Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Discuss: Isaac Asimov


Karen: It's been some time since we ran any posts on science fiction and/or fantasy authors, so I thought I'd pull the subject back out of the mothballs to see if we have any interest. In the past we've discussed Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, John Christopher, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Phillip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert, and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you go to the tag cloud on the left-hand side of the screen and click on "author," they should all come up. If we've somehow missed tagging a post, somebody please feel free to speak up.

Today let's talk about one of the grand old men, Isaac Asimov. Although I can't say he is a favorite of mine, he was my big brother's favorite for many years, so I have some familiarity with his work. I did read some of his robot stories, but never the Foundation books, I'm afraid. By the time I began getting into SF, I was gravitating towards Roger Zelazny, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the like, and not so much the 'hard SF' types like Asimov. But he certainly is a giant in the literature, and his Three Laws of Robotics have had tremendous impact on not only SF but society as a whole. He also took on the role of science ambassador, perhaps less than Carl Sagan, but he still was a witty guest on talk shows. Let us also not forget the magazine that bears his name and has published some wonderful short fiction for many years.

The floor is open...



Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Comics-Related Goodness in the Home or Office -- Revisited!


Doug: Today we get to revisit a post we ran back on April 24th entitled "True or False: I Have Comics Related Goodness on Display in My Home or Office." I started the conversation with a measly photo of a Captain America and a Spider-Man action figure adorning my desk. I knew, though, that once David B. came along he would dwarf us all with his description of his own office space. About a week ago David emailed Karen and I some photos of his space, and he wrote:
David B: HB summed it up best..:
 
“I have to say, DaveB, that yours sounds like just about the most comfortable, friendly, retro-pop-cultural womb that anyone could ever hope to visit-! The creeping plants are a perfect touch. In spite of the Little Shop [of Horrors, what I used to describe the creeping nature of my plants..] connection, they very much bridge the gap from being potentially geekily-off-putting to having an eccentric but welcoming vibe.”
 
He certainly nailed it.

Doug: So without any more hot air from me, here are the pix David wanted to show today. As he's generally one of our early commenters, I'm sure he'll be along with a little blow-by-blow narration of all of his goodies. Enjoy!




Monday, May 25, 2015

Guest Reviews - Arc of Triumph? The West Coast Avengers Limited Series



Doug: Welcome, friends, to another guest review from our pal Mike W. After his thoughts on the Rocket Raccoon mini, Mike thought he'd walk us through the West Coast Avengers limited series. It's another one of those mid-80s curiosities of which I've not partaken. Maybe Mike's going to talk me into pulling the trigger. To be honest, his review of Rocket's story made me feel somewhat justified in not having purchased that one. But today -- today's fare is all about some of my favorite characters. So sales pitch or no? We shall see.                                               

M. S. Wilson: In my Rocket Raccoon review I mentioned that I didn’t read a lot of the Marvel miniseries back in the 80s; there were plenty to choose from, but most of them featured characters I didn’t care about all that much. But one miniseries I did buy (and loved) was West Coast Avengers, written by Roger Stern. Stern was writing the original Avengers title at the time (though I wasn’t a regular reader) and the West Coast spinoff seemed to grow organically from the Avengers storyline. It’s been a while since I’ve read this miniseries, so I hope it holds up (Aw, who am I kidding? Of course it’ll hold up ... it’s Roger Stern!).


West Coast Avengers #1 (September 1984) 
“Avengers Assemble”
Roger Stern-Bob Hall/Brett Breeding

As I mentioned, I wasn’t a regular reader of Avengers at this point in my life, so why did I buy this miniseries? I think the cover of issue #1 had a lot to do with it. A great shot of Hawkeye surrounded by potential Avengers: Red Wolf, Iron Man, Puck, Shanna (who I always mistook for Clea for some reason), Rom, Doc Samson, Mockingbird, Cyclops, Wonder Man, Black Widow, Tigra, Quicksilver, Hercules, Shroud, Namor, and Ant-Man. An interesting talent pool; of course, four of these characters actually do end up joining, but some of the others might have made interesting Avengers too. Some of them (Puck, Rom) seem like strange choices too. Maybe the editor just told Bob Hall to toss a bunch of random characters on the cover.  Anyway, the story starts with Hawkeye giving the “Avengers Assemble” call (which is also the issue’s title) to an empty Avengers Compound. So far, he and his wife Mockingbird are the only ones there. We get some playful banter between the two, who are still basically newlyweds at this point. This is certainly different from the vitriol they’ll eventually be spewing at each other. They get a video call from Vision, who is chairman of the East Coast Avengers at this point. This was during the storyline when Vision was trying to take over the world’s computers (or ISAAC was, using Vision as its pawn), and the creation of the West Coast branch was part of that whole scheme. Hawkeye reminds Vision that he and Mockingbird are the only ones on the new team, but Vision says he’s already got some other potential members in mind. 


