If you’re a comic book editor, you’d better hope you have, though, if you did, you probably called them, these squinkas, something else. Scripts, maybe.
I was introduced to the word, squinka, by a gentleman who certainly was an editor, one of the two or three best I ever worked for in a career of something like 50 years (which just goes to show you what can be achieved if you manage to breathe regularly and often. Ooops! I just let it slip – the secret of success in the writing dodge. If the writer refuses to breathe, the rest of it is irrelevant.)
Before beginning his long and illustrious stint behind a desk at DC Comics, young Mr. Schwartz was a literary agent whose specialty was peddling science fiction stories to the pulps – fiction magazines that were garish and cheap and widely available. Even after Mr. Schwartz migrated to DC, he maintained an interest in science fiction, which was occasionally manifest in the kind of comics he produced, the kinds of stories he liked to tell, and the questions he asked, often about the folk he knew from his agenting days, when imaginative tales were tainted with disreputability. They were, you know, trash.
That calumny didn’t seem to bother SF partisans much. Writers continued writing, editors continued editing, artists continued picture-making and gradually, the taint faded and then, somehow, the aficianados began to number in the millions and the production costs of the film versions of this trash climbed into the eight-figure neighborhood.
Rewind back to comics’ youth, when the medium was week-by-week and month-by-month inventing itself and creators might not have their tool kits in order. To be specific: they might not have had industry-wide formats or even names for everything they produced.
Motion pictures had been telling stories for some 35 years and had developed a vocabulary – necessary to facilitate communication, if for no other reason. But these here funny books? They were the new kids on the block. Their ancestors were arguably the aforementioned movies, newspaper comic strips and those naughty pulps, all of which shared certain similarities with the comic books. But they weren’t the same, not by a stretch.
So, I’m guessing, somebody saw a hole and decided to fill it. Neologisms anyone?
But the new word wasn’t very healthy. It didn’t last long. I never heard anyone, in or out of comics, use it. By the time Roy Thomas brought me into the comics herd, it had come and gone. I wouldn’t know that “squinka” had ever existed if I hadn’t stumbled across it in a collection of stories, articles and essays by Alfred Bester titled redemolished. Bester was, among other things, the recipient of the first Hugo, an award given to the creator of outstanding works of sf and, believe it or not, one of Mr. Schwartz’s clients. And a comic book writer; Green Lantern comes to mind.
I don’t know if Mr. Bester ever said “squinka” in his dealings with comics editors. Now days, nodding to his television colleagues, he might just say “script” and run for the subway.
Drew Ford has spent the last few years of his life dedicated to bringing classic out of circulation comics and graphic novels back in print in beautiful restored editions. A fierce advocate for creators such as Sam Glanzman, Drew has brought back multiple books of his work, a graphic novel from David Michelinie, another graphic novel from ComicMix’s own Denny O’Neil, and many more. This was originally done through Dover Publications until Drew founded It’s Alive! Press, an imprint of IDW.
Drew’s latest project is bringing Family Man, by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton, back in print through a Kickstarter campaign. You can view the campaign here.
I got the chance to interview Joe Staton this past weekend about Family Man.
JC: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about today about Family Man! Before we get into that, you’re a comics veteran with over forty years of work under your belt. You’ve worked on comics like E-Man which you co-created, All-Star Comics, a long run on Green Lantern where you created the Omega Men with Marv Wolfman, and have more recently worked on the classic character Dick Tracy. Which of all your comics work is most meaningful to you and why?
JS: And thank you for the interest in our project. You’re right, I’ve been at this for a while. I suppose if I come down to what’s the most important to me it would be E-Man, the Helena Wayne Huntress, my runs on GL with Marv and Steve Englehart, and my current work on the Dick Tracy strip. I had the chance to develop characters sort of off on a tangent from what was expected. E-Man was somewhere on the border of funny and serious, Helena was the product of Earth II, where everything was an alternate take on DC history, my work on GL got me into visualizing SF aliens, always some of my favorite stuff. Tracy, I’ve always wanted to do. With Mike Curtis we’re trying to plug into classic Chester Gould while seeing Tracy as part of pop culture from the 20s up through now.
