Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Not So Much Fallen As Hobbled and Limping...


Fallen Angels (Marvel, 1987)

I imagine this may come as a shock to you little shavers and young whippersnappers and all you other folks who grew up in an atmosphere where super-powered mutants on the new comic rack are as common as nitrogen in the atmosphere, but there was a time – believe it or not - when you could count all the X-Men miniseries and spin-offs on the adamantium claws of two hands.

I mean, obviously Stan and Jack didn’t launch X-Men #1 in September of 1963 and then follow up in November with fourteen tie-ins, a new origin for Cable and a foil-cover edition special where they bring back Banshee just to off him again. The series had to start somewhere, and for that matter it started off as one of Marvel’s least-popular ongoing series. Even when it finally started making it big in the market share, it took forever to create its first spin-off – and despite what was to come, it didn’t have the common courtesy to slap an “X-“ in front of its name.

The first miniseries and one-shot both come out in 1982 – the definitive Claremont/Miller “Wolverine” and the equally landmark Claremont/Anderson graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills” – and through the subsequent decade there were hardly a dozen more – although the quality may have started to slip. The very next year you get what Your Humble Editor considers to be a highly underrated series, Magik, but you also get Obnoxio the Clown vs The X-Men, suggesting Marvel wasn’t yet quite sure who their franchise player was going to turn out to be.

Among the lesser luminaries like the uncertain “Iceman” and the criminally befuddled “Kitty Pryde and Wolverine” was Fallen Angels, spinning out of the X-Men farm team’s book, The New Mutants.

Aw, he's fine.
A creation of Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill (with Joe Staton stepping in for a couple of issues), the premise of Fallen Angels centers around hot-headed New Mutant Bobby DaCosta, who is Brazilian (and that’s weird, because most of the New Mutants are in their teens but this guy is a whole brazilian!) Known as the superhero-in-training Sunspot, on account of how all the good names were already taken, Bobby is capable of adapting sunlight into ferocious, raw strength – a power he uses by having a soccer-based hissy fit and stubbing a whole tree into teammate Sam “Want you cuckoo Cannonball” Guthrie’s frontal lobe, rendering him terminally Southern.

Polluted by crimes and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can Sunspot find rest but in a meandering eight-issue limited series accompanied by titanic gibbering nitwit and the toppled ink bottle which was the leading suspect in a thousand cases of carpal tunnel among the Marvel Bullpen up through 1992, alien shapeshifting novelty keychain Warlock?

Sunspot and Warlock leave the comfort of the Charles Xavier Academy of Not Having All That Many Students Really So You Think You’d Notice Two Of Them Leaving in Westchester and head to nearby seedy New York City, trailed by ancillary X-Men types Jamie “Multiple Man” Madrox and Theresa “Siryn” Cassidy – who, as an aside, have set up for them in this series basically everything Peter David has ever done with them in the pages of X-Factor. There, I just gave you a reason for Fallen Angels to exist.

"...with my enormous
While in New York, Bobby and Warlock manage to walk into street thugs mugging someone every ten minutes – New York, am I right? – and in doing so meet up with the young she’ll-turn-out-to-be-a-mutant-even-thought-she-doesn’t-think-she-is-sorry-spoiler-warning Chance and her pals, The Fallen Angels. Led by former X-Villian The Vanisher – now dressed like Community’s Dean Pelton wearing Bea Arthur’s nightdress as a jacket – and a slightly elongated alien named Ariel who can teleport herself and others through any doorway and who sort of looks like Geena Davis crossed with a televangelist dressed for aerobics class.

I hate to find myself saying “Well, to make a long story short” so early into this, but I don’t really have a choice – Fallen Angels is LONG, despite coming in at no more than eight issues, and it’s mostly exposition and sudden introductions to character after character. Multiple Man and Siryn ultimately catch up with the Angels, a mildly telekinetic cyborg named Gomi and his cybernetic mutant lobster friends Don and Bill are introduced, they pick up Boom-Boom from X-Factor headquarters and take a trip through time and alternate dimensions to come back with Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy. And having finally introduced all the players, I guess we can finally start the story … around the closing pages of issue six.