We cut to San Francisco, where private investigator Jessica Drew is chatting with Tigra about a recent case she helped on. I like this acknowledgement of their friendship, which was established in the final few issues of Spider Woman. It seems like Jessica is about to offer Tigra a steady job, when Lindsay McCabe comes in and tells Tigra there’s a phone call for her. Tigra takes the call, then decides to take a sudden trip to Los Angeles. Jessica is suspicious, but figures she can’t follow Tigra herself, so she makes a phone call of her own, to someone in the L.A. area. Obviously Tigra's phone call was from Vision, asking her to join the new Avengers team. It’s interesting that Vision knew exactly where to find her ... he’s apparently keeping tabs on potential recruits. Also, why didn’t he offer Jessica a spot on the team? I know she’d turned down membership before, but that was for the East Coast team; you’d think Vizh would’ve at least considered it ... or was Jessica de-powered at this time? I know the Avengers “brought her back from the dead” not long before this, but I can’t remember if she lost most of her powers. I know she had them back by the time she was in Madripoor, but maybe she doesn’t have them at this point.

Out in the Mojave Desert, we see Wonder Man doing stunt work for what seems to be a James Bond pastiche (the star is referred to as Sean, but he doesn’t look that much like Connery to me). Wonder Man gets a call from Vision and decides to head to L.A. as soon as possible. Up in Silicon Valley, Iron Man (James Rhodes) gets a call from Vision as well, telling him to get to L.A. as fast as he can. I like the continuity references Stern keeps putting in ... first, the stuff with Jessica and Tigra, and now we get some acknowledgement of the current situation in the Iron Man comics, with Rhodey wearing the armor and moving to California with Tony and the Erwins to start their own company. Iron Man gets to L.A. fast, just in time to meet Tigra getting out of an airport limo. (Did Vision arrange that? Earlier, it seemed like Tigra was straped for cash.) Tigra knows Iron Man (or thinks she does), but Rhodey’s never met her before. He’s soon impressed, though! This is one of the differences in Tigra’s portrayal by Roger Stern ... she’s shown as being sexy (almost inadvertently sometimes), but she’s not sexualized; she isn’t flirting like crazy or throwing herself at everyone in sight. She seems more like the 70s Tigra here than the later Englehart-written character. Hawkeye greets Iron Man and Tigra and invites them in for the tour. They’re watched by a mysterious dark-clad figure (no, it’s not Batman). 

 

Hawkeye and Mockingbird brief the new recruits (and we find out how Vizh got Tigra to head south so quickly ... he offered her a $1000 bribe, uh, I mean “stipend”). Tigra is unsure whether she wants to rejoin, which is another nice bit of continuity. She was an Avenger before (for about five issues) and quit because she didn’t think she belonged in the big leagues. It makes sense she’d still have doubts. The intruder alarm goes off, and as everyone splits up to search for the culprit, we learn Tigra isn’t the only one with doubts. Iron Man doesn’t like the way Hawkeye barks orders, and Hawkeye himself is unsure about his leadership role and can’t help comparing himself to Captain America. Mockingbird finds the intruder (who turns out to be Shroud) and they mix it up a bit. Shroud is surprised by Mockingbird’s skill and he also doesn’t seem to recognize Iron Man, which seems ridiculous to me; even if they hadn’t met before (and I think they might have, in Super-Villain Team Up), he should know Iron Man by sight (yeah, I know Shroud is blind, but you know what I mean). Tigra has met Shroud before and quickly realizes it’s him, but he finally figures out he’s broken into Avengers headquarters and decides to get out while he can. Unfortunately, Wonder Man shows up at that exact moment (plot convenience, you say? No, Stern actually made a point of mentioning travel times from various destinations, so Wondy showing up as this precise moment is perfectly logical!) and bounces Shroud around, cracking some of his ribs. If you’re unfamiliar with Shroud’s shtick, he’s a crimefighter who pretends to be a criminal so he can keep tabs on the real bad guys ... kind of like the Green Hornet, I guess. Tigra tells them Shroud is one of the good guys and Hawkeye impulsively offers him membership in the new Avengers branch (and mentions that he introduced himself to the original Avengers the same way, by breaking into their HQ). Shroud says no, since it would blow his cover as a notorious gang kingpin.  Wonder Man is understandably confused, so Hawkeye gets ready to explain things again, and that’s it for this issue. I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t see more of the characters from the front cover. Some of them would’ve been unconventional choices (to say the least), but they actually end up going with people who have already been Avengers at this point. The only really new member is Mockingbird (and Rhodey, but at this point everyone still thinks he’s the original Iron Man).