JC: Since I’m a big Legion of Super-Heroes fan and have read a lot of your work on it, I was wondering if you could humor me and talk a little bit about your time on that title.
JS: Paul Levitz brought me into the Legion without me knowing a lot about them. I was supposed to be part of a rotation with three or four other guys but for one reason or another, they dropped off and I wound up doing the most of a run. I was never able to get a handle on the characters as super-heroes so I got into the science fiction elements. It’s just lately that I’ve realized that the heart of the series is “teen romance in space.”
JC: Okay, now onto Family Man! What’s your elevator pitch for Family Man?
JS: One hour into the future, society and government in New York City are crumbling. The only forces that still maintain order are the Mob and the Church. Alonzo, a gangster, and his brother Charles, the monsignor, face each other for control.
JC: So how did you end up collaborating with Jerome Charyn, a very accomplished writer in his own right, but not so much in comics?
JS: Editor Andy Helfer was putting together a line of nontraditional crime books mixing regular comics types and people from outside. He knew that was something that I would be up for. I was originally scheduled to work on a book with Pete Hamill but Pete never got his script in and Andy suggested that I might work with Jerome. I had read Jerome’s work and thought that was a good idea. I’ve recently learned that Jerome had originally wanted to be a comics artist. But rather than go that way, he’s written around 50 novels and nonfiction. His earlier interest in art made it natural for him to describe visuals to tell a comics story.
JC: The vast majority of your published comics work at this point in your career was in superhero comics. What did you have to do differently to tackle a story like this? What was the same?
JS: Much of my work was in super-heroes, but partially that was just a function of what was being published. There was work in super-heroes. And even then, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve often wound up working on stories that are a bit outside the usual take on heroes. And I do have a history with crime and detectives. E-Man’s sidekick is Michael Mauser, the unsanitary PI. I worked on the Mike Danger comic strip with Max Collins. Chris Mills and I have our series Femme Noir, which was originally a tribute to The Spirit. My basic interests are SF and crime stories, rather than so much super-heroes. Turned out Family Man was a good fit.
JC: Much of your prior comics career was in monthly comics. Family Man was originally done as three 96-page digest comics. How did you approach working in this format? What were the challenges and benefits of it?
JS: I was drawn to comic strips when I was a little kid, especially Dick Tracy and ThePhantom. I learned to think in terms of comic strips before I came to comic books. Jerome had quite conveniently written Family Man as four-panel and it would be in a square format. Four panel, square, lay them out in a row, and you have a comic strip. There is occasionally a two-panel page, rarely a single panel splash, but the comic strip concept still fit. For me, it wasn’t a question of monthly as opposed to a limited format, it was going from comic book pages to comic strip. Since Family Man wasn’t going for super-hero exaggerated foreshortening or pyrotechnics, it was comfortable in the squares.
JC: What about Family Man makes it an important story to you?
JS: In terms of what a “graphic novel” actually means, we need to remember that Jerome is an accomplished novelist. A novel usually implies layered storylines and characters and that’s what Jerome has provided here.
JC: It’s been twenty-two years since Family Man first came out and it has not been in print for the vast majority of that time in between. What about this story rings true today and would attract a new generation of comics readers?
JS: “One hour in the future” turned out not to be the future when the book was written but with us turning away from the structures of government and society it may be a future around the corner today.
JC: Why is It’s Alive Press the best place for Family Man and why is crowdfunding the best way to fund reprinting it?
JS: Drew Ford is repackaging solid projects that didn’t quite find their audience, maybe because they never had a proper collection or came out from smaller presses or whatever. Things like Sam Glanzman’s USS Stevens stories, Trina Robbins’ Dope. Family Man should be right at home at It’s Alive Press.
