Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Thing #7: Two-Fisted Feet!

If you want a picture of Assistant Editors Month, imagine a pair of 
oversized boots stamping on a giant orange rock-man's back - forever.
Bear with me until the end of this one…

Back in 1984, Marvel Comics hosted a (nearly) company-wide event under the heading – and, in fact, under the printed warning label – of “Assistant Editors’ Month!” (adding the dire warning “Beware:” and the caveat “Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You!”.  When every sentence ends with an exclamation mark, you know you’re reading some classic Marvel).

The premise of the branded event – not an “event” in the modern sense of the word, with limitless crossovers or over-arcing storylines or game-changing plot twists, but rather merely a self-aware theme collecting almost every title released that month under a very meta umbrella– was that Marvel’s senior editorial department had abandoned New York’s grey and crowded streets for the sunny climes of San Diego and that city’s annual Comicon (You may be familiar with it in its current engorged and soul-hungry condition. It’s that big event they hold every year in San Diego where they debut a lot of movies and television shows and toys and videogames. And something else, it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t recall). With all the bigwigs on the left coast, this presumably left the Assistant Editors in charge of all their respective books.

In reality, the assistant editors were as fit a bunch of professionals as Marvel had on the roster, and the books were as well off as they were under the regular editorial direction – the creative teams, after all, were pretty much stable and the story direction had long ago been established. Still, Marvel chose to make a little hay with the idea, and advertised the books as though anything were possible and all hell was breaking loose between the covers.

Some Marvel series went all-out for gags that month, such as the fairly infamous Marvel Team-Up #137, which featured Peter Parker’s Aunt May as the herald of a Twinkie-starved Galactus. Captain America traded half his book to his girlfriend’s daydreams of being Bernie America and battling against the terrible MOSKULL (and making a nod towatds CURLYSKULL and LARRYSKULL and goddamnit comic book nerds and their fucking Three Stooges jokes, it never dies), while The Uncanny X-Men Annual had what passes for a “madcap romp” through the Marvel Universe as the X-Men battled the Impossible Man, and so on.

Your Humble Editor relaxes at home with a good book.
Other books only indulged themselves with one-page gags, and even others – primarily the licensed properties, like GIJoe – avoided the event altogether (or at least as much as they could), while John Byrne pulled off a relatively highbrow conceptual gag in an issue of Alpha Flight which allowed him to pretty much draw nothing for six pages (Simultaneously getting out of work and creating something which was visually revolutionary, so that’s a win for Mister Blonde-Hispanics-Are-Whores and oughtta be considered in his lifetime tally. Right after the “Blonde Hispanics Are Whores” thing …)

But – and speaking of John Byrne, who wrote this issue and provided the cover illustration – the comic I’m bringing up here is The Thing #7, “Two Fisted Feet!”

The story, by and large, is all but a boilerplate slugfest replete with self-pitying monologues in the mighty Marvel manner – albeit abbreviated, the shortening of which has a lot to do with why I’m bothering to mention this otherwise unremarkable issue. Still, we’re here, so let’s take a momentary detour into the most important element of a comic excepting the cover, the lead character, the guest stars, the creative teams and the price point – the content.

You sure you want to get that close? I heard she's got
spastic full-facial mucus discharge.
The story begins with Ben Grimm – aka The Thing, of course, a name which I recently realized is amusingly translated as La Cosa in Italian reprints of Marvel Comics, and I keep wondering if there’s a story out there called “This Thing of Ours”, BUT I’M DIGRESSING – visiting his blind sculptor girlfriend Alicia Masters in the hospital. She’s been admitted because of chronic bowel irritation and a spastic full-facial mucus discharge (which is not true, but I didn’t pick up her ailment from the comic itself and hell if I’m reading the preceding issue. The Thing as a series doesn’t exist for me until Rocky Grimm, Space Ranger).

Touched by his girlfriend’s vulnerable plight and besieged by morbid thoughts of his own mortality, considering his line of work, Ben wanders the streets musing – until he stumbles across a bank robbery being committed by a muffin-headed Swedish villain in size forty clodhoppers and a pair of orange overalls so butt-hugging that they’d embarrass Tom of Finland.

This hell-raising Hummel figurine is Goody Two-Shoes, a stomp-happy Swedish supervillain who uses the pummeling power of his atomic shoes in order to ban make a name for hisself, hokay and also to talk like that incessantly and make me want to murder actual letters on a page. I’m serious, the joke wore thin immediately, so thin that I grew angry at actual printed words. I followed the word “Yoost” home after the comic was done and sat in my car across the street from its house, turning a kitchen knife over and over in my hands until the lights went off in its bedroom. I’d have made my move, but the paperboy came by just then and I think he got a good look at my face. Next time, “Yoost”, next time.

