Armagideon Time

The news that DC was going to use the Zero Hour event to stage a hard reset of the Legion of Super-Heroes franchise, I seriously considered dumping the associated titles from my pull list. Even though the grimy and gritty charm of the “Five Years Later” era had worn thin after the resolution of the “Earthwar” story arc, I’d hung on out of loyalty and the hope that things would eventually get interesting again.

The idea of a full-on “do over” — in which four decades of continuity would be chucked into the dustbin — felt like a bridge too far for me. Fanboy attachment to the character and lore played a part in shaping that attitude, but there was also a touch of sadness that the last superhero franchise I gave a shit about was going to be subjected to the aesthetic nightmare known as the “1990s reboot.”

I decided to give the venture a few issues (split at the time between two monthly titles) to make its case. That turned out to be a wise decision, as I came to love the new Legion as much — if not more — than the old version. Instead of taking a rude and ‘tudey over-accessorized approach, the new creative team stripped the franchise back to its core concept of “teenage superheroes living in the distant future.”

The narrative arcs were long-form ensemble epics punctuated with liberal doses of melodrama and quieter moments character interaction. The Silver Age stories never really foregrounded the “teenage” aspect of the Legion (even when the stories were written by an actual teenager). The post-Zero Hour Legion, on the other hand, drew as much upon YA fiction as it did upon classic superhero tropes.

Whether or not the “Archie Legion” tag was meant as a slam or not, it certainly described the tenor and tone of the run. At a time when unabashed pandering to the naked fanboy-speculator Id was the norm, the two Legion titles served up a bi-weekly dose of accessible, all-ages superhero entertainment which drew inspiration from the team’s rich history but wasn’t beholden to its convoluted prior history.

It was the “Planet Hell” arc — where the team had to investigate a malfunctioning prison world embedded in a stellar core — which truly sold me on the concept. The storyline also introduced the Work Force, a rival group of super-teens assembled by one of Legion benefactor R.J. Brande’s business rivals and led by former Legionnaire Live Wire.

While most of the Work Force members (such as Ultra Boy, Karate Kid, Evolvo Lad, and Spider Girl) were taken from the pre-reboot Legion mythos…

Inferno, the homicidal hot-head, was a new addition to the lore.

There really isn’t too much to say about Inferno, as her surly ruthlessness existed to serve as a contrasting attitude to the flawed-yet-selfless heroism of the Legion kids. When Inferno and a number of Legion members found themselves trapped in the 20th Century for an extended period of time, she was able to bring her broody firebrand routine into a whole new era.

A two-dimensional supporting character from two decades ago who has since been erased from continuity by further Legion reboots? That alone screams Nobody’s Favorite, but we should first discuss Inferno’s 1997 solo miniseries.

It would be easy to chalk its existence up to the “print it and they will buy” mentality which nearly did in the comics industry back in the mid-1990s, but the truth is slightly more complicated…and kind of heartwarming.

When DC editorial sorted out the roster of participants in the Final Night crossover event, Inferno was on the short list of characters which could be sacrificed for the sake of building some “shit just got real” dramatic tension. Stuart Immonen, the artist of Final Night and up-and-coming comics superstar, went to bat for Inferno, asking that that she be spared from the altar of forced pathos. This in turn led to Immonen getting a chance to write and illustrate a four issue miniseries starring the character.

While the results were beautifully illustrated and sported a pretty neat cover design gimmick, the tale itself is a very 1990s teen rebellion take on the very 1980s miniseries formula. You know the one, I’m sure — character with a self-esteem issue confronts a physical manifestation of her personal demon and thus reasserts her self-worth and learns the importance of friendship.

It’s not terrible (though the Vertigo-ean vision quest stuff with a talking panda makes me retroactively embarrassed about that era), but hardly the springboard for the greater things Immonen had hoped for the character. In truth, I doubt anything could have managed that accomplishment, but the notion that a creator would actively advocate on behalf of disposable d-lister is pretty darn remarkable to contemplate.