JC: Before we wrap this up, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk with me and ask you if there is anything else you’d like to mention about the Family Man Kickstarter currently running or if you had any other work you’d like to note?
JS: As we’re speaking the Kickstarter still has a bit of a way to go, a few days left and some cash still needed. I hope everybody will head over there and contribute and get some nice premiums. As for other things, keep an eye out for an upcoming issue of Charlton Arrow, which will start to feature a new three-part E-Man from Nick Cuti and me. That should be out this summer. And I continue to draw Dick Tracy with writer Mike Curtis, available here. We just lately finished the big crossover between Dick Tracy and TheSpirit. It’s all archived at GoComics.
And thanks again for the chance to plug Family Man, Joe.
Yes, I’m that kind of elitist. I prefer to admire (and, if possible, hang out with) people with imaginations, people who like to be challenged, people who appreciate the arts. All the evidence (this, for example) suggests that our newly installed Commander-in-Chief has no such interests.
We’ve already seen some public reactions, by artists and audiences, to the new administration. American Muslim comics can band together, in solidarity and support, to amuse and enlighten themselves and the rest of us.
And we’ve seen that Trump, whatever his intentions, seems to have aroused the curiosity of the public. After his recent attacks on Congressman John Lewis, bookstores around the country sold out of March, and it went to the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists. Since the book has been out for quite a long time, and it was already selling well, I assume that the new sales come from people who are curious about why so many people sprang to Lewis’ defense. In the process, they get to read an amazing book.
I don’t mean to imply that only art with a progressive point of view is worthwhile. I don’t think that culture has that kind of a litmus test, or it would get boring really quickly. I even like some pop culture that comes from a different point of view.
For example, I’m really enjoying binging on Blue Bloods, a show which seems to think all police departments (but especially New York’s) are fabulous, that all cops are great, and the ones that are not are dealt with swiftly because the good cops are so ashamed of the bad ones. At the same time, people who don’t like or who mistrust the police have something seriously wrong with them. That’s not how I see the NYPD, but I’m fascinated by this chance to understand those who do.
While I’m not looking forward to the next two years (longer, if we screw up the midterms), I am anticipating some exciting art. And I’m happy to be living in a time when comics are respected as part of the cultural landscape.
It is harvest time. The Green Market is a riot of colors, and I can’t seem to eat fast enough to take advantage of the riches of the season. I spend far too much time worrying about what to cook so that I don’t have to throw away any of my beautiful produce.
This might seem like a stupid thing to obsess about — why don’t I just buy less? — but it’s far better than my other current obsession, which is to wonder if I should have kissed that guy I like, and, if so, would there have been tongues, and had I brushed my teeth recently enough for that to happen. Often, it’s no fun inside my head.
No matter. Too much good food is not a bad problem to have. It’s certainly better than the obsession with death that seems to be once again encroaching on American superhero comics, a genre I like because it’s often full of hopeful fantasy. Here and here and here, just to take three examples from various rumor mills around the ‘Net. (Beware! Those links contain spoilers.)
I know that heroism involves risks, and that death is a part of life. I’m just bored with killing off characters as a stunt to get attention. It makes story- and character-driven deaths less meaningful.
So let’s talk about vegetables. Superhero vegetables.
Alas, Captain Carrot is not, in fact, a vegetable. And Swamp Thing can be food, but he can also be poison, since he can be any plant he chooses to be.
With the growing concern about children’s health, it’s not a surprise that parents want to find ways to get their kids to make healthier food choices. And it’s not a surprise that these parents, thinking that superheroes are kid stuff, would try to co-opt the vocabulary and imagery of comics to tempt their children.
I don’t know what you might like to eat, or what variety of nutrients makes you feel your best. Because we are human and capable of infinite variety, you probably have a different list than I do. I find that whatever I want to eat, I want to add more vegetables to it (except for, maybe, ice cream). In the process, I suppose I am causing the death of these vegetables, or at least creating the demand that is the incentive for farmers to kill them.
