Armagideon Time

But what goes on

July 23rd, 2014

I was raised to see social workers as the enemy, meddling agents of the State out to destroy our (admittedly dysfunctional) family and cherished yet chaotic way of life. As much as we may have fought and battled with each other, nothing induced a unity of purpose like the prospective visit from a social worker.

Not that long before my mom’s death, my brother’s elementary school principal got the suspicion that there was something horribly wrong going on with the Weiss family. Her level of concern bordered on the pathological, and my father was certain that she was actually striking back against an alcoholic relative who’d scarred her at some point in the past.

Whatever the truth may have been, she used every incident of my brother’s youthful idiocy and poor judgement as an excuse to pry into our family’s business. If this were a 1980s horror flick, it would have ended with her getting caught snooping around our house and fed to the swarm of trained rats kept in the basement for such a purpose. In the less poetic reality, though, it led to a mandatory home visit by a social worker.

It was a big mistake to give my family enough time to prepare for the visit. It was an even bigger mistake to underestimate how committed we were toward maintaining the status quo. The social worker was treated to an immaculate house with a manicured lawn, smiling kids and acceptably sober parents. Our plans even accommodated for the problem of appearing “too” normal, which was offset with rehearsed yet non-actionable rough edges inserted into the interview responses.

The principal was livid about the “no action required” verdict, but could do fuck all about it as my brother started junior high and passed out of her purview. She showed up at my maternal grandfather’s funeral a year after my mother’s death. I don’t doubt it was out of genuine concern, but there was an unmistakable need for vindication involved — to see that things had been set right and that her suspicions had been valid all along.

What she got was my brother and I sitting on either side of my father at the back of the funeral parlor. Her expression said it all, disbelief and discomfort in equal measure. It was not what she was expecting, and she gave her flustered condolences and beat a quick path to the exit. I suppose I should feel more charitable toward someone who was only looking our for her students’ welfare, but I really can’t.

As time has gone by, I’ve had more time to reflect upon my family situation growing up. Oddly enough, I’ve grown less critical of it while my brother has grown more so. This is the opposite of where it stood in the immediate wake of my mother’s death, where my brother’s trauma was mitigated by his natural adaptability while mine was amplified by general adolescent angst.

It’s not a question of nostalgic dimming. I can recall my father’s verbal abuse and mother’s escalating episodes of mental instability with shocking lucidity. I haven’t forgotten a thing, even though I probably ought to have. The problematic parts of my childhood are something that only reveal themselves in contrast — some outside party responding to an anecdote with “that’s not normal” or “how awful.”

For me, it was normal. If there was something lacking or out of sorts (which there obviously was) I didn’t feel it in the sense of yearning for an alternative. It’s like being born with a missing finger as opposed to losing one as an adult. You can’t miss what you never had.

Recommended listening: It’s more of a phantom pain.

Mark Gruenwald once stated that “every character is somebody’s favorite,” and this feature was launched to stress test the validity of the late Marvel continuity guru’s theory.

From the beginning, I took pains to distance what I did here from the facile “Mort of the Month” nonsense which characterized so many write-ups of the obscure and unloved. While I certainly haven’t abstained from snarky commentary and cheap pot-shots, I’ve tried to incorporate some level of insightful commentary — be it cultural, historical, or autobiographical — into each entry, no matter how terrible the subject in question might have been.

Since its launch in the summer of 2009, Nobody’s Favorites has become the most popular feature on Armagideon Time, driving at least half of the site’s traffic and becoming an easily-linked reference source for scores of blog and forum posts. Even the term “nobody’s favorite” has entered the lower echelons of comics fandom’s vernacular, which as creepy as it is flattering.

Now, on the occasion of this feature’s fifth anniversary, I think it’s time to turn my sights on a well-known character who exemplifies the concept of “nobody’s favorite.”

Yep, Hawkman.

The character’s origins stretch back to the very dawn of the Superheroic Age, when work-for-hire dreamers cranked out all manner of bizarre concepts for the benefit of shady publishers looking to siphon off some of Superman’s success. In Hawkman’s case, the exercise in making shit up as they went along took the form of a modern day archaeologist named Carter Hall, who decided to don a bird mask and set of wings after discovering he was the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince.

Though hardly a barn-burner when it came to sales and popularity, Hawkman’s interesting visual design and mainstay membership in the Justice Society positioned him as a solid second stringer in National’s roster of costumed mystery men. Enough so, in fact, that when the Company Eventually Known as DC decided to relaunch a number of its fallow superhero franchises during the dawn on the Space Age, Hawkman made it onto the bottom half of the list.

