Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crisis On Infinite Earths in the Front, Party in the Back!

DC Comics is taking a lot of criticism for its announced washbucket full of upcoming redesigns* - and rightly so. The redesigns so far range from the downright stupid (I'm looking at you, Harley Quinn. Seriously, I can't stop looking, I don't know when the trainwreck will end) to the plainly underwhelming (Hi Firestorm!) to the merely unnecessary with one or two decent ones thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

*...from, for instance, the fine folks at Project:Rooftop (including Your Humble Editor his own damn self). Watch me say mean things about Deadshot and a turtle!

You would think - given all the high-hattin' haberdashery hubbub and sneering sartorial sideswipes - that DC Comics had never undertaken some unpopular redesigns of their characters before, BUT OH HOW WRONG YOU'D BE! It wasn't so long ago - you know, a couple of decades really, but in the geological terms taking into account the overall age of the Earth, more like "mere seconds" - that DC updated its characters for the tumultuous Nineties. Strap down your mullets, let's take a quick look at Who's Horribly Dressed in the DC Universe...


I'm not even sure where this costume appeared, if it appeared anywhere, but thank goodness they got rid of Black Lightning's ridiculous afro ... in favor of a hightop fade. "Whew", you suspect the editorial team was saying to themselves, "At least THIS hairstyle won't seem catastrophically out of date in a few years!" And then to make it extra-relevant to the youngsters, they've got Lightning throwing the horns. "OZZZZYYY! *bzzzzt!*"


I don't know anything about Tim Sale as a person or whether he's a decent guy or gives blood to orphans (sometimes they come collecting it door-to-door, all in mason jars stacked in a little red wagon), but I do really want to sit down with some fans of his some day and ask what the heck the big deal's supposed to be? This guy keeps getting big, fancy graphic novels and high-profile color-themed prestige format series (and THAT'S not getting old!), and ... why? It looks like he inks with a sausage. Did you see that cover he drew for the debut issue of the otherwise excellent Solo series? Pencils got erasers, Tim. 

Anyway, the Challengers were given a new look to get themselves into the updated, edgy and more serious Nineties, and I think we're all on the same page these days that when we say a comic is "more serious", we mean it's "exceptionally more ridiculous than it's ever been before." Big guns, a sort of haunted "produces porn movies in the basement" look for Prof, a buzzcut and at least one character started off the series dead. Maybe. I recall about zero percent of this, so let's pretend they all opened an ice cream stand and this is a joke card they sent out for Christmas...

ELEMENT WOMAN (Girl, whatever)

Element Woman gets her own giant-sized Who's Who page and THIS is the image they choose? Poor girl, this must have been like getting your senior yearbook photo on the first day of your period and also you had a pube between your front teeth.

Allegedly, the Element Woman story from Sandman was written because several other DC authors had "misused" Neil Gaiman's character Death in some of their comics. Rather than considering the possibility that he had opened himself to misinterpretation by neglecting to craft any coherent sense of the character's motivation, her personality (beyond "babbling nitwit") and the scope of her powers and authority, Gaiman decided to pen this single issue vignette to set the record straight - and then used Death in a vague throwaway which didn't answer any questions at all and trod less ground than they'd trod with the character earlier.

Besides, Neil Gaiman had used Element Woman as the focus of the story only because it was a character he could off without anyone's panties getting in a bunch. Somehow, when other authors line up Z-List cannon fodder, they get pilloried. When Gaiman does it? Oh the magic of storytelling and the stories of dreams and dreams are the greatest stories ... blech. I liked her better when she was up on Metamorpho's jock, because Bob Haney is GOLDEN.


Honestly, when considering the unsightly carnival of spilled condiments and a grease fire which constituted Firestorm's original costume, this is hardly worse. However, the part of Firestorm's costume that everyone hates on ... okay, excepting the puffy sleeves ... is the fiery head. How does the fiery head work? Where's his brain? Does it crackle and pop while it burns? Why is it dumb? Who is the dumb guy who made it? So many questions.