West Coast Avengers #2 (October 1984) 
“Blanking Out” 
Roger Stern-Bob Hall/Brett Breeding

We open with Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and Tigra training against Iron Man. You’d think it would be kind of a one-sided fight, but the underdogs show that teamwork can trump raw power and they actually bring Iron Man down. Tigra seems confident during the fight, but afterwards still wonders to herself if she’s cut out to be an Avenger. She’s not the only one worrying; Rhodey isn’t sure whether he should tell his new teammates that he’s not the original Iron Man, as they all assume him to be. We jump to a suburb where Wonder Man is packing to move to Avengers Compound. We get a needless show of his strength when he lifts up the back wall of his house to remove his belongings; I really don’t see how that’d be any faster or more convenient than using the door. I think Wondy’s been in Hollywood too long. Anyway, he runs out of nails, so he and his director friend head down to the hardware store and stumble across a bank robbery. The crook is a new character ... so new he doesn’t even have a name; he takes the name The Blank from a random comment by one of the bank patrons (and no, it wasn’t Betty Ross). Blank (fittingly, we never do learn his real name) is obviously new to the bank robbing game, and to the superhero game as well. He sems surprised at Wonder Man’s abilities (doesn’t anyone watch the news in L.A.?), but Wondy is surprised at Blank’s powers too. Apparently, Blank’s force field protects him from harm, but also makes him hard to hold onto. I’m not sure how that would work; he’s not intangible, since Wondy can grab him, and he’s not invisible. Plus, Blank can grab stuff (like the bank’s money), but nothing can hurt him. Anyway, Blank jumps out the window, turns off his force field, and blends in with the crowd. You’d think that would’ve occurred to Wonder Man, although I guess he couldn’t really start grabbing people at random. Blank takes his loot back to his apartment, and we see his origin. Some old guy that worked for Stark international invented the force field device, then stole it when Obadiah Stane took over and fired him. The old guy got hit by a car, so Blank took the device for himself. After Blank recharges the device, we see a ghostly figure appear above the charger, begging for more power (Maybe it's Tim "the Tool Man" Taylor!).


Wonder Man is mad at himself for letting a goof like Blank get away (he’s been having some of the same doubts as Tigra about being able to cut it in the big leagues again). The team splits up  and scours the city, and we get a quick tour of L.A.:  Tigra’s in Chinatown, Iron Man in Santa Monica, Hawkeye’s in Marina Del Rey, Mockingbird cruises the freeways, and Wondy’s Downtown. It’s nice to see a different setting than New York; I always appreciated some of the comics set in California (Spider Woman, Champions, Werewolf By Night). Unfortunately, L.A. is a bit big for five people to cover. Blank ends up in Inglewood, robbing an armored car. Things go wrong and he grabs what he can, jumping out of the moving vehicle. His force field protects him again, but Mockingbird shows up in her fancy car. Blank seems surprised again (“I’m being chased by a blonde in a sports car!” Welcome to L.A., Blank!) Hawkeye and Iron Man show up too, but Blank manages to distract them by blowing up a gas station (!); Iron Man smothers the fire with a dump truck full of sand from a nearby construction site, but Blank escapes again. Back at his place, he decides to leave town (which is a decsion I think more villains should make ... it makes sense to go where the superheroes aren’t). As Blank recharges his force field device, the ghostly form we saw before coalesces ... and it turns out to be Graviton!


West Coast Avengers #3 (November 1984) 
“Taking Care of Business” 
Roger Stern-Bob Hall/Brett Breeding

As this issue opens, it’s obvious there’s been a time jump; the West Coasters are shown cleaning up snow from “some unusual weather” that’s affected the whole world for the past week (This is a reference to the “Casket of Ancient Winters” storyline in Thor). None of the Avengers seem to know the cause of the freak weather, but they’re engaged in cleaning it up. Iron Man mentions that people in L.A. are taking the weird weather in stride and we see a woman in sunglasses, a scarf, and a bikini skiing down the street. Across town, some people are taking advantage of the slow police response time to rob a store (a Radio Shack by the looks of it ... yeah, this was set in the 80s all right). Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and Tigra stop the robbers (and in another 80s reference, Tigra appears to be wearing leg warmers ... or maybe they’re just woolen tights? I’ve seen girls wear those up here in Canada, but you’d think they’d be hard to find in L.A.). The snow disappears as quickly as it came, and Hawkeye proposes they all get together for a barbeque. Everyone is enthusiastic, but Tigra is worried about Wonder Man; he’s still moping about letting Blank get away (and we find out it’s been two weeks since the last issue), so Tigra asks Iron Man to talk to Wondy. He suggests she might have better luck, and lets her know (by removing one of his gloves) that he’s not Tony Stark. 


