Author: John Ostrander

John Ostander: Annotating H4H, Part 2

This coming week, Marvel is issuing the second part of my work on Heroes For Hire and, as I did when the first volume came out, I thought I’d talk a little bit about it and why I made some choices that I did and what I was thinking when I created the stories.

Background info: my run on H4H began in 1997 and ran for 19 issues. The team was a corporate entity, hiring out groups of superheroes for various missions. Luke Cage and Iron Fist were the core, with the Original Human Torch, Jim Hammond, running the business. Lots of characters cycled in and out, the most constant being White Tiger, Ant-Man (Scott Lang), Black Knight and Thena of the Eternals. We also had lots of guest stars such as Hercules, Wolverine, Shang-Chi, She-Hulk and Deadpool who, not surprisingly, was featured on the cover.

Deadpool is probably one of the main reasons Marvel is gathering this collection right now, along with the fact that Luke Cage and Iron Fist both either have had or will have a series on Netflix that will lead into the Defenders miniseries. And, maybe, the fact that I wrote Suicide Squad and that movie is now out on DVD, Blu-Ray, and so on. Ah, name recognition!

Often the guest stars would appear depending on availability and also on with whom I wanted to play. That accounts a lot for Deadpool’s appearance. ‘Pool is a lot of fun to write; he has a deep streak of whacky and I like whacky.

In fact, the entire series has a deep streak of whacky as best exhibited by the narrator. The voice of the narrator started normally but rapidly developed into sort of a character of its own. I was influenced by Stan Lee’s way of talking to the reader, calling them “effendi” and promising to get them caught up when the story started in the middle of a fight scene (which is one of the best ways ever to start a comic). My narrator would complain about not being told what’s going on and once panicked when there was a crash and it appeared all the heroes were dead. She-Hulk, who was also a lawyer, later broke the fourth wall and fired the narrator. We had a new, normal narrator after that; even the font changed to establish this was not the “same” narrator.

I have no idea what readers thought but, hey, I was amusing myself.

Smack dab in the middle of this we had a five-part crossover with the Quicksilver book that I was writing along with Joe Edkin. That year, Marvel was doing “paired” Annuals and, since I was involved with both H4H and Quicksilver, they got paired. Joe and I had inherited a storyline involving the High Evolutionary, the Knights of Wundagore, Exodus and the Acolytes, and ultimately Man-Wolf. In retrospect, Joe and I probably should have wound up that storyline sooner than we did and gone on to our own ideas. We hoped that linking the Quicksilver book with H4H would create an event and would help increase the readership of Quicksilver.

It didn’t work out that way. Quicksilver actually got canceled and I think we hurt H4H in the process. There were just too many characters and plenty of switching sides. Maybe we should have had a scorecard.

The pencilers on the series were generally top notch. Pachalis (Pascual) Ferry was our regular penciler and he’s terrific. Very flowing artwork but with a sense of energy and excitement akin to Jack Kirby. Excellent storyteller, too.

My other favorite penciler remains Mary Mitchell for a lot of good reasons. I first encountered Mary at a Chicago Con; incredible storytelling skills, a great sense of architecture and place, and even minor characters seemed to have a real life. They all had their own stories and we could have followed those but we were following these other characters instead. I helped her get some of her first jobs and she eventually came to live with Kim Yale and me. She stayed during Kim’s fight with breast cancer and stayed after her death. Much later, she and I became a couple and still are but at the time of her doing the story in this volume, we were just good friends.

The story was a solo adventure of the Black Knight who was a favorite character of mine and who I had brought into the group.

Another favorite character that I brought into the comic was Mrs. Arbogast, the older and sometimes acerbic secretary who had worked for Tony Stark. She has a dry disdain similar to Alfred in the Batman movies.

We had lost some readership but it was growing again but this was the Ron Pearlman era when the company was owned and operated by bunch of people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing. One underling decided he would curry favor by saving money by canceling a bunch of books – including H4H. We didn’t really warrant it. Said underling then left the company a short time later. Such is life.

I’m proud of my work on H4H. My approach was consciously different from my work at DC; a bit looser, a bit more in what I considered to be “the Marvel manner.” A plot might not complete in one issue but end at the start of the next issue and we would then plunge into the next story. Sometimes the pace was a bit breathless and that was all by design. I wanted H4H to be fun and the best way to make that happen was to have fun myself. I did and I think it shows. If you take a look, I think you’ll have fun, too.

Excelsior!

 

John Ostrander’s Spare Plots

More than once over the years I’ve been approached by someone who says that they have a great idea for a story and that I should write it and then we split any money evenly. The problem with this (aside from the fact that the work is not even) is that I have plenty of ideas of my own that, for one reason or another, never get written. Having ideas isn’t the problem; executing them is.