So Firestorm 2.0 not only gets a BIGGER fiery head ... like, the Jim Henson Studio and a fly-gang of sixteen and every spandexed metal band of the Eighties amount of fiery head ... but he also gets colorful little accents on his wrists and his feet. Just above his TOES on his feet. And a collar. His wallet is probably on fire too, and his car keys. I bet he comes home and the DVD player and his family photo albums are all made of fire. This guy cannot get ENOUGH of the FIRE!

THE WANDERERS (They wander 'round 'round 'round 'round ...)

The Wanderers were some sort of ancillary super-team which operated in the 30th century alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes, and were given a makeover because before this they were all just wearing clothes and we all know how stupid wearing clothes is. It doesn't help that they've posed them like an intergalactic frat party, but then again I'm not sure what would help. Maybe amnesia, so I don't have to remember having ever seen these outfits.


Okay, look past the Adam Hughes art for a moment - I know it's difficult, inasmuch as there as two pretty significant impediments in your path - but look at this and answer a question for me: From what country does Beatriz "Fire" DaCosta originate? That's right: Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation. She's the Secretary of the Interior, as a matter of fact!

Probably what sticks out for me most in this costume (think clean thoughts, chums) is that belt. I had three girlfriends in high school who wore that belt, and one who had that hair. None of them burst into flames, but I could nominate at least two of them I'd like to see that happen to oh ho, ho ho ...




Nice animullet, champ.


In the late Eighties, they went out of their way to revamp Superman and all of his Rogues Gallery, backstory, etc etc and so on. I think they even changed the combination on his bike lock.

One of the things they did with Superman was to address the issue of his power level - deciding that a Superman who could juggle mountains, eat fire and shit ice from the git-go* was a turn-off for new, modern-day readers (and then deciding a couple years later that new, modern-day readers would prefer it if Superman could smash planets flat between his toes), they dropped Superman's power level down to an admirable near-nil.

Then, for some reason, they also dropped his enemies' power levels down to near nil. And made them fat. And balding. Also Luthor had cancer. And I suspect Brainiac never had anything approaching a formal education, and he dressed in what appears to be the kind of pajamas they give out in the terminal ward of a childrens hospital.

IF YOU'RE GOING TO WEAKEN SUPERMAN, WHY WEAKEN HIS ENEMIES TOO? I'm pretty sure I could have taken out Brainiac with a box full of donuts and patience enough for high cholesterol to claim his life.

Possibly the funniest part of Brainiac's new costume is how it has the silhouette of a skinnier man on it. Way to rub it in, comics guys!

*I will send you a copy of Youngblood #1 if you can place this reference as it applies to Superman. Hell, I'll draw the cast of Youngblood for you on the inside cover ...


It's hard to argue that DC - and superhero comics in general - don't have some real anger issues towards women, but usually the argument focuses on how Power Girl's costume is too revealing and reduces the character to a sex object and not about how DC's 90's-era answer to this criticism was to put Power Girl in a gathered turtleneck and give her a pet cat. Next up: Power Girl starts a blog about her knitting projects and gets real defensive whenever anyone in her comments section claims that it's dumb to be thirty and still a virgin. And she has to wax her mustache. (Notice that it still accentuates her tits, though - no dummies, the comic book guys!)


The 1970's (Rose and ) Thorn wasn't winning any fashion awards with her original costume, which included a miniskirt trimmed with green briars, but then she comes back in the modern Nineties tricked out like a hooker and shoving poison needles into dudes' faces. Hey, do you know what turn of phrase I end up using a lot when talking about character design in the Nineties? "Turned out like a hooker." Now guess why.


It's amazing to imagine that Spider-Dick here was an improvement on an existing costume, but you know what?

It was.


Johnny Bacardi said...

I liked that Loeb/Sale Challengers series, and I don't care who knows it. It wasn't all grim y gritty as they say south of the border.

Calamity Jon said...

You must explain the appeal. I asked with a sneer, but my heart longs for the beauty of truth.