Trust me, you don't want
to admit to any such thing.
The fight grows increasingly melodramatic as it takes Ben and his dopey blonde adversary up the Empire State Building and back down to the street level, where The Thing barely manages to pull out a victory by pummeling his enemy insensate and crawling near-dead from the subsequent wreckage, bearing the malevolent Mary Janes in his mammoth mitts and crowing his victory to the heavens.

It’s about there that you figure out that the gag of the issue is that they were writing the dumbest-ever villain as the most dramatic battle of the Thing’s career, but – bless them – it wasn’t. After Ben’s victory, the comic switches over to full John Byrne mode for a backup showing the behind-the-scenes reality of the situation; Ben’s reading the very story we too just read, aghast that such a simp as Goody Two-shoes was portrayed as anything even remotely resembling a threat (the real fight, we learn, took less than a minute with Ben as the decisive victor).

In the spirit of the classic Stan-and-Jack appearances in the old FF comics, Ben flies downtown to the Marvel offices where he confronts Byrne, assistant (and this issue’s full-fledged) editor Ann “Dondi Eyes” Nocenti, and artist Ron Wilson (as an aside, when I first read this issue I thought “Ron” was referring to Ron Frenz rather than Ron Wilson and had this strange moment where I was under the impression that Ron Frenz was a thickly-built, muscular black man).

ANYWAY ANYWAY ANYWAY, we’re getting to the point I was writing this whole thing to get to, and it’s a matter of unfortunate juxtaposition...

Furious, Grimm bursts into the palatial offices of John Byrne – surprisingly but pleasingly taking a few potshots at his own reputation for egomania – howling for blood and demanding an explanation of why an insignificant imbroglio was exaggerrated into a notorious knockdown and devastating drag-out. Nocenti and Wilson explain some of the premises of of basic superheroic storytelling and why “telling it like it is” doesn’t work when the hero weighs in at a half-ton and the villain would fall down when faced with a half-hearted fart (Mind you, all-around Olympic-level athlete and martial artist Batman has made a seventy-plus year career out of pounding the sand out of a whole passel of slim women, manic anorexics and a fat myopic dwarf in a tuxedo, so maybe this advice sucks).

Byrne’s notorious bluntness takes the fore, resulting in setting off an offended Grimm…

Locking himself in Byrne’s office, the sound effects imply that The Thing is battering the holy hell out of the creative team of his own book, meaning that next month’s issue will probably be an inventory filler which is great news if it's by Gerry Conway and  Ross Andru but kind of a burn if it's by Bob Layton and Sal Buscema instead.

So, here we go: Leaving the offices, Grimm meets writer Roger Stern in the hallway, and has this exchange:

Neverminding that - minus a "The End" formally concluding this story - if you follow Stern’s eyes to the facing page on the right, here’s what he appears to be looking at in the wake on Ben Grimm's fury:

RIGHT! We’ve got Byrne writing one of those stories of his where all the events in this made-up universe turned out to never have happened anyway, so it’s double-made up and we’re all schmucks for reading it in the first place (We’ll discuss Generations III some other time) and also it appears that Ben Grimm has murdered three people and painted the walls of the Marvel offices with their blood under some sort of sinsiter Mansonian shibboleth.

Assistant editor’s month! don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Krypto Mouse

If you want to understand what life was like in Smallville, please realize that they had giant, anthropomorphic super-mice at their county fairs and yet it was the juggling they came to see.

I always feel like it’s a little cheap to keep going back to the Superboy comics when coming up with topics for this blog, just because I honestly believe that – pound for pound, when you consider all the factors – you’ll never come up with weirder stories than are in any Silver Age Superboy adventure.

Sure, there were plenty of comics which were equally or even much more excessively bazonkers in isolation than the collected adventures of the Boy of Steel, but consider Superboy’s pedigree. How many other Silver Agers could draw on the kind of history, the pure resources of story-telling that Superboy could? You’ve got the entirety of the planet Krypton, the teenage versions of Superboy’s future adult foes, the famous costume and powers and vulnerabilities – plus, consider all the inventions of the Superboy series, and that anything which popped up in Superboy could conceivably show up in Superman, inasmuch as they shared what laughably passed for continuity back in those days (and did! The Kryptonite Kid, the Legion of Super-Heroes, even The Yellow Peri – I know who she is, you don’t have to – all eventually found places to exist in the SuperMAN world).