The decision made sense, at least on paper. Joe Kubert, who illustrated a number of Hawkman’s 1940s adventures, was one of the big guns in DC’s artistic arsenal, and a revived version of the character seemed like an ideal venue for his talents. A familiar enough property, a stellar artist, and a strong tailwind boosting the superhero genre’s revival — what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the times had changed since Hawkman’s 1940s heyday. In an age of sci-fi superheroics, the old school pulpiness of “a reincarnated dude with a goofy mask who can fly” felt downright quaint. To keep up with the Lanterns and Flashes and Atoms, Hawkman was given a superficial space-oriented facelift.

So long, blonde-haired Prince of Egypt Carter Hall. Hello, “Katar Hol” of planet Thanagar’s avian police force.

The makeover was fairly thin stuff, as it maintained the outfit and other trappings (female sidekick, love of archaic weaponry) of the Golden Age incarnation glossed over with a veneer of modernity auto-plagiarized from Adam Strange and the recent Green Lantern relaunch. Apart from introducing Zatanna to generations of fishnet fetishists present and future, the Silver Age Hawkman didn’t do much apart from cycling through a gallery of laughably terrible supervillains on the way toward the inevitable cancellation of both his solo title and a shared series with the similarly sub-critical Silver Age sensation, the Atom.

From there, Hawkman spent a long stint as a supporting player in Justice League, which at the time served as the superheroic equivalent of the corner of the Home Depot Lot where the day laborers gather in search of pick-up work. Free from the mandated blandness required of a solo series gig, Katar was allowed to spread his wings a little with snatches of profoundly developmental characterization…mostly in the form of grumpy confrontations with Green Arrow that only got louder in the retconned retelling.

(Meanwhile, over on Earth-2, the elder Hawkman was busy telling those damn kids — his colleagues’ and his own — to get off his damn perch in Infinity, Inc. Who knew hawks were such a crabby species?)

Hawkman’s position was similar to Aquaman’s in many ways. Both possessed an level of recognition due to League membership which got a massive signal boost from the Superfriends cartoon and the associated merchandising. On the comics side of the equation, however, neither character had the critical mass of required fandom to make them viable as independent properties in their own right.

Both were subject to a series of aborted attempts at retooling for a wider appeal. In Hawkman’s case, it involved a grim ‘n’ gritty reboot with the Hawkworld miniseries based around a dystopian, militarist Thanagar and a leather-centric badass makeover for the Mr. and Mrs. Hawk. Intoxicated by Hawkworld‘s minor success, DC proceeded to addle the franchise with a wave of sequels and an ongoing series of hawkitude unleashed.

By the time the early 1990s rolled around, DC decided to drop all pretense in favor of serving up a steaming pile of “What We Think Fans Want” –

– Wolverine With Wings and metallic foil covers.

When this, too, failed to gain the anticipated traction, the decision was made to reboot again. Spun out of the vortex of terrible ideas known as Zero Hour, this version of Hawkman was a semi-bestial “hawkgod” created by smooshing all the previous incarnations into one ludicrous and quickly abandoned package. (Who, of course, resurfaced in Kingdom Come, because we live in a fallen world.)

After DC’s series of ill-advised fixes completely fouled up what they had set out to “save,” Hawkman was relegated to an editorial quarantine so total that even Grant Morrison was forbidden to break it. The herculean task eventually fell on the shoulders of David Goyer and Geoff Johns, who spun the presence of a new, unencumbered Hawkgirl (who was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much) in the JSA ongoing into a chance to untangle the mess Hawkman had become.

The relaunched character was a revitalized version of the original 1940s Hawkman, but one that skillfully wove together the disparate threads of the franchise — from reincarnated prince to alien police officer to cosmic avatar — into a cohesive whole.

It was a back-to-basics, wings-and-weapons approach to Hawkman with minor flourishes (such as the additional properties of the anti-gravity metal that powered his wings and episodes of past life regression) that made the character feel viably interesting for the first time in decades. He was even given another chance at a solo title, with James Robinson revisiting territory he’d explored in his acclaimed Starman ongoing and some sweet art by Rags Morales. If ever the stars were aligned in ol’ Carter Hall’s favor, this would have been the moment.

It wasn’t. The relaunch quickly lost steam, cycled through a couple of creative teams, and was eventually retooled as a Hawkgirl ongoing before DC finally pulled the plug.

There’s no question that it’s possible to tell an entertaining Hawkman story. Kyle Baker did a swell one a few years ago in Wednesday’s Comics. Whether or not there’s enough there to sustain an ongoing series is another matter, even with the current affection toward high concept fluff. Given the real affection fandom has for Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman, maybe it’s time to make that character the bearer of the franchise’s torch — if only to spare the world more material like this…

Iconic yet unloved, Hawkman is a stripped gear within the machinery of the DC Universe, perpetually spinning, never gripping, and each rotation driving him further into the realm of Nobody’s Favorites.

