Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wonder Women

One of the first comic books I owned was Secret Origins #3 (1973), featuring the origin of Wonder Woman. The art puzzled me: While the cover's Wonder Woman was lithe like a Seventies model with long, flowing hair, the interior art, a reprint of the 1941 original, gave the Amazon a boxy figure and tight curls like Betty Grable. At the time, I could barely comprehend how art could show one character in such different ways. Now, it's easy to understand: Each era portrayed Wonder Woman as the ideal of the times.

But those were not the only two visions of Wonder Woman available at the time. In the very same year, the contemporary Wonder Woman was the white-suited non-powered version who followed her mentor, I Ching. Also debuting in 1973 was the Super Friends, which showed a Wonder Woman looking like the Sixties version and superpowered, but nowhere near the levels of Superman. By 1976, Wonder Woman in the comics had regained her powers, while the TV version played by Lynda Carter was set in the Forties – prompting DC's Wonder Woman solo title to tell wartime adventures set on Earth Two (but with Seventies-style art) – until the TV show skipped ahead, without explanation, to the Seventies – and the comic version made the same jump, to contemporary stories set on Earth One. In four years, fans were given seven or eight distinct versions of Wonder Woman; trying to juggle all the various versions was probably more complicated than understanding any of the individual stories. And in that era before the Internet, there was no guide to any of this; it was simply up to the fan to make sense of it.

Four decades later, the world once again abounds in alternate versions of Wonder Woman. In 2011, the post-Crisis version of Wonder Woman gave way to the post-Flashpoint New 52 Wonder Woman. Five years later, a tremendous multiplicity of Wonder Women burst upon the scene. The DC Rebirth gave us a new "main" Wonder Woman who is still trying to unravel the secrets of her past, which involves some medley of the New 52 and other elements. Then, within just a few months, DC published two distinctly different Wonder Woman origin graphic novels – the long-awaited "Earth One" from Grant Morrison, and Jill Thompson's Wonder Woman: The True Amazon. Between the publication dates of those two works, the monthly title began running Greg Rucka's "Year One" origin story; an astounding three origin stories were published/begun in under six months! As if that weren't enough, DC's cinematic universe introduced yet another version of Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman, as yet mysterious with her story to be explained in a 2017 solo film. All of this came on the heels of superb work done in 2011-2014 by Brian Azzarello, a refreshing take on Wonder Woman and her world that deserved to serve as a foundation for a decade or more to come – like Byrne's Superman and Miller's Batman – rather than be made obsolete after only a year.

As the character turns 75, a high degree of attention is fitting; it is harder, however, to explain why multiple, conflicting origin stories make for the right kind of attention. Certainly, part of the answer is that this bouquet of origin stories was unplanned; the movies and comics are not in sync, and Morrison's story was in the works and long delayed. Rebirth, like the New 52, is obviously a creative direction driven by business considerations. And there we have it: Multiple, uncoordinated creative voices led to multiple, uncoordinated versions of one of the best-known superheroes within a very short span of time.

The rapidfire shuffle of new versions serves as a poll of how the modern comics creator perceives Wonder Woman, and in this, we see one interesting consensus: Azzarello, Morrison, Thompson, and Rucka all speak to the sexuality of the Amazons in general or Diana specifically in a way that had not – probably could not have – been seen before. Both Azzarello and Thompson describe Amazons routinely using men from the world at large as a source of fertilization, with hints and a choice image or two of a domination fantasy. Meanwhile, Morrison and Rucka both give Diana female lovers in her past but leave her open to opposite-sex attraction once Steve Trevor enters her world. These new origins variously assert that Hercules and his men raped the Amazons, a violent horror unimaginable in 1941 comics, a modern extrapolation of Moulton's 1941 panels showing Hercules and Hippolyta lying together as he betrays her.

Morrison and Azzarello also agree to make Diana not a creature made of clay, but rather the direct offspring of Zeus, though Azzarello makes her the principal god's daughter of Zeus; Morrison, his granddaughter. Azzarello modernizes his gods by showing them in Las Vegas, posing as truckers. Morrison modernizes Diana's world by making Steve Trevor the descendent of African slaves, a real people with real history spent in chains like the imaginary Amazons.

