Armagideon Time

I’m not really into the whole anniversary tribute school of popcult writing. It’s a bit too low-hanging for my tastes and generates a slew of half-assed hot takes by folks whose experience of the item in question tends to be after-the-fact backfiller. You shouldn’t need some arbitrary temporal milestone to shine the spotlight on a worthy subject.

Also, I’m at an age where “can you believe such-and-such happened TEN YEARS AGO” is met less with wonderment than a sobering reminder of my fleeting mortality.

That said, this week did mark the twentieth anniversary of a pair of videogames with some profound personal resonance, so I felt some words were in order.

Maura landed her first grown-up, unionized job in the late fall of 1996. It was a big event, and one that I celebrated by pestering her into buying me a Sega Saturn for Christmas. To my shock (and guilt and eternal gratitude), she actually went ahead and did it.

The system came with a three-disc pack-in of Virtual Cop 2, Virtua Fighter 2, and Daytona USA. They were a perfect starter selection, but I still hankered for some next-gen JRPG kicks. The Saturn’s library of such titles was already thin on the ground domestically, and the scarcity was made more pronounced by the holiday season clean-out of retailer’s shelves. With nothing I wanted in stock locally, I decided to pick up an issue of EGM to see if mail order would be a better option.

It was, on two unanticipated (and expensive) fronts. The mail order firms who advertised in the mag’s back pages also dealt in the realm of import titles — untranslated RPGS and licensed offerings that could be playable on a domestic Saturn by way of a modestly priced Action Replay adapter. My anime fandom hadn’t yet atrophied at that point, and the notion of playing a Gundam-themed FPS or Macross shoot-em-up was too great a temptation even with the import surcharge.

That particular issue of EGM also featured glowing reviews for the first Suikoden and Persona games, which was enough to sink a chunk of my limited budget into a Playstation a week later. To finance all this electronic extravagance, I took a seasonal job at my wife’s office. In between opening and sorting buckets of mail, I dicked around on the office’s fancy Netcape-enabled machines to check out the latest gaming news on sites like Sega Sages and Anime Playstation. The latter one was especially influential because it’s import-heavy focus nudged me toward the moment where the two fronts converged — the purchase of a mod-chipped, import-ready PS console.

I bought it from some importer on the West Coast that used the Footloose soundtrack as its “on hold” music. The part of my brain that housed my common sense and fiscal prudence blared warnings during every moment of the phone call, but they were drowned out by the siren song of the irresponsible impulse buy.

A week passed, and I began to think I should’ve listened to those inner warnings. And then it arrived, with the pair of import games that sold me on this overpriced hunk of legally dodgy block of tech — Bushido Blade and Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). Both were recent releases and the stuff of much online hype, a lot of centering around the low probability of either getting a domestic release.

I booted up Nocturne in the Moonlight first, but switched to Bushido Blade after Lil Bro and his friend showed up to check out my new acquisition. We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening engaged in digital sword battles, our initial awkwardness with the game’s controls progressing into a Zen-like mastery of their intricacies.

We’d had marathon SNES Street Fighter II sessions before, but this was different. Bushido Blade wasn’t about mastering complex inputs or stringing combos. Its one-hit-kill take on the genre was an addictive mix of rock-paper-scissors and a gunslingers’ duel. Winning was a matter of fast reflexes and adopting the correct stance, and a match could be settled in the first couple of seconds (providing Lil Bro didn’t block my disembowelment two-stroke in time).

The game also oozed with atmosphere, down the minimalist soundtrack and interconnected arenas representing a Japanese castle. Hacking away at each other in a bamboo grove, trees falling as their trunks get severed by stray swings — it was like taking part in a samurai flick. The decision to set it in contemporary times was a bit baffling, but the overall package was something we’d never seen before and made all other fighting games feel silly by comparison.

And Nocturne in the Moonlight? It’s up there with Baldur’s Gate II and Dig Dug as my favorite videogame of all time, though it took me a while — and many visits to txt-file FAQ sites — to get a handle on what I was supposed to be doing in its Japanese-text expanse. The game is responsible for the latter half of the “Metroidvania” portmanteau, but it’s really in a genre apart from the more tightly channeled Metroid games (which I love) and the later GBA/DS simplifications of Nocturne‘s formula. The RPG leveling and inventory systems figure into that, but it has more to do with how the game managed to keep a tight focus yet an incredible level of optional depth.

