Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: “Star Wars. Nothing But Star Wars…”

star_wars_episode_vii_the_force_awakens-wide

Yo, fellow geeks! Are we holding our breaths? Can we squirm with anticipation for another day or two? Because, as you well know, this is the week. The latest Star Wars flick is about to open and hey! I thought the fuss surrounding the release of the last Batman movie was a big honking deal, but that, compared to the Star Wars fuss, was a third grade talent show.

At what point will we see it (and be assured that, despite our extreme maturity, we will see it because under our wrinkles live, well, geeks.) Will we be waiting at the 21-plex when its cute little machines and pleasant humans begin ticket-selling on Friday morning? Or will we exercise a little self-restraint and avoid the mall for another little while until the dust settles and maybe there’s a few more parking spaces? (But who am I kidding? It’s the holiday season and there will never be enough parking spaces, at least not until January. Then maybe.)

Television commercials and magazine covers and news stories…

Yep, big honking deal, all right and a stark contrast to the release of the first Star Wars entertainment, way back in 1977. I saw that almost be accident. I was doing something or other in Los Angeles when I encountered David Gerrold, science fiction writer and editor who had, bless him, published an early sf story of mine in an anthology. David was going to a movie screening and had an extra ticket and was I interested and… why not? I knew virtually nothing about the movie but David was pleasant company and the screening was in a theater owned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the Oscar awarders – which made it the toniest theater I’d ever visited. I was going to pass that up? Nope.

What followed was a great afternoon in the dark.

And Star Wars quickly became a hit (and helped spawn an interest in mythology) and, along with its sequels, has been in our heads ever since. All to the good? Shrug. I’m a pop culture guy – read: geek – and you’re not about to catch me knocking the stuff that’s given me so many good moments and, not incidentally, kept me warm and nourished for about a half century.

But I look at the news media and behold the shabby state of the world and wonder if, as a civilization, we aren’t paying too much attention to our amusements and not enough to matters that make us squirm, not with anticipation, but with dread. Global warming. Terrorism. Mass shootings. Mutating microorganisms. Racism. Education. You know. To find relief from the planet’s woes we engross ourselves in all things pop culture, and let’s include athletics and gossip in that category, and we neglect what’s genuinely important and when the world worsens from the neglect, we again run from the fear the neglect causes by seeking refuge in the trivia that, arguably, has been contributing to the worsening. Round and round and round…

But, you know? Maybe if we get to the mall early, before school lets out, we might find a parking space…

(The editor would like to thank Nick “Winters” for inspiring today’s headline. His Christmas special presently airs on Netflix.)

Dennis O’Neil: Wither Santa Claus?

Santa ClausLet us begin with a happy Christmas tale.

Once upon a time, Santa Claus came down the orphanage chimney with a sack full of comic books for all the boys and girls who had just murdered a meter reader. The children enjoyed the comics very much.

Part of the foregoing was a remedy for a mistake I made last week. What I didn’t do was mention comics, or anything closely related to comics or the vast domain of popular culture. And this is a website devoted to Things Comicish and so it seems only proper that comics/comicishness be at least mentioned … and, to fix firmly the relevance to the holidays, which seems to be the custom hereabouts, and avoid accusations of Scrogeiness, to end happily. All done now. Mea culpas finished. (This last is a shout out to the Catholics of my generation, who still remember the Latin Mass and has nothing to do with what comes next.)

While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s visit a house near the orphanage, the one at the end of the cul de sac. The Smith home.

First see the family baby, Janey, age six. She’s traumatized by something told to her by that snotty kid next door, Willie. He said that there was no Santa Claus. Janey thought he was fibbing until she caught Daddy unloading a Toys R Us bag from the station wagon. Daddy slipped on the icy driveway and dropped the bag and toys spilled out, all over the place and Daddy muttered something about visiting the North Pole on the way home from work and then Mommy, who had been standing on the front porch, said, “Oh for pete sake, how dumb do you think the kid is?”

“Plenty dumb” Daddy mutters, almost too quietly to hear.