It’s possible vegetables have feelings. Whether that is true or not, they have more life than a fictional character.
With a wavering hand, I cracked the seal on Green Lanterns: Rebirth #1 and Rebirth: Green Lanterns #1. That was not a typo. Just the crazy dumb way DC Comics wanted to release the first pair of issues concerning their emerald knights in this new and lovey-dovey DC Comics era. I read both books while my four-year-old bathed.
“What’s that dad?” He inquired. “Dat Gween Wanturn?”
“No, it’s not. Why there two? There not two Gween Wanterns…” Why indeed, Bennett.
Why indeed. Well, as Geoff Johns and new scribe Sam Humphries are rebirthing the GL universe, they start with two distinct directions. Stalwart GL Hal Jordan is called off-world to deal with yet another massive threat that threatens the Corps whilst Earth is defended by a pair of rookie ring slingers: the he’s-not-a-terrorist Simon Baz, and the shut-in-Marc-never-heard-of Jessica Cruz. BazCruz get the flagship Green Lantern book, whilst Jordan will get his own series. And never shall the two meet. Or maybe they will. Who knows?
Concerning myself only with the sans-Jordan book for now, yields a rocky – if promising – start. As I myself came into reading (and loving) DC books by way of Kyle Rayner, seeing rookie ring bearers makes me nostalgic. One of the tent-poles of DC has long been their ability to create legacy in their brands that feels fresh. As the generation that grew up with Rayner, Wally West, Conner Hawk, et al, seeing Baz and Cruz under the domino masks feels like a necessary breath of fresh air. With Jordan off-world, there’s a sense of the larger scale the Lanterns hold in the DCU. And it’s hard not to like the deeply rooted buddy-cop vibe within the new series.
Like all good buddy cop pieces, Baz and Cruz play well off of one another, in spite of the dual-narration script device that forces the reader into lonely territory. Both Baz and Cruz are still light in the loafers when it comes to their characterization. In spite of whatever past exists for them both, I myself here am basically a virgin reader. I read the very first arc of Baz as GL, and frankly forgot it all by the time I cracked the spine on Rebirth. In the broad strokes, he’s the brash, violent, potentially chauvinist ring-slinger prone to hurl a construct first and bark orders at his partner… than to assess criminal situations.
This pairs well then with Jessica, whose lone trait thus far is that she was a shut-in prior to receiving her ring. Normally I’d take pains to look her up on Wikipedia, but I consider this my test of Sam Humphries’ scripting abilities to win my eyes for subsequent issues. Cruz plays the role of good cop decently. She is seemingly more cautious and more curious than Baz. The interplay between them truly feels like a police partnership. When Cruz is shot in the chest with a shotgun by a Red Lantern human puppet (more on that in a second), Baz screams for his partner, but not in that rote Oh my! I loved you all along! way. It’s a scream of concern. No surprise the ring came in handy in ensuring Cruz wasn’t immediately construct fodder. It helps to show both of them being bad at their job.
And what of that job? The big bad of the issue(s) is the Red Lantern Corp leader, Atrocitus. Seems that the New52 wasn’t so kind to his legions, as we find him choking out lead lieutenant Bleez whilst he complains of the dwindling number of red recruits. Never mind the irony of nearly killing one of your own, mind you. Seems yet another prophecy (Red Lanterns love ‘em) about the “Red Dawn” is coming. Helpful then of course that Baz develops Emerald Sight. Apparently the Oans loved Thundercats. But I digress.
Atrocitus sets in motion the erection (natch) of a Hell Tower, as well random Red Lantern recruitments of normal Earth folks, turning them into angry bile spewing meat puppets consumed with random fits of rage. Useful I suppose, as it will provide ample opportunity for Baz and Cruz to decide between using maximum force on would-be rage monsters… or attempting to break the blood curses through less violent ways. And hey, worst case scenario? Baz carries a sidearm because he don’t trust whitey. Ugh.
