Week 42: Doing Donuts on Free Lunch DriveNever 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.