Here are a few ideas I’ve had in my journal that haven’t seen the light of day.

  • Spectre/Batman Alt Worlds

An alternate DC Universe idea set back in the Thirties, we start with the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley, but this time young Bruce is killed as well. This sets off such a furor that something has to be done. Commissioner Gordon decides on someone from the outside and so brings in a tough as nails New York plainclothes detective named Jim Corrigan to clean things up.

Corrigan tears things up pretty well but finds himself as hamstrung as Gordon does. Frustrated, he gets the idea of an alternate identity and becomes the Bat-Man; however, this one carries .45s and shoots to kill.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s spirit rages in the afterlife about the injustice of what happened to him and his family. A voice offers him a chance at retribution and he takes it. A 10-year old Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham as the Spectre.

Inevitably, the paths of Bat-Man and the Spectre collide and leads to the ultimate confrontation. Corrigan dies and Bruce is stripped of the Spectre powers but given a chance to live his life again. He becomes Gordon’s ward. In the meantime, Corrigan is given the mantle of the Spectre.

Why didn’t it go? This would have fallen under the “Elseworlds” banner and DC has stopped doing those.

  • Star Wars: Han Solo miniseries

This one is set between Episodes IV and V when the Rebel Alliance is hidden on the ice planet Hoth. Mon Mothma, trying to negotiate for another planet to join the Alliance, is grabbed by some space pirates and held for ransom. If the Alliance doesn’t want to pay up, the kidnappers will sell her to the Empire.

Leia and Luke are off on separate adventures but Han, Chewie and the Millennium Falcon are on hand. Han knows the kidnappers and tells the Alliance leaders he should bring the ransom and get Mon Mothma back. He figures that the Princess would like that and, who knows, he might be able to claim at least part of the ransom as a reward. The plan includes double crossing the pirates, including some old acquaintances.

It all gets more complicated when the Empire learns that the pirates have Mon Mothma and dispatch a Star Destroyer with Darth Vader to grab Mon Mothma and dispatch the kidnappers. Han gets a hold of Mon Mothma just as the Empire shows up and its all a mad scramble to escape the pirates and the Empire.

The tone was meant to be light and fun and focus on Han as a rogue.

Why didn’t it go? Right around the time that I came up with the idea, Dark Horse was losing the license to the franchise. Marvel, who got it, doesn’t appear to be interested in those who did Star Wars for DH. I don’t blame them; they want their take on it.

  • Legion

DC has/had been having trouble re-launching its venerable Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH). Is the concept – teen superheroes routinely saving the galaxy – outdated?

I like jumping stories down their own timeline; witness Star Wars: Legacy.  I thought I’d jump this narrative down its timeline by 500-1000 years. The United Planets no longer exist; the LSH is nowhere to be found. The Khund Empire rules and Earth itself had been shattered and is an asteroid ring around the sun. Super-powered beings were barred or restricted to their own planets.

In all this a young man emerges; the only name he gives is Legion. He has with him several LSH flight rings and he travels through the galaxy trying to find super-powered beings to join him in an attempt to overthrow the Khunds.

Since I like what I call narrative alloys, this was an attempt to cross the concept of LSH with Star Wars.

Why didn’t it go? DC had its own plan for the LSH and I guess they thought this would muddy the waters. Or they just didn’t like my take.

There’s lots of other ideas and concepts in my journal and/or my computer. Two of them will be up this year; Tom Mandrake and I (with Jan Duursema) are preparing Kros: Hallowed Ground for the printer right now and then Jan and I will be completing Hexer Dusk. Both are independent projects funded through Kickstarter. Both have taken a lot of thought, energy, and effort to realize.

So, as you see, the problem is not a lack of ideas. Everybody gets ideas. The problem is what do you do with them. Some just never come together and some never get an okay. So you file it and move on to the next. You work at what’s working but you don’t lose track of the ideas you’ve had. You just never know.

 

John Ostrander: Jack Kirby is Still King!

I may have told this story before but I’m at an age where you repeat yourself a lot. And it’s germane to this column.

Years ago, when I was still somewhat new to the industry, I was working the First Comics booth at a Chicago Con along with my lovely wife, Kim Yale. A group of pros walked past me that included Julie Schwartz, the legendary DC editor, and Roz and Jack Kirby.

My jaw dropped and I started hyperventilating. Kim gave me a strange look.

“Pssst! Julie!” I whispered. I knew Julie from DC, at least somewhat. Ever affable, Julie came to the table.

“Whatcha want, kid?”

“Introduce me to the King!” Julie gave me a strange look.

“Whattaya talking about? It‘s just Jack. Come over and say hello.”

“No no no no no! I can’t! Don’t you understand?! He’s the King! Help a guy out, wouldja?”