Ultimately, Green Lanterns: Rebirth is a promising (if a bit slow / shallow) start to a new series. Rookie heroes make mistakes, which make for good drama. Having two obvious minorities filling the role of Earth’s Green Lanterns add a ton of potential for new perspectives on old problems. The potential here is enough to sign on for more. Whether Humphries can deliver on the police procedural structure while delivering originality and depth will remain to be seen… like so much of Rebirth thus far.
It’s been no surprise to my readers (hey everyone!) that I’ve been on something of an animation jones, something fierce. Well, with Young Justice successfully binged on, Netflix suggested I check out a little known show… Justice League. Bruce Timm’s multi-parter masterpiece was the first time the significant seven (pre New52, Flashpoint, Final Crisis, but post Crisis, ya dig?) were assembled to face off against the biggest baddies of the DCU. Mongul, Despero, Faust and Hades, Gorilla Grodd, and yes: Ocean Master (sorta). To be clear: I’ve seen the show. Often. But something has always troubled me about it. That trouble? John Stewart… the milquetoast affirmative action Green Lantern.
Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and their well-crafted production staff assembled an amazing septuplet. The holy trinity: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The best B-Listers money can buy: Green Lantern and the Flash. And for clean up… Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. On paper, it all makes sense. Deuces are wild; Supes and J’Onn are the aliens adopting Earth, Diana and Shayera rep all of lady kind, Flash is choas to GL’s order, and Batman is Batman. I’m only going to focus on our representative Lantern for the sake of clarity.
I fully acknowledge, welcome, and love that Timm “went to the bench” to recruit Stewart. Hal Jordan is, was, and will likely always be the poster child of the corps. But in addition to not being another white hero, John Stewart as depicted in the animated series was inherently the anti-Jordan. Where Hal is a known hot-headed cocky flying codpiece, Stewart is a level-headed jarhead who fills out the ranks of the League to make plans and execute them. It’s fun to denote that our Flash in this series is also Wally West. Fitting then that Timm and team flips the script on the original Brave and the Bold. Where Hal was the cocky to Barry Allen’s careful, Wally is clearly the team’s impulsive recruit. But I digress.
What pains me to no end are the continual choices made throughout the show in regards to John Stewart’s character, both in and out of the space pajamas. We’re given no intro to him. He merely shows up, starts barking orders, and firing bubbles and beams (which I’ll be dedicating a whole block of prose to momentarily). With apparently less personality than anyone else on the team, the post-pilot reintroduction of the ring slinger offers us up a civilian Stewart: in a three-quarter length leather trenchcoat, walking through an urban neighborhood, while light funk/jazz twinkles away in the background score. You can practically hear the honkies checking off each box on the black character checklist. The episode in question (“In Blackest Night”) riffs on the destruction of Xanshi from 1988’s Cosmic Odyssey, but swaps Stewart’s pulpy pride for a soldier’s guilt for wanton destruction. Spoiler alert: it was all a plot by the Manhanters. Big robot fight. The day is saved when John recites the oath of the Green Lanterns really heroically. Guilt? Gone.
From here, Stewart was an also-ran. Aside from the now-quippy Caped Crusader, Stewart was often relegated to wet-blanket status. Torn between constant chiding of Wally, or hitting on Shayera. Late in the series, Stewart will have dated Vixen (because, black people, natch), but ultimately land Hawkgirl as his bae. They fight a lot. But, you know. They make a cool mixed-race Hawk-kid in the Batman Beyond universe. All this lovey-dovey stuff? It’s what they passed for dynamic character development. Whereas every other original Leaguer would eventually get a truly deep and amazing moment (Batman with Ace on the swings, Superman vs. Anti-Life Darkseid, Shayera’s betrayal, et al) John’s mostly left to knock boots and make bubbles.