Your Humble Editor (who inks with a slice of Canadian Bacon)

Johnny Bacardi said...

Oh gosh, I wish I had the time. I think mainly I enjoyed it because Loeb bothered to give them actual personalities, rather than the purple suited archetypes they had been for nearly 30 years (the "pilot", the "boxer", the "scientist", the "hothead"-GO!) and extrapolated logical story arcs for all of them. Having Challengers Mountain explode and endanger the town stupidly built nearby. Superman bailing their asses out of jail. I didn't like the whole demon bit at the end, that's something writers, especially then, fell back on too many times. I just thought it was a take that actually made them seem "real", rather than the anonymous jumpsuited fighting/pointing/running/shouting guys they had been in the past.

Of course, that series divided a lot of people, and I've been known to be wrong before. But that's my take, and the best explanation I can provide in five minutes.

Could have taken or left Sale's art, though...

Kazekage said...

That Orion costume is even worse than Super Powers figure, which seemed to be just some dude with a plastic bucket on his head.

I remember that Power Girl costume . . .I also remember they replaced it with something even worse/insane than the turtleneck, too.

Kudos on digging into the deeper cuts for this--you could have gone for the low-hanging fruit of Kyle Rayner's first GL suit, Ultimate Warrior Guy Gardner or Electric Superman, but you went above and beyond in seeking out the deadly worst.

Brandon Talbot said...

I do enjoy that Nightwing's redesign is essentially "Let's just zip this thing all the way up."

John Feaster said...

To be honest, having Power Girl be a raging feminist...whose costume incorporates an obvious "Titty-Window" makes even less sense...but the nerds must be fed, I suppose...

The mullet and other...unfortunate haircuts were just the products of their times, though. Like how no matter what, the Aquarian and Thundra are doomed to be trapped forever in the 70's.

Prankster said...

My God, they turned Orion into a space rabbit?

The Element Woman story is one of the weakest issues of Sandman, but c'mon. I'm pretty sure Gaiman wasn't sitting there going "They have Death benching 50 tons, when it clearly says in her Who's Who in the DC Universe entry that she's only capable of benching 30 tons! The fools!" She's not the kind of character where "power limits" matter. She's frikkin' DEATH. She doesn't fit into the superhero paradigm--she's written on a different (not better, just different) literary level, and I can easily see how some superhero hack could misuse her in that respect. I haven't actually read any of the non-Gaiman issues in question, of course, so who knows.

Killing Z-Listers is interesting. It's not inherently a bad idea, and can be done well when the character being killed is a) someone that would be difficult to make work in the modern day, b) redundant or somehow detracts from another, more interesting character (like the overabundance of teen sidekicks out there), and/or c) someone whose death could interestingly impact an existing character. When Alan Moore killed off Zatanna's father Zatara, it worked, because it fit all these criteria nicely--he was a fairly boring Mandrake the Magician ripoff, and killing him made Zatanna more independent, as well as complicating her relationship with John Constantine. As long as there's a sense that the writers have actually put some thought into the character and decided he or she would legitimately serve the story better dead, I'm OK with killing them off. Unfortunately, like so many other things, it's become a cheap shock tactic.

Calamity Jon said...

"She's not the kind of character where "power limits" matter. She's frikkin' DEATH."

Actually, I have to argue that when you have a character who is the embodiment of a mortal reality (and therefore _kind of an important character_ in the scheme of things), it's pretty important to define what relationship she has to that role.

When I said "powers" ("and authority", by the way) I mean that in the bureaucratic sense. So she is the "embodiment" of death, she has certain responsibilities and abilities related to that state of being. What are they? After eighty-plus issues of Sandman and spinoffs, I don't think Gaiman answered that question for any of the Endless characters well enough for another writer to have a clear idea of where to go with it ... If other writers didn't know what to do with the character, it's just as likely that Gaiman's tendency to play coy with the character fostered that situation.

-Your Humble Editor

Prankster said...