I’ve beaten the game at least a dozen times. I make a point of revisiting it every time the Spooky Season rolls around. After two decades and hundreds of in-game hours later, each new playthrough reveals some little secret or bit of nuance I hadn’t encountered before. Most exploration/collection offerings get tiresome after you discover a certain percentage of their secrets, but Nocturne still feels as fresh as it did back in 1997.

Bushido Blade and Symphony of the Night are permanent installs on my PSP, and my love for both games has survived the years and unceasing torrent of newer and cooler tech. But there more to it than being a pair of evergreen diversions. Of all the games I squandered my time on during that era, those are the two that most lucidly evoke that period of my life — social sword-slashing gatherings around my shitty 13″ TV and late nights spent trying to work out what wizardry would unlock the Inverted Castle.

It was the end of my extended undergrad experience and the beginning of a life free of term papers and a decent amount of spending money. It only lasted four years before 9/11 and a cluster of other issues harshed the buzz, but it was golden while it lasted — comics-buying road trips with little bro, Seventies rock and Nineties electronica, Sunday afternoons lazing with Maura while watching grainy VHS dubs of Urgh! A Music War or some favorite MST3K episode for the umpteenth time.

On the surface, it sounds like a wheel-spinning “lost period,” but it was an essential transition period where I was lucky enough to have the time and space to figure out the direction my life would take — and every virtual katana slash I make or Axe Knight I dispatch reminds of those great times and good fortune.

this is a test

March 21st, 2017

a crazy crazy test oh what a test an incredible test whoo doggie

EDIT: what a zany test

The Lucy Show

March 16th, 2017

She is rapidly adjusting to her new surroundings.

After my buddy Mike and I went our separate ways, I gravitated into the orbit of a trio of geeky underclassmen — Scott, Christian, and Damian — I met while doing independent study for a “cool” English teacher. What began as dorky lunch table conversations about shared interests soon escalated into a consensus that we should start up a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with yours truly (again) taking on the role of dungeonmaster.

We picked a time (Saturday afternoon) and a place (Damian’s house), after which I began to feel the panic set in. These guys gave every impression of being veteran players, and insisted upon using their favorite characters from previous campaigns. I was still pretty new to the hobby, and Mike’s eager embrace of hack ‘n’ loot excess did nothing to hone my skills as an interactive storyteller or rules referee.

Whatever scenario I ran had to be rock solid and deadly serious. I needed to show these guys I was in absolute command of the situation by establishing a tough-but-fair set of ground rules. A homebrew adventure couldn’t cut it. Only an official module would do the trick.

Fortunately, I had just the thing at hand — the infamous Tomb Of Horrors….

…which was one of the extras Mike tossed in when he sold me his half of our shared Gamma World box set.

Originally designed for tournament play, the module featured a particularly punishing dungeon packed with extremely lethal deathtraps and cunning fake-outs overseen by a nigh indestructible “demilich.” It was the stuff of which Total Party Kills were made (and you have bought a copy of Death Saves already, right?) and the perfect way to show my new players they type of DM they would be dealing with.

It was a brilliant plan…or it would’ve been if the module’s notoriety didn’t precede it.

In the two hours we sat around Damian’s living room table, the party managed to progress all of ten yards from the tomb’s entrance. Every stone was triple checked for some nefarious device. Every protective spell in the players’ collective arsenal was cast in preparation. Every wall examined closely for hidden doors or other surprises.

None of the players had ever run or owned Tomb of Horrors, but they’d of its legendary lethality and opted to play things extremely safe. “But your character doesn’t know that” is a sound bit of role-playing wisdom, but one that can be difficult to put into practice. They might’ve technically breached that protocol, but their actions were impossible to argue against. Faced with an unknown and potentially dangerous environment, they used their smarts to, well, drag things out into a painfully unproductive slog.

