Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Decade #1

I believe that most successful comics recreate Action #1. They can't do this by retelling the exact same story -- readers are already familiar with the legacy of that story. Instead, it's necessary to create for today's reader the same sense of amazement and exhiliration that 1938's comics created, despite the fact that today's reader already expects those qualities as an absolute minimum. The need to out-do what's already been done leads to stories that exceed older ones in trivial ways; for example, the Flash running seven times the speed of light in one early story, then ten times the speed of light in a successive one. Sheer arithmetic alone is not the wellspring of great fiction.

Action #775 was one of the greatest comics ever written, and it did so by establishing a team of villains who had the means and the inclination to bully anyone on the planet around -- a threat that begged for someone to rise up and challenge them. How does a writer make a threat like that work in 2001? In the Thirties, the writer might give the villain whatever pseudoscientific menace came to mind -- a ray beam, say, or mind control powers. It's very hard to be original with villains. Joe Kelly made What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? work on an entirely different level -- he dug into the comic literature of the time and found a real challenge for superheroes -- antiheros. And so, his invention, The Elite, is based on the existing characters The Authority. But instead of competing with the Justice League and their kind at the cash register, and in fans' hearts, The Elite was placed into the DC Universe and became the antagonist facing the representative of all superheroes for all time -- Superman.

In a series of encounters, Superman and The Elite faced brazenly evil opponents in contrasting styles, the contrast keying on whether or not to kill an enemy. This difference of philosophy rapidly escalated into confrontation, with the brilliantly insolent dialogue of The Elite's leader Manchester Black insulting Superman with a passion for antagonism. The action opened when The Elite handled a case in Libya in their own murderous style before Superman got to the scene. Then they were just getting started in Tokyo where their awesome powers dropped Superman from the sky as collateral damage while they massacred another threat. In their third encounter, Superman arrived on the scene first, sparing the lives of alien invaders; when The Elite were about to kill Superman's captives, Superman threw a punch, prompting the challenge of an all-out dual between this Macchiavellian foursome and the Man of Steel.

In their earlier encounters, The Elite had twice gotten the best of Superman with their various superpowers. Lois attempted to talk Superman back from the confrontation on the grounds that he might not win, but found her husband's principles to be unyielding. And as the fight began, things went against Superman from the beginning, leaving him apparently incapacitated. Until, as The Elite tramped on his cape, with the hero's body altogether absent, The Man of Tomorrow launched his counterattack, unseen, with feats of superspeed and power that quickly took them down one by one. When the telepath Manchester Black was the only one left, a bloodied Superman showed up to win the argument after the fight, and it was a win for the entire genre of superheroes. In a face-to-face confrontation, the antihero had no powers left to use, and no argument left to offer. And the mountainous Superman, told that he was living in a dream world, closed with a manifesto: "I wouldn't have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear... until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share -- I'll never stop fighting. Ever."

There are no flying men who can lift mountains. But there is a Superman, and he is a dream, and lifting us up is exactly what he does.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best of the Decade #2

During 2009, I spent a lot of my comic-reading time reading stories from the Thirties forward. By and large, the older stories were formulaic and offered no surprises to readers who remembered how the previous month's stories went. The hero received notice of a problem; he faced the problem; he beat the problem. Repetition of this formula continues to the present day, although by and large, for a story to be interesting, it has to offer something else. In my view, the opening scene of Final Crisis #5 simply carried out this simple formula to perfection, and if the genre were to be summed up in six pages (the typical length of a Thirties story), it would be hard to do better than Grant Morrison's depiction of Hal Jordan bursting free.

The story up to that point was one of unstoppable losses for the heroes. The strongest players in the DCU were either banished, captive, in retreat, or diminished. Darkseid's grip on Earth had been hammered home in issue #4, and the heroes who were holding on showed broken confidence in their defiance. Issue #5 opened with a hero who by definition refuses to acknowledge underdog status. And so Hal Jordan faced a trial whose outcome he had already predicted with, "I'll be fine."

The trial concept was, in fairness to earlier creators, a refinement and retelling of earlier stories. In Green Lantern v2 #11, writer John Broome put Hal on trial on Oa for the first time. Later, Steve Englehart's wonderful story in JLA v1 #140-141 repeated the premise, with the Manhunters in that story serving very clearly the inspiration for the Alpha Lanterns in Morrison's version. In all three stories, Hal was being framed; in all three, he went willingly before the Guardians. And in Final Crisis, Hal was utterly confident that he was to be vindicated by the proceedings.

The last-minute appearance of Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner turned suspicion to Hal's accuser, the Alpha Lantern Kraken who was hosting the mind of Darkseid's crony Granny Goodness. When she took advantage of her location to try to seize the power of the Central Power Battery, Hal Jordan effected the miraculous turning of the tide that defines superhero comics.

Despite being the only person in the room who did not have the power of a Green Lantern ring, Hal broke apart his green-energy chains and ran across the room to charge the evil god with pure physical intimidation pitted against her power ring. With a head-butt and a left cross, he put the villain on the floor while a veritable squadron of Green Lanterns did little more than watch and defend themselves. For the record, the matchup of fists against Kraken's power ring was the same struggle Batman had lost three issues earlier.

With his own imprisonment suddenly cast off, Hal heard of the predicament of Earth, and the possible universe-destroying threat created by Darkseid's fall. Against the backdrop of the Justice League on the run and the Justice Society under siege -- with Batman and Wonder Woman trapped and Superman sidelined -- the news of Darkseid's conquest was received with awe even by the Guradians. This same threat prompted Hal merely to reach out and accept the most powerful weapon in the universe in his outstretched palm and give a cocked-head promise to kick Darkseid's ass. So the tide of the crisis turned, and in perfect born-without-fear style, Hal showed as much concern for the task of beating Darkseid as he might have shown for removing a raccoon from a garbage dumpster. Sealing the victory, a Guardian declared Hal innocent of all charges and announced that Jordan had 24 hours to save the universe. An interesting quirk of this scene, one I regard as virtually untoppable for its purity, was that it was released for free on the web as the preview for the issue.

Just one scene remains in this countdown, and the only hint I'll give is that it was penned by a writer who hasn't made the list so far.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of the Decade #3

The scene that made #3 on my list was all about build-up, and it's not possible to describe what made it work without going into the background.

During the early part of this decade, a tension built with many fans and certain creators at DC calling for the return to action of Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern who had been in the meantime replaced by various successors. Hal Jordan's return in Green Lantern Rebirth capped a nine-year "death" of his character and made him once again the front-and-center Green Lantern at DC Comics. But not before his return had been teased in Identity Crisis #4. In that scene, Hal Jordan as the undead Spectre was asked by Ollie Queen when he would return and he answered, "I'm working on it." That story was written by Brad Meltzer.

A year later, Hal was back but Barry wasn't and -- remember my refrain that real drama requires an uncertain ending -- there was no guarantee that he would. It was much debated by fans whether he would or should displace Wally West, his one-time sidekick, as the main Flash in the DC Universe, a proposition largely equivalent to whether he would return from the dead. His death in Crisis on Infinite Earth #8 had come with an "out" that writer Marv Wolfman intended to allow Barry to come back -- the fact that he had traveled in both directions through time before his demise, allowing for the possibility that he might appear in present-day stories living on time provided before his sacrifice, with the poignant requirement that he would have to return to die after some arbitrary time alive. That was way back in 1985, but as of 2006, the creators had not taken advantage of Wolfman's loophole except to give Barry very brief appearances that were not proper returns. One of the first teases that he might come back to stay was in Infinite Crisis #4, when a very-much alive Barry Allen, apparently with no time travel required to put him into the story, emerged momentarily from the Speed Force to help his grandson Bart Allen. This set into motion a change of status as to who was the Flash -- installing Bart as the new adult Flash while Wally West disappeared into limbo. An obscure element in Bart's brief series (and one that was seemingly disavowed by the powers-that-be) told us that Barry and other Flashes were alive in an alternate plane of reality. But still, Bart and old-timer Jay Garrick were the only Flashes, with Wally and Barry gone and perhaps never returning.