Julie looked at me like I was demented, which I probably was. He just shook his head and said, “C’mon, kid.” I was still young enough to be called a kid… comparatively speaking.

Julie took me over to the group and made the intro and Jack Kirby shook my hand and said “Hi. Howareya.” I made noises resembling words. I think my voice cracked. Kim would later tell me that she watched her husband turn into a 14-year old boy, complete with zits a-poppin’.

I freely admit it. Jack Kirby was the King and, despite making my living in comics, I was still the fan-nerd I had always been.

And still am.

Many of you out there will know all about Jack Kirby and will need no explanation, but some of you might.

Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was born in Brooklyn as Jacob Kurtzberg and got into the comics biz in the Thirties which was the dawn of comics. He took out time for World War II and then came back and worked for a number of different publishers.

What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.

  1. Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.
  2. Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.
  3. Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.

He and the other titans of his era invented comic books, for cryin’ out loud! Without the King, there is no Marvel Universe, let alone the Marvel Movie Universe! He created or co-created Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, the Howling Commandos, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers, Black Panther, the X-Men, the Inhumans, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Loki, and the Hulk – among so many others… including Groot! At DC he created Darkseid, the whole New Gods, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, Challengers of the Unknown (only one of the great titles in DC history), the Boy Commandos, The Guardian and gobs of others! And he did a whole posse of Westerns and co-created the genre of romance comics! He turned out three or more penciled books a month plus the occasional oversized Annual! My brain explodes!!!

(I don’t know if you can talk about Jack Kirby without using exclamation points!)

So here’s to the King! I did eventually wash the hand that you shook; Kim insisted. However, you were and are one of my comic book heroes and I’m glad I had the chance to meet you.

John Ostrander: Star Wars Annotations

One of the nice perks of being a pro is that the companies send you complimentary copies when they publish your work. Recently, Marvel published another volume of Star Wars Legends that included some of my Star Wars work originally published by Dark Horse. Although no longer considered “canon,” they’re still in print which is cool by me and gives me an excuse to leaf through them and talk a little about the thinking behind them.

This particular volume is dubbed “The Clone Wars – Volume 1” and has work by several different creators in addition to myself and my artist and collaborator, Jan Duursema. Our editor, Randy Stradley, came up with a thought around the time Episode II came out – having started the Clone Wars at the end of Episode II, George Lucas was going to skip to the end of the Clone Wars at the start of Episode III. Randy proposed to Lucas Film Licensing that we do the Clone Wars in the comics since Uncle George wasn’t going to go there. This, of course, was a long time before there was any talk of doing an Animated Series of the Clone Wars.

Jan and I at the time were the regular team on Star Wars Republic but we left shortly to do a continuing series of oversized bimonthlies under the heading Star Wars: Jedi. Each issue would focus on a given Jedi from the films. We did four of them before going back to the monthly book. While we enjoyed the extra pages of the Jedi series, we liked weaving our storylines in and out with each other and the monthlies provided a better platform for doing that.

We focused a lot on the character of Quinlan Vos, who we had created for our first SW story. Quin was not your usual Jedi – he had been given amnesia, he had troubles with the Dark Side, and could be something of an anti-hero which we would explore even further with Cade Skywalker when we did Star Wars: Legacy. With Quin, we could explore some of the same territory that Anakin Skywalker covered without being tied to one outcome. Everyone knew Anakin fell to the dark side and became Darth Vader but Quin’s fate was undetermined.

I had fun with lots of little touches that show in this volume – I named a character after a good friend, I had prisoners being pressed into service on an impossible mission a la Suicide Squad, and I created a Jedi based on Sean Connery. We called him Shon Kon Ray and he lasted all of one page in Jedi: Shaak Ti before getting blowed up real good. The fans are a sharp bunch and spotted the Connery allusion and, strangely enough, I got a lot of mail and email and chatter lamenting his coming and going so quickly. There was a lot of potential in him, I’ll admit, but that underscored the reality of war, even one as unreal as the Clone Wars. Characters/people that you liked, even if meeting them only briefly, suddenly died.

That also underscores one of the questions and themes that ran through almost all of the stories that Jan and I did in this volume. Are the Jedi on the wrong side in this war? It’s a given that the Republic is corrupt. The Jedi themselves are meant to be peacekeepers and in the Clone wars they are dragooned into being generals. They are supposed to revere life above all and yet they send soldiers to their deaths. War being war, innocents suffer and there is a lot of destruction. In every story, someone who is a Jedi wonders what the Order is doing.

In the Mace Windu story, Samuel L. Jackson. . .err, Mace Windu. . . rationalizes that the Jedi support the principles on which the Republic was formed and not what it’s become. But that is debatable and, in the Count Dooku issue, the Count challenges the notion. Dooku, of course, is a Sith and the Sith are playing both sides against one another in order to weaken and destroy the Jedi. The Republic ultimately votes to transform itself into an Empire and a Sith becomes the Emperor.

