Friday, September 16, 2005

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?

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Silver Age Comicspeak Glossary

Back in the silver age they used to employ a certain amount of hyperbole in their editorial comments and a lot of the banner headlines used on comics tended towards the extravagant. Stan Lee in particular was a total drama queen, but Robert Kanigher also had his moments. So for those youngsters who may be confused by some of the things you might find on old comics, here's a translation.

Because you demanded it! : because we felt like it but we thought you might not like it, so we are going to claim that it was your idea and we reluctantly agreed to it.

The battle of the century! : a fight scene.

A novel length epic! : a story that fills the whole comic. A hangover from the days when comics were 52 pages and contained several 12 page stories and filler, so devoting the entire comic to one story seemed like a big deal.

A truely titanic thriller in the magnificent Marvel tradition!! : Oh look, Marvel have published another comic.

The greatest action thriller of all time!!!: 12 pages of people in tights hitting each other.

This epic doesn't need any hard sell! It's one of Marvel's greatest! : we couldn't think of anything to say about this issue.

The world will never be the same again! : Oh yes it will.

An imaginary story : An out of continuity story which, had it been written 40 years later would be published as a stand-alone volume at twice the price and labelled "Elseworlds".

Not an imaginary story! : it's all a convoluted trick to fool some alien invaders but we're not going to tell Lois/Jimmy. Either that or one of them is having a bad dream.

Not a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story! : Everything will be back to normal next issue.

More deadly than ever before! : We gave him a makeover, but he's still going to lose.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Before they were famous: Linda Lee

Two years before she got the Supergirl gig (Action Comics #252), Linda Lee could be found hanging out on beaches, flirting, and wearing big hats.

Superman soon put a stop to that kind of behaviour.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Who needs heroes?

The odd thing is that when there's no superheroes around, somehow the world manages without them. One of the standard plots of recent years is the one where the superhero is completely erased from history and they have to find some way to set things right. And yet somehow all the universe shattering disasters they have averted do not seem to have come to pass without them.

The Earth hasn't been taken over by one of the crowds of meglomaniac super villains bent on world domination, or been invaded by any of the hundreds of alien races that are forever dropping by. It hasn't been eaten by Galactus or used as a staging post in any of the multitudinous galactic wars that seem to be going on, and neither have legions of the undead run riot. In fact it seems that generally the world manages quite well when they are unavailable, just as it did for all the centuries before they appeared.

It seems that there are only two possible conclusions. Either the super heroes in some way encourage conflict, or they are just accident prone. It's true that often a fairly normal person will develop meglamaniac or nihilistic tendencies (along with the necessary abilities to make them a threat) as a response to super hero activity. It's possible to read several years worth of some titles (particularly those titles that include the letter X) without anything occuring that is not in some way a response to the characters' earlier activities, but even so, I personally lean towards the accident-prone theory.

As an example take Wonder Woman v1 #167. A story that lasts a mere 11 pages opens with Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor having a quiet chat on a deserted beach. Within a couple of panels a passing airliner starts to crash. The following day at the same "deserted" spot a high speed police chase occurs, and no sooner than the escaping gangsters have been rounded up an enemy submarine surfaces to offload some saboteurs. Steve and Wondy drive into town only to have a girder from a construction site fall on them, a lion escape from a circus, and bank robbers come charging out of the building in front of which they have just parked.

Stuff like that just doesn't happen to ordinary people. Well, not all on the same day, anyhow. And if it did. it would qualify as being the most exciting day of their life. For a superhero it's barely worth a mention in their diary because every day is like that.

I'd maim for a copy of Sun Girl #2

And give nasty paper cuts for most issues of Moon Girl or Venus.

The Bureau of Madeup Statistics

I have decided to set up the Bureau of Madeup Statistics.

Any time you wish to back up some spurious claim or make it look as though there is some factual basis for your prejudice, just contact me, pay the fee, and I will give you a statistic that you can quote in good faith, knowing that while any accuracy is purely coincidental, it has come from a reliable official source.

In fact 82% of our statistics are 31% accurate. 24% of our statistics look accurate if you squint a bit, and 93% of them would be accurate in an ideal world if you are trying to get people to like what you are saying, or in a post-appocolyptic hell if you want to scare them.

The fee will be $5 per statistic unless you work for the government, in which case it will be $50,000. Or you can join our "Statistic of the month club" and by simply filling out this direct debit form that allows me to take whatever money I feel like directly from your bank account you will get a shiny new statistic every month for the next three million years.