At a fancy mansion in the Santa Monica mountains, we catch up with Graviton. He used the strange weather to take over the mansion from another mobster, and we get a recap of what’s been happening with Graviton since Thor put him in suspended animation in Thor #324. Apparently, Grav’s consciousness was awoken by a strange energy (which we’re told was the Beyonder) and he used Blank’s recharging machine to make his way back to Earth. Graviton demonstrates his powers (freaking Blank out a bit) and says he’s not worried about the Avengers. Back at the Compound, we see the conversation between Wonder Man and Tigra. He recaps his origin and tells how he ended up working as a stuntman; apparently the Avengers’ appearance on David Letterman (in Avengers #239) brought Wondy to the notice of the Hollywood bigwigs. Working as a stuntman gave him his confidence back, so he jumped at the chance to rejoin the Avengers, but after letting Blank escape he’s started wondering if he made a mistake.Tigra then recounts some of her story: she tells him about the Cat People and how she’s bounced from one thing to another in her life, never quite feeling in control, which is why she’s also having doubts about being an Avenger. Again, I really like this version of Tigra; wanting to be on the team, but afraid to let everyone down. Much better than her later “overconfident/slutty” persona. 


Tigra and Wondy decide to prove themselves by finding Blank. They go to Shroud's club for information, reasoning that since he's posing as a gangster, he'll have info on the "competition". They find Shroud's place trashed and are told that it was done by the Galeno gang ... except Galeno isn't the one in charge anymore. Shroud has to retaliate, to keep up appearances, and Wondy offers to go along as his "muscle". Tigra reluctantly agrees. Shroud and Wonder Man show up at Galeno's mansion (with Wondy wearing a really stupid-looking wig as a disguise; seriously, he looks like Harpo Marx in that thing), and find out the new gang leader is The Blank. Blank demonstrates some powers he really shouldn't have, like making Wonder Man float in mid-air, and making Shroud's feet so heavy that he can't move. Tigra jumps Blank and he yells for help. The real boss, Graviton, appears and Wonder Man warns the others to stay back as he attacks Graviton himself. Graviton uses a "localized gravity field" to send Wondy crashing through the floorboards. It's nice that they acknowledge what a tough opponent Graviton was when he first fought the Avengers; it's been a while since I read those issues, but I remember Graviton basically held off ten or so Avengers and almost killed them. He's no lightweight (so to speak). Graviton sets everything in the room spinning. Shroud tries to use his "living darkness" to blind Graviton, but the villain just pins his foes to the wall, disrupting Shroud's control. Wonder Man climbs back up through the floor (still under the effects of localized gravity), but Graviton renders him helpless by making him float in the air. Grav then sends Tigra, Shroud, and Blank (whose incessant whining he's finally gotten tired of ... I'm not sure what took him so long) crashing through the window and out into the Pacific Ocean. At the Compound, the others are preparing for the barbeque (and Rhodey's wondering how he'll eat with his helmet on), but Mockingbird is worried about Tigra and Wonder Man. Hawkeye figures there isn't much Wondy can't handle, but we see how wrong he is; back at Graviton's mansion, he shows off his newest "decoration" to a couple of girls (one of whom looks terrified, while the other seems strangely ... turned on?). He's used his gravity powers to pin Wonder Man at the bottom of the swimming pool until his lungs filled with water.


West Coast Avengers #4 (December 1984) 
"Finale" 
Roger Stern-Bob Hall/Brett Breeding/Peter Berardi

This issue starts with Tigra surfacing in the Pacific, clutching an unconscious Shroud in her arms. It's night-time now, where it seemed to be daylight last issue, so I'm not sure how long they were meant to be down there. Tigra uses her emergency beacon to call for help; I can't help wondering where she keeps that ... her costume doesn't leave a lot of room for hiding places. Iron Man picks them up, and back at the Compound we learn that Shroud will be fine (although he's never mentioned again after this) and that Iron Man couldn't find any trace of Blank. Shellhead is champing at the bit to go after Graviton, but Hawkeye reminds him how tough Graviton is, mentioning that Iron Man should know that since he fought Grav the first time around. Rhodey realizes he has to come clean and takes off his helmet. The others are surprised, and Hawkeye is annoyed to find out he's been working with an "amateur". Rhodey informs him that he was the Iron Man who saved everyone during the Secret Wars after Molecule Man dropped a mountain on them. Rhodey is stiil fired up to confront Graviton, and Hawkeye realizes that he's seen this all before, from the other side, and wonders how Captain America ever put up with him all those years. Hawkeye decides they will go after Graviton, but they need a plan.

