The Jam – Going Underground
Well, that would certainly explain all the abandoned mineshafts, homeless craftsmen, and evironmental degradation in my Terraria gameworld.
I don’t know (or really care) what triggered the latest round of the recurring “Superman is boring/Superman is cool” debate, but it has made for some interesting reading. Superman has never been one of my favorite characters, though I’ve read and enjoyed many comics starring or featuring the Man of Steel in my 35+ years of fandom. A good Superman story is a thing of wonder which cuts straight to the core appeal of the superhero genre. Unfortunately, those same strengths have made the character the frequent victim of lazy, gimmicky narratives.
The online chatter about what “Superman ought to be” is fascinating in that the offered suggestions reveal more about the person making them than they do about Superman himself — the parental anxieties of wanting to be protective yet not stifling, a faith in virtue rewarded, the ability to transcend petty limitations to create something noble and grand. While these are all interesting takes that I’d love to see manifested in the comics/movies/cartoons, they also speak to the difficulties of rekindling poor Kal-El with a sustainable level of broad-based appeal.
To paraphrase Pal Dave, Superman is an icon first and a character second. His popcultural mark has fractalized across multiple formats, millions of beholders, and over seven decades. Furthermore, his role as the symbolic flagship for a publishing empire (and genre) has led to an unfortunate state of stagnation in the name of brand maintenance. It’s similar to what happened with Mickey Mouse when he became the public face of Disney. Works featuring the character grew more cautious and formulaic, and was eventually eclipsed in the creative realm by Donald Duck (thanks to groundbreaking work by guys like Carl Barks).
For a good three decades of his existence, Superman existed in a bubble of creative stasis dominated by a specific narrative and visual style. Set up some contrived tangle of a plot which can only be resolved by a clever/absurd use of Superman’s extensive arsenal of powers and set it to Curt Swan’s or Kurt Schaffenberger’s clean, square-jawed vision of 1955-in-perpetuity. It was a formula eminiently suitable for the target kiddie audience, but it failed to account for evolution of reader tastes and demographics…especially after Marvel hit upon its own compelling spin on the superhero genre.
It’s not that the Superman franchise should have been retooled into a weak clone of a Marvel offering (which is a mistake which has been made over and over again in the past quarter-century), but it could have benefited from following the example of Batman’s ongoing efforts to reflect the zeitgeist. The efforts that were made — such as the “Kryptonite No More” arc or Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen run — were eventually abandoned under the weight of editorial inertia. They weren’t terrible as much as they felt hopelessly anachronistic, and more so with each passing year.
Many fans who grew up on the post-Man of Steel side of the generational divide have a rosier view of the high concept craziness of 1970s and early 1980s Superman stories. I can dig that, but I also have clear memories of a time when these stories were the sole representation of the Man of Steel in funnybooks, one that filtered down into guest appearances and the JLA.
Allow me to use an autobiographical experience to illustrate my point, using two comics with the same publication date (January 1980).
The first is X-Men #129…
…the epilogue of the “Proteus” storyline and the first leg of the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” which also happened to mark the debut of Kitty Pryde.
The second is Action Comics #503…
…where Superman has to deal with an Amazing Kreskin analogue while being stalked by Null-O, the mopey vacuum cleaner…from SPAAAAAAAACE!
You’re eight years old. Bronze Age Superman comics are your dominant frame of reference for the medium. Watchmen and “gritty” superheroics are still half a decade away from arriving and becoming instant cliches.
Yeah, I know, “apples and oranges.” But if you’re predisposed to liking fruit yet have never eaten anything but apples, even the blandest orange will seem pretty damn exotic.
Are you ready to hack some gibsons, my little droogies? Because it’s time for another installment of…
…in which I use the character creation rules in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG’s Ultimate Powers Book to roll up a random batch of powers and abilities, then sit back and watch as some incredibly talented folks work their creative magic upon the quantified chaos.
This week’s plug-and-play contribution was submitted via cyberspace by Johnathan Munroe.
Count Denno Damnato believed in making do with the resources at hand: when traditional methods failed to keep the peasants of his tiny mountain fiefdom under his sway, he turned to the dark rituals collected in his family’s secret library. When the Soviets annexed his lands, those same magics soon saw him installed as Regional Commissar Damnato. When politics and civil war tore through the mountains he stole the face and life of a young UN peacekeeper and relocated to North America.
And, once his continuing explorations into the nature of life and death (and particularly into the mass application of the latter as a way to extend the former) drew the attentions of one Dr Stephen Strange and forced him to go to ground in a small manufacturing town, what he had at hand was a warehouse full of surplus late-90s computer equipment.
