Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The complicated origin of Wonder Woman

This is the Earth 1/Silver Age origin of Wonder Woman using the version published in DC Special Series #19 (November 1979) as the basis, with additions and variations from elsewhere as noted. I am not including references from the Golden Age version as that would just make things even more complicated. The Amazons are originally created by Aphrodite as a race of super women (1) who will defeat all men that stand against them through force of arms because they have the power of love (2). She gives Queen Hippolyte (3) a magic girdle which makes them unconquerable. At Mars' direction Hercules eventually defeats them by seducing Hippolyte and stealing the magic girdle before enslaving them all. Hippolyte appeals to Aphrodite who frees them (4) but commands that they must forever after wear the wrist bands that chained them "to teach them the folly of submitting to men". Should a man ever chain them they will become as weak as a normal woman and if they ever remove them they will "lose all control of their emotions" (5). The girdle is retrieved though Hippo's sister (6) Antiope, wife of Thesius (7) dies in the battle (8). Aphrodite decides to separate them from men completely and sends them off to Paradise Island and just to make sure, she decrees that no man may set foot there or the amazons would lose their powers (9). Oddly it never seems to occur to anyone that this is a bad weakness in their defences. If any enemy were to attack Paradise Island, all they would need to do would be to get one man onto the island for the amazons to lose their powers. Mars never takes advantage of this however, and in fact never attacks Paradise Island directly (10), so presumably he has some private understanding with Aphrodite about it. At this point the story gets a little vague. We are told that the Amazons have been on Paradise Island for a thousand years, and Aphrodite does bring them the odd toy now and then, like the Magic Sphere (11) that allows them to keep up to date on the outside world, and indeed get well ahead of it on scientific advances (12). But after 900+ years Queen Hippolyte becomes sad for the lack of anyone to love other than all (13) the other amazons and so Athene directs her to sculpt an infant child (14) which is then brought to life by Aphrodite(15). At this point in some versions of the story several other gods visit to imbue the infant Diana with special powers. Oddly, this includes Hercules. Perhaps after all this time he has reformed and wants to make amends for seducing and then mugging Hippolyte before subjecting the entire Amazon nation to slavery, the direct result of which was their cutting themselves off from the outside world and their stuck with wearing chunky bracelets for 1000 years. Sadly, in no version of the origin is this point addressed. What many consider to be the first Silver Age version of the origin story (16) appears in Wonder Woman #105, and although it is the first to involve the gods doing their fairy godmother routine, it does so in a context that is inconsistent with every other version of the story. Here Diana is born well before the Amazons go into isolation, and they only do so because all their menfolk have died in the wars and they just want to cut themselves off from such a savage world. In fact here Diana as a teenager builds the ship (17) they leave in. Its only claim to accuracy anywhere is the gods’ gift, which is grafted onto later versions of the story. Seen purely in context with earlier versions it is one big mess of inaccuracies and omissions. Things then start to get a little surreal. As Diana grows up she is often referred to first as Wonder Tot and later Wonder Girl. At both periods of her life she wears an outfit that contains motifs from the costume she wears as Wonder Woman. We are even shown her performing trials to win these motifs as a teenager. She and her mother are fully aware of her destiny as Wonder Woman as they have a device that allows them to observe her future adventures. The final act of the story opens with Steve Trevor crashing an aircraft near Paradise Island. Diana rescues him and nurses him back to health. The rules about no man setting foot on the island are here severely strained as the spirit of the law is broken even if the letter of the law is observed. Diana carries Steve onto the island and he then spends his time on tables or in beds to avoid so much as a toe making contact with the floor. I am assuming that this is one of the many exceptions Aphrodite makes (18) as she seems to have set the whole thing up. Hippolyte consults Aphrodite who tells her that an Amazon (19) must escort the man home and stay to fight against evil and injustice. Hippolyte declares a contest to choose who will get the honour despite the fact that she has known for years that Diana will win it. I can only assume that she's been sniffing the mists of Nepenthe. She even forbids Diana to take part because she can't bear to let her go, but Diana enters anyway, wearing an unconvincingly small mask. Either the other Amazons are extremely stupid or they must be humouring her by pretending that they are at all fooled by it (20). Inevitably, Diana wins the contest. Probably because of those powers the gods gave her at birth. She is given her costume that Aphrodite has cunningly designed for her incorporating patriotic symbols of the country to which she is heading. Aphrodite has also directed Hippolyte to take some links from her magic girdle to create a magic lasso. Diana flies Steve back to America in her magic invisible robot plane which she just happened to have lying around (21). Arriving in America, Diana is a bit mystified as to what to do next. Although the Amazons have been observing the outside world for centuries and looting it for technological advances she seems oddly unprepared for her situation (22). Eventually she bumps into a crying nurse who coincidently is her identical twin, has the same name, and is tending Steve Trevor. Wonder Woman finances a trip to South America for her in exchange for her identity. There are several mutually exclusive variations on what becomes of this woman later, though all but one (23) refer to the golden age/Earth 2 Wonder Woman. And so established as a nurse in a military hospital where security is so lax that nobody notices the difference, Princess Diana becomes Diana Prince and nurses Steve Trevor back to health. When Steve returns to duty she follows him and somehow manages to get a job as his secretary in Military Intelligence (24) and spends many years having a chaste romance with him despite his treating her like a servant in her secret identity and alternately nagging her to marry him or exhibiting bouts of insane jealousy when she is in her heroic identity and they live happily ever after until he drops dead, gets resurrected, dies again, and is finally replaced by an alternate version from another dimension. Notes 1. from clay according to #159 2. no, I’ve never quite understood how that works, either 3. often spelled Hippolyta 4. or supports them when they free themselves 5. invariably this is depicted as running berserk with overwhelming anger and never any other emotion, which suggests they must be repressing a lot normally, and somehow it doesn't seem to apply to Diana when in her secret identity. 6. if they were all created simultaneously by Aphrodite surely they are all sisters? 7. only mention that the amazons had anything to do with men. 8. in #247 it is an Amazon called Diana who dies at this point 9. other consequences appear to be them losing their immortality and crumbling to dust (#223) earthquakes, and sundry disasters, or immediately falling in love with the visitor (#216), although Aphrodite seems to suspend this law as it suits her (25) 10. except #198 when he is wearing a false beard, calling himself Ares, and claiming Hippolyte is his daughter, but perhaps this is an alternate dimension Ares/Mars. 11. it's a disc. 12. though we never, ever see any of the infrastructure required to create their advanced society. Where are the mines, refineries, factories, etc? It’s not like they can import anything. 13. how many women make up the Amazon nation is also very unclear, as is the size of the island they live on. 14. she usually looks like a toddler, so Hippo is cunningly bypassing all that midnight feeding and diaper changing business. 15. the addition of a second infant only appears in #206 and is otherwise ignored. 16. there’s one in #97 but I’ll probably end up doing a whole separate article to explain why this should be ignored. 17. how many can one ship hold? All the main versions only show them using a single ship, which rather limits the size of the population. See (13). 18. without telling the amazons. 19. in Secret Origins she specifically states "a young Amazon". Since no men are allowed on Paradise Island, they are either kidnapping girls from the outside world or cloning themselves, because otherwise the only young Amazon is Diana. What a giveaway. 20. They are a small closed society who have been together for a thousand years. It is absurd to think that everyone would not know everyone else. They would immediately know who the masked one was, if only by a process of elimination. 21. in Golden Age continuity each of these items is quested for separately. 22. though not as unprepared as Orana in #250 who is so utterly clueless that she mistakes policemen for villains. 23. issue #172. 24. the story glosses over this part. 25. she must have a soft spot for I-Ching, who is allowed to visit in #198 without any problems; unless he is secretly a female transvestite or had a sex change