But Bart's series had a poor reception, and it began to wind down to a finish at issue #13, a fact that was not communicated publicly in advance (in fact, it was obscured by bogus solicits for issues #14 and #15), but was sensed by fans. This coincided with an intriguing and complex crossover between the Justice League series penned by Brad Meltzer and Justice Society by Geoff Johns. The day came when the final issue of this story, The Lightning Saga, was released along with the final issue of Bart's series, and while nothing on the pages of either issue told the reader that they were tied together, in the bigger picture, they very much were. Many of us read the saga of Bart's death at the hands of the Rogues, the top villains who had plagued three Flashes over the years. Without moving from my seat, I picked up JLA v4 #10 and began to read. With Bart's death a fact, it seemed clear that JLA #10 was going to bring an old Flash out of retirement.

Meltzer's conclusion to the story built on the mystery that harkened back to a Legion of Super Heroes story from 1963 in which several Legionnaires put up their own lives as sacrifices to return Lightning Lad to life. The newer story used several elements of the older, such as the handing-out of lightning rods to several Legionnaires and the repeated use of the key phrase "Lightning Lad". The combined forces of the Justice League and Justice Society were determined to stop this sacrifice, perceiving it as suicide. The LSH is uniquely capable, however, and even the JLA and JSA found themselves one step behind the plan as seven Legionnaires dispersed to locations associated with the Flashes and the Speed Force.

As the seconds counted down to the moment that a lightning bolt was destined to strike one of the seven locations, and putatively take the life of a hero, the JLA, the JSA, and readers alike were uncertain of what, exactly, the LSH was trying to achieve. Were they trying to bring back Lightning Lad, Garth Rannz? Or Wally West and his family? Since Bart had just been killed off minutes earlier (in my reading time frame), he seemed an unlikely possibility. But then, while the 21st-century heroes scrambled to stop their successors, the significance of the locations involved began to dawn on some of them. This was the moment of truth. As Batman realized that he was in one of two places where he'd seen Barry Allen's life tick away, the panel reprinted the exact art from COIE #8. Simultaneously, Hal Jordan realized that he was at the lab where Barry Allen had become the Flash in the first place, and the two heroes began to believe that if they succeeded in stopping the LSH, they would prevent the resurrection of their long-dead friend.

And we had to believe it, too. Showing the art from COIE again -- that was a bold move. Drama is about uncertainty regarding the outcome. Suddenly, Batman and Green Lantern froze in their tracks, and wanted to see the LSH succeed. There wasn't much doubt that they would -- someone was coming back. But had DC dared to bring back Barry Allen?

No -- it was a colossal headfake. When the lightning struck, Karate Kid was on the ground in Blue Valley, former home of Wally West, and Wally was alive nearby, along with his wife and kids. How a reader took it came down, perhaps, to how they felt about the Barry-vs-Wally question. I personally took it the way Batman did; pleased, no doubt, that Wally was back, but surprised and upset that Barry was not.

As it turned out, Barry's return was only eight months longer in coming. When it did come, the very fine prose of Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns closed DC Universe #0 in fine fashion, guaranteeing that Barry would be back in the flesh. We now know that the LSH had succeeding in bringing back Bart Allen (himself deserving of the monicker "Lightning Lad"). The creators at DC had already decided to resurrect Barry Allen, but not at that time. I still think in many ways, that was too bad, because while they managed to surprise me, I couldn't imagine a better set-up for his return than the scenes in JLA #10 that seemed to promise his return, but left me only with the consolation that Batman had fallen for the same trick.

At #2, a scene with no surprises at all. A superhero prevails against the odds, and the scene employs every cliche in the book, but is so over-the-top that it defines, for me, this entire genre which is after all about being over-the-top.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Best of the Decade #4

We've certainly seen over the years that Batman is an individual of unsurpassed talent and efficacy. When his deeds aren't speaking for themselves, we've been told by the narration, his own thoughts, and those of his friends and allies. We've heard the fist-shaking curses of his enemies in their moment of defeat. But nobody's ever described Batman's invincibility more convincingly than the account given to Doctor Hurt in Batman #681 by the one person who should know best -- the Joker.

With unmistakable glee, and a kind of pride-by-association, the Joker got the show-stealing moment in Batman, R.I.P., the scene that set up one other scene on my ten-best list. In lines as brief and as pointed as a needle, the Joker grinned at Hurt and declared, with sure knowledge of being correct, "I'd like to bet you have no idea what you're dealing with."

The Joker summarizes elegantly his own record of futility in trying to beat Batman: "Every single time I try to think outside his toybox he builds a new box around me." And after relating how even his attempt to offer a totally meaningless clue, the Red and Black, failed to stump Batman, the Joker practically salivates as he tells the Devil himself "Now it's your turn... Now you're in his box, too." Each one of these spare sentences reaffirms the metaphysical certainty of Batman's victory, and the Joker knows that he's telling this to a force of nature -- one that had treated him as well as Batman with insufficient respect.

And so, just an hour after having offered, wryly, to shake hands with the Black Glove, the Joker asserts his own superiority over the Devil as a mere deuce, trumped by the joker. You can hear the venom in his words as he closes, "I'm saying adieu. Pleased to meet you, admire your work but don't -- don't -- call me servant." And then with menace, he promises to collect the winnings he's sure he'll be owed. Events in Morrison's Batman and Robin may eventually show us that he's begun to collect.

In contrast to this exchange between villains, the next scene involves no one but heroes. At #3, a race to stop death suddenly halts and becomes something else, with DC's past, present, and future -- in more ways than one -- all coming together.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best of the Decade #5

The story of Superman has been retold many times in many media, with the basic facts rearranged. A common, but not universal, element is that sometime during his young adulthood, Superman endures the death of his adoptive father, the Midwestern farmer Jonathan Kent. (Somewhat less often, he also loses his adoptive mother, Martha.) As a consequence, Superman has the distinct tragedy of losing two sets of parents in a life which is otherwise generally gilded and overflowing with blessings.

Grant Morrison's twelve-part All Star Superman crafted a continuity all its own, largely drawn from continuities we'd seen before -- conspicuously the comics of the Bronze Age of 1972-1986. However, its depiction of the death of Jonathan Kent -- a heart attack suffered while he stood outside on his farm, leaving his wife Martha as a survivor -- more closely resembled the facts of Superman The Movie. This death, in issue #6, did not come as a surprise, as it was apparent on the cover of the issue. But there was a twist coming, a trick in which Superman even outwitted his younger self.

The issue unfolds with Clark Kent on a return visit to Smallville shortly after having moved to Metropolis. Mystery is afoot from the early going, with three strangers arriving to help with the Kent's harvest, with each of them looking like a figure from elsewhere in the All Star story or the Superman mythos. We soon find out that the three are future Supermen, apparently descendants of the original, on a mission to battle one of Morrison's great inventions, a lethal time-eating beast called the Chronovore.

As the three even-stranger visitors try to lasso the Chronovore, and keep the current Superman from getting entangled in the fight, the fatal moment draws nearer. Jonathan perhaps knows it's coming, telling the bandaged Superman, of Martha's plan to move into town, "It's the end of the line for me and the farm." Then he asks, clearly intuiting something of the nature of his farmhands, "He'll be okay, won't he? The boy." That last endearing appellation is perhaps owed to Eliot S. Maggin's Miracle Monday, in which Jonathan Kent calls his adopted son "the boy" as a matter of course.

When the Chronovore has prevented Superman from coming to Jonathan's aid, Superman realizes the loss, bitterly regretting the impotence of his mighty powers when it comes to the irreversibility of death. That's a regret expressed elsewhere in the comics and the movies when Jonathan's death comes about. But as he mourns, the twist (Superman had noted "There's something weird about all this!") is finally revealed to us when we find out that one of the future Superman is the original Superman, from the not-so-distant future, thankful for having had "the opportunity to see my Pa one last time." It's a moment that resonates brilliantly with his earlier mourning; Superman can't reverse death, but he can cheat it a little. At the end, it's hard to say whether Jonathan was more thankful to know that his boy would be all right or Superman to have truly said goodbye, and Superman has rarely felt so human.