Yup! On paper, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Fallen Angels. Jo Duffy is a fine writer, Kerry Gammill is nowhere near my favorite artist but he’s a completely competent and likable draughtsman, and while the weird mix of characters was a little too blatantly youth-oriented and the designs were dated before the cash register was finished ringing on the first copy ever purchased, it was actually a pretty appealing title.

Oh god, I want to die.
So why is it a fizzle in the firmament of X-Books? Well, among other problems, I was not kidding when I say that the plot did not start until the end of issue six. It’s at this point that we have it underlined for us that anorexic fashion calamity Ariel was not just your ordinary everyday spandex-addict who could step through doorways to any point in space and exercise small amounts of mind control, she was also an alien! An alien from a planet called The Coconut … called The Coconut Grove. I’m sorry, I nervously hiccupped in the middle of saying that, I may have had a small stroke.

But yes, Ariel comes from a planet called The Coconut Grove and which is decked out like the sets in the dance numbers from Xanadu AND everyone looks like a goblin Liberace. Seriously, if Charles Nelson Reilly’s cravats were ever possessed by poltergeists, it’d look like these guys. “Seriously”, that’s the word I used to describe that scenario…

Anyway, it turns out the Coconut Grove peeps sent Ariel to Earth to abduct mutants, on account of the Coconut Grove peeps have hit an evolutionary dead-end and want to dissect mutants to identify their mutant-ness so that the Coconut Grove peeps can give themselves those qualities and continue to evolve. I’m sorry to keep saying “Coconut Grove peeps”, but the only likely name I could think of for them was “Coconut Grovers”, which sounds like a sex act, a Girl Scout cookie or a sex act involving a Girl Scout cookie.

Naturally, after she’s handed all her Earth friends to her overlords to dissect and mess around with, we discover that Ariel herself is some sort of mutant and is going to be dissected herself, so she rebels. Hey, do you remember a moment ago when I said that the Coconut Grovers were studying mutants because, as a people, they had hit an evolutionary dead-end and didn’t mutate anymore and also how I mentioned that Ariel is a Coconut Grover and also a mutant so obviously that first premise is wrong and therefore this plot – which we waited six issues to start – doesn’t make any sense any longer? Mm.

There was never again any mention of them anywhere forever.
Besides the belated start time and the auto-correcting plot point, I’m going to lay part of the blame for the fact that we’re not checking out X-Men Origins: Fallen Angels in theaters this Christmas at the feet of the other new characters in the book. I am being sincere when I say that there is no end of very good character concept and development going on in this book, at least as far as some characters like Madrox and Siryn go. Both the telekinetic Gomi and tough-as-nails street-wise kid Chance end up taking up prime real estate for their personal story arcs, Gomi even eating up space at the table for an origin story that doesn’t do particularly much for the character and definitely nothing for the plot.

The gimmick of Chance being a secret-mutant is telegraphed brazenly through the series, and generally in lieu of giving her anything of use to do. Whenever other mutants are around Chance, their powers either double or disappear completely, and also they feel compelled to mention it while Chance is hanging around in the immediate vicinity, and also what you might laughably call a ‘portable’ Cerebro unit keeps identifying a mutant that no one seems to know who in the room it is AND ALSO Chance keeps saying she’s not a mutant … Consider the hints picked up.

Oh, and one of the lobsters is a mutant, too. You’re welcome.

In the end, Fallen Angels is a decent book with the one exception that you can’t really explain why it happened. After eight issues, the X-World returned to its status quo without much as a ripple. Sunspot and Warlock go back to the New Mutants to help feed oatmeal to Sam through a tube, all of the other pre-established characters disappear for half a decade or so before they get picked up for new purposes, and the new characters just drop off the face off the Earth - except I looked up Ariel on Wikipedia and she apparently popped up in X-Men recently and then was slugged to death by someone. Possibly me.