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

If I was an evil overlord

If you've never read The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord then you are missing out on some fun stuff. I always wanted to add something to the list but they seemed to have covered just about everything you could expect to find in Evil Overlording for Dummies. And then I was inspired by a film (which I won't name as it would be a tremendous spoiler) to produce this:

When my #1 agent has seduced an enemy of the opposite sex and led them into a trap, but probably fallen in love with them, I will not then command my agent to take the enemy away alone to a secluded spot and execute them. I will send my agent out to get pizza and while they are gone I will have the enemy immediately executed by a firing squad of people they have never met.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Double Feature

It's true! Not that you'd know it from the amount of feedback I get, but like a successful comic character I'm getting a feature spot in a whole other blog!

From now on I can also be found at Comics Should Be Good where I will be subverting the establishment from the inside with tales of obscure comic characters, and other such revolutionary activities.

This shouldn't make a whole lot of difference to what goes on here. The plan (such as it is) for CSBG is to focus on more stand alone articles, while the long rambling series and obscure Wonder Woman related trivia continue here. How it will work out in practice is anybody's guess.

Edit: It's my first entry over there, and already I've got a crossover going. What next? House of Infinite Crisis of Super Secret Blog Wars?

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Other Amazons 2: Marvel's Hippolyta

DC and Marvel have both looted the world's myths and legends for characters and ideas, and even though early on Marvel staked a claim on the Norse pantheon with Thor and DC got the greco-roman gods with Wonder Woman they weren't averse to poaching on each other's territory and doing their own interpretations. I believe Thor actually appeared in a DC comic before Marvel even existed. He certainly showed up more than once after Marvel made such a success of him, though usually in a much more traditional form with a big red beard to avoid copyright issues.

One mythical character who achieved a long history with both publishers was Hercules. He features in Wonder Woman's origin as both villain and benefactor. Despite having enslaved the Amazons and being the root cause of their seclusion from the rest of the world, he becomes one of the patron gods that show up at Diana's birth to do the good fairy bit and ply her with gifts. He also appears elsewhere in DC as a hero, even gaining his own title briefly. Over at Marvel Hercules is often portrayed as Thor's opposite number on the rival greek team. They occasionally fight and often team up. Hercules also had a title of his own at Marvel once or twice.

But at one point in Thor Hercules becomes a regular member of the cast, and it is in Thor #127 that Pluto plots against him and is assisted by Queen Hyppolita (sic) of the Amazons.

It's an interesting sidelight on propoganda that your point of view changes how you tell a story. Since Hercules is the hero in the days when superhero stories were less morally ambiguous, his backstory with Hippolita is at some variance with the DC version and the myth cycle on which it is based, and Hippo is here cast as the spurned lover out to get revenge for his rejection of her advances, rather than the victim of his attack.

And so Hippo plays the femme fatale with Hercules, tricking him into signing a contract with Pluto while masquerading as a movie star in a film production calculated to appeal to Hercules' vanity, since it is a movie where he gets to play himself. But once the contract is signed and the deception revealed, Pluto and Hippo vanish off to Olympus. But sadly Pluto arrives alone and Hippo is never seen again. It's a shame because Jack Kirby was having a lot of fun with her, and she didn't get up to anything nearly as interesting at DC (other than a little light brainwashing) since the Wonder Family were retired.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Other Amazons

In 1942 Wonder Woman arrived in the U.S.A. from Paradise Island as the representative of the Amazon nation to help with America's war effort. Fifteen years later Action Comics #235 featured a story in which Lois Lane is shipwrecked on a desert island and meets another, lost tribe of Amazons.