(This is why I eventually stopped using published scenarios as anything but a resource for ideas and maps to repurpose. Homebrew adventures don’t run the risk of previous exposure, providing you aren’t shamelessly lifting stuff from other media products.)

Even though we accomplished next to nothing in terms of game progress, that first meet-up was a huge success in terms of turning classmates into actual friends. I walked home from Damian’s place with Scott, who I learned lived two streets over from me and whose house was a stop on my paper route. We talked about hanging out some more, with or without the other two guys, and thus set the stage for what would be the “Golden Summer” of 1987.

Forty-five or fight

March 13th, 2017

I entered this world at 11:58 AM on March 13, 1972 at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital. My dad was well-liquored up when during the event, visibly recoiling at the sight of the wrinkled squirming infant he had a part in creating. When he showed up later and slightly more sober at my mother’s room, his first words in my direction were “He looks a lot better now.”

Each time my birthday rolls around around, the old man makes a point of calling me at the exact minute of my birth. He recounts the above story, gets defensive when I pretend to be insulted, then follows it up were “You were pretty hideous-looking.”

This year was no different, and the banter flowed into a discussion of politics (he absolutely despises Trump and anyone who voted for him), pets, and what’s happening the parts of the extended family each of us still keep in touch with.

I mentioned how my maternal grandmother’s tone spooked me during her pre-birthday call last weekend. She made a lot of repeat mentions about how much she loved me and my brother and our cousins, and how much she meant to us. That may not sound weird to outsiders, but it was incredibly uncharacteristic of our non-demonstrative breed of WASPs. Our emotions and affections are implied rather than publicly professed.

“Oh, that’s not strange,” replied my father. “She’s almost ninety and facing her mortality.”

He then went on to start talking about his own regrets as imperfect husband and father, which only disturbed me more.

I’ve spent three decades dealing with the psychic fallout from my old man. I’ve long given up any notion of contrition or even a serious conversation about it from him. The resolution has been internal and entirely on my own terms. It happened, I dealt with it, I moved on because there wasn’t a point in dwelling on the damage.

It has colored my relationship with my father since he cleaned himself up, when I traded festering grudges for amicable wariness. The experiences got folded into my personal mythology and my father became a (slightly) larger than life character. I would never recommend this process of abstraction and compartmentalization to anyone affected by a similar trauma, but the fatalistic approach has worked well enough for me.

(A couple of weeks ago I was asked by someone how did I cope with the legacy of those childhood horrors. I could not think of a convincing answer apart from “I kept moving forward.”)

I don’t know if it’s a good sign that my father has suddenly discovered the concept of guilt after sixty-seven years, but I have no desire to have the conversation it’s obviously moving towards. The moment for that has long passed, and nothing good can come out of dredging that crap up again. I’d rather spend the old man’s remaining time on earth enjoying the good relationship we currently have than triggering fights over wounds where even the scars have faded away.

(Need a companion piece to this birthday angst? Please check the first comment within the next seven days.)

Meet Lucia

March 10th, 2017

…or “Lucy.” She’s a Chihuahua/dachshund mix who was rescued from a high-kill shelter in Texas and flown up to the Bay State to join our family.

She’s very shy and nervous, but also extremely sweet. She’s still getting used to the House on the Hillside and her new housemates, but has already learned where the treats and how to guilt her humans into giving her some.

The cats have no problems with her so far. Ollie the Rock Stupid Puppy really isn’t sure what to make of her (which is pretty much his default response to everything), but doesn’t seem to have an issue with his new sibling.

It is a bit weird grasping that the twenty-five pound Ollie is now technically the “Big Dog” in house.

When I launched Nobody’s Favorites eight (?!?) years ago, I promised myself that it would not turn into another one of the many “Mort of the Month” features which infested the comics blogosphere at the time. The goal wasn’t pummeling a succession of soft targets in a context-free vacuum, but to use the dimmer lights of funnybook history as a means of exploring some relevant autobiographical or critical angle.