Superboy is the junior-mint version of DC’s flagship character and he floated around for forty-plus years, so when he turns into a super-wolfboy or his Home Economics teacher turns out to be a Kryptonian cross-dresser with a magic barbecue grill (or something, I lost my focus there), then it’s potentially weirder than Fletcher Hanks wearing Henry Darger’s skin as a nightgown (it’s an Ed Gein original!)

Let’s take, for instance, “The Amazing Adventures of Krypto Mouse” from Superboy vol.1 #65, 1958.

Many cats died that day, and many more died
in the days that followed
Seemingly more like a fever dream than even all the other Superboy stories which seemed quite a bit like a fever dream, this story opens with a troubled Smallvillian tyke named Tommy (which pretty much all the boy-chilluns in Silver Age stories tend to be named Tommy or Timmy or Robby, and all the girls are named Sally. I’m probably not blowing your mind or anything here but, boy, the Silver Age sure was pretty damn caucasian).

Tommy has a bazillion pets, and appears to be one of those Animal Hoarder types that you see on that TV show on Animal Planet, and which I find totally disgusting because who wants to turn animals into hoars anyway? What’s the appeal of this kind of sexual degradation? And with dogs and cats, yet? I blame the celebration of pimp culture in our popular music, film and television. A quick run of spellcheck and a visit to Wikipedia informed that I didn’t actually know what a “hoarder” was, so let’s just pretend I didn’t write that last part back there.

Anyway, Robby (I mean “Tommy”) is told by his parents that he needs to get rid of his personal petting zoo, tout suite (They use those exact words, trust me). He’s given a day to find homes from all of his animals, but his solution to the problem seems to simply be to jam them into the crawlspace between apartments - because that’s pretty much what he promptly does, at least in the case of his pet mouse Fuzzy.

 Rather than choking to death on insulation or biting through an electric wire and popping like a lightbulb in a microwave, Fuzzy runs into the apartment next door where – naturally – a scientist neighbor has set up metric shit-tons of impractical experimental machinery which uses kryptonite rays to give super-powers to anything sitting on the floor right underneath it. PZOW. The mouse gets super-powers, I hope you’re with me so far.

(Just as an aside: I believe the super-mouse thing has been done a few times in the Superman mythos. I think it happened on Smallville, and it may also have happened on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but for that matter it may have only happened on one and not the other or it never happened at all. All I know is that even Wikipedia refuses to sink low enough to contain any information on what Superman shows had super-mice on them and, for the first time ever, I’m actually proud of Wikipedia, even if I feel a little let down …)

He's going into the wall, you nitwit.
SO! Beyond merely finding himself gifted with the standard issue set of Kryptonian superpowers, Fuzzy also acquires the super-power of growing to about the size of a human being and also the super-power of his body changing so that it looks like a really disturbing muscular dude in a tight-fitting gray fur body costume with a cartoon mouse head on it.

If you feel that you simply must masturbate to that, please don’t let me stop you. This is the internet after all.

To Billy’s credit (I mean “Tommy”), when the man-sized mouse returns to his former master, Timmy (I mean “Tommy”) has the good civil sense to mold the radioactive rodent into a force for good. Thankfully hiding his pet’s man-mouse genitals under a replica Superboy costume, Yusupha Mohamed (I mean “Tommy”) grooms the newly christened Krypto-Mouse to become a force for super-good in the town of Smallville, the most well-protected hamlet in any rural free delivery zone. Honest-to-god, I bet their post office is better protected the the bunker silo of a nuclear missile installation.

Krypto-Mouse’s keen senses detect what Tommy (I mean “Tommy”) imagines must be some heinous crime, but is actually kitschy signage over the “Black Cat Niteclub” in swinging downtown Smallville, notorious for its active nightlife. Dashing out at super-speed, Krypto-Mouse demolishes the offending replica of a hissing cat – and, one imagines, then flies around town actually murdering cats wholesale and then probably eating five or six grain silos whole – and then promptly returns home.

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that Krypto-Mouse is a nitwit. Although the improbable raybeam of next-door neighbor scientist Doctor Egglehead (I am not kidding) gave Fuzzy all the powers of Superboy, it left him with the mind of a mouse. I’m pretty sure I do not have to spell out the potential consequences of such a combination in stacks of kryptonite mouse-poop five yards high or anything, it rather speaks for itself.