It is as though there was an explosion in Janey’s head and suddenly she understood everything – daddy thinks I’m dumb! Santa isn’t real! – and before she opens the door to her room she is sobbing and has embarked on a lifetime of mistrust and disillusionment, Next Christmas, if she’s lucky, Santa will bring her an appointment with a therapist.

Meanwhile, Daddy has locked himself in his den and is at his desk, bent over stacks of papers and big, flat books, a pen in one hand, a calculator by the lamp. There is no way the figures offer redemption. When he factors in what he’s spent at the toy store, he cannot avoid bankruptcy. And foreclosure, probably.

At that moment, Mommy is behind the wheel of the station wagon, speeding toward the mall. If she can get there before the stores close, she will exchange the sweater she bought for her sister-in-law for something … different. Better. Classier and how the hell does she know what the old bitch will like, what kind of gift will forestall the snide remarks, the barbed whispers, the yearly humiliation?

Ten minutes ‘till mall closing. Does she have time for a quick stop at the liquor store?

Oh, before I go … Did something happen in San Bernardino last week?

Dennis O’Neil: Party On, Santa!

Saturnalia

Did someone say war against Christmas? If there is one, General Custer must be leading the charge. The season to be jolly is upon us and unless you find somewhere that’s very, very remote, and you leave your laptop at home, you won’t escape it, and the astute, or the cynical, among you will notice that it’s more about greed and profit than religion. There are a lot more Santas on the streets (and on the television and in the magazines and newspapers and candy wrappers and and and… ) than Baby Jesuses.

This is not news.

For at least a century, mammon and the Savior have been sharing year’s end. They’re crammed together in a season that grows longer every year and Santa’s elbows are bigger and sharper. The Lord is still present but, you know, kind of an afterthought – the kid in the corner.

In days of yore – extremely yore – the church was often the biggest building in the village because worship was considered the most important of communal activities. Everybody went to pray. Now… hey, anyone feel like comparing the house of God to the shopping mall?

But don’t come looking for the grinch at my back yard. Despite what some of you may have concluded after reading the paragraphs preceding this one, and despite what a Fox News pundit might say, I am not a Christmas hater. I think that it, in its various guises, is a genuine holiday, one that has served an evolutionary need.

We celebrate the holiday because it is useful. It is a festival of light and it comes when the trees are bare, the fields barren, and each today is shorter than yesterday. Somewhere deep inside, where our primal selves live, we’re scared. What if the sun shortens to extinction? What if the world will be forever cold?

Our ancestors found an answer. Have a party! Laughter and feasting and song and gifts and, yes, light, and feel the gloom lessen and hope begin.

Once, it was called Saturnalia. Now – Christmas. Next?

And if the buying and selling smothers the hope? Not good. Because we haven’t evolved past needing that hope.

Or at least I haven’t.

 

Dennis O’Neil and Patsy Walker: Reunited!

1945-patsywalker1Well, I’ll be swoggled! I do believe that’s Patsy Walker moving across my television screen. Haven’t seen her since we stopped working together at Marvel Comics a half-century or so ago. Wonder if she still hangs with her friend Hedy Wolfe. I heard that she became a superhero named Hellcat and the hero thing could put a strain on friendship, particularly if Hedy remained just a girl on the go-go. And who is this, coming to join Patsy? Darned if it isn’t Luke Cage, otherwise known as Power Man. (Brace yourself for a spoiler.) Didn’t he marry Jessica Jones somewhere along the line? Are they still an item? According to the story that’s materializing on my screen, they are, though I don’t see any wedding rings. Oops! Getting late. I’d better change the channel and…

Here we are, back in the “real world.”

What the first paragraph of this blather refers to is a TV series titled Jessica Jones, currently being streamed by Netflix. I haven’t seen it all yet – dang it, I’m old! – but that will be remedied in a day or two. Meanwhile, so far, so good. Acting, writing, action scenes, cinematography: check, check, check and check.

It’s not exactly a bundle of cheer. The story is grim and violent and the characters match the plot. What the film makers have done is to conflate superhero action with film noir, the bleak crime stories that flourished in movie houses in the 30s and 40s, and still poke their heads up now and then, here and there. It’s an existential world, noir is, where it isn’t a good idea to trust anyone, the rule book is generally useless, and cities are places of menace and shadows and ugly surprises.