It's probably just as well she hadn't arrived at the original Amazon homeland.

Superman blunders in as usual to bail Lois out of trouble but in doing so breaks local laws that forbid any man to set foot on the island. Luckily the consequenses seem rather less dire than if he had made the same mistake on Paradise Island, but Amazon queen Elsha declares that by their law he must be sold as a slave. Superman smugly goes along with this for a laugh, and with no real respect for another culture, believing that no chains can hold him, but he has quite forgotten that this is a period where kryptonite can turn up anywhere, and guess what his chains are made of?

And yet the kryptonite fails to affect Supes, so he allows events to unfold while he tries to work out what is preventing the kryptonite from hurting him. The Amazon queen holds a ceremonial auction to sell the super-slave. It is clearly ceremonial since she gets to be auctioneer and also to bid, using funds from the royal treasury, which one assumes would also be the beneficiary of any profits from the sale, so she is basically selling to herself. But Lois fails to understand the ceremonial nature of the event and attempts to destablize the local economy by introducing vast quantities of american money into the country in order to influence the situation.

In an attempt to stave off this foreign imperialism Elsha ends centuries of tradition by declaring emancipation. But there still remains an ancient law relating to male trespass that the queen desperately attempts to enforce, which decrees that the offender will be married to the first woman who can give him a task he cannot perform.
After graciously allowing Lois and her friends to set tasks Elsha once again shows the entirely ceremonial nature of these laws that Superman and Lois have so completely failed to grasp, setting him the task of making her a commoner. The solution to this task is in plain view, but rather than responding with the symbolic gesture that is clearly called for here, Superman acts entirely selfishly and completely destroys her royal emblem of authority, rather than symbolically "losing" it as is all that is required. Thus the culture is destablised further as the legal authority is removed from power due to Superman's blundering self-centred attitude.

And yet his own hubris defeats him, for once Supes has destroyed the crown it becomes apparent that it was this that was counteracting the effects of the kryptonite, and he is so pissed that he immediately leaves the civilisation he has wrecked, never thinking to ask if there was any more where that came from.

And that's the last we hear of the alternative Amazons. Superman never bothers to mention to his fellow Justice League member that he's found a lost offshoot of her race reduced to its last few members, struggling to preserve their ancient ways on a nearby island. But then he's probably just embarrassed about the damage he has done to another culture in pursuit of personal interests.

Dog eat cat

In Star Trek we are introduced to different cultures that are supposed to represent different attitudes or points of view, thus we have the aggressive Klingons who are given the traits of predators and extremes of warrior cultures, and the Ferengi whose lives revolve around acquisitiveness and the accumulation of wealth.

And yet the writers often think quite short term with these differing cultures and introduce elements that really make no sense in context. There was the early episode of DS9 where education and basic literacy were considered a waste of time to the most acquisitive species in the galaxy, as it hadn't occured to them (or at least to the writer) that knowledge is power.

A consideration of the warrior culture of the Klingons doesn't bear much examination, either. The driving credo that it is shameful for a Klingon not to die in battle might work for a small hunter/gatherer culture of northern Europe where every fit male was by definition a warrior, but in an interplanetary culture (particularly one that practices sexual equality) the majority would be working in support services, and never get the opportunity to fight a battle, let alone die in one.

But don't all klingons aspire to the same ideals? You are left with an image where every hair stylist and checkout girl is just looking for an excuse to face mortal danger. Every restaurant serves blowfish as standard because of the risk factor and childrens' toys are only rejected if they don't have spiky bits. But would you want every bus driver or postal worker to be thinking "Today is a good day to die"? It would surely have to lead to a very tense society.

And as for the whole concept of promotion by assassination, it may have some merit in assuring that those in charge are the fittest and strongest, but they must also be the most paranoid.

There's a great Jonah Hex story about a girl who goes around picking fights with famous gunslingers. They don't take her seriously so she shoots them and claims it was a fair fight because she had called them out. Which all works fine and dandy until she tries it on Jonah, and of course he does take it seriously and blows her head off.

But back to Klingon society. You'd think there might be some basic etiquette about when it was appropriate to assassinate the boss. Like it would be bad form during a mission to stab him in the back unless he was actually incompetent. It must be hard to get anything done when the guys you are leading are as much of a threat as the enemy.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Mother Hutton's Littul Kittons

Over the course of your life you read stories in comics and books, watch movies at a movie theater or on TV, and for the most part they entertain and go on their way, but now and again for no obvious reason one of them sticks forever in your mind.

One of the authors I discovered at an impressionable age was Cordwainer Smith. He didn't write a whole lot, and all his science fiction works can be found in two volumes of short stories and one novel, but he had such style. He seemed to be in love with language itself, and his words are poetic and evocative, weaving subtext and symbolism and hinting at so much more while telling hard science fiction stories with titles like The Colonel Came Back from Nothing At All, Scanners Live In Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, and The Lady Who Sailed the Soul.

These stories give glimpses of a history stretching far into the future, where the Go Captains and their starships are protected from the dragons of space by pinlighters and their cats, where the galaxy is ruled by the benign dictatorship of the near immortal Lords of the Instrumentality, defended by the mythical golden ships larger than moons, and served by the underpeople - animals genetically altered to a human form (including, yes, catgirls), and where the secret of immortality can only be found on the planet of Nostrilia, where giant sheep are farmed for a sickness that produces Stroon, the immortality drug.