When you get right down to it, it’s all rather dark and I found the stories in this volume perhaps more suited for this age than the one in which it was written. I claim no foresight; it was simply a question I felt worth exploring. Can you be a hero if you fight for something that is wrong?

That’s a question still worth exploring.

John Ostrander: Quo Vadis 2017?

Well, it’s 2017. The very first day. It’s the time of year when folks look backwards into what has been, and try to give it some perspective and look forward to what may come. It’s also when some folks make resolution of what they’re going to do differently now that they have a clean slate. I don’t. It’s not that I don’t have many faults to correct (I do) but I know I won’t even remember them in a week or so, let alone keep them.

What I’m going to do is look forward, not with predictions, but what I would like to see in the coming year in pop culture.

I’d like to see the Fantastic Four published again— but only if Marvel remembers what they’re about. This isn’t just a team, it’s a family. You can’t remove one and plug in someone else. And family is often messy. One of the great things about the FF in its early years was that they didn’t always get along. That resonated. Later, it became a cliché but that’s because the squabbling felt pro forma and not organic. Squabbling became part of the formula instead of revealing character and relationships. It wasn’t new; it became rote.

The other thing the Fantastic Four was about was discovery. It bounced from one new idea to the next – Galactus, the Inhumans, the Negative Zone, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, and more. It was always throwing out new concepts. This is why it was the foundation of the Marvel Universe. It’s why it was indeed what it proclaimed on its masthead: the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

Which is the next thing that I’d like to see this year – more new ideas, more imagination. There’s a lot of that, for sure, in the Independents but the Big Two could use a shot of both. Changing the sex, race, ethnicity of a created character doesn’t qualify in my book especially since, sooner or later, the character will revert to who/what they were. It’s always happened in the past.

I’m not arguing against diversity in comics; I’ve always done diversity. Witness Amanda Waller, Oracle, Mr. Terrific (II) and so on. Switching existing characters isn’t the same thing; not in my book. It becomes just another stunt. Create new characters, make them cool, and put some push behind them. Add them to your comics, your movies, your TV shows, your animation, your video games.

Wait, there’s a rub and I know what it is. To do that you need Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Will Eisner and so on. You need creative people and they would prefer to keep those characters for themselves, put on a Kickstarter, and own the rights. Corporate doesn’t want to do that; they prefer to do endless regurgitations and variations on what they already own. Slap a new coat of paint on that baby! That’s the ticket!

Why should creators sign away their creations? What the Big Two has to offer is bigger sales and possible translation into other media. Some creators still won’t go for it but others will— if they have a share of what comes in and some measure of control.

I’d also like to see a new definition of metahumans in society. Marvel made a big difference when it started up because their heroes had psychological problems, personal concerns, and often were acting out of guilt over something. Marvel became successful because they seemed new and closer to the world in which the rest of us lived. It re-defined the genre.

That was fifty years or so ago.

How about another re-definition that fits our times, our lives as they are lived now? Brian Michael Bendis certainly did that with Powers, for example. How about a whole line of comics that does that? Wouldn’t that be better than Civil War II (III,IV) or Crisis on Infinite Somewhere? Start by looking around and asking, “How can we make our universe more like the world outside? Make it mirror the questions and concerns people have right now?”

Anyway, that’s my rant. . .er, wish. . . for the New Year’s. Feel free to join in. What is your wish list for the coming year in comics? Not predictions; what do you want this year? Could be interesting.

And Happy New Year to you all.

John Ostrander: Happy Christmas, Doctor Who

There are all kinds of traditions connected to Christmas. One tradition in our house is the Doctor Who Christmas Special playing here on BBC America. If you don’t know, Doctor Who is the looooong running BBC series about an alien time traveler and his (usually) human companion(s) who all travel through time and space having adventures. The Doctor regenerates into a new body – and a new actor – when his current body is at its end. If you don’t know the series and/or don’t care, you can probably skip this column.

There was a sort of Christmas Special as far back as the first incarnation over a half-century ago, but mostly it’s only been over the last ten years. The latest one will be tonight (if you’re reading this on Sunday). The first in this series began after the show returned from a sixteen-year hiatus and featured the Doctor’s tenth incarnation, played by David Tennant, and his companion, Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, and Rose’s mother and her ex-boyfriend. The episode was also our introduction to this incarnation, the Doctor having just regenerated in the previous episode.