Add some superheroism and you have Jessica Jones.

She’s not doing a solo. A few months ago, Marvel and Netflix gave us Daredevil, which was also heavy on the noir and looked a lot like Jessica Jones. The creative folk at those companies have found a neglected niche and are filling it admirably.

So Marvel has some characters that adapt well to a noirish treatment. What about Marvel’s arch rival, DC Comics? Any noir possibilities there? You’d certainly think so. One of their flagship characters is a night crawling avenger who is on a lifelong crusade against crime and who does not report for work at a police station.

Batman, of course. And in the course of his 76-year existence, Batman has occasionally qualified for noirdom. But only occasionally, in bursts. Want someone to blame (or credit?) How about Robin? Eleven months after Batman’s debut, he acquired a kid sidekick, a sunny lad clad in bright colors. Not the stuff of dark, perilous alleyways. Then there was a decade of inconsequential stories as the comics world recovered from witch hunts, and another few years of a comedic take on the series, and then…

Well, finally! In the comics, and in the movies directed by Christopher Nolan, a dark Batman. And a television series that is based on Batman continuity, though Batman himself appears only as his preadolescent self. Robin’s still around, but maybe not as prominent as he once was.

So both Marvel and DC are in the noir business, to one degree or another. If this were a contest, who would we judge the winner? Does anyone care?

Dennis O’Neil: Green Arrow For Mayor?

Green Arrow…and when I’m mayor I’m gonna build a big high wall all around the city to keep the bad criminals out and what’s more I’m gonna make the bad criminals pay for it. • Excerpt from Oliver Queen’s stump speech.

Well… not really. I haven’t heard Ollie’s speech yet (and perish forbid that I’d use this as an opportunity to lampoon a real office-seeker) and as far as I know, Ollie hasn’t perpetrated any campaign oratory yet, but it’s only a matter of time, right? Because he is running for public office. Wants to be mayor of the town. Hmph!

The venue where this is happening is a television show titled Arrow and this season it’s been edging closer to its comic book progenitor. The lead character is now calling himself Green Arrow just as his comics iteration has been doing since his introduction in More Fun Comics #73 (1941). These Wednesday evenings, when the show airs, he has taken to wearing a mask, just like his comics counterpart. How this affects the concept of his having a secret identity, I don’t know – didn’t a lot of citizens get looks at his maskless self in earlier seasons? Maybe not. It’s possible – dare we say “likely?” – that I missed a plot point or two.

Finally – and this may be news even to you comics folk – the comics GA also ran for mayor. If memory serves – and won’t that be the day! – the story appeared in the 70s and was almost certainly written by Elliot S! Maggin. (He likes the “S” followed by an exclaimer, and what the heck, it’s his name). Elliot was, and probably still is, a follower of politics who twice went to far as to be a Democratic candidate.

Now, we’re not in the draconian rules business here, so you won’t catch me decreeing that superheroes should never seek public office. Because I don’t absolutely know that to be true and if I did make such a pronouncement some wretch might come along and prove me wrong.

But it seems to me that superheroes and politicians occupy different, and maybe irreconcilable, domains. Politicians are, almost by definition, men and women of the people who work within the system and deal mostly with human-scaled problems. Superheroes, again by definition, are not of the people; they are differently abled and what’s superhuman about them causes them to attack problems beyond the capabilities of our uniformed public servants. Look at the early Superman stories: as his powers grew, so did his foes. It makes no dramatic sense for a chap who, at his mightiest, wrangles planets to chase jaywalkers.

So conflating superheroics and politics seems to be cognitively dissonant – two ideas occupying the same cerebral turf and bumping into each other. And that might be compromising the superhero essence more than is desirable.

Or it might not.

Maybe Elliot Maggin could clarify this for me. I wish I hadn’t misplaced his phone number.