But when you produce the most valuable commodity in the galaxy, you need the best security system in the galaxy. Nostrillia has Mother Hutton's Littul Kittons, and for one reason or another the phrase has stuck with me ever since I first read about them.

And no, I can't tell you what Mother Hutton's Littul Kittons are or I'd have to kill you.

Or worse.

Before they were famous: Wolverine

In the days before he joined the X-Men, Wolverine learned his trade in bit parts, spending a lot of time dressing up in 1950's movie robot costumes and playing evil minions. As you can see from this early example he's yet to get that third claw properly synchronised, and the resulting sound effect is incomplete, missing the final "t" in snikt.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Who's that Girl? Index

This series has been going so long it's getting a little unweildy to track down the whole thing, so here's a convenient index which will be updated as I continue. Well, that's the plan, anyhow.

This is not a synopsis of stories - there are several perfectly good ones already available - it is a personal commentary on the ideas and themes presented in the series, considerations of the context of the time it was written and drawn, and even the odd factual background note.

Part 1: The "New" Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman v. 1 #178 - 204

Part 1a: Wonder Woman's pal Gloria Steinem
A slight digression

Part 1a revisited: Mystery solved
Digressing further

Part 2: What Diana did next
Wonder Woman v.1 #204 - 211

Part 3: The Newest Wonder Woman of all (so far)
Wonder Woman v.1 #212 - 223

Part 4: All the Twos
Wonder Woman v.1 #224 - 243

Part 4a: Not exactly her Finest hour
World's Finest #244 - 250

Part 5: Strange Changes
Wonder Woman #243 - 251
World's Finest #251 - 252
Adventure Comics #459 - 461

Part 5½: Don't get me Astarted
Wonder Woman #252 - 253

Part 6: Plus ca change
Wonder Woman v1 #254 - 268

Part 7: Deja vu me one more time
Wonder Woman v1 #269 - 286

Part 8: Hitting Bottom
Wonder Woman v1 #287 - 299
DC Presents #41
Coming soon...

Who's that Girl? Part 6: Plus ca change

Wonder Woman v1 #254 - 268

Wonder Woman's flirtation with the space program is not long lived. Perhaps she realises how dull the whole thing had become by 1979 (1), particularly when her own plane is many decades more advanced than anything NASA has to offer, or perhaps it is just that incoming writer Paul Levitz can't think of anything to say on the subject. In #255 he even sends her back to the UN as a delegate for a conferance, but this could easily be a story set ten issues earlier with a couple of speach balloons altered to get in a NASA reference, and a short scene where Diana is offered a job. And then next issue we get a couple of thought balloons about how boring the area around the base is compared to New York (2) and by the end of the issue she has resigned.

Back in New York the only person at all ruffled by Diana Prince going back to work for the UN is her old boss (3) but he is ignored. And then in typical Wonder Woman fashion having reversed the plot set up by the previous writer Levitz vanishes to be replaced by Paul Kupperberg who stays long enough to write the first two parts of a three part story about Mars seizing power in Olympus and deciding to consolidate his power by lording it over New York, with Gerry Conway returning to do the final part of the story.

The whole business of Mars taking control of Olympus is poorly written. Zeus is off on a business trip at the far end of the universe so Mars appears to have just declared himself ruler. The few other gods we meet appear to just be indulging him, and although Aphrodite is pissed at him there is no sign of any real power struggle going on.

Mars then brings in an image consultant to help sell him to the americans, but rather than suggesting he get an outfit that doesn't look so stupid (4) the guy suggests making Wonder Woman appear a menace and then saving the city from her.

Mars achieves this with one of the stupidest bits of WW lore (5); the idea that if her bracelets are removed she will go berserk. And so he sends Hermes to snatch the bracelets and Wonder Woman duly goes on a rampage. So far so good, except that once she has been captured she manages to control this uncontrolable rage sufficiently to cunningly escape, and thereafter shows no signs of berserkness other than a few thought balloons whining about how hard it is to keep her temper. Why she couldn't control it the first time around is not explained, and neither is how she manages quite adequately without them when she is in her secret identity.

Meanwhile Aphrodite sneaks around a lot in a cloak, complicates the whole thing unnecessarily as a test for Wonder Woman (6), and eventually sends her off to the end of the universe to pick up a gong for her. Why she doesn't do this herself is never explained. She clearly could do it as she replaces it afterwards, and it can hardly be the usual BS about gods not acting directly since the problem they have to deal with is Mars stomping around New York in gigantic form (7). A shame every other superhero in the universe had that day off, but isn't that always the way?

Wonder Woman gets back with the gong, bangs it three times and everything is made better again. A cliche lazy ending to a poorly written story which should have been an epic event.

And then finally, after 7 issues Diana goes for an interview for the job she was offered back in #255 (8), and she is confronted by Farley from UN security, who has been checking up on her background(9).

Conway then sets to develop threads from past issues into an evil organisation (10) of the James Bond sort, with some ambitious plan that seems to involve attempting to assassinate people wherever Wonder Woman happens to be using all the stealth of cliche stereotype caricature villains like the african Bushmaster (11) and the festively dressed South American El Gaucho (12). Have these guys never considered subtlety to be an asset in assassination?

After this we get a brief diversion into an "untold story" of when Diana Prince was at NASA. This must surely be a story from an alternate universe as it shows Diana flying a space shuttle into orbit on a test flight despite the fact that she never completed her training (13), and never went into space as Diana Prince during the NASA issues (14).