How many teenagers in western society are obese from eating nothing but fast food and cake? 72%. What is the percentage of people having sex under the legal age? 64%. How come fat kids are getting so much sex? I couldn't tell you, I just do statistics.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Who's that Girl? Part 5: Strange Changes

Wonder Woman #243 - 251
World's Finest #251 - 252
Adventure Comics #459 - 461

Jack C. Harris was the writer elected to bring Wonder Woman back to the present day. Although the main plot of the first couple of issues is a clumsy 2 dimensional James Bond by numbers snorefest of kidnapping and pursuit, he uses this to remind the reader of the state of play back in issue #228, before we got sidetracked into World War 2. He also starts to lay the groundwork of new suplots involving an army investigation into Steve Howard and his connection to the "dead" Steve Trevor. Then there's a brief change of pace as we get that old standby of the evil witch in the apartment next door(1).

Then it's back to secret organisations as we find that Washington is honeycombed with tunnels forming a secret base that would put your average Bond villain to shame, complete with secret entrances straight out of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (or maybe Get Smart). Steve (Trevor) Howard is taken here by agents of Army Intelligence and he is questioned for many hours before they get around to checking his fingerprints and washing the dye out of his hair. But then the head of the investigation is a loony who has found some huge dead monster in a cave at the bottom of the secret base that apparently went unnoticed when they built it. He hooks Steve up to the monster with some Frankenstein surplus fiendish machines and struts about wearing a hooded scarlet cloak and sunglasses(2).

Wonder Woman inevitably breaks in to the secret base, whose defences are as poor as you might expect when the commander is given to worshiping dead monsters while wearing sunglasses in a cave, but after more of a workout with the monster, reanimated using Steve's life force, it's time for Steve to drop dead once again.

Over in Adventure Comics #460 we find that Wonder Woman's lasso has yet another magic power to its credit, as she uses it to open a portal to the Underworld in order to go looking for Steve Trevor's soul. Apparently her religious convictions are at a low point here as she defies Aphrodite to do so, and immediately picks a fight with Pluto once she arrives. But it's all a waste of time, since Hera has arranged for Steve's soul to be "placed among the stars" (3).

But life goes on, and shaking off Hawkwoman's attempts to console her and the attempts of Steve Trevor's "brother"(4) to kill her, she gets a job at NASA. They must have been so impressed with her resume as nurse, military intelligence agent, boutique owner, interpretor, and movie liason, that she seemed a natural for the space program.

In fact it becomes clear that the entire sequence since the storyline returned to the present day has all been designed to ease us into yet another change of direction, and although it hasn't been particularly well written, at least it's not as absurdly abrupt as #204.

To celebrate Wonder Woman's 250th issue we get a dramatic twist as another amazon, Orana (5) challenges Diana's claim to the title of Wonder Woman under an ancient law that nobody has ever mentioned before. Though how ancient can a law be that is designed to cover the specific issue of who gets to be Wonder Woman, since the position was only created quite recently?(6)

So once again the amazons compete in a great tournament to decide who will become Wonder Woman, only this time the contest is a mad, over the top event that requires them to hold their breath underwater for an hour at a time, float in the air for 12 hours, and as the climax, get flown into space (7) to race by jumping meteors that are falling to Earth. Queen Hippolyte declares Diana the winner because she takes the trouble to prevent the disloged meteors from doing any damage (8) but the host of olympian gods pop up for the first time en masse to interfere and say that Orana is the winner, regardless of the fact that her behaviour throughout the contest has demonstrated that she is entirely unfit for the role. (9)

Orana, of course, is totally hopeless as Wonder Woman. She has spent far too much time training to win the contest and none at all on considering what will happen if she does. Her ignorance of America is so profound that you have to assume that the only way she found the place at all was by setting the invisible robot plane to autopilot. Diana inevitably sneaks out after her, breaking some other ancient law they just made up about only one amazon being allowed out at a time, steals a rocket and flies home just in time to meet up with the man from NASA who has come to see her about being an astronaut. (10) The dumb plot with one of the stupedest two dimensional villains you are ever likely to see plays out, climaxing in an aerial shootout as the idiotic villain tries to prevent Wonder Woman from stopping his neutron bomb missile from detonating.