And what of those bubbles?! For the life of me, I’ll never understand if Timm and company had budget issues or something. Because John Stewart, in ownership of the most powerful weapon in the universe, would only muster beams and bubbles to serve his purpose. In the comic, Stewart ring slings with the best of them – with Hal once describing his constructs being literally built from their interior structures out due to Stewart’s civilian life as an architect. But in his animated life, John is relegated to clearly the simplest solution, always. They even make a latent potshot at it during Unlimited where a de-aged Stewart (donning Kyle Rayner’s crabmask) builds intricate and cool constructs to battle bravely with. Obviously in the future, he loses his imagination. It’s a low-down dirty shame, kiddos, I tell you what.
Ultimately, this is one of the nittiest picks I could have droned on about, but it was on my mind. The opportunity to break the mold came and went with John Stewart in Justice League. It’s a shame that over the course of five seasons, they simply couldn’t aspire to do more than the absolute basics. And now, with a new League being formed for film… I can’t help but be worried.
In brightest day, or blackest night,
I expected more from John Stewart’s light.
Let those who disagree flame me bright…
Beware my comments, Marc Fishman’s right!
This past week has made me reflect on life and death. Some of it has been personal, some of it has been David Bowie related, and some of it has been comic book related.
Despite never having met David Bowie, he’d been a part of my life for a while with his music, movies, and other works. And a celebrity of his status is hard to not be reminded of, regardless of if you’d like to avoid him or not. From his music being in a many films, to just hearing his songs in played on the radio, bars, and grocery stores, Bowie is just so entrenched in our pop culture that he’ll live on for the rest of my life, even though he physically hasn’t.
Comic book story lives and deaths are a little different. I probably didn’t need to tell you that, but it sounded like a good segue so here we are. Character deaths in mainstream comics are becoming more and more a staple of the medium. The increase in character deaths is leading to an increase in characters coming back to life. Oddly enough, characters who would sell a lot of books with their deaths get killed off (see Superman, Batman, Phoenix, Wolverine and more!) or characters that no one seems to know what to do with (see Coagula, Kraven The Hunter, and more!). Just like real life!
When it comes to characters coming back to life, it’s a bit harder to suspend your disbelief. At least for me. And I’m not saying that to mean in these worlds with alien worlds, alternate dimensions and time travel (just to name a few) that someone coming back from life is where I draw the line. It’s more just sad how these fictional characters we know and love seem to put more effort into bringing back their pals that sell books than bringing back all of their good friends, relatives, and innocent bystanders they’ve watched die over the years. Always comes down to the bottom line with these superheroes. It’s a damn shame. I know I’ve plugged X-Statix before, but if you haven’t read it the book does touch on that point.
Anyway, the big two used to at least try to take a break between ending lives in their comics and starting up lives again. Currently Marvel is advertising that they have a character coming back to life and a major character death coming up soon. The line between life and death in mainstream comics has become so blurred, with brief lives and briefer deaths. All as the ultimate gimmick to keep you wanting more.
This hasn’t always gone off without a hitch. Alexandra DeWitt’s death in Green Lantern sparked enough outrage to create Women In Refrigerators which helped to launch Gail Simone’s career. More recently, Joshua Fialkov quit a gig writing Green Lantern because they planned on killing off prominent black superhero John Stewart.
These two instances do have similarities. Yes, they’re both controversies in the various Green Lantern comics, but that’s not what I was getting at. It’s that both instances involve killing off characters that are not straight cis white guys. In one they’re killing off a woman, and in the other they’re killing off a black man. In both, the idea was to kill off a character that would have motivated at least one straight cis white man to take action and do the right thing. In one, Kyle Raynor was pushed to stop Major Force at all cost, and in the other different Green Lanterns would have been motivated to solve the mystery of who killed John Stewart. The latter of which caused such an uproar that DC cancelled its plans to kill off John Stewart.
And all of this got me thinking about deaths in comics and how it’s linked to diversity. Death in comics can be a double edged sword when it comes to diversity. On the one hand, if you’re only killing straight cis white guys, isn’t that implying that the only characters worth killing off, the only characters that could elicit a strong emotional fan reaction straight cis white guys? On the other hand, if you kill off a woman or minority character, wouldn’t you just be depleting from the already small (albeit growing) pool of women and minority characters in comics, and possibly using it as a tool to push a straight cis white guy to action?