Dennis O’Neil: The Pit and the Conundrum

Lazarus Pit

When big pharma hears about the Lazarus Pit it will, of course, take out a patent on it and then… oh, maybe offer it as an option at upscale spas. Oh yeah, the wife and I both took a dip in the pit. Pretty pricey – 11 million and if you’re already dead double that – but boy! Way, way better than a massage…

The Pit, as far as I know, doesn’t really exist, at least not in our world. It’s a fictional apparatus that first appeared in Batman #233, back in the dark ages – we’re talking 1971 – and, like so much comic book material, has recently migrated to television, specifically to a Wednesday night program titled Arrow.

The Pit was originally the exclusive property of a 400-year-old scamp named Ra’s Al Ghul, who used it to restore himself when he was on the threshold of the Great Beyond, or maybe a half step past it. It fixed him up, all right, but he emerged from it a raving lunatic, an affliction that gradually abated.

There were conditions: it was strongly implied that The Pit could work its therapy only on Ra’s and that it was slowly losing potency – a time would come when it did nothing for Ra’s except maybe wrinkle his skin; it was highly toxic, so if anyone other than Ra’s dived in, kaput, the end, exit screaming; and it had to be situated over a certain kind of energy vortex – you couldn’t just dig one in the back yard if you wanted to one-up the neighbors and their puny swimming pool. Later, like all that lasts, The Pit evolved: it would only work once per person, and, most recently, The Pit can do its medicinal voodoo-hoodoo on someone who was good and truly dead – none of this sissy only-at-death’s-door bushwa.

Good storytelling demands that limitations exist if you’re working in a serial form and you want to run the bring-‘em-back-alive scam. The question naturally arises: why not just revive everybody who dies and – oops! – there goes conflict, suspense, maybe some other plot elements, doggone it. It’s the storyteller’s job to answer the question.

In a recent Arrow arc, the good guys used The Pit to revive one Sarah Lance, who’d been dead quite a while – maybe months. The Pit did its stuff, but Sarah didn’t recover her sanity until somebody realized that The Pit had taken her soul. The heroes’ team did some procedure, Sarah’s soul was restored, and off they went to another adventure.

The soul business gives me pause. What kind of soul – whose definition are we using? If by “soul” we mean some immaterial thing that lives within us, we suddenly face a version of philosophy’s old mind–body problem: if the soul is immaterial, how can material things – The Pit, for instance – act on it? And if it’s not immaterial… where is it?

Maybe I should ask my guardian angel and get back to you.

Ed Note: That awesome graphic atop this column is from, and is ©, The Sports Hero (All Rights Reserved, so watch your ass), “Where Sports & Comics Collide,” which is a wonderful concept.

Dennis O’Neil: Our Superhero Posses

Flash Arrow Supergirl Archie

For rent: Secret laboratory. Ideal for mad scientists, superheroes and their posses.

Now, about those posses: time was when superheroes operated pretty much alone, or with a sidekick, who could be anyone from the original Green Lantern’s cab driving Doiby Dickles to Batman’s intrepid though preadolescent Robin. Oh, there were other continuing characters in your basic superhero saga – think Jimmy Olsen and Commissioner Gordon – but when it came to doing the daring deeds the folk in the costumes usually flew solo.

Then things evolved and –

Almost certainly, a lot more people will see Supergirl on television this week than ever read one of the Maid of Might’s comic books. She’s plenty super – give her that – and as bonuses, attractive and charmiing, but she doesn’t fight evil by herself. No, she’s allied with a brainy group of colleagues who hang their doctorates in a secret lab. And if we scan the videoscape, we see that Supergirl has peers. The other two television title characters most like their comic book inspirations, Arrow and the Flash, also have lab-dwelling cohorts who can always be depended on to have the information the good guy/girl needs.

Structurally, the three shows – Supergirl, Arrow, and Flash – are virtually identical. And, again structurally, they’re pretty close to Archie Andrews, that teenage scamp, and the gang at Riverdale High. The biggest difference is that the Riversiders have no laboratory, but nobody’s perfect.