Undeterred, Damnato set out to find a way to refocus his power through such unorthodox materials, and through bloody single-mindedness he created a bizarre new school of techno-necromancy within a frenzied six months. Elated with his success, he grew overconfident, and so a simple trip outside for supplies escalated into a mystical confrontation with Strange that ended with Count Damnato trapped in a bubble of looped time, half a country away.
SOME YEARS LATER: Virtually the only thing that Joe Sobaud had in common with Count Denno Damnato was that belief in making do with what one had, and to that end, if the girl he was set on dating thought that urban spelunking was an interesting hobby then so did he. After putting in some serious time at Town Hall looking over old blueprints, he’d even managed to find someplace completely new to spelunk: what looked like a whole bricked-up office level of the old abandoned computer warehouse. All he needed to do was make sure he could actually get in and maybe stash a six-pack and a blanket, in case things got romantic when he showed off his find.
Joe found his way in without a hitch. Trouble was, the first thing he saw once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom was a pair of golems made of yellow-grey plastic, shambling forward to grab his arms. One of them babbled about how pleased it was that the Master had finally found a worthy volunteer while the other fiddled with some kind of home-made syringe, and before Joe could get a word in edgewise he was rendered unconscious.
Later, after he’d explained their mistake (and yelled a great deal, and cried a bit, and smashed a fair amount of glassware) the golems felt terrible. If they’d known that they’d had the wrong person, they explained, they certainly wouldn’t have performed radical technomantic surgery on him, really they wouldn’t. He eventually had to forgive them, if only to keep them from moping. Besides, the damage was done: his hands were gone, and in their place were Spiritual Transition Facilitators. His veins were replaced with coaxial cable; his heart with a Frankensteinian device that had begun its life as a dial-up modem. He had been reconfigured into a perfect spiritual conduit – the ghosts of the world flowed through him.
Seeing no other option, Joe made do with the resources at hand (or giant coaxial cable end, whichever). The townspeople, after a brief panic, were surprisingly accepting, and so he and the golems played to their strengths and opened a computer repair business. And when Joe started making house calls, he discovered that the ghosts didn’t just move through him but that they sometimes left bits of information behind. When he was able to casually point out the location of Great Grampa’s long lost coin collection while waiting for a reboot to finish, a tip was almost guaranteed. And when Great Grampa was actually a deep-cover HYDRA agent who was starting to worry about what the corroding drums in the work shed might end up doing to his genetic legacy, well, when you exist in a grey area between ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ it can help to make yourself useful to people like SHIELD.
So Joe putters along at The Modem & Golem Computer Repair and Psychic Detective Agency and occasionally puts his giant coaxial cable ends to a bit of crimefighting. The spiritual energy that courses through his body enables him to emit blasts of poltergeist energy (a more fine-tuned application of which filled the role of his missing hands) or to imbue inanimate objects with the semblance of life. He’s faster and stronger than he ever was before, and his giant coaxial cable ends are registered weapons (literally – the guys from SHIELD insisted). The only drawback is that if he pushes himself too hard he can easily process all of the spiritual energy of a region, leaving him barely able to function. And if he really exhausts himself, the world starts to shift and flow into nightmare shapes as unformed things from outside of reality try to use him as a gateway to the world of men… probably. Or maybe he’s going mad – whichever it is, he doesn’t like it, so he tries to take it nice and easy.
(and of course what’s really happening is long-distance mind control by Count Damnato, who wants to be free, FREEEEEEEEEEE!)
(Artistic and written wizardry by Johnathan Munroe. UPJ logo provided by Dave Lartigue.)
Are you an artist, writer, or terrifying combination of the two who’d like to try your hand at the Ultimate Powers Jam? Then drop me a line at bitter(dot)andrew(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll commence the dice to rolling…eventually. I promise.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this Chris Mautner piece about the “dangers of nostalgia” since some well-meaning pals sent me a link to it yesterday afternoon.
As someone who has spent a significant portion of his adult life trying to unravel the complex relationship between nostalgia and history, I found Mautner’s rant to be as wrong-headed as it is presumptive in trying to state what artifacts are worthy of saving.
I’m not going to make a case for the artistic merits of old Bazooza Joe comics or Hagar the Horrible strips. Their entertainment or aesthetic value is irrelevant to their significance as enduring pieces of Americana which have been experienced by millions of people over the course of multiple decades. What may seem hoary and trite in the context of individal strips may, in a scholastic version of pontilism, yield insightful patterns across a larger historical panorama.
That alone justifies their preservation. If the marketing for these works relies on warm and fuzzy memories of a mythicized past, fine. If that’s what it takes from saving this stuff from slipping down the memory hole, then so be it.
Is there a troubling decadence in the current rush to stripmine past cultural touchstones for quick and dirty profit? Certainly, but considering the flood of trite shit pumped out to pander to aging manchildren on a regular basis, singling out Bazooka Joe feels like subjective exercise in pettiness.