I disagree; I think it was pretty clear that she served exactly the same function as the classic Grim Reaper (she comes to get you after you die), except that, this being the DC Universe, she was occasionally too ditzy or too softhearted to do the job properly. There were aspects of the character that were left deliberately ambiguous--we never really saw her realm, alone of the Endless, I think--but I'd argue that's kind of necessary when you're dealing with the embodiment of The Ultimate Mystery. Obviously, ambiguity and superhero comic book writers don't always go together too well, so it's not surprising to me that she wasn't always well handled.

What really shouldn't have been a problem was being able to write dialogue for her, or shape her basic behaviour based on her personality as indicated, which came across pretty clearly in Sandman. Likewise, I don't see why "the kind of things she can do" need to be any more defined than they were--it's fairly clear that Death is meant to be a supporting character only, and a pretty passive one at that (even in her own miniseries, she's not really the protagonist), so figuring out what her Kryptonite seems mostly to miss the point. Yes, there are plot points that weren't defined (can Death be trapped or forced to serve a powerful being? It's hinted that she can, but not explicated) but these don't seem like the kind of thing that would have bothered Sandman fans. All you really have to keep in mind is that she's the personification of Death, and the kinds of stories you can tell with her seem to flow pretty naturally. I don't think you have to be a literary genius to see that a story where Delirium is murdered in an alleyway and Death adopts a new costume to hunt down her killers would be desperately missing the point of the character. If that's the kind of thing that was going on, I could hardly blame Gaiman for doing the occasional facepalm. (Maybe this would be the time to ask, exactly what were these stories that Gaiman was objecting to?)

None of this is to argue that telling a "dark and serious" story about the death of Metamorpho's sidekick isn't misjudged, of course. Though at the time I first read it, I had no idea who Metamorpho was and thought it was a decent story.

Calamity Jon said...

"I don't think you have to be a literary genius to see that a story where Delirium is murdered in an alleyway and Death adopts a new costume to hunt down her killers would be desperately missing the point of the character."

It's hard to have a real conversation about this when you choose to frame my argument as though I have a persistent head injury.

-Your Humble Editor

Prankster said...

I apologize if I seem condescending. I didn't mean to suggest that's what you were saying, merely that it doesn't seem that hard, to me, to write Gaiman's Death--but I can easily see that being the kind of thing that superhero hacks could make of her. (Remember the whole "Sleepwalker is Sandman done right" fiasco?)

So again, it would probably clarify things if you could tell me exactly what non-Gaiman stories are out there that misused her.

Matthew Johnson said...

IIRC, the story in question was one in Captain Atom in which Gaiman's Death was represented as just one aspect of death along with (again IIRC) the Black Racer and Nekron. Basically, Cary Bates was trying to do the Mark Gruenwald thing of fitting all of these contradictory stories together but Gaiman basically said nope, my Death is the real one.

Matthew Johnson said...

Here's the whole story:

Calamity Jon said...

Perhaps some of the disconnect here is because we're talking about writing "Gaiman's Death" rather than "The character Death", and while Gaiman had, in his mind, a very clear if indulgent vision of the character (which I'd still argue he wasn't sharing all that well with others, but I'll let that argument slide), he was writing her in what was at the time a shared universe and therefore he's got to realize someone else is going to have a different take.

That is, after all, a practice he benefited from immensely in Sandman, and he was happy to repurpose and reinterpret everything from Infinity Inc's Hector and Lyta Hall, the Golden Age and Silver Age Sandmen, the JLA's enemy Doctor Destiny, Simon and Grandetti's Prez to the full complement of DC's horror hosts, Wein/Moore's Matthew Cable and - natch - Haney's Element Girl.

In all of these cases, he envisioned the characters in a manner which suited his story, whether or not it fit with the character as previously established by other writers, so perhaps the case of whether other writers were "getting" what he was saying - whether he was sufficiently explicit with the character or no - is irrelevant, considering the substance of his own stories.