I guess our one takeaway is that we got to see Devil Dinosaur pulling off headscarf bandana look a la Travolta in Staying Alive …

Haha, Bill's saying "boobs".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Sword of Superman

Phallic object upon phallic object, the basis of all mythology. 

Among the workhorses on the writing staff of the Pre-Crisis Superman, Elliot S(!) Maggin was your go-to guy for bird’s-eye view myth building. He wasn’t down in the trenches or generally coloring within the lines, pulling familiar Phantom Zone villains into the dirt like Cary Bates and Marty Pasko (Which I say with Res. Pect. The tattoos on my eyelids read “Bates” and “Pasko”).

Maggin’s cup of tea was invention: It’s from Maggin that we get Miracle Monday, Thirsty Thursday, 29th Century Superwoman Kristin Wells, Albert Einstein wrapped up in Superman’s origin, that obnoxious intergalactic rhyming bard that pops up in a couple of stories, Lex Luthor saying cuss words … you know, the high end stuff that no other writer in his right mind ever touched again.

Don’t get me wrong - I love Maggin like I love all the pre-Crisis Superman writers. Summarizing his contributions to the character, though, I’d suggest he specialized in the outlying territories. He loved adding new planks to the fence, some of which worked and some of which – well, some of which are the Sword of Superman.

"Ma, what did you mean
when you said I was
growing up into a very
handsome young hilt?"
The story in question – “The Day the Cheering Stopped” - ran in Superman Annual #10 in 1984. The DC Annuals had just been revived and revamped to behave as a transitional state between normal comics and longer, proto-graphic novel books – two issues earlier, the Annuals had been your typical reprint collection, two issues later you’d get “For The Man Who Has Everything”. True to the new format, Maggin wrote a big story – he revisited his familiar theme of “the totally made up and sort of indistinctly defined legend” – the problem with it being that it was too big.

Not so much answering a question no one thought to ask, Maggin invented a question no one in their right mind would ask because the answer was already so simple, obvious and commonsense: Why does everyone in the universe know Superman, revere him and call him by his name, “Superman”?

Your obvious answer is “He went there, was memorable, and that’s his name.” I have never asked why the clerk at my credit union knows my name – she’s seen me before, for crying out loud. Same goes for my parole officer, the checkout guy at the liquor store and the fellow who power-washes the vomit out of the alley beside the OTB. Bros, every one.

Mind you, this isn’t even taking into consideration the more obvious answer of “Actually, they probably don’t all call him the same thing on different planets, I mean, they call him a bunch of different things in different languages here on Earth, alone!” BUT since they call him “Superman” on every intergalactic backwater slum, we’ve apparently got to have an intergalactic backwater reason.

Now, before I share with you the apparently really real and bugnuts as hell reason – and trust me, it’s not a good reason at all – lemme explain why this is a bad idea.

He's saying "Sometimes you're a real
condescending ass, pal."
One of the reasons why Superman even works as a character at all is because, at the end of the day and no matter how unlikely or unrealistic he may be, you only need to suspend your disbelief with him once. You only have to accept the idea “He is a super-powered alien from a highly advanced civilization”, and everything else follows. How can he fly, why does he have super-breath? He’s a super-powered alien from a highly advanced civilization. How come no one recognizes him when he wears glasses? He’s a super-powered alien from a high advanced civilization. Why the red pants? He’s got a super-powered dog? How does Lois Lane still have a pelvis? Super-powered etcetera from etcetera etcetera … it’s the do-all, be-all answer, you can harvest from it any answer you realistically need.

When you add something to the character, you have to make sure it’s covered by that one suspension of disbelief, because if it requires a second suspension of disbelief – if it requires another coincidence or far-fetched explanation or willful indulgence of ignorance – then the whole story starts to sag under the burden.