While I think I (mostly) succeeded on that front, things eventually hit a point where the requisite “value added” became harder to pull off. There are only so many ways to approach the Chromium Age boom-and-bust cycle or the one-note nature of Marvel Team-Up villains before entering the real of autoplagiarism. As real life events began cutting into my research and reading time, the temptation to pick easy targets for cheap snark grew stronger. Meanwhile, Jon Morris’s return to Gone and Forgotten obviated the need for what began as a G&F tribute act.

At no point did I considered permanently retiring Nobody’s Favorites. I let it go fallow while my attentions were concentrated elsewhere.

But now it’s back, with a renewed focus on its original mission statement — a focus on funnybook things neither great nor terrible, but just sorta there. They may be fondly regarded or even earnestly liked, but lack the level of dedicated fandom that makes them anybody’s sincere favorite.

So let’s kick things off with a character I honestly like yet can’t say I love….

…Quality Comics’ Human Bomb, who made his debut in Police Comics #1 (August 1941).

Created by Paul Gustavson (under the pen name of Paul Carroll), the Human Bomb was a research chemist named Roy Lincoln who was helping his pa synthesize “27-QRX” — the most powerful explosive known to man.

The compound was so destructive and volatile that the Elder Lincoln worried about what would happen if it should fall into enemy hands — so, naturally, the lab was rushed by a gaggle of Fifth Columnist goons the moment after the old man finishes is portentous speech. After the goons finish off his dad, Roy decided the best way to keep the Axis from nabbing the only sample of the formula was to eat the damn thing.

(I suppose it could’ve been worse. His dad could’ve been involved in top secret research on cat litter, broken glass, or Taco Bell food.)

This being a superhero comic, the chemical miraculously infused Roy’s body with raw explosive power. His punches could explode walls, his bare skin could disintegrate bullets, his poops could make him the most unwelcome house guest ever. Roy used his new abilities to wipe the Fifth Columnists (and his father’s mansion) off the face of the earth, vowing bloody vengeance upon whoever sent them.

Needing a means of controlling his pyrotechic powers, Roy whipped himself up a containment suit of “fibro-wax” before exploding his way up the chain of underlings in search of their Nazi paymaster. When he did finally (as in “two pages later”) encounter him, Roy’s revenge was as fittingly horrific and thankfully off-panel.

Though the Human Bomb’s adventures began on a note of vengeful payback via explosive decapitation, his five year run of stories settled into a lighter territory. Presumably taking a page from Police Comics’ emerging flagship feature, Gustavson — consciously or subconsciously — began to hew closer to the dynamic style and semi-comedic tone of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man stories.

It wasn’t a full-on attempt at cloning, but it was still obvious — right down to the Bomb getting saddled with his own version of Woozy Winks in the form of Hustace Throckmorton…

…a henpecked nebbish who gained the enviable power of explosive feet following an almost fatal attempt to mimic the Black Condor’s flying ability and a blood transfusion from a reluctant Roy. Hustace injected an additional does of comic relief, mostly in the form of evergreen and tasteful jokes about things like spousal murder and “red-nosed” drunken Irishmen.

It truly was a Golden Age for comics.

After his Police Comics run ended in 1946, the Human Bomb spent a couple of decades in limbo before getting revived — along with a host of other Quality characters purchased by DC — during one of the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers. There it was revealed that stable of heroes hailed from Earth-X, a low calorie The Man in the High Castle scenario where the Bomb and his fellow “Freedom Fighters” battled the forces of a triumphant Axis.

That in turn led to a short lived Freedom Fighters series, followed by appearances in All-Star Squadron, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and all the other regular places Golden Age backbenchers turned up over the years. The character was inexplicably aged into a mentor figure for the similarly powered Damage in the Nineties, then de-aged so Geoff Johns could attempt a shitty Pat Mills impersonation in Infinite Crisis #1…

…also know as “the moment when I stopped giving a shit about contemporary superhero comics.”

Honestly, though, the poor Bomb had been at a loss ever since his Bronze Age return. As part of an ensemble cast, the character was little more than a one-note gimmick — the explode-y dude stuck in a containment suit. Of the few moments where he did manage to nab the center stage, most involved some mishap where he accidentally flattened his teammates at an inopportune moment.