You Do Not Live Long In Smallville Elementary, You Do Not Live Long At All

After a few more years of the internet, this
will be representative of your average person's
typical first sexual experience.
There’s a prolonged sequence in the middle of this thing involving a mobster-turned-informant on the run from trigger-happy hitmen pursuing the price on his head. At the same time that “Louie the Rat” happens to be trying to get the hell out of Dodge, the children of Smallville have decided to put on a spontaneous parade to re-enact the Pied Piper leading the mice out of Hamlin. AND WHY WOULDN’T THEY, we used to do that every third Wednesday back in the town where I grew up. In between Pied Piper parades, we’d stage re-creations of the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the death of the emperor Humayun, whose military alliance with the Persians forever altered the artistic and cultural atmosphere of the Mughal empire. You know, the kind of stuff kids do.

In any case – being a guy who knows a solid opportunity to get a bunch of kids murdered when he sees it - Louie the Rat rents a mouse costume and jumps into the parade line, figuring he can use the town-crossing parade as his opportunity to slip out past the county line. Mind you, he’ll be dressed as a mouse, and it’s also dependent on the parade route ending up on a dirt road twelve miles from the highway, and hopefully these are some pretty tall and husky schoolchidlren in order for him to fit in but SOME PLAN LOUIE.

It’s also at this point that Krypto Mouse – bereft of his costume – sees a big parade of mice people and decides to join the line. It’s important to note that - prior to Krypto Mouse joining the parade – Louie was at the end. It’s also important to know that the hitmen found out that Louie had joined the parade dressed as a giant mouse (even though they missed the part where the freakish aryan ideal uberman-mouse joined the parade at the end). They respond to this news by SHOOTING AT THE LAST MOUSE IN THE PARADE and – when that fails to kill him – DROP A GIANT STONE ON HIM FROM THREE STORIES UP.

There was simply NO WAY for the hitmen to know for sure that the last mouse in the parade line was actually Louie the Rat and not, say, an innocent child, but more than that the last mouse in the parade line was in fact NOT Louie the Rat. So, the hitmen were indeed just shooting and hucking big rocks at a CHILDREN’S PARADE and, if you’re wondering, no … Superboy was nowhere to be found. WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET SUPERBOY’S ATTENTION?

"Rao, am I stoned."
The Boy of Steel shows up after the hitmen have turned themselves in at the police station (they assumed that they couldn’t kill the mouse/child because Louie the Rat had gained superpowers, which is of course why he was trying to sneak out of town instead of killing all his pursuers with super-punches, but … oh, good lord, it’s a whole new avenue of poor storyplanning, pretend I said nothing), and WHY is Superboy at the police station? He didn’t even capture Louie the Rat. Superboy was actually just passing by. Louie’s free to murder and inform over in Midvale or Blue Valley or something, Superboy was just out for a stroll.

As a matter of fact, Superboy is pretty much a stranger in this story, and his role is by-and-large limited to showing up after Krypto-Mouse has done some deed of what-the-fuckerring-do in some fashion which convinces the yokels that Superboy was on the job. The Boy of Steel literally spends most of this story utterly baffled, amazingly unaware that there’s a giant mouse flying around in his spare underpants and seemingly unconcerned about trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Frankly, it actually makes something of a nice change for the Superboy stories, so many of which seemed to be written by people who were actively out to take Superboy down a peg – observe, for example, the other two stories in this volume, in which Superboy is turned into a juvenile delinquent by moonlight and ends up locked in a kryptonite cage by his adoptive parents, and where Clark Kent is forced to bunk with a guy who leaves green-K lying all over the place, in the fridge and under the TV in the living room and stuff.

Next comes the wrap-up where Superboy finally comes face-to-face with Krypto-Mouse in as neatly tied up an anti-climax as you get. Rescuing a ship’s cargo of cheese from raging sea-waters by hucking barrels of the good stuff miles to shore, Superboy finds the cargo is nowhere near its target destination. Investigating, he comes face-to-face with Krypto-Mouse who, in short order, accidentally saves Superboy’s secret identity by distracting Lana Lang while our hero is changing into his civilian identity, shrinks back to normal mouse-size, loses his super-powers and runs away home.

Which brings us to my favorite part of this story, which is simply Superboy’s reaction at the end of the tale, a sentiment I feel I can sum up with the words “Doesn’t Give a Fuck”. He doesn’t! He really doesn’t care! He’s standing three feet away from a giant man-shaped mouse with super-powers who wears a costume just like his and had been dragging Superboy’s name and reputation into all this mischief all around town and then suddenly right before his eyes it turns back into a mouse and there’s this Superboy costume just lying on the ground and all these questions hanging in the air and Superboy is all I JUST DON’T GIVE A FUCK ANYMORE.