Later at Graviton's mansion, there's a party in full swing and we see a couple of women (who I think are supposed to be high-class hookers) talking about how gross Graviton is. The bartender commiserates with them as she pours some more drinks. The bartender is Mockingbird in disguise, which makes sense; with her SHIELD background, infiltrating a party would be a cakewalk. There's a knock at the door and Madame Masque shows up, with a gun-toting goon. The goon is Hawkeye (in another weird-looking disguise) and Masque is Tigra, using her amulet (which she demonstrated last issue .. Chekhov's amulet, I guess) to hide her furriness. Mockingbird pours Graviton some more champagne as one of his henchmen fills him in on Madame Masque. Grav seems impressed (and Tigra does look good in that dress!), so he shows her around. When she mentions the Avengers, Graviton shows her Wonder Man at the bottom of the pool, which freaks Hawkeye out. They cover for it before Graviton gets suspicious, and then Iron Man shows up, blasting at Grav with his repulsors. Hawkeye uses the confusion to grab some cover, as Graviton uses his powers to bounce Iron Man around. At the bottom of the pool, Wonder Man starts to move (come on, you didn't really think he was dead, did you?). Bobbi changes into her Mockingbird costume, and joins the fight. Graviton pounds Iron Man, but begins to feel light-headed. We learn that Bobbi spiked the booze, so most of Graviton's henchmen (and other guests) are conked out, but Grav himself must have "the constitution of a moose", because he's still on his feet. A skycycle shows up with "Hawkeye" on it (actually a Hawkeye dummy ... I guess they just had one lying around at the Compound?) and when Graviton blasts it, the real Hawkeye retrieves his gear. As Graviton and Iron Man fight, Wonder Man climbs out of the pool, pulling half of it down in the process; he surprises Graviton enough to get a punch in. Iron Man grabs Madame Masque and flies off with her. Graviton quickly follows, but before Wonder Man can chase them, Hawkeye tells him everything is going according to plan.


Graviton catches up to Iron Man and his "captive" a few miles north, near a power substation. Iron Man has hooked himself into the power grid so he can blast away at Graviton with everything the station can put out. Unfortunately, the cables connecting him to the station aren't as sturdy as his armor, so just as he blasts Graviton with a huge burst of power, the cables melt, causing feedback that knocks the armor offline temporarily. Tigra chooses this moment to drop her disguise and decks Graviton; Wonder Man shows up and he and Iron Man attack again. Graviton realizes he's been drugged, but is still confident that he can beat a mere five Avengers. Hawkeye hits him with some gas arrows, and Graviton makes the gas so heavy that it sinks to the ground. Graviton is still bragging about how tough he is when he keels over. Later, we see Graviton being hauled away (I'm not sure how they'll keep him incarcerated ... drug him constantly?), and Hawkeye tells a reporter that they have another important mission to take care of.


That mission turns out to be the long-delayed barbeque back at the Compound. Everyone has their masks off and is chowing down. Hawkeye plays a congratulatory message from Vision and Wonder Man reminds everyone that he no longer needs to breathe, which is why he survived being trapped at the bottom of the pool. Both Wondy and Tigra seem to have gotten past their self-doubts about being Avengers (and it seems like Stern may have been setting up a romance between the two of them). One of the things I liked about this miniseries is how Wondy and Tigra had their doubts (logical, considering their backstories), but Rhodey always seemed 100% down with being an Avenger. He wasn't arrogant about it, but he seemed confident enough to know he could cut it as an Avenger, unlike in the IronMan comics of the time, where he always seemed to have an inferiority complex. Anyway, Hawkeye ends the issue (and the miniseries) with "Once an Avenger, always an Avenger!" and we're told that the West Coasters will be appearing in Avengers #250 next (where I think they team up with the East Coast branch to  fight Maelstrom).

I really liked this miniseries, maybe more now than I did back then, since I can appreciate more of the background and surrounding events now. Bob Hall's art is great (he would've been good on the ongoing series), and I love how Stern uses all kinds of character  history and brings a bunch of other storylines into the series (Tony's booze problems, Secret Wars, the Casket of Ancient Winters, Spider Woman, etc.) I also like the way Stern writes these characters: Wondy and Tigra's doubts, Hawkeye having to be the calm leader instead of the hothead. Like I said before, I wish we'd gotten to see more of the characters from the cover of issue #1 (some of whom would've made great Avengers). I'm not sure about Shroud as an Avenger, but he might have made an interesting recurring character. And there were others (like Jessica Drew or Bill Foster) who could've been used too. I know Stern did have Foster lined up as the WCA's resident scientist, but once Hank Pym was brought in, Foster seemed to disappear pretty quick. I can't help wondering (one of those real life "What If?" scenarios) what it would've been like if Stern had written the regular West Coast Avengers series instead of Steve Englehart? Nothing against Englehart (I generally like his writing ... his Captain America run is classic), but some of his characterizations are a bit off, Tigra especially. He seemed to take all the nuance out of her. I liked some of his ideas (the way he wrote Firebird was interesting), but some of his choices left me a bit cold. I think if Stern had written both series at the same time, he could have coordinated the titles so they felt like two parts of a whole, instead of "Avengers" and "Avengers Junior", like we basically ended up with. Lots of people joke now about the West Coasters being lame knock-offs of the "real" Avengers, but Stern obviously meant them to be taken seriously ... hence their defeating Graviton with half as many Avengers as it took the first time. And maybe if Stern was writing both titles, he eventually would've worked some other characters into the book. Ah well, we'll never know what might have been!