It was a far cry from the Bomb’s days as a solo adventurer, where his signature gimmick was saved for dramatic moments between non-pyrotechnic bouts of quippy thug-punching. Gustavson’s restraint on that front may have undercut the character’s unique qualities compared to other costumed mystery men of the era, but it did prevent the slide into single-note predictability that defined the Bomb’s more modern appearances. It also didn’t help that the streamlined simplicity of Gustavson’s original costume design seemed to elude later illustrators, who opted for a baggier and bulkier look for Bomb’s containment suit that made him look like a mediocre Mindless Ones cosplayer.

(Despite the 1970s Freedom Fighters comic making a big deal about finding a way for Roy to ditch the suit during his off hours, he actually spent a good deal of time in the Police Comics run sporting a fashionably broad-shouldered men’s suit and a pair of fibro-wax driving gloves. The tragic volatility of his powers was very much a Bronze Age conceit.)

Since his (stupidly tasteless) demise in Infinite Crisis, the Human Bomb has spawned of a pair of forgettable legacy characters, a Heroclix figure (based on one of said legacy characters), and a non-speaking appearance in the Brave and the Bold animated series. A miniseries featuring the latest incarnation of the character was released a couple of years back, and defied expectations by shifting upwards of a dozen copies. Someone at DC obviously has some fondness for the concept, yet so far has been unable to translate that past the vagaries of copyright maintenance which govern the cycles of d-lister appearances.

I myself have a small amount of affection for the Dauntless Detonator, though nothing approaching anything remotely close to dedicated fandom. He’s a fun bit of fluff from a time when the concept of superhero comics was getting fleshed out in fits and starts and all manner of oddness. The Human Bomb is a perfect example of the latter, mildly fascinating but Nobody’s Favorite.

One dimensional chess

March 6th, 2017

My current creative paralysis can be summed up as this:

Writing about trivial matters feels hollow in light of current events, yet I also feel uncomfortable adding to the unceasing flood of political thinkpieces.

The present situation is the grotesque culmination of historical and cultural threads I’ve been studying for decades. While I’ve had plenty to say, I’ve had little will to say it outside personal conversations and short bursts of righteous outrage on social media — and even then it feels like adding more noise to an already deafening din.

And sometimes it is better to listen than to speak.

There has been something I keep feeling an urge to address, to point where I’ve written and shelved a dozen drafts of this post over the past six weeks. It’s a relatively minor point in the ongoing litany of outrages, but the fact I keep dwelling upon it means that I should attempt to address it.

It has been suggested by some quarters that the President’s twitter outbursts and propensity for bizarre proclamations are indicative of some high level manipulation campaign. There have been a slew of articles, tweets, and infographics released to back up the claim that his social media tantrums are calculated distractions from the Real Issues. They frame Trump and his cabal as evil geniuses on par with Fantomas or Dr. Doom.

This narrative simultaneously over-complicates and over-simplifies the actual situation. If they were as adept as this shit as claimed, why do the results demonstrate otherwise?

Trump and cronies might consider themselves masters of the game, but even their minor tactical successes on that front have only sown the seeds of strategic setbacks. The whole rationale behind these antics is to direct attention away from something, the way a swirled handkerchief or buxom assistant keeps audiences’ eyes away from an illusionist’s furtive movements. Everything we’ve seen from this administration so far as been as effective as said illusionist screaming “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M TOTALLY NOT SLIPPING A LIVE RABBIT OUT OF A CONCEALED BAG RIGHT NOW HONEST!”

Savvy manipulators don’t attempt to defuse one controversy by sparking an even bigger one in their midst, as we’ve witnessed with the flap over Jeff Sessions’ meetings with Russian officials. Instead of a “sorry, that was Senate business” and an unforced recusal, the Trump crowd escalated the situation with contradictions and accusations that have only drawn more scrutiny.

“But the media stopped talking about Sessions…” Yeah, because now they’re busy covering a standoff between the head of the FBI and the Justice Department over a laughably transparent lie. That’s some fine manipulation, there, akin to deflecting a bullet to the foot so it hits your groin instead.