At #4, is a sort of reverse angle shot -- we see a hero through a villain's eyes, and it confirms everything we ever thought about both of them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Best of the Decade #6

As I've mentioned in previous posts, a common problem in superhero comics is that the predetermined outcome often hinders the possibility of real drama. While some of my other favorite scenes of the decade beat that problem by allowing things to end badly, my selection at #6 did so by pounding the expectation that the story would end badly, and then let the hero defy that expectation by winning -- again.

The backstory of Grant Morrison's Batman, R.I.P. is that for about ten of the fifteen years of Batman's career, he's been the subject of a single plan to bring him down -- a noose that had been placed around him almost without his noticing, then allowed to tighten slowly before being set into its final phase in the year following "52". Interviews, solicits, several consecutive ominous events in Batman, and finally the title of the story itself indicated that for once, the Caped Crusader would not prevail. When issue #680 ended, Batman was unmasked at the feet of the Joker, grinning maniacally from a dose of fatal Joker toxin, at the mercy of Doctor Hurt and the Black Glove organization, left for dead and isolated from any allies in a deep basement of Arkham Asylum. By this time, we had seen how deep Doctor Hurt's plan had run, a concoction of Morrison that integrated the plots of stories as far back as the Fifties.

It was the culmination of a fear Batman had expressed to us in issue #674 -- "an ultimate villain out there, unseen... an absolute mastermind, closing in for the kill... an invisible, implacable foe who'd calculated my every weakness... who had access to allies, weapons and tactics I couldn't imagine. An adversary whose plots and grand designs were so vast, so elaborate, that they went unnoticed until it was too late." That's a real nightmare of a possibility. And by the time of DC Universe #0, we had Batman losing his cool for the first of several times, clenching his fists and asking "Who is the Black Glove?" while the Joker taunts him, "Scary, isn't it? When you can't see what's coming." By the end of #680, we'd seen it come -- a plan that split Batman from the inside, psychologically, stomping him into the ground when he was down. This plan was so complex, it was hard for the casual reader to grasp it in full. To freshen up on it, consult my 11-point summary of the Black Glove's plan. Even when the first pages of #681 were released as a preview a few days before the full issue, things were still grimmer, with Batman straightjacketed in a coffin.

There were the slimmest of hints that Batman would turn it around. The fact that he had tried to grapple with the concerns he raised in #674; the comment (perhaps the figment of madness) that he made to the Joker in #680 that maybe he had worked it all out and was playing with his enemies; the fact that he had obviously escaped the episode with the monk who tried to poison him, and the likelihood that that story within a story was a microcosm of the larger plot.

This set up the moment of greatness. (Remember, this is a list of my favorite scenes of the decade, not necessarily my favorite stories.) And then, in about ten pages, Batman sprung surprise after surprise on the Black Glove, and on us. It turned out that he not only had the physical means to dig himself out of the hole he was literally in, he also had been planning this for a very long time. The signs of his derangement -- the broken radio and his tattered Zur En Arrh costume -- were among his instruments of victory. He not only suspected Jezebel Jet of having betrayed him -- he never trusted her at all, and had taken out a symbolic revenge on her long beforehand -- something we learned with a line that pointed all the way back to a scene in Batman #664. He had built a defense mechanism into his mind that beat Hurt's efforts to brainwash him, and immunized himself to the Joker's toxins. Just as he had switched cups with the monk, Batman had beaten the Black Glove, and soon had Hurt running, futilely, from him.

Put aside the utility belt and the pointy ears, even the myth of avenging his parents -- the legend of Batman is more than anything else that of a man who can rise to any challenge without having godlike powers, just absolute self-actualization. Out-thinking the Devil himself, and summoning the willpower to beat the ultimate challenge, Batman had his finest hour in issue #681. A victory summarized in Morrison's elegant prose:

"In my attempts to see clearly in the deepest dark, in my efforts to go to the still eye in the storm of madness, did I open up myself to some pure source of evil? Did I finally reach the limits of reason? And find the Devil waiting? And was that fear in his eyes?"


My countdown of the best scenes of the decade is half done, with the best half yet to come. At #5, we'll see a mighty hero brought down low by a situation he cannot change. And then perform a miracle that makes something good of it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of the Decade #7

It's been often observed that the hero of a serial cannot be allowed to die, for the sake of the series, and therefore the drama is lessened. This has often been doubly true of superhero comics, wherein the hero not only must survive, but also win. When this constraint is lifted, the results can be shocking and powerful. And that's just how Blackest Night #1 ended.

The Silver Age Hawkman and Elongated Man represent a decade and a half of the prime years of the Justice League of America; they were among the first and the last, respectively, JLA members to have joined during the Satellite Era when the comics showed a bit more complexity than in the feel-good early Sixties, but were still a venue in which the good guys always won. Moreover, Elongated Man was always a very light-hearted hero, smiling and wisecracking his way through cases. When you put a character like that into a dark situation, the darkness is felt all the more so. This added to the impact of the Dibnys' victimization at the hands of Doctor Light in Identity Crisis. And to the impact of the Black Lantern Dibnys attacking Hawkman and Hawkgirl as the first appearance we'd seen of a Black Lantern in action. We didn't know what the rules were, but it proved to be about as dark as possible: Black Lantern Ralph Dibny spoke with whimsy ("Hiya, Winged Wonder!") while his actions spelled bloody murder. Carter Hall's bloodied face and Ralph Dibny's rotted, grinning maw turned the whole genre from superhero to horror.

However, this affair ends (potentially, any of the foursome could end up resurrected; but then again, they could remain dead), this scene will never be forgotten by DC comic fans.

At #6, we'll see a scene that plays the opposite end of our expectations -- a story that sold us an unhappy ending all the way, and then showed us just what the hero was made of.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best of the Decade #8

A common story structure is to introduce a complication early in a story, then to resolve it at the end. Superhero stories tend overwhelmingly to have happy endings. Detective #826's "Slayride" adhered to that general structure, but it had a middle that was uncommonly horrifying. When Tim Drake, the current Robin, is in trouble one night and flags a ride, he has the poor luck of riding shotgun with the Joker. Writer Paul Dini racheted up the dissonance by setting the story during Christmas.

The psychological aspect of the story starts with the fact that the narration places us in Tim Drake's thoughts. The genius of the scene is that it begs us to hope for some mercy -- the Joker claims at first that he will play by some rules, according to a code of honor. Then, with a number of murders and revelations of yet more, he pulls that hope away sharply. It works as well as ever a scene that I've read has in putting the reader's sympathy into the role of the victim of a supervillain, and in facing his cold wrath. Inevitably, Tim escapes, but not before we ourselves felt hope recede multiple times. Unmistakably, this comic is to be remembered not first and foremost for the heroism of the hero but for the look we get into the eye of villainy.

#7 has something in common with "Slayride". We look in the eye of pure evil and feel the pangs of the hero who faces it. But this time there's no escape.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of the Decade #9

Doctor Fate began as an almost disembodied entity, telling us early on that he'd always been Doctor Fate and had never lived as an ordinary mortal. That was soon retconned with one of the great origin scenes of the Golden Age, with the channeling of Egyptian magic into a young Kent Nelson, on the occasion of his father's death. Created in 1940, back in the day when superheroes always won, Doctor Fate lived long enough to die on the printed page, passing away with his wife Inza after a post-COIE career.

Brave and Bold v2 #30 revisits Kent Nelson's death, telling a story set entirely in flashbacks, retroactively explaining Nelson's death as a consequence of vanity, heroism, and fate. Green Lantern Hal Jordan
plays two roles in the story, both unusual for him -- one, as a victim to be saved, with Kent playing the savior; and the other, as a compassionate friend of Nelson (in original continuity, they met during JLA/JSA crossovers, but since COIE, they have always existed on the same Earth together). While the story skips about through time, showing, for example, the late Eighties Black Canary in cameo, the pivotal scene of the story features Hal begging Kent not to lend his assistance to Hal but to save himself. Things get philosophical, with the man of free will, who in Nelson's future knows of his eventual death, debating the man of fate. Nelson's adamant heroism and espousal of predestination make it no argument at all; Hal can't hope to convince his friend not to save him. And in an almost biblical moment, Nelson tells Hal to rejoice, for at that moment, they get to be together. Michael Straczynski's one-issue tale is deep and touching. It happens to be at the moment the most recent new comic I've read; my favorable opinion is no artifact of that recency -- it's poignant, builds on a rich history, and is a true story of heroism.