It’s a good, solid, interesting episode, establishing the new Doctor’s persona. The plot is about an alien invasion (the episode is called “The Christmas Invasion”) and written by showrunner Russell T. Davies; it’s sturdy enough and there are some nice Christmas touches like a Christmas tree that becomes a spinning instrument of death. The Doctor is recovering from his transformation and is in a coma for most of the show but when he finally snaps into action, it’s a treat.

By the following year, the Doctor has just parted with Rose Tyler and is feeling mopey when a woman in a wedding dress just materializes in his TARDIS. The woman is Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and she is “The Runaway Bride.” She’s outraged, abrasive, and very rude to the Doctor who she holds responsible for her abduction. Russell T. Davies again did the scripting and this one is a hoot. I’m a big fan of Donna and was very pleased when she eventually returned as a full-time companion.

The next year brought us “Voyage of the Damned,” again written by Davies. The Doctor, temporarily without a companion, finds himself on an alien, space faring replica of the Titanic during a Christmas party. Why would aliens have a Christmas party and a replica of the Titanic? Just go with it.

There is, of course, a disaster and the Doctor must lead a group of passengers in a “Poseidon Adventure” like attempt to get to safety. One of them is a waitress, Astrid (played by pop singer Kylie Minogue) who looks as if she will be the next companion. Alas, no. Too bad; I thought she had promise. It’s fairly somber for the season and really could have been set at any other time. It’s okay but only okay.

Christmas Special #5, again scripted by Davies, is “The Next Doctor.” Our Doctor travels to Dickensian London and encounters someone who could be his own next incarnation. Interesting concept. He also encounters an old foe, the Cybermen, including a gigantic robo version. That part is sort of weird but there’s some very nice touches in the episode including David Morrisey as the “Next Doctor” who showed he could have played that part very well. The ending is kind of goofy though and I found it far fetched… which is saying something for this show.

Onward. The following year presents up with “The End of Time” and it is both David Tennant’s and Russell Davies’ respective swan songs. It’s a two-parter with the first half shown on Christmas and the second half on New Year’s Day. Put simply – this one is a mess. I won’t pretend to explain it because I’m not sure I fully understand it. David Tennant’s Doctor gets a “farewell tour” at the end when he should simply be dead. It is interesting to note that Tennant’s tenure began in one Christmas Special and ended in this one.

Stephen Moffat became showrunner the following season and Matt Smith replaced David Tennant as the Doctor. I run hot and cold on Moffat; sometimes he is simply brilliant and other times he’s too clever by half. He got into taking other Christmas stories as the inspiration for what he’s writing in his Specials. This year it was A Christmas Carol and the episode was also titled “A Christmas Carol.” It takes place on an alien planet and, among other things, features sharks that swim in the atmosphere. Over all, more than a little odd and, for me, it doesn’t really work.

On the other hand, the following year brought us the “good” Stephen Moffat. This episode. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” takes its cue from C. S. Lewis’s classic Narnia story “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This one is really good; simple straight ahead plot, touches of comedy, and deeply felt emotion with a nice bit at the end that makes me tear up.

The following year’s offering, “The Snowmen,” introduces the young woman Clara (played by Jenna Coleman) who, in slightly different form, will be the Doctor’s next companion. The Doctor has suffered a devastating personal loss and has retreated to Victorian London and is in seclusion. He wants no part of the world. That, however, wouldn’t make for very interesting TV and Clara, through her spunk, draws him out. I’m not as crazy about Clara as Moffat seems to be but this episode works all right. The setting is fun ans the supporting characters are great, especially the alien butler, Strax. I love me some Strax.

Which bring us to the ninth Christmas Special, “The Time of the Doctor.” This is Matt Smith’s swan song as the Doctor and it’s too bad because the episode is wretched. There is a planet called Trenzalore that has a town called Christmas filled with humans. Why? Who knows? Moffat tries to reconcile every offhand prophecy and prediction he made along the way about how this Doctor would end and its labored and beyond incredulity.

Next Christmas is better… but not by much. It’s called “Last Christmas” and it starts with Clara, on the outs with this Doctor (now played by Peter Capaldi), encountering Santa Claus on her roof on Christmas Eve. The Doctor shows up and he and Clara go off to the North Pole, not to Santa’s workshop but a research station that’s having the crabs. Well, crab like aliens. Things happen within dreams and there are dreams within dreams. Somebody else sort it out; my brain hurts.

Last year we had “The Husbands of River Song” and this may be my favorite of the Christmas Specials. It features the inestimable River Song, played by the inestimable Alex Kingston. River is the time-tossed daughter of the Doctor’s former companions Amy and Rory and, by the way, she’s also the Doctor’s wife. She has a way of traveling through time and she and the Doctor keep meeting in a non time linear fashion so they always have to check where they are in their own time lines in the diaries they keep for this purpose. (“Spoilers!”) At this point, she has not yet met this incarnation of the Doctor and therefore doesn’t recognize him. The adventure is fun and outrageous (with River, things often get outrageous) and ends perfectly – romantic and sadly sweet.