(Besides all that, as conveniently categorized as it is, I don't know that Bates was wrong; did Death ever claim anyone, in Gaiman's stories, who wasn't at least germane about their inevitable passing, if not ecstatic about it? I don't recall her ever escorting away anyone having a screaming red hissy fit about dying...)

Anyway, at the very least, can we all agree that the worst Sandman story is the one where he gets into an epic rap battle with a demon to win back his magic hat? Because that was ... that was just awful.

Fire2k said...

Gaiman has repeatedly talked about Death and the other Endless as interchangeable concepts - influenced by their surroundings as much as they influence them. It's basically how Starlin in Infinity Gauntlet or Krueger in Earth X envisioned Death(and much of the other gods, although both weren't as consequent - I mean, Master Hate, Mistress Love? Those are not good character designs, even for space gods! - or even more so, with the "everyone can be death"-approach).

I get that you think Gaiman treated Continuity like crap, and no argument there, but the point is, of all the authors that killed of people in the mainstream comic universe I only remember a few, and nearly none of them stayed dead. Gaiman's stories stand apart as something meaningful, all of them(although Element Girl really was a low point in comparison to the rest of his material). And even if you don't like the early material(like the whole "Doctor Dee"-Horror-stuff, a really good ripoff of his friend Moore), Sandman 50 should have easily made it all worth it.

Calamity Jon said...

I enjoy a lively comics debate and such, but I am really starting to get confused as to why the folks who are taking up the opposing position on the Element Girl story are also going out of their way to mention that it was a lousy story. GUYS. I WAS SAYING IT WAS A LOUSY STORY.

Your Humble Editor

Permanus said...

The Superman reference - was that Dave Sim in one of his Notes from the President or whatever they were called?

Calamity Jon said...

*ding ding ding* To where shall I send your copy of Youngblood #1?

Prankster said...

I think the point is that we're all agreeing that "Facade" is a weak story, but it's irrelevant to the point being made.

I guess the problem for me is tied into my issues with shared-universe superhero comics. I got into comics because of Sandman, among others, and only started to appreciate the mainstream DC and Marvel stuff later, so to me, the question of whether Gaiman is consistent in servicing continuity or whatever is not a big deal. Whereas I can see how someone who loved the DC Universe could be upset over the grittification of a character, or Gaiman trying to position his version of Death as more important than other versions. But it kind of seems to me that this is where the idea of trying to tell a personal story starts to conflict with shared-continuity stories; I think most writers have a right to be possessive of their characters, which is something that's hard to do when they're owned by a massive corporation, so a little grumbling is probably inevitable. (Though Gaiman didn't seem all that upset via the quotes in Matthew's link.) Anyway, I guess this is what Vertigo was created for.

Permanus said...

Oh, fa gosh sakes, Calamity, I don't wanna hold you to it! I just wanted you to be amazed by the fact that somebody else remembers. Tell you what: I once had a letter published in Cerebus in which I suggested giving Elrod a Danish accent in the event of a Swedish translation of the book. Tell me my name (it's not Rumpelstiltskin) and I will free you of your bondage!

BillyWitchDoctor said...

Remember when ex-Manhunter Mark Shaw (briefly) dressed up as a buccaneer with an eyepatch? Rejected ideas on his new-costume list must have included "17th Century Formal Gown," "Fresh Hot Tar on Back, Groin and Feet," and "Plastic Bag over Head--No Holes!"

Unknown said...

I actually liked the Privateer outfit BECAUSE it was ridiculous. And because the only story I ever actually saw it in was an issue of Suicide Squad where he beat Rick Flag black and blue in a classic "taking him back to school" moment.

Longenblog said...

You know, this is where I go when I get depressed about the ever-more-desperate reboots or recons or reentries that comic books do in a desperate attempt to attract a few new listeners or a few more fanboys to lay down some cash. You get me laughing about all of the absurdities of it all and for that, much thanks.

Wooly Rupert said...

Aw, I wanted to see Jon's version of Youngblood.

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