So far both of the scenes on my list have come from the same title; rest assured, that streak will not last. #8 is from another story that is long on talk and short on action, but this time between a hero and a villain.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best of the Decade #10

Brief explanation: Top 10 lists are fun, and I've pondered a few possibilities: Scenes, comic books, stories, characters. Of all time, of the year. But since the odometer is about to roll on the decade of the 00's, I decided to run a countdown of my personal favorite scenes of the decade. (Of course, there are two Wednesdays left in the decade, so my apologies if one of the best scenes occurs in the next fortnight.)

Making this list taught me something: It hurt to leave some of the next-best entries off the list. And that tells me how much I enjoyed reading the stories I did. I wasn't reading comics basically at all from 1992 to 2004. I went back and read some of the ones I missed, but of course there are huge gaps in my reading overall; I can only include the comics I read. It also struck me how some really great issues didn't make this list, because they were good, but the quality was spread out over the whole issue; no shame there.

Seven writers made the list, and it pained me to leave a couple of other writers off. Once again, a sign that there was some top notch material out there and that my comic-reading time was well-spent.

#10 was in Brave and Bold v2 #6, the finale of a very fine story written by Mark Waid. An ensemble cast revolving around Batman fought against the Luck Lords, some bad guys who had the Book of Destiny (which debuted in Weird Mystery Tales, a comic I used to read in the Seventies). Because they had total knowledge of the future, they were a match for the heavyweight team pitted against them, including Supergirl and Hal Jordan. But they were scared of Batman, and the world's greatest detective used that knowledge to find the only way to beat them, to pit them against the Challengers of the Unknown. This worked because the Challengers have always been, by their tagline, living on borrowed time, and therefore live outside of Destiny.  Once the Challengers showed up, the Luck Lords lost their advantage, and the Challengers made their omniscience evaporate simply by running around and doing things.

Regardless of who was throwing the punches, it was Batman's victory, and the moment when he realized who could beat the Book of Destiny was one of those "stinger" moments that make heroes worth rooting for. Kudos to Mark Waid for tying together several non-superhero characters and concepts into a tight story that is great in many places, but culminates with the kind of moment that makes writing Batman so hard -- the writer has to touch upon a stroke of genius.

Next post: #9, the most recent scene to make the list, featuring two very powerful superheroes just standing around talking.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Batman and Robin: The Big Bad


In Grant Morrison's sprawling run in Batman, a series of minor threats proved ultimately to have been directed at the Caped Crusader by one central cause, a villain whose plan spanned many years and many comic book issues. As the run progressed, many smaller things were eventually revealed to be joined in a towering hierarchy of evil topped by Doctor Hurt, the Devil.

From the first issue of Morrison's current run in Batman and Robin, we've known that the story here would also unfold in the form of several, shorter arcs, and that a culminating event -- as seen in a one-panel preview -- would be the return of Doctor Hurt, who was seen proudly holding the keys to Wayne Manor. Let there be no doubt: This series is also building to a crescendo, with the same villain waiting, maybe not much longer, in the wings.

Besides the preview showing Doctor Hurt, we also have a Newsarama interview with Morrison telling us quite directly that he "will be making a comeback to finish what he started." And if you think that this run on Batman and Robin is more literal, less full of symbols and hidden meaning, than Morrison's run on Batman, look at the panel from Batman and Robin #3, presented at right. Behind the flames of Professor Pyg's lab, we see a very obvious Devil face, partly obscured by flames, with two bats flying over it (and a third, partially seen, by the real Batman's foot). Do the three bats stand for Bruce, Dick, and Damian? Does their position over the Devil indicate victory? Is this a symbol that Dick will prevail in his coming confrontation with El Penitente? It's hard to know how to read into the image, but it's a sure thing that bats flying over the Devil is not a haphazard detail.

Roll Call

In only six issues, the number of potential villains to consider has been daunting. All the more so given that Jason Todd, the front-and-center villain of the second arc, is probably not part of the bigger picture. But we have the following entities, some of whom are probably the same. Others are surely just background figures of no great importance (particularly those whom Jason Todd killed).

Mr. Toad
Professor Pyg
Phosphorus Rex, Big Top, and Siam
Lightning Bug
Sasha, her father, and her uncle
Jason Todd in his Red Hood guise
Tony Li, Bullet Nose Dmitri, High Rise Romero, Gentleman-G Merriwether, Aitch-Eyes, Rodney Fidget
The Penguin
El Penitente
Le Bossu
Oberon Sexton
The "globetrotting serial killer" that Sexton is allegedly tracking
Whoever killed Cardinal Maggi
The Domino Killer
Doctor Hurt
The Joker

That's a lot of suspects in only six issues.

Why do I mention the Joker? Both Morrison and Dan Didio have said that the Joker is going to emerge in the story. Morrison also said that Talia would return, and she was referenced at the end of #6.

So how does this all fit together?

El Penitente surely is Doctor Hurt. Even if the metaphysics are strange, they somehow or other represent the same entity. And he's at the top of a huge hierarchy that comprises much of what Batman is up against. Because some escapades in the story are linked to the Doctor Hurt identity and some to El Penitente, I use both names separately in the discussion below, but that they are one entity is presumed from here on out.

Given the match between Professor Pyg's contagious addiction and what Santos said about El Penitente's plan, it seems clear that Professor Pyg is an agent of El Penitente. We even know that Pyg's addition is a virus and Santos says that El Pentitente believes that the new model of crime is viral. Moreover, we have been told that both Pyg and Flamingo were essentially made -- Pyg through some sort of harrowing psychological programming, Flamingo through brain surgery. And they have opposite fascinations: Pyg adds false faces to his victims, while Flamingo removes their actual face. The importance of faces and masks is a likely metatextual comment on the superhero genre as a whole. The notion of a mastermind creating villains out of good people is a known part of Doctor Hurt's repertoire -- he did so with the three Gotham policemen who became the Replacement Batmen. We know that this merry band turns on itself in the future, with the Replacement Batman Lane killing Pyg and Phosphorus Rex in Batman #666, but recruiting Flamingo as a would-be weapon against Damian.

Oberon Sexton is almost surely opposed to El Penitente, or would like to be. He receives the menacing phone call in Batman and Robin #6 that indicates that while El Penitente expects to have Sexton's help, it's not coming voluntarily. I mentioned in a previous post that this is all consistent with the past interaction between Hurt and Mangrove Pierce seen in Batman #667. It is worth retrieving a quotation from Batman #681, when Gaucho says that everyone involved with the Black Glove film had been "murdered, gone mad, or vanished". Mangrove Pierce was the star of the film, so which was he? We know that he was framed for a crime he didn't commit, that doesn't necessarily match any of those three outcomes that Gaucho mentions. Did Pierce end up murdered in the events of Mayhew's attack on the Club of Heroes? Or did he vanish after leaving prison? I think that is the most likely outcome, with his scarring being the face-skinning suffered at Hurt's hands. Although we also know that Flamingo, El Penitente's enforcer, likes to remove faces.

The Killers

A giant part of the rest of the story turns on two mystery killers: Who killed Mr. Toad? And who killed Cardinal Maggi?

From the moment we saw a newspaper in Batman #681 mentioning Cardinal Maggi's death, we had reason to suspect the Joker and Talia as possible culprits, because both of them threatened the members of the Black Glove. Seeing the same headline in Oberon Sexton's hotel room, we may wonder what his role is: Is he the one tracking down the members of the Black Glove? If he's Mangrove Pierce, then he would have reason to want revenge, too. On the other hand, Sexton could be investigating the murders that someone else is committing. Sexton shows empathy for Dick Grayson in their first meeting, and verbally defends the Dynamic Duo while being interviewed on television. So he outwardly shows a good-guy vibe, but appearances can be deceiving.