Then with assistance form Animal Man it's back to the big finale with the Prime Planner's Cartel in which we get to meet his final three "perfect assassins" - a lumberjack, a mongol martial artist, and a guy in a colourfully spotty costume who we are told is a master of disguise.

It's James Bond with silly costumes and when the evil leader is finally revealed I was surprised, but somehow didn't care. And the speech he gives that ties in a lot of random storylines over the past 20 issues or so is just nonsense.

And I see that the next issue heralds "a bold new direction" (15) in the life of Wonder Woman, so it seems like a good place to finish this entry.

inbetween training and fighting the Royal Flush gang it's a surprise that she has the time to be bored.
somewhere between the end of the Moon flights (Apollo 17 in 1972) and the start of the Space Shuttle (Columbia's first orbital test flight was 1981)
3. unsurprisingly since she was very mean to him when she resigned.
4. if you are a god do you really need to go around with a big M on your chest?
5. this sad device was last used by Martin Pasko for exactly the same purpose in #229
6. Another clue that the gods aren't taking Mars' bid for power very seriously.
7. Actually, now I think about it this part of the story bears an uncanny resemblence to the first Galactus story in Fantastic Four, where The Watcher sends Johnny Storm off to some far off bit of the universe to pick up a plot device that causes Galactus to go away. Subtle in joke or cheap steal? You decide.
8. Bear in mind that she spent less time than this in the space program.
9. Last seen in #256, having just missed her.
10. The mysterious Master Planner and his Cartel. Even the names used are boringly generic.
11. he's black, dresses in animal skins, and uses traditional african weapons that have high tech devices built into them for that little extra oomph.
12. dressed for a parade, uses bolas and lasso, tweaked of course, and rides a flying horse.
13. And in what situation would a trainee ever be used as a test pilot? It's like putting the tea boy in the driving seat of a formula 1 racer when you want to try out the new brake system.
14. all four of them.
15. where have I heard that before? When was the last time that Wonder Woman managed to hold the same direction for more than a dozen issues? This comic has as many new directions as a wobbly supermarket trolley.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What is continuity?

Continuity can be quite the bugbear amongst comic fans and creators at times, but what exactly is continuity?

In the real world continuity is the concept that the world moves through time in a logical fashion. such that a clock yesterday will still be a clock today and continue to be a clock tomorrow unless the universe acts on it in a particular way to cause it to become a broken clock. The chances of it suddenly becoming a parrot or a fridge without warning are negligeable. Things change, but in a logical sense of progression. Our entire world is based on an assumption of continuity. Without it we could not function. How could I possible write this article if I thought that tomorrow my keyboard might turn to fudge, every third word I wrote could catch fire, and the internet may suddenly never have existed?

In the movies and on TV there are people whose jobs are entirely devoted to maintaining the continuity of the production they are working on. They take hundreds of photographs of all the sets and the actors so that they can ensure that the world of the story being created remains consistant from scene to scene, even when they are filmed months apart. Of course they occasionally miss something, and the result is liable to show up on some bloopers show where they replay a clip of someone's hairstyle changing between shots of the same scene, or a background object appearing and disappearing, or someone is wearing a hat that they just took off. Continuity is also about making sure period movies don't include incongruous modern artifacts, like romans with wristwatches, or jets flying over the the old west, and that characters' behaviour is consistant. One of the most annoying traits of bad movies is when the villain who has been fiendishly clever throughout the entire movie suddenly starts behaving like an idiot for no apparent reason, in order for the hero to beat him.

So when we come to continuity as applied to comics, we are talking about more than just a picky obsession with trivia. Traditionally comics have been a lot more sloppy about continuity than they are in the movie biz, probably due to its originally being considered an essentially ephemeral medium. In fact one of the main reasons for all those bright iconic costumes is to make it easy for many different artists to draw the same characters and have them still be easily recognisable. You can always spot Superman because he is the one in the blue longjohns with the big S on his chest. Lois Lane is not so lucky, and the difference between some artists, particularly those who aren't making much effort to keep on model, can be so great that you can find yourself not even realising she is present until someone identifies her by name.

I particularly recall the point in X-Men where Madelyne Prior was introduced and the writing suggested that Cyclops was shocked at the sight of her. The whole purpose of the scene was to suggest that she was the spitting image of Jean Grey, but it failed completely because she didn't actually resemble Jean Grey as we had last seen her. I remember thinking that this might be the intention because she had red hair, but if Jean had been a brunette I would have been entirely clueless until the next issue when it was spelled out in the text. Comics could afford to be sloppy about continuity in the days when they were assumed to be read and thrown away, but just as the advent of video and DVD has required much tighter standards of continuity for TV (and, it has to be said, given opportunity for far grander storylines), reprint trade paperbacks, archives and essentials, not to mention the entire fan base of comic collectors, requires higher standards of continuity from comics.

So when it comes to details of dress or background, or whether this month's issue features a character that nobody seems to remember had died several months previously, it's understandable that the reader might feel a little shortchanged. If in my own world I cannot rely on fish not becoming bubblegum flavour without warning, how can I rely on anything? Similarly, if I read a story or watch a movie and important details are not consistant, how can I retain my suspension of disbelief?

Sure, we should make allowances for interpretation by different creators, but to suggest that continuity is irrelevent (as someone did to me only today) is to say "I don't care if the world makes sense, I just want to look at the pretty colours."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Fantomah: the first super heroine?

Fantomah is one of the most obscure characters in the history of comics despite the fact that she has a good claim to being the first ever comic super heroine. Two years before Wonder Woman got her star spangled pants on Fantomah made her first appearance in Jungle Comics #2.