Okay? Okay, so here’s Maggin’s reason for why everyone in the universe recognizes Superman and says his name the same way: At the Big Bang, a big chunk of roughly sword-shaped primordial matter coalesced, and after time it was polished by space-rays into being not just a sword and not only not just a sword but also a sword that basically looks like the kind of sword you could get from 14th century Europe even though this is billions of years before the Earth even existed AND also on the hilt it has Superman’s S-insignia on it and it is apparently magical and also sentient and used mind-rays to give Jonathan Kent the idea of the stylized “S” on Superboy’s uniform and it floated around eluding capture by space-faring races who eventually called it “The Sword of Superman” even though those are English words from 20th century Earth that, again, didn’t even exist back then and also it was Excalibur (!) but mostly it floats around in space waiting to help Superman fight a pretty middle-weight super-villain and then to piss the fuck off back to space or something.

Ta-daa! Say, does anyone else feel like they have a head injury?

"This story! I don't want it in canon!"
The rest of the story is a pleasant boilerplate pre-Crisis tale, and there’s a lot to love about Maggin’s writing – he’s not afraid to have the characters be flippant or casual with their dialogue, he’s willing to let the plot coast for clever character moments, and he’s charmingly unashamed to have a villain named Oswald Mandias floating around.

I’ve always wondered about the world which comic book people inhabit – are they, as a general population completely ignorant of classical literature and wordplay, or are they far too aware of it? If your last name is Mandias (and trust me, I’ve tried putting the stress all over that word, it never doesn’t sound ridiculous), is it just accepted that you’ll name your kid Oscar Mandias or Osbourne Mandias, it’s just a given you’ll be introducing “This is our little Ozzy, say hi to everyone Ozzy”? If your last name is Hood, does heavy cultural weight determine you’ll name your kid “Robert N. Hood?” “Meet my youngest, Stephen Hakes Spear…” Does Edward Nigma only fly under the radar because it’s among the least dumb pun names these people have ever heard?

Man, this was frustrating.
Anyway, Mandias smuggles himself aboard the space shuttle, gets taken over by a Maggin baddie named King Kosmos who hypnotizes everyone on Earth into loving him and perceiving Superman as a horrible monster that they’re scared of and it shakes Superman’s confirdence, at which point the sword shows up and takes Superman to a library where it shows him a book and is all “I am all hell of Excalibur, baby” and then unrelatedly Superman hypnotizes himself into thinking that all the people who are scared of him are actually cheering him and he uses that self-confidence boost to punch King Kosmos in the pecker real hard a bunch of times.

The sword goes on to do something indeterminate to tip the tide of battle in Superman’s favor, and then flips out like a crazy maniac and tries to give Superman all the power in the universe, which Superman refuses, whereupon the blade disintegrates and Superman hucks the hilt into outer space and then we get a very Elliot S.Maggin-ey epilogue where a space-vagrant recounts the dumb story we just heard as “a legend”.

I’m sorry, like I say, I like the guy and everything but at one point he has Superman look at the sword with his microscopic vision and say “If I’m right – and that is nearly impossible in this case - this is made of the original material of the universe!” Of COURSE it’s made of the original material of the universe, the only thing we’ve got in this universe is the original material of the universe. We haven’t been spooning in brand-new Helium or anything*.

(* I await corrections, science nerds)

Still – hey, you know how Maggin’s Superwoman stories always implied that she would go down in history as the greatest hero of the twentieth century, but he never actually got around to explaining why? I’d pay him fourteen dollars to hear the real answer, although I got a theory of my own that I’d bet seven bucks at two-to-one odds is better. I’d also bet at two-to-one odds that half the comments for this article are going to be people chiding me for not liking Elliot S!Maggin even though I said like five times I totally love Elliot S!Maggin. Nobody reads all the way to the end on these things, anyway. 

Bust on this story all I might, this panel is fuckin' perfection. 

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