I’m sure we can all think of a lot of potential examples in our heads right now. What if Marvel killed off Steve Rogers (again)? Sure, that’s making room for Sam Wilson to really assert himself as Captain America even further, but in a way doesn’t it have the implication that Steve Rogers is more important? What if Marvel killed off Sam Wilson? Wouldn’t that lead to Steve Rogers somehow probably taking the role of Captain America back, taking a step back in diversity as the cast of characters gets just a little more white and a little less black? It’s something to think about. At least I’m thinking about it.
If they would just come back anyway, then that’s not great for diversity either. In DC Comics 52 series showcasing the aftermath of Infinite Crisis, we got characters like Batwoman stepping up, and The Question passing the torch from Vic Sage to Renee Montoya, as Batman and Superman and some others are out of the picture. It was a flirtation with diversity that ended with our beloved white heroes Superman and Batman coming back from obscurity as Batwoman and The Question fell back a bit. The Question has even went back to being Vic Sage after The New 52 reboot. Go figure.
DC has other examples of this, like bringing back Hal Jordan as a Green Lantern instead of maybe delving more into John Stewart, and more. Over at Marvel, they killed off Wolverine, and now X-23 has taken the reigns in her own book All New Wolverine. Speculation of Wolverine coming back (Not Old Man Logan, who is already back, but the real deal Wolverine) in 2016 has been high. If he comes back, isn’t that a step backwards for diversity? Even if they still try to push X-23 as Wolverine, won’t it eventually just move back to Logan? They must know that over at Marvel, and that makes it a little troubling to think that they would be willing to undermine their own progress. Maybe they won’t though, but it’s something that’s more than possible, it’s likely.
Often character deaths in mainstream comics lead to brief lives of those that take their place. The Death of Superman brought us Steel, but since Superman’s return he’s often been used very sparingly and rarely with much thought or creativity outside of his original creative team. These are all just some examples of life and death in comics, and how they can work against diversity or hold diversity back. If Marvel and DC are really going to take diversity seriously, they may need to let the dead rest in peace.
I understand it’s complicated, I know that no one wants to throw away an opportunity to make a few bucks, and work for hire contracts keep many creators from wanting to invest their hearts and souls into characters they don’t own. However, something needs to change. Some of the current ideas in mainstream comics need to be allowed to die, and new ones need to be born and thrive.
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.
As I stared blankly past my blank-canvas-of-a-computer-screen this evening (and yeah, I totally know you’re reading this Saturday morning…), my eyes have rested on my still-mint-in-package Kyle Rayner Action Figure. It’s his post-crab-mask, post-Jim-Lee, pre-New-52 costume. He sits in line with representatives of all the Lantern spectrum – Saint Walker, Atrocitus, Larfleeze, Sinestro, and Indigo. Whoops, never did buy that Star Sapphire figure, did I? Oh well.
There was a time, in what I’d wish was the not-too-distant past (it is, I did the math, ouch), where my toys would not find their final resting place on a half-mantle, still sealed in clamshells. They would be free-air action figures, posed in intricate dioramas, depicting my favorite scenes from books past. And slightly before that time (yes, so, I’m really starting to feel old), these same action figures would sit in a toy chest, ready to do combat on the coffee table, and zip around the basement. No worries, Batman can fly too. He installed rockets in his boots. Which is why there are holes in the heels.
Action figures have come a good long way since the 80s (when I’m personally professing the true boon began). The Transformers – once blocky and spindly in the same breath – are now multiple lines deep, featuring both highly intricate sculpts as well as animated-inspired designs offered in the same shelf-space. And where we comic fans might pray for a chase rogue packed deep in the line of a Batman or Superman series, now we’re getting B, C, and D listers being sold en masse. And where the action figures of yesteryear were either choked with articulation points (G.I. Joe) or confined to four or five (Batman: The Animated Series), now, we have offering from each pole and everything in between. And accessories? What was once a series of mono-color swords or missiles, is now a litany of swapable heads, hands, guns, and pieces of other figures.