In 1940 Fiction House were doing great business in Tarzan knockoffs. and particularly popular was a female variation so successful that it spawned a whole sub-genre of "White goddess of the jungle" characters with names like Sheena, Shanna, Rima, Rhulah, Jann, Sarri, Tanee, Tanda, Tangi, Tegra, Zegra, Vooda, Leopard Girl, Tiger Girl, and Jungle Lil; invariably a hot caucasian babe in an animal skin bikini who acted as a kind of exotic gamekeeper.

Among all these characters Fantomah stood out, and not just because she had a three syllable name. Her costume was one of the duller, more generic variants, often just a plain short black dress, or a one piece that didn't even have a leopard print, but she could fly and she could do this weird skull effect with her face that looks all the more scary for being framed by her curly blonde hair. She had other powers too, but these were often story specific and never seen again. They are never explained, but the examples I've seen are consistant with some kind of illusion power or hypnosis as they usually involve making people see things like ghostly elephants or impenetratable vegetation.

Despite the name being an obvious feminization of "Phantom"(1), the male character she most closely resembled was The Spectre, at least in her early days. She doesn't so much protect her jungle home as bring down retribution on those that defile it. She might warn off the evil invader with his giant spiders but she then stands back and allows him to devastate several villages and a small city before carrying him off to his doom.

The strip went through several changes of style, and later artists seemed to drop the whole skull transformation thing (2) as she becomes less of a force of nature and more human, even adopting a pet panther. This makes her more sympathetic but reduces the aspects that make her unique. And then in Jungle Comics #27 she received what may be comics first ever retcon as they apparently(3) gave her a whole new origin. No longer was she "Mystery woman of the Jungle", now she was "Daughter of the Pharaohs", acquiring a whole new egyptian schtick. She continued to appear regularly in Jungle comics until issue #51 (4) and thereafter was never seen again (5). In all this time she never got a cover feature, and often wasn't even listed. She was obscure in her own time, but she far outlasted the majority of golden age heroines, and that has to be worth something.

Of the few Fantomah stories I've been able to find, I think the early "skullhead" period has a strange visual charm mixed with grotesquerie that give it a power beyond the relatively formulaic and banal writing. But I particularly like the next period, which I tend to think of as the "Namora" era because of the Sub-Mariner style eyebrows Fantomah develops at this point. The art is technically still no great shakes, but there is a playfulness to the page layout the reminds me of Ken Bald's work on Sun Girl. In one story that features a big snake, the creature's tail end often seems to fall out of the panel and even loop itself around the margins.

There's a similar incorporation of the page layout into the illustrative design in the title page above, from Jungle Comics #18. It has an interesting flow from one panel to the next that makes a lovely storytelling device. Your eye is immediately caught by the title, and then drawn down the line of the vine that Fantomah is holding. The line is then taken up by the monkey's tail, continuing in the curve of the big leaf that leads directly into the second panel. Fantomah herself provides a dynamic arrow into that panel, and the tribesmen running away break out of the right edge of the panel and lead the eye into the third panel. This is quality comics storytelling at a time when many features were still treating the medium as little more than text illustrated with a series of static and discrete images set in an unbreakable grid. I really like this art and I have no idea who drew it.

Does this make her a superhero? Depends how you define a superhero, really. Personally I think there has to be a spandex element to really qualify, and Fantomah's dress sense was not her greatest asset. But she remains one of the most original of the jungle girls.

Information available about Fantomah is sketchy at best, and much that can be found on the web seems to be partial or innaccurate. I've done my best to verify my facts by at least two sources (ones that aren't obvious copies of each other) but without getting my hands on more of the actual comics it's hard to be sure.

1. The Phantom had been doing the Tarzan thing in Newspaper strips since 1935 rather overdressed for such humid landscapes in a bright purple costume that can really only be described as anti-camouflage
2. Good Girl Art doesn't quite work when you have a skull for a face
3. Unconfirmed. I only have one source for this, but it fits with references I've seen elsewhere that confabulate the different versions of the character without realising that she changed over time.
4. or #52, depending on who you talk to
5. The Grand Comic Database claims she later appeared as a backup in several issues of Ka'a'nga, but I've read one of the comics they list and the strip attributed to Fantomah is in fact Camilla (another Jungle Comics feature) under the somewhat vague title of "Jungle Girl".

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Linda Lee again

Look, Linda, I can see how you wouldn't want to let on that Superman is your cousin and all, but isn't describing him as "little" taking it a bit far? Or did he just get accidentily get hit with red kryptonite and turned into Superbaby again?

Either way, it's hardly the time to invite the boyfriend over to suck face.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Seven* ways to kill the comics industry

*It was going to be ten, but I ran out of steam.

1. limit access - destroy any opportunities for a casual reader to pick up a comic on a whim by making comics only available in specialist outlets or in high priced collections.

2. Write for the trade - make it so that even if a casual reader does by some chance locate a comic they will invariably find themselves with a small part of a longer story which will make little sense on its own

3. Variations on a theme - produce a variety of versions of a character that are mutually incompatible.

4. Franchise fun - when a movie or TV show is out make sure to have no version of the character that viewers will recognise. Double extra points if you have a version that looks like it should relate to the TV/movie but doesn't. Triple points for using this interest to package up some old reprints in a TV/movie related cover.

5. Title switch - despite your best intentions, the casual reader has located a comic and even though it only contained 1/6 of the story they are still interested. It's time to throw them by continuing the story in a whole different comic so that when they read the next issue they will find they have lost a chapter. Double points if you don't let on where the rest of the story can be found.