Since Toad's death resulted in a domino in his hand, it's reasonable to assume that the Domino Killer (who, otherwise, seems not to have killed anyone) was at work there. The name "Domino Killer" only occurs in solicits and interviews. The solicit for #1 indicated that Batman and Robin were on the case of someone abducted by the Domino Killer. Only Sasha was abducted, and she was abducted by Pyg, who also had a domino in his lab, and who mentioned dominoes in a soliloquy. Toad was killed despite being in a locked cell, so perhaps Pyg's other comment from the soliloquy, that "Pyg's crept in" has some meaning. But Professor Pyg seems to be a mortal man who's insane, not a spirit or mist or shapeshifter. Moreover, a domino appeared in Santos's hand while Pyg was incarcerated.

If Professor Pyg is merely working for the Domino Killer, then it becomes easier to explain. The Domino Killer could be El Penitente, or even someone in the hierarchy between El Penitente and Professor Pyg. Absolutely everyone who's ended up with a domino has been in that hierarchy who is apparently working for El Penitente. But if Pyg's people were working, apparently, to free Toad, why would someone on the same side kill him? Toad failed to execute a drug deal correctly, and was perhaps operating outside of Pyg's authority in doing so -- his murder may have been punishment, as was Pyg's action against Sasha's father. There is fundamentally nothing known about the Domino Killer that doesn't implicate Pyg.

Consider how Toad was killed. Note that the police commented that he started to stink before he was found dead. Maybe no killer entered the cell at all. Maybe some chemical killed him, possibly on the domino in the first place. Note that killing someone under lock and key with a chemical is a trick up the Joker's sleeve from way back in Batman #1. Could the Joker be attacking Doctor Hurt's interests, having investigated enough to connect the El Penitente drug operations to the villain who talked down to him in Batman, R.I.P.? Morrison has said that his plans for the Joker include "an idea I don't think has been done with him before". That increases the likelihood that one of the characters in the story already is the Joker, acting out of character. He could be fighting crime by lashing out against either the Black Glove members (the "globetrotting serial killer") or the Penitente/Pyg operations (the Domino Killer), or both of those, and he could even be Oberon Sexton, if the good-guy vibe is a ruse. It would be ironic that Sexton alluded to the Red Hood in his television interview, if he is in fact the former Red Hood.

Loose Ends

There are, of course, many other things looming in the title, including the upcoming Blackest Knight storyline. Whatever else goes on is likely to be a backdrop against which the bigger plot unfolds. There will be plenty to say about them before we see issue #7 hit the stands. The solicit for issues #8-9 says promises that while Dick is in the UK, "Meanwhile, back in Gotham City, Alfred and a recuperating Robin are at the mercy of someone both fearsome and familiar…" That could mean that the preview with Doctor Hurt holding the keys to Wayne Manor plays out very soon.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flash Facts

The Scientific Method

As far back as Action #1, many of the earliest superheroes have been grounded in science fiction. This was true even more so in the Silver Age: While only three of the original Justice Society characters had super powers via science, as many as eight of the first ten Justice League members had a scientific basis to their origin.

All four DC characters who have gone by the name "The Flash" have had scientific origins, with lab accidents that serendipitously conferred super-speed being the key origin moment (the speed is also passed on to descendants). The Barry Allen Flash stories beginning in 1956 were perhaps the definitive coupling of science and superhero. Not only was his origin based in science, but his stories very often slipped real scientific facts into the text, frequently making them into plot elements. Being a scientist himself, the Flash could often analyze a scene using his knowledge, helping him craft tactics to overcome his adversaries. Even some pages between the stories were used for features of science facts pertaining to speed under the title Flash Facts.

Of course, every story was based on a combination of science fact and science fiction. After all, the origin of every science-based superhero is based on pseudoscience, not actual science. Therefore, the real science is mixed in with made-up science that helps drive the story along. This is by no means exclusive to Flash stories, but to discuss the role of pseudoscience in comic books, I'll use the Flash as the main example. Moreover, I'm simply going to refer to "the Flash" without much concern about which Flash I'm discussing, although usually, I will mean Barry Allen if it makes a difference.

The Facts about Fiction

There are two ways we can get a "fact" about a comic book character:

Declaration The writer or a reliable character in the story can make a direct assertion. For example, a numerical expression of speed or strength.

Induction The action can show a feat, and from that we can conclude that the character is capable of the feat. For example, if we see a character run from Los Angeles to New York, and something in the story tells us how much time the run takes, we could apply simple mathematics to calculate the speed. (This provides what is known as a "lower limit". It means that the character is capable of at least that feat, but doesn't tell us how much more the character is capable of. For example, when Superman lifts a truck, it doesn't mean that he can't lift two trucks.)

Reductio Ad Absurdam

The non-reality of Flash stories would seem to be so obvious as to go without saying, and therefore to be accepted by all readers without need for further explanation or apology. And yet, reader response has always contained an element of unease. Letter columns as far back as 1960 show readers writing in to question whether or not some event in the story were actually plausible. It's noteworthy that the letters printed by DC often bear the names of fans who later went on to become writers, and one of the most critical letters printed in 1971 was sent by Marty Pasko, who was writing for DC a few years later. Pasko railed bitterly about the physics (and plotting) in Flash stories by Robert Kanigher.

There are three kinds of contradiction:

External Inconsistency An event in the story contradicts real-world logic or physics and provides no explanation to bridge the gap.

Internal Inconsistency Writers simply disagree on some particular point, and there is no convergence on an agreed-upon position. For example, Flash #106 describes Barry Allen as "endowed with enormous strength by his ability to move at super-speed". Many years later, JLA #152 made the diametrically opposite claim that the Flash was "not much stronger than an ordinary man".

Retcon The way something is explained changes, with one writer contradicting earlier versions, and writers after that point backing up that account. For example, Flash #117 states that the Flash has a "friction-proof uniform" not too long before Flash #128 introduced the apparently-contradictory notion that he has an aura that protects him against friction. The aura has become accepted by all writers since then.

Retcons are a necessary evolution in serial stories, but what about the two forms of inconsistency? They bother some vocal fans, but are they really a problem? In response to fan letters identifying scientific External Inconsistencies in earlier issues, the editor responded to one with a comment in Flash #120 which I paraphrase (removing context-specific puns) "While some events in the story may not be scientifically sound, we allow them because they make for a better story!"

The entire premise of the Flash depends upon External Inconsistencies -- the notion of a man who can run at or beyond the speed of light is inherently in conflict with real physics. So there's good reason -- tentatively -- to agree with the editors and allow External Inconsistencies.

Internal Inconsistencies seem like more of a valid complaint. But they can be subtle. Many Internal Inconsistencies arise when information had by means of Declaration conflicts with other information that comes from Induction. In other words, the story shows something on the surface, but when someone "takes it seriously", they find a contradiction. This is not always a conflict between two different writers -- it can take place in the same panel. For example, in JLA #152, just as the claim is made that the Flash is not much stronger than an ordinary man, he and Batman, falling from a toppling building, have a brief exchange of dialogue as they fall, and when the exchange ends, Flash flings Batman upward to a safe location. If you reason through the amount of time that the discussion must take, then this feat is seen to be far beyond that of an ordinary man. In one second, the Flash and Batman would have fallen about 16 feet. To throw a man of Batman's weight upward 16 feet is far beyond ordinary strength, particularly when the thrower is airborne, and must therefore throw twice as hard! 16 feet is double the world's high jump record, which involves a person springing off the ground to hurl himself upwards. To accomplish the same feat with one arm while airborne is in the realm of super strength. But the writer didn't see it that way. If you don't work out the physics, it may not seem like the feat contradicts the narration.

The subtlety here comes from the fact that the Internal Inconsistency is seen only through Induction. The writer contradicted himself, but only the application of physics makes the contradiction obvious. So let's conjecture that the following summary covers the set of fair reader reactions:

- Retcons are acceptable.
- External Inconsistency is acceptable, and in fact necessary.
- Internal Inconsistency is acceptable if it requires Induction to reveal it.
- Internal Inconsistency on an Explicit level really is a problem, and is worthy of complaint.

However, I will argue that the right way to look at Internal Inconsistency depends on the writer.

