offices; as J.G. Jones noted back in Week 35, his main desk is a lot more interesting-looking than this one (it's a big hunk of a giant redwood).

Pg. 18: "Luthor proved a close range electrical pulse can disorganize the artificial exo-gene." Wait: when did he do that? And a mystery perhaps one of you readers can clear up: we saw Steel's robotic hand back in week 5, but when exactly did he get it? I'm away from my comics right now, but this review of Week 5 suggests that Steel actually lost his gauntlet, not the whole hand, to the General. Is he being conflated somehow with Sarge Steel, who's had a mechanical left hand for ages, and who worked with Richard Dragon in the CBI?

Pg. 19: "The Everyman treatment is toxic." It is? I'd also be a little more inclined to believe John Henry's "saving lives is what I do" boast if he hadn't, for instance, let Everyman fall to his death a few pages ago.

Pg. 21: With a puncture wound the size of a hammer-handle going all the way through him, he's standing up for a photo-op. He is tough.

Pg. 22: Hunger, war, fevers and death: in order, no less.

Pretty excited about the preview of next week's cover: Tears! Booze! Birdies! Mogo! Lotus position!