6. "Events" - manufacture a company-wide event that ties all your titles together and makes any one title impossible to make sense of when read alone. Double points if you make the event so complicated that it is impossible to follow without a scorecard, and then fail to provide a scorecard.

7. Jeph Loeb.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Supergirl Checklist

One of the many things missing from the new Supergirl #1 is any kind of explanation to the various appearances of people called Supergirl prior to this comic. So for any who might be confused, here is a brief rundown to confuse you even further:

● 1 Pre-Crisis Supergirl. Cousin of Superman. First appeared in Action Comics #252. Died during Crisis.

● 2 Matrix/Linda Danvers. Originally an artificial life form from an alternate universe that thought it was Lana Lang, merged with Linda Danvers when she was dying to form a composite being which later manifested an aspect called the Earth Angel. After all sorts of complicated adventures the Earth Angel aspect left Linda but she retained many of her powers. Currently retired.

● 3 Pre-Crisis Supergirl again. Appeared in the final story arc of Supergirl 2 comic (v4). Sent back to become Supergirl 1.

● 4 Cir-El. Claimed to be Superman's daughter from the future but was in fact a semi-clone created by some strange bad guys to resurrect Brainiac (no, it doesn't make any sense even if you read the comics). Presumed dead on no evidence at all.

● 5. Power Girl. First appeared Pre-Crisis as the Earth 2 Supergirl. Post Crisis was given several different origins which never really took. Real origin currently being addressed in JSA Classified. She may or may not now have some Kryptonian connection.

● 6. Animated Supergirl. Only appears in Superman and Justice League TV shows and comics based on those shows, she wears a costume that was copied by Supergirl 2 around v4 issue #50.

● 7. New improved kryptonian Supergirl. The current model. Basically a rerun of Supergirl 1 updated to present day.

Not forgetting all the alternative Supergirls that cameoed in the last arc of Supergirl 2's comic (v4). The story was about a villain who had been imprisoned by Supergirl in the future and so he was hunting Supergirls through all the alternative dimensions and killing them. He eventually recognised Supergirl #2 as the one who would defeat him.

And just to be completely thorough:

● 1a. Pre-Crisis Bizarro Supergirl. Appeared only in one story in Superman #140. Died after cuddling up to some blue kryptonite.

● 1b-g. Six mini-Supergirl clones that later bonded to form one full size Supergirl clone in v2. I don't honestly remember what happened to her, er, them.

● 2a. Bizarro Supergirl 2. First appeared in Supergirl v4 #62. Still alive as far as I know but has not been seen in some time.

And in case you were wondering how the current run can be volume 5, it goes like this:

v1. Supergirl 1, early 1970's
v2. Supergirl 1 again, late 70's
v3. Supergirl 2, 4 issue mini-series, mid-90's
v4. Supergirl 2, 1996 - 2003.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Who's that Girl? Part 5½: Don't get me Astarted

Wonder Woman #252 - 253

We now get to a story so big and stupid that it's going to take an entry all its own.

Jack C. Harris continues to demonstrate how he can beat about the bush with the wrong end of the stick in #252 as Wonder Woman commences her astronaut training (1). Cue the appearance of Astarte, Empress of the Silver Snake, mysterious gold skinned bimbo in a space bikini who is harassing passing space capsules. Luckily it's Wonder Woman she is after, so it's handy that WW has just become an unofficial support service for the space program. But first we have to meet Wonder Woman's new supporting cast, though there's no need to remember their names; they won't be around for long.

Once Wondy arrives Astarte claims she is evil, and so they have a big fight in space. But when Astarte sees Wonder Woman rescue the space shuttle that had got a bit squashed earlier in the story, she gets confused and turns into a lead statue (2). Harris's real gem for this issue is having the fight start in Earth orbit and then finish up on the Moon without any appreciable distance covered. Theoretically we could have missed the bit of the fight where WW gets slugged 220,000 miles, but if that's the case, why is the space shuttle still floating nearby when the catfight can't have affected it? And why is the villain named Astarte anyway?

There is a cutaway scene with Queen Hippolyte biting her fingernails worrying that the gods will wreak some terrible revenge on Diana for leaving the island without permission(3), and she will be particularly vulnerable because the gods are so much more powerful in space (4), but even so they would have to be working in a particularly oblique and mysterious way to employ a goddess from a whole different pantheon to do so (5).

Issue #253 opens with the big snake shaped space ship of Astarte being examined by amazons on the Moon. Wonder Woman has called them in for no obvious reason (6) to tow it away or something. She says to her mother "This lead statue was alive just an hour ago -- A creature of silver and gold..! When she changed to lead, I realised some kind of magic must be involved..." Way to spot the obvious, Princess.

She then explains how she repaired the space shuttle that had got a bit squashed in the fight (7) "And with only 1/6th of Earth's gravity, my amazonian super-strength was multiplied -- allowing me to hurl it back into space towards Earth."(8)(9)

Astarte then wakes up and goes for Hippolyte's throat. The amazon technicians, all dressed in battle bikinis, attack with rayguns but are knocked backwards by the recoil due to the low gravity(10) and have to resort to swords instead(11). She then retreats, even though the swords are clearly not hurting her(12), saying "You have made an enemy of me this day, Hippolyte -- and my vengence shall be devastating!" Which is a bit rich, since it was she who started the fight. She flies off in her snake ship but Hippolyte refuses to pursue her, on the basis that she seems familiar and she wants to check the amazon database in case it has anything on strange gold empresses who drive giant snake spaceships that might have slipped her mind.