Morrison and Rucka also agree by maintaining the Steve Trevor element in Diana's origin, while Thompson diverges sharply by making the young Diana a spoiled brat whose journey to man's world is penance for the sin of hubris and the tragedy it caused; it should not be lost on the reader that in departing from Moulton's original story, Thompson's is classically Greek – character flaws determine the future. A tragedy doesn't happen to a person; a tragedy is who they are. This is the great contribution of Thompson's version, and makes it welcome despite the certain overcrowding of recent origin stories. Thompson abandons the 1941 source material to emphasize in tone the vastly earlier source material of Greek mythology.

None of these stories disagree on one thing: Wonder Woman is wonderful. Nolan's cinematic Wonder Woman immediately wows Superman and Batman by battling Doomsday energetically and somewhat enthusiastically. Rucka and Morrison show the modern world pointing its cellphone cameras at Diana and snapping away, hashtagging her into social media immortality. She glows, indifferent to the attention, like a Forties movie star sipping a milkshake while the world adores her. She's beautiful, strong, brave, and brilliant; there is no depiction of Wonder Woman that doesn't agree on this.

For all these many versions, and creators, it is Rucka and the filmmakers who get to hold serve. Rucka has suggested a multiplicity of Wonder Women in his single version, with a composite past or composite memories of various pasts, with a Multiverse backstory that may involve the overarching Rebirth plot with Dr. Manhattan at the center. Perhaps he will make these alternate memories not "lies" surrounding one true backstory but disparate elements all partly true; this is akin to what Geoff Johns did with Superman in Secret Origin and Morrison in his Batman epic that asserted that all past eras actually happened to the one and only Batman. Wonder Woman is not the first superhero to get multiple, contradictory origin stories; hopefully one of them – and it would be Rucka's – has the chance to be left uncontradicted long enough to give a generation of readers a firm legend to believe in.

However many people read DC's comics, far more will see the 2017 movie, and this will become the "real" Wonder Woman for a generation. This Wonder Woman, we know from the trailer, rescues a crashing Steve Trevor and comes to man's world to stop World War One (not Two). Until the movie debuts, we can guess the details of the content, and one clue is a canny reply to the old stories. In 1942's All Star Comics #12, as the men on the team head off to battle the Axis, Wonder Woman, one of the mightiest heroes in the story, stays home, bidding the male heroes, "Good luck, boys – and I wish I could be going with you," after having agreed off-panel to be their secretary. In 2017, Steve Trevor introduces Diana as his secretary, and after we see her perform some wonderful heroics, he adds, "She's a very good secretary." After 75 years, we can poke fun at 1942's prejudices. Maybe after another 75 years, audiences won't be expected to find that funny.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld and Superman

This post contains a very revealing spoiler for the first season of HBO's Westworld. Do not read ahead if you have not watched the season but intend to enjoy it later.

The premise of Westworld, a new series based on an old film, is that a high-tech (in fact, science fiction) theme park uses robots (in the series internal euphemism, "hosts") to let visitors have simulated experiences in the world of the Old West. The hosts are so realistic that the experience feels real, but visitors face no legal culpability for killing them in simulated gunfights and – perhaps – no ethical culpability for the sexual interactions they have with the hosts.

In any narrative with very realistic robots, a potential plot point is to have ambiguity about whether or not a given character is a real human – this is central to the plot of, for example, Blade Runner. Westworld, however, raised the possibility in a few scenes in the first two episodes, but always ended the ambiguity very promptly, before it became a true mystery. With Blade Runner in mind, I watched from episode #3 onward waiting for the series to slip a mystery like this into the plot, setting up a shocking reveal when we find out that a seeming human is actually a robot. By the fourth episode, I saw who this was – the senior technician Bernard, played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright. Bernard had a seemingly-irrelevant backstory concerning the death of his young son. This seemed like the sort of planted memory that other "hosts" had, and this, indeed proved to be the critical clue – Bernard is a robot, and that memory was planted, and never actually took place.