The eternal scream

July 21st, 2014

“Our technicians have been working overtime to find new and more efficient ways to combine greasepaint, papier-mâché, and community theater rejects into the raw stuff of nightmares! What better way to capture the true meaning of childhood than to seize the articles of of abstract whimsy and transform them into hellishly reality?

“We draw our inspiration from our own youthful memories of being dragged along by circus or pantomime by a well-meaning parent, our sobs of terror held in check by a stern glare or the threat of a stinging backhand to the face! We learned a lot from those experiences, and desire nothing more than to pass those lessons along to a new generation of unsullied innocents!

“So, please, draw those tykes closer to these leering avatars of existential despair! Those lingering traumas aren’t going to induce themselves!

“Now who’s ready for a rousing sing-a-long of ‘Old King Cole?’ Too bad, the decision has already been made for you.”

Song for Sunday #101

July 20th, 2014

The 101′ers – Keys to Your Heart

(from “Captain Comet vs. Miss Universe!” by John Broome, Murphy Anderson and Bernard Sachs in Strange Adventures #26, November 1952)

“She always has an excuse to vegetate
She likes partial shade and never blooms late
She needs a little pollen to procreate
That’s why the lady…is a plant!”

And if you did comics and science fiction and my work, might I once again direct you to this amazing deal?

This is this

July 18th, 2014

This is me feeling guilty about slacking off this past week while Maura worked on ambitious house projects.

This is a set of bookshelves Maura bought years ago, but have sat unassembled in the dining room while the cats used the box as a scratching post.

This is where I began to question the wisdom of my decision.

This is Jem “helping out.”

This did not go exactly as planned.

This is the point where I said “good enough” and called it day.

This is proof that somebody appreciated my effort.

The future has arrived

July 17th, 2014

I’ve never harbored any ambitions to be a comics creator, mainly because there’s less heartbreak and effort involved in being a comics fan/historian.

Yet when Dylan Todd put out a call for submissions for a possible sci-fi comics anthology, I inexplicably decided to make a pitch…at which point Jam contributor and all around swell fellow Keith Pille offered to handle the art chores.

So here we are…

2299: Volume 1! Eighty-plus pages of speculative sequential art, featuring yours truly and a veritable pantheon of talented creators spinning gripping tales of tomorrow! And it’s only two bucks! (Sorry, quatloos not accepted.)

Establishing priorities

July 16th, 2014

Posting will be light this week, as I’m currently on vacation.

You can rest assured, however, that I am getting important work done.

The march toward mortality

July 14th, 2014

There’s a well known first season episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Walking Distance,” where Gig Young plays a middle aged ad man who has car trouble while driving past the outskirts of his childhood hometown. To kill time until the repairs are finished, he decides to check out his old hood and is shocked-slash-overjoyed to find it exists exactly as it did when he was a boy…right up to a younger version of himself running around.

In the 2014 remake of the episode starring yours truly, I played a man who discovered he’d fucked up the time of his appointment right after his wife dropped him off at the dentist’s office. Not having a cell phone but knowing she went to grab lunch down the road in North Woburn Center, I decided to hike on over to find her, my feet retracing a path they hadn’t trod on since 1984.

What I found was not some misremembered nostalgic Eden, but an ugly cluster of new developments thrown up on any and every plot of open space — massive condo complexes done up in contemporary upscale squalid, small shops repurposed as tanning salons and Dunkin Donuts, and a CVS occupying what had formerly been a warren of apartments and single family homes.

I knew most of this already from the few occasions I’ve driven through the old neighborhood. What was new was how small everything felt compared to my memories of growing up there. Distances that felt absolutely epic when I was twelve (and only a few inches shorter than I am now) were now something I could traverse in a few minutes even in the blistering summer heat.

Discovering the relative smallness of one’s childhood universe is hardly a novel revelation, but it’s still one that can hit pretty hard when directly experienced. Mixed with it is a sobering glimpse of one’s mortality, being confronted with the knowledge that things have moved on since your departure…with no trace of your passing save a tree you helped your parents plant and a nearly obliterated set of initials carved into a rotting log.

In “Walking Distance,” the protagonist’s mucking about in the past causes an accident to befall his younger self, causing the modern day incarnation to manifest a permanent limp. In my version of the tale, the protagonist’s decision to walk a mile in a pair of beat-up Docs led to his feet aching like a sonofabitch and developing an unholy stink.

Song for Sunday #100

July 13th, 2014

The Clash – Armagideon Time

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