So Wonder Woman decides it's time to get back to her day job where the astronaut trainees are practicing for the lack of gravity in space in NASA's Weightlessness Chamber(13). And then while Diana Prince slips into soap opera mode, pining for dead Steve Trevor and then snogging the nearest hunk for no good reason and then agonising about it, Astarte is watching from a rock on the far side of the Moon(14). And yet despite her phenomenal eyesight, when she shoots a beam at Diana, it misses her by several feet and causes the G-force simulator to come loose, which is irritating as Diana seems to believe that the simulator could go up to "several hundred times the force of Earth's gravity" and I was looking forward to seeing the pilot being turned to jam when they cranked it up (15). Diana catches the rogue simulator and pauses only to have another page of angst before jumping into her robot plane and heading into space again.

Tracking Astarte by the radiation residue of her eye-beams (16), she meets up with a squadron of amazon fighters that hardly look like X-wings at all, honest, and then they all jump out of their fighter planes to attack Astarte on foot with swords(17). Astarte immediately beats them by fusing their bracelets together, which takes all their strength away, or destroying their bracelets, which makes them foam at the mouth. She then steals Hippolyte's magic girdle which causes them to lose all the powers they hadn't already lost when she stuck their bracelets together. Meanwhile Wonder Woman has cleverly spotted that she knows all their weaknesses and asks her mother if she has worked out who this odd creature is.

And in fact it seems that Hippolyte has deduced that it is her dead sister, Diana, who had been killed by Hercules in the Tales of the Amazons story in WW #247 even though she looks nothing like her and has, after all, been dead for at least a millenium. Perhaps the snake fetish gave her away.

Astarte/Diana then relates how she watched the amazons build their society on Paradise Island in disembodied form but then grew weak and so flew out amongst the stars until she was attracted to a strange silver and gold asteroid. For no explained reason she is able to form a new body from this asteroid as well as create a spaceship shaped like a big snake. Returning to Earth, she finds that she is weakened if she gets too close to the planet, but luckily she has acquired such good eyesight now that she notices Wonder Woman beating up some guys from orbit, but assumes that WW is her own body inhabited my some evil spirit and so picks a fight with her. She never does explain why she calls herself by the name of a goddess from another pantheon, or what the whole "empress of the silver snake" thing was about, or even where she learned how to build a spaceship.

Apparently Hippo has never mentioned that she had a sister to her daughter, even though she not only named her Diana in honour of her fallen sibling, but apparently fashioned her to look exactly the same(18). Seems a bit remiss of her. Hippo then points out that Astarte/Diana is dead, which comes as a bit of a shock to her(19) and her body crumbles. Aphrodite and Athena then pop up, presumably to make sure she doesn't get lost on her way to Tartarus this time, and Wonder Woman is left to ponder the infinite. And possibly why her mother is so secretive about the most unlikely things.

So what makes this story so terminally awful? Is it the deliberate effort made to insert factual information into the script and yet get it so horribly, horribly wrong? Is it the blatent plot devices that have no other purpose but to move the story along? The complete failure to explain anything that happens to Astarte from her death onwards? Hippolyte's curiously secretive "tribute" to her dead sister? A combination of all of this, probably. Though the fun with physics has to be a major factor.

1. which requires her to have a degree in maths, science, or engineering and logged 1,000 hours of flight time. Apparently she is also required to have excellent vision, which makes you wonder why no one has asked why she is wearing glasses.
you can only get this from the text as the colourist has failed to spot that Astarte should have changed colour at this point and she remains coloured gold for the rest of the issue (see pic above).
3. In issue #251. Not that it's any business of theirs anyway.
4. What the?
5. Astarte is the goddess of love, sometimes the goddess of love and war of the Phoenicians. She would be the equivalent of Aphrodite (ie. the Amazons' patron) from the greek pantheon.

6. It does make a certain amount of sense to have the amazons check it out for her, but since she never does this in any other story it's a bit of a blatent plot device.
7. One assumes that robot plane of hers must carry a good invisible toolkit.
8. I'm no physics geek but even I know the difference between weight and mass, and lower gravity would have made no difference to how much strength would have been required to throw it.
9. So Wonder Woman has just lobbed the space shuttle in the general direction of Earth from the Moon and assumes it will be fine, even though it was only intended to fly in Earth orbit and would not have had the fuel or the engines to deal with the situation. Hard to believe anyone writing about the space program during the 1970's could be so ignorant. Did Harris sleep through Apollo 13 or something?
10. What kind of raygun has recoil? Light beams do not have mass and so cannot cause recoil. Why include this kind of physics detail and get it so completely wrong?
11. They can't compensate for the recoil on a raygun but they are okay with swinging a heavy lump of metal around in 1/6th gravity? Amazon training seems a bit overly selective if you ask me.
12. It could happen.
13.One panel actually shows a sword going into her torso and poking out the other side, but this doesn't seem to bother her.
14. I'm sure NASA would love to have such a device but actually it's a little more difficult to simulate weightlessness. In fact the best NASA has managed so far is to take astronauts up in a big aircraft really high and then let it go into freefall, which gives about 30 seconds of weightlessness.
15. One panel shows the Moon between Astarte's rock and the Earth. She must have exceedingly good eyesight to not only see things more than 239,000 miles away, but through that much solid matter as well.
16. Fighter pilots are able to take around 8G on high speed turns before blacking out due to the blood being forced toward their extremeties and away from their brain. 200G would likely crush you to a thin smear of jelly.
17. Huh?
18. So when Hippo sculpted her as a baby from clay she did so with a clear idea of what she would look like as an adult?
19. It never occured to her all the time she was floating around as a ghost?