Later, as Bernard confronted the unreality of that painful memory, I was reminded of another powerful narrative. In Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Superman imagines a life that he might have lived if Krypton had not exploded. As the story narrates, he has a life and family, and is an ordinary Kryptonian instead of the god he became on Earth. But as he faces the fact that this fantasy is a weapon used to distract him from reality, he tears himself out of the story from within it, most painfully telling his fictional son in the story that he's not real.

And it was with that recognition that I noted that one of the writers of Westworld is Ed Brubaker, a comic book writer with credits for DC, Wildstorm, Marvel and others over the past 25 years. Brubaker has co-writing credits for one episode of the series, and he certainly must be familiar with the classic Superman story. Did he, or some other writer familiar with Moore's work, introduce the idea of a man saying goodbye to his imaginary son from FTMWHE to WW? Perhaps not. But the story in Westworld, excellent on its own merits, also brought back memories of Superman's imaginary life, and possibly lent another clue as to the nature of Bernard's memory of his son, which was an imaginary story. Aren't they all?

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Retro Review: Jack Kirby's Jimmy Olsen

In 1970, Jack Kirby was already one of comicdom's most accomplished creators. To an uncommon degree, he moved from company to company during this phase, working for several different publishers and syndicators of content, sometimes in freelance, sometimes under contract. He – also to an uncommon degree – worked as a part of prominent pairs, working with Joe Simon in the Forties and Fifties, then Dick and Dave Wood, and teaming up with Stan Lee to spectacular success in the Sixties. Working with those various partners, Kirby co-created the likes of Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Magneto, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Panther, and teams of staggering prominence – the Newsboy Legion, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and X-Men. By Kirby's account, which Lee disputed, Spider-Man was also a Kirby-and-Simon creation, and therein one sees the central tension in Jack Kirby's career. As an artist who frequently teamed up with writers, Kirby was often edged out of the principal credit – and the financial gains – for many of the characters he created, or helped created. Kirby possessed a remarkable imagination, to say nothing of his skills in bringing passion to artwork, but ended several creative and business relationships on bad terms. This brought him, in 1970, to DC (the heir of comic companies he had already left on bad terms, years in the past) for a new chance at a fresh start.

One of the most mind-bending incongruities of Kirby's work for DC in the Seventies is that the master creator with such impeccable credentials began his new career working on such a minor title. While Kirby planned work on multiple new series featuring mythical ideas that he had begun to explore while working on Thor, he was first given writing and pencil duties on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. It is hard to imagine a title and a character more obviously subordinate to another chracter – a powerless young man with no superpowers, dubbed the mere "pal" of Superman. Inarguably, Kirby used the small title to introduce some very big ideas, making early-Seventies Jimmy Olsen prominent in big-concept comics history, far out of proportion to its small concept origin.

Kirby's Jimmy Olsen brought together several aspects that might seem incongruous, but were a perfect fit for the circumstance. If there's one thing that distinguished Jimmy Olsen from DC's most prominent characters, it was his youth. Kirby took over the title the year after Woodstock, at the height of student protests against the Vietnam War, when language and fashion developed around a counterculture that defined its era. Jimmy Olsen, far more than, say, a Batman title, was the perfect venue for incorporating those ideas. Kirby makes the youth culture that was prominent in the Woodstock Era an important element in his story, and that is the one area in which Jimmy Olsen has unquestioned superiority over Superman.

Kirby injects youth into his title by introducing two different groups of youngsters (furthermore, young men). One from his own past, the Newsboy Legion, was the a creation of Kirby and Simon in the prewar years, and was therefore a property of DC that he was free to use again. In order to use them as newsboys despite the intervening decades, he introduces a team of newsboys who are the sons of the originals, each of them virtually a doppleganger for his father. The younger generation of newsboys promptly adopt Olsen as their leader – old enough to earn their respect, but not so old as to lose it. Kirby also shows the older Newsboys, now men, as supporting characters, and a clone of the Guardian to fill in for the deceased superhero who operated with the original Newsboys.