Rewind, reject

July 29th, 2014

“Paradigm shift” may be a played out buzzphrase, but it certainly applies to the introduction of the Walkman and the flood of knock-offs that appeared in its wake. Today’s device-driven state of connected isolation is the culmination of a process which began with a set of headphones and a bulky-yet-portable cassette player. Where “music on the move” had previously meant catch-as-catch broadcast content picked up by a car stereo (still a premium package option on many models in 1980) or a tinny transistor radio, the Walkman allowed the user to set his or her own (preferably prepackaged) soundtrack.

As the Walkman caught on with consumers, so did its supported media format. Cassette tapes had been around for years, but had existed as an unloved niche product. From a consumer standpoint, tapes suffered from inferior sound quality and were prone to catastrophic malfunction. The packaging was as cheap as it was small, lacking the visual glamour and mystique of a full size album sleeve. No one ever rolled a joint on or snorted a line off a scuffed plastic cassette case of Agents of Fortune.

From the corporate perspective, cassettes presented a conflict between the economics of technological progress and existential panic over the mass availability of recordable media. The notion that folks could (and certainly would) dub copies of retail releases spurred a long and contentious debate about loss prevention and mitigation that went back and forth for years in the pages of trade mags such as Billboard. That ambivalence, coupled with generally strong sales for vinyl releases, left the cassette format dangling in marketing limbo.

(It was, in fact, the predecessor of the mp3 wars of two decades later, only with less democratization of distribution and more polyester.)

Then came the Walkman. Cassettes still sounded like crap and ran a risk of getting eaten by the device that was supposed to play them, but they held the trump card of portability. Want to rock out to Disraeli Gears during your morning jog? No problem. Felt like getting your lake fishing beer buzz on to Houses of the Holy? They had you covered, bro. It might not have been today’s double-edged paradise of music on demand, but it was a crucial preparatory stage toward it.

And like every tech-driven consumer revolution that preceded and followed it, there were a legion of strivers seeking to channel a portion of that revenue stream into their own pockets. Most of these were of the typical aftermarket and third party accessory variety — upmarket earphones, tape bandoliers, protective cozies that can now be found by the dust-caked box load at thrift stores and estate sales.

Some bandwagon jumpers took a more ambitious view, one guided by the conviction that a shifting paradigm would transform all existing technologies. The Walkman enabled music listening on the go, so it only stands to (excessively optimistic) reason that it would open up a market for music consumerism on the go. Say you’re halfway through a stroll around the town, and your copy Eat a Peach has worn out its welcome after the third successive playthrough. What now?

Why, you hit up one of these conveniently located babies…

…made easily spotted by its oh-so-cutting-edge LED signboard!

You do happen to have seven dollars in quarters on you, right? Of course you do! The marketing boys assured us you will. Now, pick a tape from our (quite vast in a time of accelerated fractalization of musical tastes) selection of thirty-six tapes and…um…just wiggle it a little.

No? Try thumping the side a couple of times. Technology, man, it sure can be fussy!

There we go. Now pick it out of the hopper at the bottom and…look, if you wanted Blizzard of Oz, you should have paid more attention when you pressed the buttons. Besides, Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits is a perfectly fine album.

Recommended listening: Welcome to the cassingularity.

Lulz all the way down

July 28th, 2014

It was revealed at SDCC this past weekend that Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim will be launching a retro-cartoon parody show featuring convicted rapist Mike Tyson.

I’m not here to point out the tone-deafness of such a move in light of the recent sexual harassment issues that forced a little housecleaning at Cartoon Network. I’m here to join this vertical race to the bottom of the post-ironic “lulz” pit with a Adult Swim pitch of my own!

Ladies and gentlemen, hipsters and other champions of moral turpitude, I give you a script excerpt from the pilot episode of The Jerry Sandusky Adventure Hour!

—-

(mob of students drags captive Phantom of Penn State before Jerry Sandusky, Pedo Pup, and Penn State President Graham Spanier)

Jerry: Now let’s see who the Phantom really is… (rips off the Phantom’s mask)

All: The assistant district attorney!?!

Jerry: Yes, he wanted to steal the Joe Paterno statue because he happens to be a die hard Cornhuskers fan!

Phantom: And I would have gotten away with it, if not for you diddling kids!

Spanier: I think those meddling kids deserve a round of applause!

Phantom: I SAID “DIDDLING!”

Spanier: (rolls eyes) Take him away, officers! I think this calls for a celebration!