How stupid is this? Let me count the ways:

1) It's a neutron bomb. Since the fight is taking place above the target it can't be that far from ground zero. The villain, Warhead (11) is supposed to be an international arms dealer, and yet he is too stupid to realise that sitting over a nuclear explosion is a bad idea.
2) The bomb is dropping from orbit. It has to be traveling at least as fast as 320 kph/200mph (12) and yet Diana not only spots it as it drops out of the sky towards her, but manages to maneouver her plane underneath it so that she can catch it.
3) Diana might be strong enough to catch the bomb but she is standing on the wing of an aircraft at the time. Even if the robot plane is so absurdly strong that she wasn't driven through the wing, the impact should have rolled it over.
4) Diana then throws the bomb at the bad guys and it explodes, causing about as much damage as a hand grenade, rather than a nuclear weapon (13).

You are left with the feeling that the writer does not really have much of a clue what a neutron bomb was, and he was just using a popular buzzword of the time. But then his grasp of aerodynamics and basic physics is considerably lacking too.

As for Orana, it turns out that she hasn't put enough practice into the game of bracelets and bullets and dies semi-heroically (14) And since no one else feels the need to get shot at on a daily basis, Diana gets to be Wonder woman again (15).

And there we leave the amazon princess once again. I had expected to get a bit further in this installment, but all that inanity took up more space than I expected, and it's looking like things are going to get complicated from next issue so it seems like a good point to pause.

Next: Fly me to the Moon

1. Not for the first or last time.
2. Your tax dollars at work.
3. whatever that means
4. I don't believe he is really Steve Trevor's brother, since he has never been mentioned before or since. I reckon he's just some nut job who thinks he is Steve's brother.
5. Why is it always the red heads?
6. it's hard to be specific time-wise with anything to do with a superhero's origin as it is constantly revised to be 3 - 5 years ago
7. the amazons have an advanced space program, obviously
8. Orana is so careless
9. It's an interesting method of choosing your ambassador that I'd like to see more nations employ, but as soon becomes evident very quickly, it's not the most practical.
10. why she would even want to become an astronaut escapes me, since her invisible plane is capable of reaching orbit without all that faffing about with booster rockets.
11. he's got like a missle for a head. I am not making this up. Look at the picture.
12. terminal velocity
13. Doesn't she have some sort of code against killing?
14. she's snipping at Diana and refusing to take advice that would have saved her life, but she is, after all, fighting the bad guys.
15. the whole rocket stealing and leaving without permission things presumably having been swept under the carpet. But that's what you get when your mother is queen

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Mouse of History

Back in the golden age there were many different kinds of comics as new titles appeared to follow every popular fad of the day, and Moon Girl wasn't the only one to cross the genre boundaries in hopes of finding an audience. But while Marvel singlemindedly co-opted every other genre and made superheroes out of them (cowboy superheroes, funny animal superheroes, horror superheroes, kung fu superheroes...), other companies produced more inventive hybrids such as Cowgirl Romances and Weird War Tales.

Today there is little of this creativeness beyond such niche wonders as Supernatural Law, but something that appeals to a variety of audiences could really revitalise the comics industry. In fact I have the perfect cross genre title all ready to go. It's a sure winner. I can see it now: Resident Evil - Codename Betty and Veronica.

Will the *real* real Diana Prince stand up?

The problem with starting in the middle of the series, as I did, is that you don't always spot connections to earlier stories. Not that the writers were making these connections either. So when I saw Gerry Conway addressing a loose end from Wonder Woman's origin in Wonder Woman #237 I was initially impressed. That was until I found that it had been tied up quite nicely within a year of the origin being published, way back in Sensation Comics #9. And then I found that it had also been tied up in Wonder Woman #167. Both later stories are incompatible with the original and each other, but it is interesting to see how three different writers in three different decades tackled the same plot point.

To remind you, the setup is this: Wonder Woman has delivered Steve Trevor to the military hospital but wants to remain close to him. She finds a nurse who is weeping over being parted from her fiance who has gone off to South America because she cannot afford to join him. Wondy offers to finance her trip if the woman named Diana Prince will trade places with her since, not only do they have the same name but they are also conveniently near identical to look at. The somewhat naive nurse then agrees to hand over all her identity papers to this strange foreign woman in exchange for sufficient money to take her far away, and never considers that this is not the most appropriate thing to do when your country is at war, and meanwhile nobody in the hospital notices the substitution, or even that one of the staff has acquired muscles and a foreign accent.

So what is to become of the real Diana Prince?

In Sensation Comics #9 (1942) we find her returned to the city now married and with a small child. Her husband is trying to sell a new kind of artillery shell he has invented but is so far unable to interest anyone and so real Diana Prince (now Diana White) contacts WW Diana Prince to say she wants her job back. After all sorts of fun with enemy spies, WW gets the husband's invention taken up by the military, and so Real Diana Prince can go back to being a full time mother and getting her hair restyled so they don't look so similar.