The other group of youths in this story is the Hairies, who are a mashup of so many disparate influences that a lengthy essay could profitably discuss the Hairies alone. The Hairies, for the visual trait that earned them their name, visually resemble hippies and other counterculture figures of their time, nearly a decade before this facet of one's appearance became the title of the massively successful Broadway musical Hair. Appearance is only a superficial characteristic of the Hairies; they are otherwise distinguished by their origin as creations of the DNA Project, a biotech initiative run by the older generation of Newsboys. The Hairies, products of human cloning and genetic engineering, are superior to ordinary people in spirit and in intellect, and left the DNA Project to live in homes and vehicles produced by the superior technology that they themselves created.

Olsen's relative youth lead both the Newsboys and the Hairies to recognize him as a leader; in this way, there is a perfect harmony between the title character, Kirby's plot, and the Woodstock era. Kirby, the master writer, thereby made his assignment on a minor title starring a minor character a brilliant one, with Olsen's youth, Kirby's ideas, and the current culture all coming together in a uniquely appropriate way.

That said, Kirby's ideas are so far-reaching that virtually anything would intersect with them in some way or another. In current parlance, Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen is a mash-up – of so many different cultural and technological perspectives that it is simultaneously disorienting, all-encompassing, and wonderful. Virtually every scene begins by plunging the reader in some fresh, exciting domain, soon adding qualities or perspectives from other domains. There are secret government organizations, secret armies, strange aliens, famous celebrities from real life, strange religions, adherents of countercultures, monsters and villains, mysterious cryptozoological species, futuristic technologies, miraculous vehicles, and dose after dose of biological engineering. Kirby mashes up these different fantastic story elements in multiple different ways in each issue. It's always exciting, entertaining, unpredictable, and perhaps in some way educational.

At times, it is apt to make many readers find it too unpredictable, too erratic, too kooky. In one very strange feature, Kirby includes a text essay in issue #135 that rambles almost disturbingly about the Hairies, and it is hard to say in what voice Kirby is speaking. The Hairies are not real, but he writes in the first person as though they might be real, or as hypothetical entities who might come into existence one day. He describes their science fiction underpinning as the result of DNA engineering, but emphasizes their moral and cultural qualities, as idealists who live in perfect harmony. He writes of them with unadulterated admiration as though they embody an ideal society that, in Kirby's view, should exist in a perfect world, but he goes on to say that mankind should feel threatened by the Hairies because they're better than we are, and that it is inevitable than mankind seek to kill the Hairies, exterminating them. At the end of the essay, Kirby concludes "I felt great, writing that! It made me feel that all's right with the world, that my place in it was secure. It made me feel like a man!!!" This emotional ramble would sincerely make me worry about Kirby's sanity if that concern were still relevant. Perhaps he was a masterful creator who enjoyed getting swept up in the emotion of his creations. This essay makes him appear, perhaps, to be swept up to an unhealthy extent. The quality of what is in Kirby's stories makes it intriguing to consider every recorded aspect of the man and his thoughts, perhaps clues as to how work of this quality is formed.

The wild worlds that Kirby created hosts a cast of heroes led by Jimmy Olsen. As Olsen triumphs against bizarre alien conspiracies led by Darkseid and shines as a man of action, he becomes a top-rate hero in the DCU, more relatable than most, as a young man with no superpowers, no super powers (usually), and no super origin. He simply rises to the occasion time after time. When he encounters an amazing vehicle, he soon starts piloting it. When he learns of an enemy base, he infiltrates it. When he is transformed into a hideous monster  – twice! – he ends up being un-transformed back to his normal self. The series is the epitome of a "normal" man going up against cosmic forces, coping with them just as well – at times better – than his superpowered pal Superman. And it is strange to contemplate that DC's most cosmic foe, Darkseid, was introduced in a title headlined by that common young man, Jimmy Olsen.

Thus DC lore inherits the improbable and disproportionate quirk that the master creator Kirby and his most amazing creations began at an arbitrary midpoint in a title named for a non-superpowered sidekick. The combination was probably too odd to survive, and lasted less than a year and a half before Kirby focused on titles of his own concoction. Soon, both the Jimmy Olsen title and Kirby's most productive work at DC were at an end, but the legacy endures in the Fourth World creations of Darkseid and Apokolips. Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen stands as a historic turning point in comic history, and those issues remain worth reading as a record of how great storytelling in comics is done.