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Cover Made Me Buy This Book -No, Really

Karen: It was such a great idea, I decided to try it too. How about this beauty from John Byrne and Tom Palmer in 1978? Could you turn this down if you saw it on the spinner rack? I know I couldn't.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Name Your Poison

Doug: Recently C.K. Dexter Haven revived Karen's post on Zingers or Cupcakes, three years after it was published! Now that's some fine spelunking you've done, m'boy!

Doug: In one of his recent comments, C.K. stated that Mr. Pibb was his drink of choice -- of course that spurs today's post, where we'll shift from sugary confections of the cake variety to sugary confections of the fizzy liquid variety!

Doug: First off, I have to ask -- do you call it "soda", "pop", or something else? Where I live it's always been pop, but when most other places I've traveled soda seems to be the more common term. Regardless, what's your favorite drink? Is there a brand you favor over others? Are there drinks you don't care for at all? And what about branching this into iced tea -- sweet tea, or unsweetened?

Doug: Personally, I'm a Diet Dr. Pepper guy -- that's my go-to. After that, it's Diet Coke. I've never been one of those hardcore "gotta pick Pepsi over Coke (or vice versa)" guys. I'll drink Diet Pepsi, but given a choice I'll reach for the Coke. I do not at all care for "regular" pop -- after years of drinking diet sodas the sugar-sweetened stuff is just too thick and rich for me. I'll drink a root beer, but really, just a few of those a year will do me. Same with the lemon-limes, like 7-Up or Sprite. I like them, but don't as a rule buy them. A treat every now and then is Diet Coke Lime -- I miss the lemon version. Does anyone remember Pepsi Light (which wasn't light, but was infused with lemon flavor)?

Doug: And to set your mind for today's conversation, here are some pop cans from the Bronze Age. Ah, the memories!


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Discuss: Fabulous or Fiasco? Flash Finale


Karen: Anybody want to chat about last night's season finale of The Flash? I thought that despite an uneven but mostly entertaining season, the finale really delivered. And what a cliffhanger! It looks like this will be feeding directly into the new CW series, Legends of Tomorrow. There was so much going on, it's hard to focus on any one thing. How about Barry's decision? And is his timeline a paradox? Start chatting kids.




Monday, May 18, 2015

Guest Reviews - Mike W. Barr's Batman Annuals




Doug: As summer approaches, what better format of comic books to discuss than Annuals! Edo Bosnar is here today with his thoughts on a few of his favorite books from those warm days of our youths -- two Batman Annuals and a Batman Special written by a personal favorite, Mike W. Barr.



Edo Bosnar: When I was a youngster back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mike Barr was just one of many comics writers with whose name I was familiar, but who never had that same status in my mind as say, Chris Claremont or Roy Thomas, to say nothing of the then increasingly popular writer-artists like Frank Miller, John Byrne or Walt Simonson. But when I got back into comics sometime in the first decade of this new century and started thinking about all of the comics I liked (and slowly began to re-acquire some of the stuff that I had in my original long-lost comics collection), I realized that many of the Batman stories I recalled quite fondly were in fact written by Mr. Barr. Specifically, three ‘big’ issues immediately came to mind, Batman Annual #8 and the 1984 Batman Special in particular, but also Batman Annual #9.



Batman Annual #8 (1982)
“The Messiah of the Crimson Sun”
Mike W. Barr-Trevor von Eeden

Initially my favorite of these was Batman Annual #8. This is definitely one of those “the cover made me buy it” books. DC annuals were pretty uncommon at the time anyway, so that intrigued me right away, while the absolutely gorgeous art by Trevor von Eeden really sealed the deal for the young me.

The story begins with the horrible deaths of pretty much everyone in a small farming community north of Gotham City – they all have the flesh fried from their bones at the crack of dawn by some oddly reddish sunlight. Not long afterward, television transmissions in Gotham are interrupted by an announcement from a mysterious cowled figure and calling himself the Messiah of the Crimson Sun, who apparently runs some kind of cult that has a big church in the city. He tells the Gotham’s residents that they’re next. This prompts Batman to go to the farming community, which has been cordoned off by the military – not an obstacle for him, obviously.