And what of those Build-A-Figures? Pure marketing genius. How better to force kids and their grown-up counterparts to part with errant assets for otherwise unwanted figures in a line? Well, pack in that much-needed torso of the Anti-Monitor or Galactus, and suddenly the demand for Batroc the Leaper or G’nort goes through the roof.
If I’m allowed to kvetch for a second though, allow me now to digress. With the mass of plastic übermenches choking the aisles of the local department stores, there still seems to be a few big gaping holes left to plug. As usual, the girls aren’t getting as much attention as the boys. We’ve come a long way from just the pink aisle for the girls – packed tightly with 17 variants of the same white Barbie (sorry, Michael Davis) – but there still seems to be the stigma of corporate focus groups when it comes to complete diversity via toy lines. Look no further than The Avengers movie tie-ins, where Black Widow can’t even seem to negotiate a spot on the damned packaging, let alone get a figure to call her own. Where or how little girls are supposed to get their ass-kicking in, I don’t know. Maybe release a pink Thor and call it a day?
Girl-power aside, I’m also surprised that there’s no push of the ole’ action playset anymore. Back in my day a kid coveted those gargantuan homes for their action figures to pummel one-another on. To be totally fair? I only went over to Kyle’s house (Kyle Gnepper, of Unshaven Comics infamy) because I’d heard he’d had the Technodrome. Bastard never let me see it up close either. Suffice to say, perhaps it’s because of the price point or production woes, but when there’s 19 different Hulkbusters all coming to the collectible shelves near you… why isn’t there a half blown-up Triskelion awaiting the kiddies under the Hanukkah bush? Digression over.
So, what of my titular question? What makes a great action figure? Here’s the truth: imagination. Nothing more. No accessory too detailed, sculpt too perfect, or pitch-perfect point-of-articulation mean a hill of beans without the very life-force of a toy. Toys breed creativity for those willing to cut open their clamshells.
Now, if you’ll excuse me… I need to act out a better ending to Geoff John’s War of Light.
Way back before your daddy was born – yes, it’s you I’m talking to – I wrote some superhero comic books that were based on real-life events and I guess they were successful. They got artist Neal Adams and me noticed and they’ve been reprinted and reissued in various formats and I still find myself autographing them at conventions. So yeah – successful. But I have two regrets about them.
The first is that the most of the problems they dramatized are still with us some 45 years later – the world has changed enormously but we still have racism and poverty and addiction and judicial malfeasance and especially climate disruption. I was worried about this stuff back in the day and I’m more worried now.
My other regret concerns my frame of mind when I was writing the stories. To me, it was obvious that what I was portraying was True and there was no doubt where Right and Wrong lived. None whatsoever. And I still believe everything I believed back then and I think I have better information and a clearer understanding.
But I wish I hadn’t been so righteous and certain. Most of the serious mischief – your wars and pogroms and the like – is and has been perpetrated by zealots. People who knew, absolutely, beyond any possibility of skepticism that their cause was just, that they were right, that, yes, God was on their side.
Sometimes they refuse service to gay couples. Sometimes they sponsor legislation that serves society’s predators. Sometimes they strap explosives to their chests.
So I wish that the person I was in 1970, the writer of those comic books, had allowed himself a few moments of doubt – allowed for the possibility, however distant and unlikely it might be, that he could be mistaken.
But…if that had been the case, would he have written those stories?
When they pass my hands I notice that they’re dog-eared and frayed and we climb to the top of he collection we notice that within their plastic bags evidence of yellowing and curled pages
Somebody’s read ‘em!
These are my people!
Pretty skimpy column. I could entertain you with hokey stories of trains and adventure but a lot of us is too lazy for that. We can hope, can we not?