There’s a lot to be said for adding pals to the superheroic landscape. They give the hero someone to talk with, thus allowing readers/audience to eavesdrop on vital exposition (though sidekicks can do this, too, and if you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Watson.) Supporting players can also provide story opportunities. And they can add texture and variety to scenes. And the occasional comic relief. And, by their interactions with the chief evil-queller, they can add depth to that individual’s psyche. But mostly they can serve the same function as those stool pigeons and confidential informants served in the old private eye and cop shows, the scruffies who always knew what the word on the street was: they can quickly and efficiently supply data that enables the hero to get to the exciting part, usually a confrontation.

Finally, the pals and gals give the hero what seems to be absolutely necessary: a family. It’s usually a surrogate family, to be sure, and it may not be much like your family, but it has a familial dynamic and it allows the audience to experience, by proxy, what might be missing from their real lives: a secure knowledge that there are people who can counted on, who will always forgive you and have your back. And such nearests and dearests have to hang out somewhere, so why not a secret laboratory?

And while they’re there, they can supply the location of that master fiend, the one with the purple death ray and the really atrocious table manners.

Dennis O’Neil: What Is Star Wars?

Heinlein_Waldo&MagicIncWe ended last week’s dissertation by asking if superhero stories are science fiction. You remember? Good. I cherish your acuity. And, acute citizen that you are, you have already broadened the question to include pulp stories and entertainments like the Star Wars franchise.

Let’s focus on that, for surely we are all familiar with it. The Star Wars saga has spaceships, ray guns, bizarre aliens and even a girl who is clad in a harem costume for no other reason, apparently, than that she’s awfully cute: all stuff that used to be staples of science fiction, especially the pulpy kind. But I don’t recall those words – science fiction – being used to describe anything Star Warsian. And the stories themselves contain no references to real world (universe) science or extrapolation from current reality. In fact, the storytellers go out of their way to deny any such connections: the first movie begins with the words “Long, long ago in a galaxy far away…” In other words, dear moviegoer, you can hunker back in your seat and forget about measuring what’s happening on the screen against what’s possible. Dammit, just enjoy!

But here a conundrum puts us in mud. If something looks like science fiction and acts like science fiction, don’t those qualities, in fact, make it science fiction? You’re asking me? (Perhaps I should have tried harder not to doze during those eight a.m. philosophy classes, though I don’t know if Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics would contribute much to our discourse.) As noted above, a conundrum, and one with no ready solution.

We know that civilization would be well-nigh impossible without classification, codification, grouping the chores that absorbed Linneaus and Aristotle and their ilk. We have to know what things are and we have to have names for them if we want to talk about them, which we do. Let us unequivocally approve of calling things names and giving those names precise meanings. None of which tells us what Star Wars is.

I’m hardly the first to address this problem. A few decades ago, around 1940, well before Star Wars, someone coined the term “science fantasy” for Robert Heinlein’s novel Magic Inc. Maybe that’s as close as we can come, right now. As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction tells us, “science fantasy” has never been clearly defined. So maybe we’re stuck with it.

But...bleech! Generally I feel kindly toward oxymorons and that’s what I believe this is, but something about it irritates me. It’s clunky, right? Can’t we do better by Star Wars? Find a new classification? Or… hmmmm maybe we’re in the process of evolving past our need to classify. And wouldn’t that be interesting, and significant, and just possibly scary?

Maybe they’ve already done it, those inhabitants of a long ago in a galaxy far away.

Dennis O’Neil: What Is Science-Fiction?

Hannes Bok

We saw a science-fiction movie a few days ago. And you shrug: so what? Is there a multiplex in the land of the free that isn’t showing science-fiction? Especially if you count superheroes as SF?

There are a couple of answers to that question. Let us discuss.

When SF first began to creep onto the nation’s newsstands, and much less frequently into its bookstores, it was pretty easy to identify. It dealt with science, technology, distant worlds, extraterrestrials and, with few exceptions, the future. The heroes tended to be stalwart, competent, practical. Scientists, or maybe military guys. The odd engineer or two. The women were…there. Plots turned on the kind of stuff stalwart, competent and practical gentlemen might find themselves involved in. Endings were generally optimistic. (We might encounter evil aliens out there between the stars, we noble humans, and they might give us a lot of grief, but in the end we kicked their ass, or whatever passed for an ass on tentacled monsters.) Fine prose was not much of a concern. Plot and plain vanilla storytelling – those were foremost. The literati scoffed. If it’s good, the canard went, it isn’t science-fiction.