This year is titled “The Return of Captain Mysterio” and, from the previews, it appears to have a masked and caped superhero (supervillain?) which definitely is not usual for Doctor Who.

Over all, I’d have to say that while some of the Specials were indeed Specials, some tried too hard to be “special” and as a result were not. The good ones, however, were really good. We’ll see what Santa Moffat has left under the tree for us this year. Naughty or nice?

So – while I’m here – let it be said before I fade out of sight,

a Merry Christmas to all…

… and to all a good night!

John Ostrander: Suicide Squad The Movie Redux, Redux

Completing the trifecta of John Ostrander related items suitable for putting under the Christmas tree, today we have the Suicide Squad movie now out on DVD, Blu-Ray, and assorted other platforms that I don’t understand. The movie came out in August and now, just in time for Christmas, it’s out for your home theater.

This may be a trickier recommendation than my previous two because, although the movie did very well in the theaters, not everyone was a fan. In fact, some hated it. Me, I loved it – but I admit to a slight bias.

The version I got was the extended version with the bells and whistles – extended scenes and bonus features (which I’ll get to in a minute). I’m not always crazy about extended scenes or deleted scenes; more often than not I can see why they were cut. Although there was a scene in The Godfather between Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son (Al Pacino) in a hospital corridor set early in the film where Michael angrily tells his father “I will never be like you! Never!” I still can’t believe they cut it.

However, I like the extended scenes in the Squad. I think they filled out the story, added characterization, and explained one or two things. It doesn’t take care of all the flaws. For example, (SPOILER ALERT) after the climax Deadshot rightly asks Amanda Waller, “How come you aren’t dead?” It’s not answered and it’s a fair question; acknowledging a flaw doesn’t correct it.

The plot is a little too “save the world” for my taste; when I wrote it, the Squad didn’t really do that. There are other flaws as well, all of which I admit, but I had a good time every time I watch it and I did again. The good very much outweighs the bad so far as I’m concerned. I love the character interactions and Amanda Waller is so Amanda Waller for me. They had read and knew the source material and made a fine adaptation of it. I’m gratified.

And there’s a bunch a special features and, if you’re a fan of mine, you might be interested that I’m in some of them. I sat down and did a video interview and parts of it were incorporated into the special features. If you’ve read/heard interviews with me in the past, you’ve probably heard the stories I tell here. Not everyone who watches this will have heard them, though. I suppose I should find a new way of telling these stories but it’s practiced and professional the way they are now and, I think, moderately entertaining. So now I have my name not only up on a building in the movie, I’ve told my story in the background feature.

It is odd to watch myself in the video. I always have a disconnect between myself on the screen and my own self-image. Do I really sound/look like that? I guess so. I look presentable and sound reasonable and that’s not always the case, so I’m content.

Should you buy the home version if you were not crazy about the film in the first place just to see me blather? No, absolutely not. If you didn’t like it before, even the addition of extended scenes and (ahem) me will not improve that for you. However, according to Amazon, the Blu-ray is among their best sellers in action/adventure so I guess there are plenty of folks who are enjoying it.

A second Squad movie has been announced as in development but with no release date yet set or any other particulars so far as I know. I’m looking forward to it.

Now, if we can just convince Warners to make a movie of Tom Mandrake’s and my version of The Spectre. Heck, I’d pay to see that one!

In the meantime, Happy Holidays to you all. Whether you buy a John Ostrander related item or not.

Ho Ho Ho.

John Ostrander: Suicide Squad Redux

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Oh, you lucky kids.

As I pointed out last week in this column, there is a plethora of John Ostrander related material out there this month for you to buy. You’d think it was Christmas or something.

In the previous column occupying this space, I talked about the first volume of my Heroes For Hire series put out by Marvel. This week we’ll look at Volume 5 of Suicide Squad from DC that is coming out December 27. This one is titled Apokolips Now and the major story arc in the volume takes the Squad to the home of the nastier set of New Gods, Apokolips.

Lots of stuff happens in this volume. Three members of the team die, some walk away, some long running subplots are put to rest – including the revelation that Barbara Gordon is Oracle. By the end the volume, the Squad’s existence has been exposed and so has Waller’s running of the team… and she winds up in prison. Lots of story is crammed into this one TPB.

I want to focus for the moment on the first story in Volume 5. It’s one of the Personal Files that my late wife and co-writer, Kim Yale, and I would do from time to time. Each Personal File would center on one character and through them we would see other members of the team. There was never a mission in the Personal Files; you could think of it as an “All Sub-Plot” issue but I think they were highly effective and, as I recall, very popular with the readers.