In Wonder Woman #167 (1967) WW receives a letter from Real Diana Prince once again saying she wants her job back, although this time it is because her fiance (they didn't get married yet in this version) is lost in the mountains and she doesn't expect to see him again. Either this is subtle blackmail (come find my fiance or I'll expose you) or disguised cry for help (if I tell you about my problem maybe you'll come fix it), because taken straight it doesn't make a lot of sense. Wonder Woman of course rushes off to help her. It transpires that Bill, the fiance has been captured by a lost tribe of Mayans, or possibly incans (it's hard to tell as they are a bit generic) who compell WW to undergo several trials in order to save him. Luckily he has found a wealth of rare minerals in the sacred mountain so once again real Diana Prince can look forward to the good life exploiting native lands and doesn't need her job back.

In Wonder Woman #237 (1977) Real Diana Prince has been stalking her double for several issues, having forgotten that they traded places. She has spent a year in South America and returned to find someone else pretending to be her. The fiance is not mentioned. Her double reveals herself to be Wonder Woman in disguise and explains how she took her identity, finishing with the reason that she had forgotten was because WW used her magic lasso to compel her to forget in order to protect her secret identity. Having explained it all and handily done a recap of her origin for the new reader, WW lassos her again and makes her forget once more, leaving her to wander away while she rushes off to battle a monster.

Of the three this is easily the least satisfying, leaving Real Diana Prince as a thinly drawn cypher on which to hang a recap WW's origin story. We never find out what she did in South America, why she returned, or what became of her fiance, and at the end she is just left to wander off. The second version is also really just an excuse to get WW into an exotic location; otherwise the presence of real Diana Prince has little relevence. In fact it is only in the original sequel that Real Diana Prince becomes anything like a rounded individual with a life that has moved on since her first appearance. And that is achieved in half the number of pages of the third version.

Of course I am now fully expecting to find yet another version of this story from the 1950's, but such is life.

An insincere form of flattery, Part 2: Sun Girl

Moon Girl may have been a poor copy of Wonder Woman, but there is evidence to suggest that she had a copy of her own in the shape of Sun Girl. It's entirely circumstancial, but it seems more than coincidence that within six months of the launch of Moon Girl, another female crime fighter should arrive with such an obviously similar name. And then there's the appearance. If you took Moon Girl's top and gave it a higher neckline and a lower waist, it would look very similar to that worn by Sun Girl, and the hairstyle is identical, just different colours.

But there the resemblence ends. Sun Girl, excuse me, The Sun Girl does not ape Moon Girl's origin. In fact no origin is given for her at all. When we first meet her in Sun Girl #1 she is already a famous heroine in the thick of adventuring. Sun Girl has no powers beyond judo training and what appears to be a flashlight built into her bracelet, but despite these limitations she has all the energy and life that is missing from Moon Girl. In many ways this is down to the art of Ken Bald, whose creative and playful panel layouts sizzle with energy, as does Sun Girl herself whenever he gets a chance to show off her long legs.

The only time the fun lets up is in the one Sun Girl story Bald doesn't draw in Issue #3; a leaden, laboured retread of King Kong called "Bokk the Beast", but that may be partly due to the lack of room left to draw pictures under a script so tediously versbose that Chris Claremont would complain it was overwritten. No writers are known for any of these stories, but I am left wondering if this one might be an early work by the young editor, Stan Lee. I can't see any other reason why it would be allowed to lower the standard of an otherwise so entertaining comic. At least the other Sun Girl story in the issue goes some way to redressing the balance with a light (in more ways than one) fantasy of a style that reeks of silver age DC despite being published by Marvel in 1949. But I am also left wondering why the cover to issue 3 does not depict any stories inside. Unlike the more symbolic pin up covers to the previous issues this one is clearly a scene from a specific story.

After three issues of her own title, the least scantily clad superheroine of the golden age (even Miss America had more exposed skin) disappeared into limbo, turning up again for the occasional guest shot in other Marvel titles and a couple of short back ups in The Human Torch. After this she was not seen again until Roy Thomas featured someone supposed to be Sun Girl in his Saga of the Original Human Torch miniseries of 1990. Although this pupports to be a retelling of the Torch's adventures in the 1940's the version of Sun Girl depicted here is unrecogniseable. This sad wannabee Torch groupie bears no resemblence to the sassy, sexy, and self-assured heroine of the golden age.