If you want to see how the game is played by skilled hands, think back to George W. Bush’s administration, where a bunch of veteran political operatives crammed one odious policy after another through with nigh impunity and marginal public resistance. Did you know his administration had its own iteration of a Muslim travel ban? Or had economic, education, and environmental policies in line with Trump’s? Considering my readership, you probably did, but the point remains that they were able to pursue that agenda with very little pushback. That fact that some ostensibly liberal folks are currently trying to soft-pedal W’s legacy shows how adeptly that narrative was crafted despite the piles of corpses that agenda generated.

Bannon and Miller maybe hateful turds, but they’re no Cheney or Rumsfeld. They might envision themselves as shapers of reality, but their visions are ahistoric fanfic propagated by sheltered undergrads. It’s a lot of smirks and snide comments signifying nothing but the delusions of grandeur typical of arrested adolescence. Make no mistake — it’s dangerous as hell, but only because of the damage they will cause as they try to turn these non-viable ideas into reality.

Their ilk may try to channel events to suit their agendas, but as a reactive policy as opposed to a proactive one. Trump is no evil genius. He’s a thin-skinned egomaniac with poor impulse control and little intellectual curiosity. He has only gotten away with his transparent shtick because of a supine GOP willing to seen the world burn in exchange for abolishing estate taxes and worried about the clout Trump seems to wield among likely primary voters. They share almost all of his agenda, and their only real concern is that Trump prefers to blast a tuba instead of a proxy blowing a dog whistle.

I came from a family of master bullshitters and manipulators. My old man was so good at it that the army weaponized his talents. So trust me when I tell you that Trump is strictly farm league on that front, buoyed up entirely by vested interests and a friendly (for now) core audience.

And, believe it or not, some of us are capable of following more than political development at a time.

Apart from the abbreviated session that introduced me to the hobby, I spent the entirety of my early RPG days stuck in the gamemaster role. Lil Bro was too young to handle the task and what other players I could find expressed little interest in taking on the job. I didn’t have too much of a problem with it, mainly because it was clear that the alternative was not playing at all.

It still rankled, though, especially whenever I flipped through a system’s character generation rules. Dozens of cool concepts would race through my mind — and occasionally make it on to paper — before the depressing reality set in.

(Several of these I’d later force onto Lil Bro, who got psychologically strong-armed into becoming my player-side proxy. I feel a little guilty about it now, but at the time I saw it as a prerogative of being the elder sibling.)

Gamma World was going to change all that.

The 3rd edition box set of the post-apocalyptic RPG was a joint purchase between by buddy Mike and myself. I can’t recall who proposed the idea, but the two of us agreed that Mike would run the campaign and I would finally get a chance to sit on the other side of the GM’s screen. I had fleshed out a character concept before we even made the purchase — a cryogenically preserved pre-War super soldier released into a world gone mad.

The idea was shamelessly lifted from the Deathlok comics which had recently been passed on to me by my uncle and instantly became the greatest thing my Armageddon-obessed middle-school geekboy eyes had ever seen. I spent hours attempting to mimic Mike Zeck’s rendition of the Deathlok’s pre-cyberzombie self from a recent Captain America arc, making sure it looked perfect on the character sheet.

Post-nuclear adventures, a bad-ass antihero, someone else taking on the world-building drudgework — it was a dream come true. So, of course it was doomed to fail.

The promised campaign never came to pass. Though he’d held on longer than most of his peers, Mike’s attachment to the hobby had been steadily waning since I met him. A final break with the hobby was inevitable, and with it went the friendship that was centered around said hobby. There was no animosity involved, just the sense of diverging paths common to so many adolescent relationships.

In hindsight, going in on Gamma World together was the geeky pals equivalent to the soon-to-be-divorced couple who decides to have a kid or buy a house.

Our game sessions and lunch hall chats grew less frequent, we started gravitating toward different social circles, and eventually he approached me in the hall to make things official.

“So, uh, I’m going to be really busy with the track team and stuff so maybe you’d like to buy your half of the game off me? Like, five bucks would be fine.”

I took him up on his offer, and he sweetened the post by throwing in a bunch of old AD&D modules — including the copy of Barrier Peaks which started all this nonsense — and a bunch of Gamma World material he clipped from his stash of Dragon Magazine issues.