This time we focused on Father Richard Craemer who was the spiritual adviser to the Squad. That probably sounds odd but the Squad was secretly headquartered in Belle Reve prison that had an active convict population and Craemer was also prison chaplain. In addition, Craemer was also a qualified psychological therapist and served the Squad that way as well.

Craemer is one of my favorite characters and Kim and I had a very definite agenda in creating and using him. At the time, almost every time you would get a priest or minister or preacher of what have you in comics, they were hypocrites – venal, and frankly rather despicable characters. That simply wasn’t either my nor Kim’s experience. That’s not to say those types aren’t out there and the revelation of pederasts among the clergy is well documented and, frankly, sickening. But not every member of the clergy is like that. It became a cliché, a stereotype.

However, Kim and I both had near relatives who were in the clergy. Kim’s father, the Reverend Richard Yale, was an Episcopal minister, a Navy chaplain and a counselor. My mother’s sister, Sister Mary Craemer, was an administrator at Mundelein College in Chicago and later was very active on behalf of senior citizens. Both were very good people and we wanted a character who would reflect that. And as you may have noticed, we borrowed from the names of them both to create the name of our character.

Father Craemer has a lot of humility and a great sense of humor which he needs in dealing with Waller and the members of the Squad. He listens and he treats everyone with empathy. It’s a known fact of my background that I studied to be a priest (one year, in my freshman year in high school, and my so-called “vocation” came from an overdose of Going My Way).  It’s possible that Craemer, to some extent, might be a projection of what I would have hoped I would be as a priest. Not entirely; Kim was a part of his make-up as well.

Craemer has sessions with several members of the Squad and its support staff; the session with Count Vertigo dealing with manic/depression comes to mind and I’ve heard from those in that community that it was a very accurate portrayal.

I so enjoyed Father Craemer that when he left the Squad I brought him over to The Spectre to be the spiritual advisor to the Wrath of God. Craemer never got the easy gigs.

All in all, I think Richard Craemer was a very successful character and there’s a reason for it. We thought the character through. Just don’t write the cliché. If that sounds obvious, well, a lot of basic writing rules are obvious.

So run out and get yourself a copy of the latest Suicide Squad collection. Get several. Give them out as gifts. People will thank you. And if they don’t, well… I do.

John Ostrander: Heroes For Hire Redux

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Boy, do I have Christmas gift ideas for you! Volume 5 of the Suicide Squad reprints, Apokolips Now, goes on sale December 27 (okay, it just misses Christmas). The extended blu-ray for the movie goes on sale December 13. And Marvel is releasing the first of two volumes gathering my Heroes For Hire work on December 20. You’re right, we want all your monies.

Today I want to talk about H4H. It was a team book whose members included Iron Fist, Luke Cage, White Tiger, Black Knight, Ant-Man, Jim Hammond (a.k.a. the Original Human Torch) plus assorted guest stars rotating in and out such as Hulk, She-Hulk, Hercules and, eventually, Deadpool – who shows up in Volume 2 out in late January.

heroes-for-hireIt’s not hard to understand why Marvel is re-issuing the stories in a TPB. Luke Cage is on Netflix and Iron Fist soon will be, they’ll both then appear in The Defenders, and there’s some serious buzz about a Heroes For Hire series as well. There’s a little luster on my name as well right now because of the hoopla about Suicide Squad.

The series was originally set in the Onslaught Era where some of Marvel’s heroes, specifically The Avengers and the Fantastic Four, were thought to have died in battle with a being called Onslaught. In reality, they wound up in a pocket universe from which they would eventually return. Their absence left a power vacuum in the Marvel Universe where other teams, such as Heroes For Hire, were formed to fill the void.

The book was originally going to be written by Roger Stern, a fine writer and Marvel mainstay, but after putting the team together and plotting the first issue, Roger felt that his workload was overcommitted; something had to give and, at that point, H4H was easiest to jettison. However, Roger recommended me to his editor, Mark Bernardo, as his replacement. Mark and I had worked together on other Marvel projects such as Blaze of Glory and an incarnation of The Punisher so Mark was more than willing for me to take over H4H.

I had previously done Suicide Squad over at DC so I was interested in seeing what I could do with a team book at Marvel. I had long been a Marvel fan; at one point, I was an even greater Marvel fan than a DC one and was reading almost everything Marvel put out in those days.

I’m really glad to see H4H reprinted; it became a very different series for me. I plotted it more loosely in a very freewheeling style. Sometimes a story wouldn’t end in one issue but overlap into the next and then plunge right into the next plot.

One of the stranger conceits that I developed was the narrator, the person who speaks in the caption boxes. He got very strange. As early as the third issue, he was addressing the reader directly. It started as him being a Stan Lee type, calling the readers “effendi” and promising to get them caught up as he went.  I especially remembered Stan doing that in Spider-Man and it always stuck with me.