He doesn’t care! He doesn’t investigate, he doesn’t ask any of the obvious questions, he just sort of shrugs and just – I don’t know – goes home or something. This is Superboy’s life, this dumb shit happens all the time and he just doesn’t give a fuck any more. I wish I could explain how delightful an ending I find this (It supersedes an actual ending, where Fuzzy returns home and Tommy - I really do mean “Tommy” - and his parents find some diamonds which Krypto-Mouse had made out of coal under the bed , and now they’re rich and Tommy can keep another bazillion animals because they’re rich now and rich people get to do anything they want, no matter how wasteful or dumb) – if just because it seems like such an insane reaction to the whole affair, unless you really think about Superboy and the kind of life he leads and how often this kind of dumb madness happens, and you come to realize that it’s actually the only sane reaction you could have. Giant mouse? Who gives a fuck! Next week it’ll be space-horses and malevolent robot driving instructors, probably!

Needs More Scientists and Ray Beams and Mobster Sub-Plots and a Ship Full of Cheese

Is it me, or does this scene look like
they're both sitting on corner-facing toilets?
What always blows my mind about these early Silver Age stories is exactly how much they cram into eight pages, for better or for worse.

Mind you, I realize that comic book stories have expanded and expanded over the history of the medium – what takes eight pages in the 1950s took almost a whole issue in the Sixties, and then started spreading out over two- and three-issue arcs in the Seventies and Eighties until you come to the point today where everything seems to require a twelve-issue weekly maxi-series with branded sub-chapters crossing over into a dozen books.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon too, and ideally you also realize that it is largely for the best – stretching the pace of these stories has allowed for the introduction of legitimate tension, it’s allowed us to empathize with characters and come to understand motivation and allowed the plots to develop slowly over time and without maintaining a terrible death grip on Professor Egglehead happening to run a super-power making machine next door to the boy whose mouse just got loose on the day before the Pied Piper parade that a mob informant will happen to stumble across.

It’s good – I promise you, it really is – that it took (for an example) eight pages to tell the tale of The Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh in 1958 and several hundred pages and months upon months to re-tell (as part of a larger arc) it in 2008. It really is, you don’t want to go back to the way it used to be, believe me.

Primarily, it’s better because this kind of jam-packing no longer needs to happen. The job of an editor is, arguably, to improve the story, and keep things like godawful coincidences from over-happening and to workshop obvious glaring bumps and desperate calls for deus ex machina. Disbelief can only be suspended so often, as they say, before the premise collapses out from under the reader.

"What do you dream about, Krypto-Mouse?"
To get back to this story specifically, a cursory read tells you that there are so many things that simply don’t need to be in there – you don’t actually need a scientist next door, you could have had Tommy’s pop be the scientist, or in a twist Tommy could have been some sort of kid genius scientist, and all the animals could have been there for his experiments. Hell, Tommy doesn’t have to be there at all, all you really needed was a mouse and a ray-beam. And hec, with no kid at home, Krypto-Mouse doesn’t have to keep coming home between superfeats, meaning the parade could happen at the same time that the Cheese-Tanic is crashed up on the rocks, explaining why Superboy was too busy to keep grade school kids from being murdered by mobsters.

Those suggestions are the product of a first read-through, and what you get from it is a much cleaner story with much less reliance on the suspension of disbelief. But that didn’t happen, and – in fact – these stories seem to be ninety percent overloaded as if by design. I think the only real answer simply must be that the editor grabbed the first draft or the plot outline, read through it once, and said “Needs more mobsters, a sympathetic kid, a forgetful scientist, some parades, work in a joke about cheese and put Superboy’s identity in danger”. So much more happens in these eight pages, but it’s just a fucking disaster of a story, and also I’m pretty sure it’s how J.T.Krul works except he adds more beheading and disembowelings and baby murder.

Next Time on Superboy’s Super-Powered Petting Zoo of Retarded Animals

I’d originally gone into this article actually meaning to write about Krypto-Mouse and ANOTHER story where Superboy must confront a super-powered anthropomorphic animal, but I got too fired up and kind of quintupled my expected word count. With that in mind, stay tuned for the next Superboy article so I can explain what the hell is going on with this guy.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gone & Forgotten has a Tumblr!

For those of you doing the bite-size content thing, Your Humble Editor thought you might like to know that there is now a Tumblr feed accompanying this blog.

While this here main site will be featuring full-length articles on the bottom-dwellers of the comic book barrel, the Tumblr feed will be providing concise snapshots of pure comic book weirdness, as well as providing a home for the perennially popular Batman Leads An Interesting Life Tuesdays photo-feature.

Expect new weekly articles to begin around the middle of January, and don't hesitate to drop a line to Your Humble Editor if you have any suggestions for topics you'd like to see covered in Gone&Forgotten.

Ciao, citizens!
-Your Humble Editor

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