“Nostalgia is bad when it fails to pander to my specific appetites for ephemeral crap from yesteryear. Now please sing my petition to get a Blu-Ray release of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors cartoon while I finish this article on the literary importance of the new My Little Pony comic.”
Sometime back in the summer of 1985, I came home from a D&D all-nighter to find my little brother hovering over a massive pile of funnybooks stacked in the middle of our bedroom’s orange shag carpet. The bewildering haul was a gift from my uncle, who’d discovered Jesus and/or the realities of married life and subsequently divvied up significant portion of his collection among his nephews.
Our allotment turned out to be a treasure trove of Bronze Age riches from the mid-1970s up through the early 1980s. Mixed in with huge runs of Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Daredevil were a good number of oddities (the Man-Thing story that introduced Wundarr, the Chaykin illustrated Nick Fury story with the Infinity Formula, stray singles of Silver Star and Captain Victory), a fair number of Marvel B&W magazines, and several issues of Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal.
It’s impossible to understate the impact this windfall had upon my evolution as a funnybook fan. Countless seeds of appreciation and understanding were planted during the months I spent working through the stack, many of which took years (or in some occasions decades) to bear full fruit.
The biggest prize in the lot was a complete run of the Astonishing Tales issues featuring Deathlok the Demolisher. I’d been fascinated with the cyborg super-soldier since he and his post-apocalyptic future made an appearance in a then-recent issue of Captain America, but the character’s earlier adventures had been either out of my price range or impossible to find at my usual retail haunts. I’d all but given up on ever reading the source material when — BAM — it happened to fall out of the blue and into my grubby adolescent mitts. Fate can be funny like that.
I took to those Deathlok stories with the passion of a misanthropic junior high school geek who lived in an time when visions of nuclear armageddon fueled the zeitgeist and the concept of a cold-blooded comicbook antihero was a novel exception rather than the depressing norm. My fascination with the character manifested in everything from ballpoint sketches in my health class notebook to character concepts for a planned-then-abandoned Gamma World campaign.
Seriously, I loved me some Deathlok in junior high, which is probably why it’s so difficult for me to revisit the associated comics these days.
Luther Manning’s attempts to come to grips with (and score some payback for) his transformation into a hideous cyber-revenant unfolded across a self-contained arc, albeit one riddled with dangling and abandoned plot threads (which my younger self naively assumed were signs of greater depth and sophistication rather than the creative team adjusting the goalposts of the serial narrative on the fly).
The final issue of Deathlok’s Astonishing Tales run was a springboard by way of epilogue, in which Big-But-Not-Biggest Bad had been defeated and the now-redundant protagonist wandered off to find a new purpose in his tortured life.
That purpose, unfortunately, involved Godwulf…
…the Tarzan-Jesus of post-nuclear Manhattan’s abandoned subway tunnels.
Who — or what — was Godwulf?
The easy answer is “Yet another entry in a long line of shitty Bronze Age z-listers with some variant of ‘god’ or ‘wolf’ in their name.”
That still leaves a number of questions unanswered, but good luck finding them in the actual story, where Godwulf bantered about something called the “Godwulf Principle” (which I assume has to do with removing body hair or going shoeless in the radiocative ruins of NYC’s mass transit hubs) before plugging a cable into his sternum and making Deathlok vanish from existence.*
Godwulf would later resurface during a Captain America tale which tried to reconcile Deathlok’s apocalyptic 1980s future with the pre-apocalyptic 1980s present in the goofiest manner possible. Godwulf was revealed to be a former AIM scientist who felt bad about his role in bringing about armageddon and so sent Deathlok back in time to prevent the catastrophe from taking place.
That job ultimately fell upon an understandably confused Cap, who also helped Godwulf and his scruffy band of misfits (including a pint-sized Mr. T clone and Wulf’s main squeeze Iron Butterfly, who had the power to take eighteen minutes to finish what could reasonably done in four) overthrow the Biggest Bad and restore justice and sappy, stupid coda to a perfectly fine artifact of 1970s funnybook pessimism.
Thus did Godwulf’s epic journey come to an end…
…if you don’t take his early 1990s appearances as a time-travelling bounty hunter into account, and why would you want to go and do that?
Some lousy z-listers are in it for the long haul. Some settle for a singular instance of transcendent lousiness. It’s a rare character who can return for a fleeting moment each decade and be lousier and stupider than the last time they appeared. Like a feculent comet, Godwulf has left his short but fragrant streakmarks across forty years of Marvel history and smeared his name upon the charts of Nobody’s Favorites.
*Or, more accurately, to fight Devil-Slayer and then get caught up in the Marvel Two-In-One‘s “Project: Pegasus” arc, but why quibble over semantics?