Two Wrongs Make a Write

From 1971 to 1985, The Flash was written by Cary Bates, who also wrote shorter stints on the high-profile titles starring Superman and the Justice League. Like most of the writers who wrote the Flash before and since, he incorporated science -- and pseudoscience -- into his stories. A villain would put the Flash into a deadly situation, seemingly taking into account the Flash's super-speed, neutralizing it somehow. But then, the Flash would think up some ingenious way to use his powers that would circumvent the villain's plan. And once the Flash escapes from a trap, it takes little more for him to win the fight that follows.

For example, in Flash #259, when Black Hand (now starring in Blackest Night) figures out a way to rob the Flash of the aura that protects him from friction, the Flash maneuvers their fight into a vacuum chamber. Without air, there is no air resistance, and thus the Flash can use his speed without hesitation. He holds his breath long enough to win the fight. Clever! This is real science.

At about the same time, the Flash faces four deadly threats in Bates-written stories. He gets out of those fixes as follows:

a) The Flash is seemingly killed by a deadly blast. But then he simply recovers by reordering his molecules, because total control over all of his molecules is one of this powers. (Flash #251)

b) The Flash is beaten and warped into an unrecognizable puddle. That blob is still sentient and manages to form a lightning-shaped symbol that communicates to Iris to use an electric shock to revive him. The blob reforms as a healthy Barry Allen. (Flash #253)

c) When a foe escapes by flying, the Flash runs on light beams in the air to ascend to knock the villain out. (Flash #255)

d) Stripped of his aura by Black Hand, the Flash is seared by heat while running. With total control over all of his molecules, he makes his entire body compress into the compartment on his ring that normally contains his costume. The ring shields him from heat, and when the problem has subsided, he emerges from the ring to achieve his normal size and shape. (Flash #259)

All of these are examples of pseudoscience. External Inconsistency, to be sure -- none of those things are possible in the real world. But are they also Internal Inconsistency? The Flash is not traditionally accorded with powers like shape-shifting, invulnerability, flight, and size control. In fact, in Flash #258, the Flash is trapped by Black Hand in a situation where the ability to run on photons would have allowed him to escape. Later in Bates's run, Barry's face is pummeled and disfigured. What would that matter if he had "total control" over all of his molecules? If he can return himself from a bloblike shape and near-death, putting his face back together should be no problem.

Does the inconsistency here require Induction, or is it really explicit? To be sure, it requires a bit of reasoning to see the inconsistency (eg, to know that in any daytime scene, there are photons that the Flash can run on... if he can run on photons). But I hold Mr. Bates responsible here, because of another form of inconsistency -- he sets ground rules that expect the reader to think tactically about the laws of nature. For example, with the scene where a vacuum gets the Flash out of his predicament. In another scene in this time frame, Bates has some narration where he asks the reader explicitly "how many of you figured out?" If he wants the reader to figure things out -- if he asks the reader to figure things out -- then he has to play by the rules where figuring things out is possible. Giving the Flash an ability that is contradicted by other issues in the same few months means that figuring things out is completely out of play. The problem here is not inconsistency with physics, or even with the story, but inconsistency with his own rules.

A reader does not just process the words in a story for the same of having recited them aloud (or in their internal "voice"). Readers interact with stories, experience emotion as appropriate, try to guess what's coming. The writer plays a role in letting the reader know what sort of expectations to have. Bates wrote real physics into some of his stories. He asked readers to anticipate the Flash's clever escapes. But he didn't write the physics up to those standards.

In contrast, the early Flash stories of the Golden Age, starring Jay Garrick, built up no such expectations. In the Forties, the Flash ran rings around his opponents, but the stories had almost no science in them at all. He simply moves fast. His speed is never offered with any consistency: On the first page of Flash Comics #1, he is said to move faster than light, but in All Star Comics #4, he takes three and a half minutes to run from New York to Maryland -- less than 0.006% the speed of light. In the same issue of All Star, he leaves Maryland headed for Toledo and arrives, apparently, simultaneously with the Sandman, who was arriving by car from El Paso. Simply put, the Internal Inconsistency requires a minimum of Induction that the stories of that time (by Gardner Fox) were not making part of their ground rules. By holding his readers to a higher standard, Bates must hold himself to a higher standard, or he's asking them to engage with his stories on a level they do not deserve. This reads like an Encyclopedia Brown story where a made-up rule of physics is the answer to the mystery.

Consider a third writer's work. Early in the Silver Age, a Flash story in Showcase #13 was chock-full of science facts. Mr. Element's modus operandi of using elements in his crimes was really a vehicle for writer John Broome to show off science facts about the elements. In that story, the Flash is ejected from the Earth on a path in outer space. While in space, the Flash uses his vibrations to set himself on a path that bends his path around the Moon, whose gravity returns him to Earth moments later. This suffers from a bad case of External Inconsistency -- Newton's Laws dictate that a "closed system" cannot change its path in space (i.e., the Flash is not ejecting any fluid to produce thrust). Moreover, if he were moving fast enough to reach the Moon in less than a minute, his velocity would be much too high for the Moon's meager gravity to bend his path back towards Earth. In my view, however, the science of the story is much more basic than the level on which the story is inconsistent. The science facts (e.g., magnesium creates a bright flare; glass is made of silicon) are trivia-like, whereas the Induction necessary to see the inconsistency in the story is deeper than that. Broome doesn't really break his own rules because he's not asking the reader to understand the sort of physics that prove his story wrong.

To delineate the rules that writers should follow, it's worth understanding the physics of the Flash's feats for the simple reason that there are a number of weighty inconsistencies right at the forefront of the very notion of the Flash. These inconsistencies are not to be overturned -- they must be nourished! The fundamental nature of the Flash depends on them, so writers should steer clear of any story elements that "use" this sort of physics, because that turns the forgivable External Inconsistency into a verboten Internal Inconsistency.

Fast But Not Strong: By and large, we understand the Flash to be very fast, but not very strong. He can't pick heavy things up. He is in many ways like Superman if you subtract all of the powers except speed. This premise is an External Inconsistency, because it is not possible to be super-fast and not be super-strong as well as relatively invulnerable. This may seem counterintuitive since it is, after all, for a person or animal to be relatively fast without being relatively strong. A hare can run 45 miles an hour while weighing under 14 pounds. This animal is clearly much faster than any person while being much weaker physically than almost all people. So why does super-speed imply super-strength?

It's key to observe that a hare's speed owes a lot to its low weight. To accelerate to that speed, the hare performs as much work as a person who weighs 180 lbs would to accelerate to 12.5 miles an hour (which is a run, but not a sprint). If a hare had to carry a human with it, it probably could not take a single step, and would likely die from the weight being placed on it.

But the Flash weighs the same as a normal man. If the Flash can run across the United States in less than a second, then he's generating a huge amount of kinetic energy -- enough to send ten Saturn V rockets to the Moon!

If he were truly capable of super-speed, he could lift a truck simply by using his fingers to bop tiny rubber balls off of its underside at speeds approaching that of light. And obviously, if he could do that, he could just eliminate the rubber balls as an intermediary and hold his hands level to lift it like a weight. Accelerating hands to near-light speeds is super-strength. An object cannot be thrown fast but not hard. Kinetic energy is kinetic energy.

The idea that speed does not go hand-in-hand with strength is true in principle. If we consider world's best sprinter Usain Bolt and an NFL offensive lineman, we have an example where the lineman is stronger while Bolt is faster. But consider that the difference is relatively moderate. Bolt is perhaps twice as fast as the lineman. But he weighs about 2/3 as much as the lineman -- if his legs had to push a lineman's weight, he would be slower than a mediocre high school sprinter. But the Flash is millions of times faster than an ordinary man. In accelerating his weight to near-lightspeed, he shows that he's not just the fastest man alive -- he would be, in our world, also easily the strongest.