This narrator got out of control, however, throwing in pop quizzes and sometimes panicking at what was happening to the characters. He eventually was “fired” by She-Hulk. How’s that for odd?

I always like playing with continuity when I can and there was one element in Luke Cage that I had fun with. Cage is very street tough but, when he swore, he’d say, “Sweet Christmas!” Understandable at the time given language restrictions in comics when Cage was created as a Marvel blackploitation character.

Lot of people thought “Sweet Christmas!” was ridiculous but I gave Cage a reason for using it. When he’s mocked by an opponent during a fight about it, Cage informs him that his grandma objected to swearing and that “my grandma is tougher than you!”

There are some quiet moments as well that I loved. Namor comes over to the building housing H4H and visits Jim Hammond. In their younger days they had been occasional foes and then allies during WW2,along with Captain America in The Invaders. The scene is just the two of them talking as old friends and Hammond gets out a joke that makes Namor laugh hard. “Firebug,” he tells him, “you kill me.” It’s just one page but I really love it.

My penciller on the series was Pascual Ferry, a Spanish artist, and his stuff was and is amazing. The storytelling is wonderful, there’s a Jack Kirby like sense of energy in his work, he has lots of enthusiasm and energy as well as talent and skill and I simply loved working with him. He’s very professional and a great guy to boot.

The tone of what I did in H4H is very different, I think, than anything else I’ve done. There’s just a lot of fun in it; I was consciously trying for a very Marvel feel and I think this, along with my Marvel westerns, are some of the best work I’ve done for the House of Ideas.

As I said, the second and concluding volume of H4H will be published at the end of January and I’ll come back and talk some more about that when we get there. I got to work with one of my favorite artistic partners before the series ended. In the meantime, if you’re a fan of my work I can recommend this to you. Not everyone has seen it and I think it’s worth seeing.

As Stan the Man used to say, Face front, true believers. Because that’s where the future is coming from.

Excelsior.

John Ostrander: Siddown and Shut Up!

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There has been a bit of tension since the surprise victory of Donald Trump on election night. There are many on the Left who are vociferous in not liking or accepting the outcome, and there are plenty (not all) on the Right whose attitude appears to be “We won, you lost, get over it.”

A couple of incidents stand out. Vice-President Elect Pence attended a performance of the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Some of the audience booed him and, during curtain call, the cast read a (I thought) polite letter explaining their concerns about the upcoming Trump/Pence Administration. I’ve seen objections that doing so was rude, out of place, and (in the opinion of the President–Elect) it needed an apology. There are those on the Internetverse who evidently believe that politics have no place at a Broadway musical; Pence was there to be entertained, not lectured, and the cast should just sing their little ditties and behave themselves.

Some Trump supporters declared they were going to boycott Hamilton, a feeble threat in that a) it’s theater and they wouldn’t be caught dead in a live show, b) it’s sold-out for the next two years, and c) Hamilton is already a political statement, using a variety of musical styles (including hip-hop) and color-blind casting.

I’ve seen different artists have also made statements either on Facebook or Twitter, including Sarah McLaughlin and Bruce Springsteen, and have been verbally pummeled by trolls. I saw one posting regarding Springsteen that said he should just sing his little songs and shut up. Did this person ever listen to Springsteen? There are those who think that the song Born In The U.S.A. was a nationalistic or even jingoistic anthem. They might have listened to the chorus, but they ignored the verses.

Art is not merely there to entertain you. Art is meant to challenge, to show different perspectives, to introduce new ways of thinking and feeling. The best way to open a mind is through the heart and art is the best way to do that. A closed mind comes from a closed heart.

A song, a drawing, a story, a dance, a touch of theater – these can all open heart and mind. It’s why authoritarian regimes always look to control and dictate the arts, to turn it into propaganda; the arts are dangerous. They should be. That’s part of their value to society. They can challenge established notions and perceptions, in small ways as well as large.

Some of the more virulent responses to artists dissent on Trump that I’ve seen are disdainful. They denigrate the artist and the work. “Siddown and shut up!” they seem to say. “Our side won and we don’t want to hear it! We don’t want to put up with whining little babies!” Some even go misogynistic suggesting those that don’t support the manly Trump are bitchy little girls. (Yes, I’ve seen that, too.)

These are all examples of cyber-bullying. They seem to believe they can make others shut up. They’re predictable, they’re pathetic, and it won’t work. The bullies don’t get it; this is what artists do – they speak up, they challenge, they question. It’s in the DNA. Donald Trump will need to grow a thicker skin and not get into Twitter wars with musicals, Saturday Night Live, and stand-up comics. He won’t win and he won’t look good losing.

The next four years are going to be interesting.