(crowd of students begins to set fires and overturn cars)

Pedo Pup: Gee, Jerry, I’m really proud to have a mentor like you!

Jerry: Aw, shucks. I did it to the kids.

Pedo Pup: Don’t you mean “for the kids?”

Jerry: (tugging collar) Isn’t that what I said? Now let’s hit the showers! (cue laugh track)

(cut to close up of the Paterno statue’s face, which gives the audience a knowing wink)

THE END

—-

Your move, Cartoon Network. My contact info is up in the sidebar. I also have a really great pitch for a Robert Blake-Phil Spector variety hour on deck if you’re interested!

Song for Sunday #102

July 27th, 2014


Doctor and The Medics – Waterloo


(from “Man from the Moon” by Basil Wolverton in Weird Tales of the Future #5, January-February 1953)

Plop quiz

July 25th, 2014

Hey, what’s the difference between me and “post-conceptual” visual artist Cory Arcangel?

I generate my own material.

Open world experiences are all the rage in gaming these days, either of the pre-formed or procedurally generated variety. The promise of freedom and unrestricted exploration is an alluring one for gamers who wish to lose themselves in massive virtual worlds. The style of gameplay has branched out past its old boundaries of mayhem creation sandboxes and “Western-style role playing titles, and elements of it can be found in everything from Triple A FPS titles to retro-themed platformers.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. Sony’s space exploration offering No Man’s Sky is poised to knock a bunch of next-gen console fence-sitters into the PS4′s camp, and some reference to “open world” or “procedurally generated” gameplay can be found in the hype sheets for nearly every excessively ambitious Kickstarter or Early Access darling of the moment.

I’m not knocking the fad. Some of my favorite timesinks of the past few years have been “open world” offerings — Borderlands, Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma, Red Dead Redemption, Saints Row and so forth. Heck, the notion of free roaming around a virtual Caribbean in a pirate ship was enough to sell me on Assassin’s Creed IV, despite my general apathy toward the franchise.

Yet my love affairs with each of these games has pursued a particular and unvarying pattern which speaks to the limitations of the model.

On Red Dead Redemption‘s launch day, both my brother and I logged into a buggy free roam session for some co-op exploration and adventure. We rode out from Blackwater together, but got separated somewhere on the surrounding plains. I found myself rooting around for wildflowers in a marsh, while my brother stumbled into a next of outlaws and hollered over the headset for backup. Every sight seen or activity undertaken felt awe-inspiring and new, especially since neither of us had yet delved into the single-player side of the game.

Jump ahead two months, and my brother had all but abandoned the game while I ground the same set of missions over and over in search of unlockable rewards until I, too, decided to move on to greener pastures.

Every open word game kicks off with a sense of unlimited possibility. “What’s over that rise? I wonder if I can do X.” It’s an intoxicating sensation, being presented with a large blank canvas and a minimum of guidance to follow or ignore at one’s discretion.

Eventually, however, the limitations of the virtual universe become increasingly easier to discern. The illusion of vastness fades away, leaving an acute awareness of a largely inert soundstage populated with scripted triggers and predictable “random” encounters. “Oh, it’s another spider dungeon. And here’s another group of wandering bandits.”

Technology and budgets may eternally tick upward to new heights, but the results will always be finite on some level. Like a Mr. Potato Head toy or the Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit, the wealth of possible combinations tends to resolve as a homogeneous familiarity over the long haul.

Developmental ambitions or after-the-fact DLC additions can only go so far to alleviate the intrinsic ennui, as the problem resides with the beholder. There is no shortage of things to do in Skyrim. It’s the will to finish another superficially different fetch quest that loses steam after twenty-plus hours of the same. The Borderlands games, on the other hand, sidestepped this by never losing sight that it is a hyper-pyrotechnic shooter at heart. Even then, though, the final third of the game is less about savoring the setting than it is about blasting a direct path to the end boss.

No matter how much one expands the playfield, the end user will in time brush up against its boundaries. That’s a driving factor in MMO development as well as the reason why my obsession with GTA Online peaks (and then abruptly wanes) after each new content update.

The whines of entitled fanboys aside, longer is not necessarily better. Familiarity — along with the resulting sense of going through the motions — can breed contempt in even the most passionate of relationships.

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.”

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