No Harm, No Foul: Likewise, a super-speedster must be relatively invulnerable. In the past, villains have drawn guns on the Flash, threatening him with gunshots. He has been knocked unconscious with a blow to the head. But running across the United States in less than a second means that every bit of his body must endure far more acceleration than the tip of a bullet would create. When a bullet moving 1500 mph hits a person, it does the harm that it does because the person's body cannot decelerate the bullet to a halt without the tissue experiencing gross trauma. If the bullet could be stopped within, say, a half inch, the bullet would just poke the person and bounce out. For a bullet to stop that fast, the person's skin at the point of contact would have to endure an acceleration of about 3 million Gs. Make no mistake -- that's a lot! But for a person to run across the United States in one second, beginning from a stop, would involve at least 10 million Gs. That would mean that his entire body -- the place where you might imagine a bullet hitting, as well as his eyes, his teeth, his internal organs, and every other location on his skin -- would endure three times the bullet-stopping force. In fact, his feet would be enduring much higher impact than that.

The Flash Doesn't Fly: The point has often been made that the Flash cannot fly -- Geoff Johns recently reasserted it in Green Lantern #44. Despite this, he has landed on Earth while returning from outer space. He survives long falls by paddling his feet and making a cushion of air. In Flash #105, he makes a tube fly airborne by using his feet to create great pressure at its bottom. These are, of course, a sort of flight, and if thrust can be created to cushion a fall, it can naturally be used also to create flight. But in fact, the Flash should actually have to try very hard to prevent flight. Running on the surface of the Earth, he would become airborne once he exceeded orbital velocity -- about 5 miles per second. If he runs across the United States in less than ten minutes, then he must exceed that rate, and of course, he is often depicted as moving much faster. If he ran substantially faster than orbital velocity, he would need to be pulling some sort of trick just to stay down -- maybe by using aerodynamics to "fly down", countering the centrifugal acceleration that should be lifting him off the planet. The problem would be much worse when he crested the top of a hill -- even fast cars get a lift from this and then scrape bottom if they aren't carefully. And it's pretty hard to run thousands of miles without encountering hills.

Moreover, any sort of downward motion should basically disable Flash's super speed. Imagine he tries to run down the stairs of a building at super speed. A normal person basically "falls" with each downward step, using his feet to catch himself at the end of the step, then move forward into the next one. There's nothing one can do on stairs to "run down". One really moves forward and gravity pulls the runner down. The Flash can leap out from the top step all he wants, but he'll have to hang there until gravity pulls him down, so he should only be able to descend a flight of stairs about as fast as a normal person could fall down them. Maybe he has a trick of using the handrail to pull himself down, but otherwise, all downward motion should be at best fast, but not "super" fast.

Relativity: In 1905, Albert Einstein pulled off the masterstroke of revising the Newtonian mechanics of motion. This set of ideas, the Special Theory of Relativity, has a number of fascinating consequences. Some of them, the Lorentz Transformations, were presented in a science feature page in Barry Allen's first solo issue. The starting point for all of this includes the assumption that matter cannot possibly travel at the speed of light. Ask a simple question, get a muddled answer: Does Special Relativity apply in the DC Universe? If so, then the Flash should not be able to run faster than the speed of light. If not, then no one in the DC Universe should experience (or discuss!) Lorentz Transformations.

Jay Garrick was said to be "swifter than the speed of light itself" in the splash page of Flash Comics #1 -- his first appearance. Barry Allen is first said to exceed the speed of light in Flash #140, overshooting the mark to go seven times the speed of light. But the Lorentz Transformations have been asserted by the comics as well, including the time when Wally West took advantage of them to throw a super-strong punch in JLA v3 #3. Because the Lorentz Transformations and the ability to travel faster than light are both part of the set-up, there is Internal Inconsistency although it requires a deep understanding of relativity to see why.

In the earliest Barry Allen stories, the Flash was capable of running just short of the speed of light, as though the writers intended to respect relativity. However, note that when a person's average speed is a certain rate, the feet move much significantly faster than that as part of the stride. If the intention were to respect the speed of light, then you might have the feet moving just shy of lightspeed while the body averaged perhaps half the speed of light.

Energy: As I mentioned in my post How Strong Is Superman?, another of Einstein's formulations, the famous mass-energy equivalence equation E = mc2 indicates how much "fuel" is needed to produce the energy needed for a super feat. This applies to the Flash every bit as much as it does Superman. When Usain Bolt accelerates to his top speed, he is converting some of the food he ate into energy, turning a tiny amount of mass -- less than a ten-billionth of a gram -- in the form of chemical bonds into kinetic energy. The amount of weight lost is not measurable because it is such a tiny fraction of the man's mass, and so many other factors (like respiration) would totally overwhelm the magnitude of the mass converted to energy.

The Flash, in accelerating to, say, 10% the speed of light, would burn quite a bit more mass -- just about exactly one pound. That's noticeable, but not overwhelming. However, in accelerating to 50% the speed of light, he would burn about 6 pounds of body weight. Thanks to the Lorentz Transformations, this quantity rises steeply as the speed of light is approached, so that accelerating to 99% of lightspeed would burn about 25 pounds off the his frame. In coming to a stop, he would burn an equal amount, so that if he ran two round trips with a full start/stop at each end, he would lose close to 100 pounds!

Because the last section already explained why we may need to waive off consistency with Einsteinian physics, this point may be moot. The early part of Wally West's run as the Flash asserted his need to eat lots of food to fuel his bursts of super-speed. But 100 pounds is a lot of food to eat at a sitting.

Neurons: Imagine a person running an obstacle course (or through a house), with lots of sharp turns and the need to go over, under, or around barriers. Suppose the runner maintains an average speed of 5 miles an hour. The real feat of speed that you can't see is the wiring of the brain needed to perform the computation that keeps the runner from bashing into obstacles. The way the brain is set up, the chemical impulses that carry out the computation move at speeds about 8 times faster than Usain Bolt's top sprinting speed, or about 40 times faster than the runner meandering through the obstacle course. If the neuronal firing of a speedster did not speed up proportional to his or her body, then an awkward runner would result, one could might rev up to dangerous speeds in wide-open places, but be unable to react quickly in the event that a sudden obstacle appeared. To be specific, if the Flash were imagined as limited by the speed of light, then the true limit would be on his nervous system, and his legs would have to be quite a bit slower still (around 10% the speed of light instead of just less than 100%).

Doppler Shift: In the great Wally West story Terminal Velocity (Flash v2 #95-100), Mark Waid showed the Flash using the Doppler effect to change light from beyond the visible portions of the spectrum into wavelengths he could see. In fact, this would not be a mere option for the Flash but a requirement, with colors shifting to unnatural wavelengths whenever he ran fast, making the visible turn invisible and vice versa. If you make the Doppler effect part of the DC Universe's physics, then all speedsters must face it at all times, for good and for bad.

Bull in a China Shop: Recall the earlier discussion of how a speedster must be invulnerable to run at very high speeds. The bad news is, this also goes for everything around him, including the places on the ground where his feet plant. If a few steps are enough to accelerate the Flash to speeds much beyond that of the speed of sound, then the same steps will exert equal force on the pavement in the opposite direction. Ordinary materials like asphalt could not possibly survive or permit such a pounding (or scraping). This is in a way a more serious complaint than the need for the speedster to be invulnerable, because that only requires the speedster to be different than real people, whereas this fact means that pavement in the DC Universe has to be different than pavement in the real world! This begs for some sort of "aura" explanation, granting some invulnerability to everything around the Flash when he runs.

Some stories acknowledge the problems of sonic booms and hurricane-like winds that would follow a speedster and create aura-based solutions to the problem. In other cases (like New Frontier), the Flash is simply very careful about avoiding damage, keeping his speed below the sound barrier until he leaves populated areas.

Speed Force and Other Messes

The previous eight sections talk about physics problems with the basic premise of the Flash. The solution, I would argue has to be to preserve these inconsistencies, because the character has so much traction with his powers working the way they've always been portrayed. Nobody wants a Flash who flies all the time or suddenly has super-strength and invulnerability close to those of Superman.

The aura was the first attempt to explain one Internal Inconsistency, because one story wanted to make friction part of the science-plot. This put the inconsistency so evidently into focus that the writer needed to explain it, and the solution has stuck. I think when you look at the previous eight sections of this post, you see that explaining that one thing while leaving the others unaddressed is like correcting one spelling error on a page with a dozen.