There, he finds out that two people did survive the massacre by dawn’s early light: a kidney patient at the local hospital, who is hooked up to a dialysis machine, and some flaky guy in a white robe called Seth, who keeps telling everyone to have faith in the Crimson Sun. The latter is also very thirsty and keeps asking for water. The army physician can’t figure out why everyone was killed, and why these two survived. So there’s all the ingredients to a great Batman story: a mystery, a threat to Gotham, and a megalomaniacal villain.
Batman sends Robin (who happens to be in town), disguised as Seth, to infiltrate the Crimson Sun’s organization, and then there’s a shocking reveal - since this came out over 30 years ago, I don’t think I’ll spoil this too much by noting that the Crimson Sun is actually Ra’s al-Ghul.

It’s all another one of his schemes to wipe out most of the planet’s human population – this time by using a gigantic orbiting lens that focuses the sun’s rays (and gives them that crimson hue) on a specific point on the planet. The people get fried because he adds a chemical to the water supply in advance which reacts quite unpleasantly in the human body when hit by direct sunlight.
Batman, meanwhile, figures much of this out himself, and also where the goons sent by Ra’s/Crimson Sun will attempt to contaminate Gotham’s water supply. However, before takes them all out, one of them manages to flip the valve to release the chemical into Gotham’s main water plant.

Eventually, Batman confronts R’as in his orbiting space station – he gets there by borrowing a space shuttle from NASA, with Robin and Talia (always conveniently there when Ra’s shows up) in tow. When I recently re-read this to prepare for this review, I found that this last part of the story didn’t hold up for me: it just seemed to take the otherwise generous leeway I give to superhero stories a little too far. I think it would have worked better if the action had been a little more, well, grounded. That’s why I said above that it used to be my favorite – now it’s slipped a bit in my estimation, even though I still think it’s well worth reading. And this is because of my favorite aspects of the story: the really nice build-up, the somewhat shocking reveal of the villain, and the little character moments, mainly Batman’s interactions with Robin and Alfred in particular. These are in fact Barr’s strong suits.

I also have to laud the art in this one. Von Eeden was really on fire here, and every panel and every page look spectacular. The colorist, Lynn Varley, also deserves special praise, because the color palette is so perfectly suited to the story: it consists mainly of darks like various shades of black, gray and blue, and then tones of red, orange, magenta, scarlet, and yellow.


Batman Special (1984)
"...the Player On the Other Side"
Mike W. Barr-Michael Golden/Mike DeCarlo  

Sandwiched between these two annuals is the Batman Special from 1984, again with lovely art, this time by two more Mikes: Michael Golden and Mike DeCarlo. The story, called “…The Player on the Other Side” contains something of a retcon (long before that term became part of the everyday vocabulary of superhero comics at the big two) of Batman’s origin and Commissioner Gordon’s past. It really doesn’t impact Batman’s origin as such, but it tells the story of another killing on that same night, in a different part of Gotham City, in which a man and woman, with their young son in tow, are caught sneaking out of a ground floor window – apparently after breaking and entering – by a beat cop. The hot-headed dad takes a shot at the police officer, wounding him, but the officer gets off a few shots that take down both of the apparent burglars. The boy witnesses all of this and it shapes his future, just as Bruce Wayne was shaped by seeing the slaying of his parents. However, this little boy, understandably I suppose, swears revenge against the cop who killed his parents, and develops an abiding hatred for law enforcement and all of its representatives. That young beat cop, by the way, was James Gordon.

Although he spends the rest of his troubled childhood in foster care and juvenile detention, the boy (we never learn his name), much like Wayne, is consumed with his purpose, and hones and his body and mind to what will become his life’s mission of retaliation. He grows to manhood, spending time in and out of foster care and juvenile detention, and eventually becomes a secretive, world-class professional hitman called the Wrath, who dons a costume quite similar to Batman’s and basically wages a crusade against the law that is the opposite of Batman’s crusade for justice.


The Wrath is already in Gotham to finally exact his revenge on Gordon, and has made several attempts on his life (Batman was usually there to save him). Frustrated by Batman’s interference, the Wrath goes about finding out anything he can about him by threatening some of his known underworld informants, and he learns from one of them that Batman comes to that same spot in “Crime Alley” on the same date every year. It’s a date that obviously has meaning for the Wrath as well, and he breaks into the public library and checks on newspaper reports for any other significant events there on that date, and puts 2 and 2 together when he sees the report about the killing of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Makes a lot of sense, actually: any number of criminals with their ear to the ground should have been able to figure out the same thing.

So while Gordon is in hiding, the Wrath uses his new-found knowledge to hit Batman where it hurts, first by vandalizing the tombstone of his parents, and then by brutally assaulting Alfred. He makes it clear to Batman that he wants the Commissioner.


But Batman also gets busy, and eventually learns that the Wrath has his own weak spot: his lover, who is the daughter of some local crime boss and who just wants to get away from it all. Batman tracks her down and confronts her.