He handed it over shortly before summer vacation. Any sadness I had about losing a friend (and reliable member of the gaming group) was offset by the fat stack of new-to-me gaming material I’d gained. I couldn’t wait to get home and start sifting through it all, and the bike ride home from school was a manic blur fueled by reckless levels of anticipation.

When I got home, I found out that my maternal grandfather had suffered a massive stroke. He was a month away from retiring, and had been giddy (by taciturn standards of his Maine-folk people) about all the projects he’d now have the time to complete.

I got my chance to browse through the Gamma World rules in the ICU waiting area at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital that night. I remember next to nothing about them and haven’t touched the books since.

My grandfather was in a vegetative state for over two years before he died. We weren’t particularly close, but his final years had a profound impact upon my worldview — namely that life is too short to defer gratification or to suffer the idiocy of others. This is why I’ll never amount to anything creatively, but the truth is we all amount to a couple handfuls of dust in the end no matter what works we create.

That Mysterious Bloom: Day 28

February 28th, 2017


(by Len Wein and Terry Austin in Who’s Who in the DC Universe #3, May 1985)

We’ve reached the final installment of this February feature, which means it’s time for some whys and wherefores.

My interest in the Black Orchid was a long and slow-burning affair, born of a kid whose obsession with minor characters was inversely proportional to his access to the comics that featured them.

I was introduced to the character in the same way I was introduced to most pre-1980 d-listers — via “Ask the Answer Man” queries and tantalizing house ads in acid-browned flea market finds.

It wasn’t until I picked up the above issue of Who’s Who and couple of Orchid’s Suicide Squad appearances that I was able to find out exactly what the character’s deal was.

Those were enough to convince me to buy the first issue of the prestige format miniseries a few years later, a purchase I regretted as soon as I sat down to read the damn thing. Dave McKean’s art was gorgeously evocative, but Neil Gaiman’s decision to turn the character into a self-consciously twee riff on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run came was the laziest possible resolution to a mystery that didn’t need to be resolved in the first place.

The character then slipped off my radar until my big back issue binge of the mid-Nineties, when I unearthed her original trio of Adventure Comics appearances in a while searching for the Fleisher/Aparo Spectre which immediately followed them.

The issues were pricier (five bucks a pop) than the bargain bin fare I’d been scooping up en masse, but the shop was having a half-off sale and the comics fit my current interest in Bronze Age oddities and obscurities.

Those comics are what cemented my love of Black Orchid even as they stoked further resentment over what she’d become. The character combined Sheldon Mayer’s stripped back Golden Age approach to superheroes with Tony DeZuniga’s “Filipino School” style of expressive realism.

The result was something greater than the sum of its parts, a domestic equivalent to Diabolik, Fantomas, Judex, and other ambiguous and mysterious protagonists of Euro comics and pulp fiction.

More plot device than fully developed character, the Black Orchid existed as a preternaturally elusive foil for the various evildoers who attracted her attentions. The bad guy tries to figure out Orchid’s identity, falls prey to hubris, and gets taken down from an overlooked angle.

It was simple and a bit predictable, but it worked elegantly as shorter done-in-one stories. It was also a hard formula to duplicate, after Mayer and DeZuniga turned the reins over to Fleisher and Nestor Redondo shortly after Black Orchid became a back-up feature in the Phantom Stranger’s bi-monthly series. The stories weren’t terrible, but suffered from a generic Bronze Age vibe lacking the spark that animated the earlier material.

(Orchid’s appearance in the first Blue Devil annual was fun because of the ensemble cast of d-list castoffs, and because Mishkin and Cohn used her mysteriousness as the basis of a pretty amusing running gag.)

When you’re a kid, funnybook mysteries — be it Wolverine’s origin or Black Orchid’s identity — beg some form of resolution. There’s a compulsive need to know, to have the “truth” revealed and incorporated as immutable “continuity.”

When you get older, though, that stuff ceases to matter as much. Decades of reveals, retcons, and reboots put the lie to any proclamations of “canon.” Sometimes maintaining a mystery can be more satisfying than offering a half-assed solution for it.

That was certainly the case with the Black Orchid.

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