Then came the changes, as young and very smart writers who valued literary niceties and had spent some time in science classes began to explore the genre. They experimented and expanded SF’s parameters, but one rule of their predecessors remained pretty much inviolate: Writers weren’t allowed to contradict was known about the real world. They could extrapolate and, in effect, guess about where new technologies and scientific discoveries would take us, but they couldn’t just make this kind of stuff up.

By this criterion there hasn’t been much so-called “hard science-fiction” on screens for years. (We might rationalize the mini-miracles in, say, Star Wars, and your correspondent might not be above such activity, but explanations aren’t included in the script.)

As for comic books… the editor-god of the field, Stan Lee, once told me that readers will believe what we give them because we give it to them. In other words, they want to be entertained, not educated. No harm in that.

But twice recently, as a matter of fact, I have experienced hard SF in my local multiplex. Last year there was Gravity and though some eminent scientists complained that plot events couldn’t have happened as they were depicted, by and large the movie stuck to what is. Great flick, too. And that SF movie we saw a few days ago: It’s called The Martian and like Gravity it begins with a scientific blooper, one that the film makers were apparently aware of from the git-go and were willing to ignore for the sake of storytelling. Like Gravity, The Martian delivers plenty of entertainment while sticking pretty closely to those pesky facts.

I doubt that anyone would refuse to call The Martian science-fiction, despite the relative lack of glitz and spectacle. So yes: it’s SF.

All those other movies, the superheroes and all that play fast and loose with those facts?. Are they not SF? Maybe that should wait till next week.

Dennis O’Neil: Keeping Up With The Avengers

Age of Ultron

Saturday night and the old folks are not in Manhattan attending the convention. For many con goers, Saturday night is par-tay time, as it was for me in days of yore. But not now. If we were there we wouldn’t be partying and anyway, we weren’t there, so why the blather?

So: ordinary Saturday night. Does that mean it has to be boring? Wellll… Hey! I know, Let’s watch a movie on teevee – and don’t let me hear anyone say that senior citizens don’t know how to rip it loose! But which movie (and must life be one dilemma after another)? Hey, I know! Let’s pay homage to the fact that we’re not at the convention by watching… a superhero movie! Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

But – darn these dilemmas – which superhero movie? We missed a number of films we might have been expected to see – pretty arid summer, cinema-wise – and so, with a bit of channel scouring, we should be able to find a satisfactory non-convention-attending entertainment.

And lo and behold, there it is, available at the on-demand channel, for less than half the price of one theater ticket; a movie we actually wanted to see but for some reason didn’t – The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Life is good.

But the movie…?

Let’s put it this way:

BANG BANG BOOM talk talk BANG BANG BOOM talk BANGEDY BOOMBOOM

Open on a protracted and noisy fight and then more of the same. Structurally, the film reminded me of the old kiddie matinees shown at neighborhood theaters, in which one plot/story was stretched over months by dividing it into chapters, each ending on a suspense hook to pull you back for the next installment. Here’s how it parsed: Protagonist encounters adversary in battles that end indecisively until one doesn’t and the good guy wins. If he’s a cowboy, maybe he rides off into the sunset.

As noted, the opening scene in Ultron is loud and busy. In this it echoes one of the not-quite-rules that my merry men and I observed when we were Batman’s bosses: open on action. But a comic book is not a movie and anyhow, our debut action didn’t eat up much print space. Oh, and it was quiet. Little mousey quiet. Quiet as ink on a page.

One of my worries – okay, a small worry – is that film folk believe that audiences have come to expect – demand? – large portions of pyrotechnics and noise and in providing it they neglect others storytelling techniques. (Already, unless I’m missing something, they don’t seem much concerned with rising action.)

But maybe I shouldn’t expect expert storytelling. Maybe these entertainments are really about spectacle, closer to the offerings of P.T. Barnum than those of William Shakespeare. And in that case… next time you’re seeing a superhero flick, be sure to pop for a 3-D screening. When it comes to spectacle…hey, can it ever be too splashy?