And this is where another character is re-introduced: Leslie Thompkins, who was first seen in another retcon of Batman’s origin, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” (by Denny O’Neill and Dick Giordano, first published in Detective Comics #457 in 1976). In that story, she extends some solace to the young Bruce Wayne just after his parents are killed. Here, she is taken hostage by the Wrath, and this leads to a stand-off, as he bargains with her life for the Commissioner’s.


How it plays out is largely predictable, but that’s really not important. What I liked about this story is the whole idea of Batman having a counterpart whose life was scarred and then dictated by a similar event, but who went in another direction. Additionally, I like how this one focuses on Batman’s friendship with Gordon, his deep affection for Alfred, and his relationship with Leslie Thompkins, who, by consoling the young Bruce Wayne and showing him some humanity immediately after the death of his parents perhaps made her own little contribution to keeping him grounded, so that he even though his personal tragedy indelibly marked him, it didn’t turn him into a stone-cold vengeful killer like the Wrath.


Batman Annual #9 (1985)
"The Four Faces of Batman"
Mike W. Barr-Jerry Ordway/Alex Nino/Dan Jurgens/Paul Smith

Batman Annual #9 has always been my least favorite of these, but I thought it completed the little trifecta of “big books” I have going here. The story, called “The Four Faces of Batman,” actually consists of four short pieces, each one almost kind of a vignette, that is supposed to explore different aspects of Batman’s persona. To wit: the child, the avenger, the detective and the man. However, I never got the impression any time I read this that a clear delineation is made between these various “faces” of Batman. As with the previous two books, Barr is served by some outstanding artists, in this case Jerry Ordway, Alex Nino, Dan Jurgens (inked by Dick Giordano) and Paul Smith.

I think the first and fourth “faces” (i.e., ‘The Child’ and ‘The Man’) work the best. The first involves Batman rushing to track down some armed robbers who inadvertently run down and kill the parents of a young boy right in front of him. Bruce Wayne knows the family and happened to be at the scene when the tragedy occurs, and he sees the boy swear revenge. Obviously, he sees the similarity with his own situation, but Barr puts in another aspect – he flashes back to Bruce’s childhood, and we learn that before his parents were killed, he was a budding artist – a sculptor to be specific.

 After his parents died, however, he ignored his artistic talent as he became driven to fight injustice and crime. In the present, he fears that the young boy, who is a prodigy with the violin, will go down a similar path.  I really liked how Barr added in this harmless little retcon to Batman’s origin which adds another intriguing facet to the character.

The second face, ‘The Avenger,’ was my least favorite, not just the story but also the art by Alex Nino. I’m normally a huge fan of Nino’s work, but his style was really ill-suited to this story and it’s simply unattractive. The story is also rather bleak. It starts with a bank heist apparently perpetrated by a terrorist group that has already robbed a few banks before. However, this one ends with a fatality (not a trademark of the aforementioned terrorist group), as one of the tellers dies of a heart attack. It turns out that the robbers just pretended to be the terrorist group, and said terrorists then go after them for besmirching their reputation. Batman also goes after them, but instead of stopping them, he basically incites an armed confrontation between the two groups – and then just sits it out and lets them kill each other. It’s really pretty cynical and kind of out of character for both Batman and Barr.

The third face, ‘The Detective,’ is not as bad, but also not really notable in any way. It’s just a whodunit, meant to highlight Batman’s sleuthing capabilities (although these were better demonstrated in the first story). It seems more like one of those largely forgettable back-up stories you’d find in an issue of Batman Family or Detective Comics.

The last ‘face’, as I said above, is pretty good and it’s very nicely drawn by Paul Smith. Batman rescues a bunch of children from a fire in a hospital, and the event is shown from the standpoints of various witnesses to the event, and concluding with Batman’s own recounting of the night’s incident to Alfred. This one is really nice, and it has a lot of those great character moments that Barr does so well, especially the final brief scene that highlights Alfred’s role as something of a surrogate parent to Batman.

All three of these books that highlight why Mike Barr is one of my favorite Bat scribes: he tells engaging, well-paced stories first and foremost, interspersed with these wonderfully done interactions between Batman and the various members of his supporting cast.
Barr did quite a bit of work with the character throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which included ushering in and writing Batman and the Outsiders, and a rather well-regarded run in Detective Comics, initially teamed up with artist fan-favorite Alan Davis. Unfortunately, Frank Miller’s take on Batman at almost the same time got – and still gets – much more attention from comic fans, while Barr’s work is generally (and unfairly I think) overlooked. I definitely think that, like Archie Goodwin and Len Wein, Barr deserves his own “Tales of the Batman” volume. Not that I’d be likely to afford such a book should DC decide to publish it… :-(

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