Terminal Velocity also introduced the idea of the Speed Force, which (not a force in the strict sense used in physics) has been used to explain some of the inconsistencies. I think it (in other words, axiomatic pseudoscience in place of real science) might helpfully address some of the other inconsistencies. For example, by basing the Flash's speed on motion within an equipotential surface within a gravitational field, the problem of the Flash reaching orbital velocity, and therefore flying off the surface of the Earth, would be dealt with.

One strategy for dealing with any of these problems is -- and I mean this kindly -- to dumb the stories down with respect to physics. The Golden Age stories didn't introduce such sophistication as Bates and Waid tried to work with later. In my view, Waid generally introduced just as much physics as he wanted to deal with, whereas Bates used pseudoscience as a deus ex machina, keeping his stories scientific until he'd boxed the Flash into a corner, then introducing some utterly new manifestation of pseudoscience to resolve the story.

The Golden Age stories work by ignoring any pretense of real science. Stories with real science can work, too, if the writer is up to his or her own challenge. I believe that "When one door closes, another door opens." A great story can use science just as much or as little as the writer cares to use, but the real Golden Rule of pseudoscience is to have consistency in terms of how real the science is.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Batman and Robin #6

As Grant Morrison's 12-part run on Batman and Robin reaches the midpoint, its intrigue is at an apex. The run has been structured as four three-issue story arcs. But the fourth one will from all indications be the greatest among equals, showcasing characters who have held the power behind the scenes during the three initial arcs.

The third arc was full of action, with the dynamic figures of Philip Tan illustrating clashes between two dynamic duos, as Jason Todd and his sidekick square off against the title characters. And finally, the four of them barely matching a newcomer, Flamingo. The great majority of issues #4 through #6 were devoted to this plot. I'm not, however, going to say too much about it here, because that plot was in some regards self-contained, and has come to a neat end with Jason's incarceration.

However, just as Sasha, the human fallout from the first story arc "fell into" the second one, a comment from Jason at the end of this second arc, is falling into the third one. I use the domino metaphor because of its obvious importance to a mystery behind this run, a story element that was in concrete terms absent from #6.

For the purposes of the future, #6 ended with two short scenes that were almost bursting with hints about where the story is going. In the first, Oberon Sexton receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself with or as El Penitente. In the second, Dick Grayson, goaded on by earlier comments from Jason Todd (whose resurrection was aided by a Lazarus Pit) appears to visit the body of "Batman" in a sealed vault, with the dialogue as well as two different preview panels indicating that this body may be placed into a Lazarus Pit. For the moment, these two sets of clues appear to lead in two different directions, although the El Penitente and "body of Bruce Wayne" stories will likely end up colliding by the fourth arc.

I'm going to take the unusual (for me) step of putting a lot of pieces together in one effort. I grant that some of what I posit here may not be true, but there is such an inter-relation of clues that it would seem coy to talk about each one for a while before assembling them into a story.

The seated man is El Penitente. The "penitentes" are, after all, a Latin American sect within Roman Catholicism whose essential trait is acting out the crucifixion, including self-whipping (Jesus faced whips before the cross). And the seated man has a whip in his hand, scars on his back, and has bared himself, evidently, for that task. He is definitely "a" penitente if not "the" penitente (note that Santos was wearing the tunic of a Penitente in #4). And his language also indicates that he is the principal player on his side of this war: He uses the the first-person singular when he says "I have unfinished business in Gotham City, and scores to settle." He's not a follower.

More significant, the seated man is evidently Doctor Hurt, or is somehow or another channeling whatever essence was Doctor Hurt before. He wears the Thomas Wayne batmask. He has the same distinctive hairline. He uses the phrase "your sins have found you out" (Doctor Hurt said this in the final issue of Batman, RIP). His speech is dense with statements of his own power and his listener's weakness, something Hurt has done in every panel where he's spoken. The newspapers and notes on Oberon Sexton's bed indicate two Devil / Black Glove elements: A five-pointed star (key to the Satanic future plot of #666) under the indecipherable photograph of one person, and the exact headline seen in the "Six months later" scene at the end of RIP: "Gruesome Slaying of Beloved Cardinal"... surely Cardinal Maggi, a Black Glove member.

Somehow, Doctor Hurt has reloaded very rapidly, taking command of a large criminal organization running out of Mexico. The scores he has to settle in Gotham probably have a lot more to do with his failure to best Bruce Wayne in Batman, RIP than with a cash-driven drug pushing ring. And if he's punishing himself for anything, it's probably that loss. And the fresh injuries in the shape of the W more than likely mean that he's conscious of the name Wayne as the source of his woe.

El Penitente's comments hint that he has a past association with Oberon Sexton. We've been told that Oberon Sexton's face was "scarred" and his "wife" killed. And that suggests that Oberon Sexton is actually Mangrove Pierce, last seen hanging upside down before Mayhew's party, with Hurt about to skin and wear Pierce's face. Apparently, Pierce was let go, faceless, and has put together this life for himself. His lover, the former wife of Mayhew, was killed by her husband. He's tracking down whoever killed the Cardinal and probably other former members of the Black Glove. Which suggests that the Joker, who vowed to "collect his winnings" from the members of the Black Glove is the same serial killer that Sexton is tracking down. Remember also that in Batman #680, one of the Black Glove members mentions that Doctor Hurt is fond of utilizing actors. As he reaches out now to Sexton to do something for him, it's possible that Sexton, as Pierce, was one of the actors who has worked for him previously.

So this page gives us good reason to believe that a number of pending mysteries for the year can be tentatively resolved from the clues in just three panels. Case closed? No. In principle, all kinds of other possibilities are still open. But this is the most economical reading of the clues.

Furthermore, the Domino Killer is probably not the "serial killer" that Sexton is after. The faulty solicit for #1 said that Batman and Robin would be on the trail of a child abducted by the Domino Killer. Sasha was abducted by Professor Pyg. Pyg used the word "dominoes". His drug / plan matches El Penitente's very well. An addiction you can catch -- sounds like the sort of soul-destruction that the Devil yearns for. The Domino Killer may likely be an agent of El Penitente.

And what of the body and the Lazarus Pit? The preview at the end of #1 showed us a "Batman" rising from what we now must feel sure is a Lazarus Pit while Batwoman appears to resist Dick Grayson's efforts. The previews at the end of #1 show her and some bat-hand (almost surely belonging to the body that Dick looks at at the end of #6). Which leads to a sharp contradiction with the belief that Dick has expressed quite clearly, that the body that Black Hand exhumed as part of Blackest Night is Bruce Wayne's.

This amounts to two conflicting assertions regarding a body being Bruce Wayne's. (Let's forget about the Bruce in the past for now -- that's not a direct conflict with any Bruce body in the present.) Moreover, We have been told in an October "DC Nation" column by Dan Didio that Batman and Robin "7 was so important to events in the DC Universe that it had to come out after Blackest Night 6". The most economical reading of this is that the conflict between the two assertions will be resolved by Batman and Robin #7 but will not be resolved by Blackest Night #6. The solicit for the former advertises "the details surrounding the 'death' of Bruce Wayne!" Evidently, Blackest Night #6 has some drama that is better served if we don't know that.

If if comes down to one or the other, the odds are far on the side of the body that Black Hand stole being the real Bruce. He has used it for some nefarious raising-the-dead purpose and his project has worked. Moreover, we have reason to doubt that the Lazarus Pit project will work -- it's probably too early for Bruce to come back. Granted, Dan Didio has also said "There were two Batmen [in Countdown, or with Earth Two?]. And that, honestly, is one of the cruxes of the storylines that will be playing out in 2010." So Bruce and Dick may overlap. But January seems too early for that. Batman and Batman and Robin? So my guess is that Dick knows that the body in the grave is the real one and he takes something else to the British Isles looking to test a Lazarus Pit on it and getting something that is not Batman. Naturally, Batwoman, who's been running into devil types on her own, would have reason to be concerned and perhaps to want to stop the effort.

We have been told by Grant Morrison that the Bruce in the past is Bruce. So a body in a Lazarus Pit is probably not the way we'll get Bruce back. (But who knows what rules exist governing spirits in the past, Lazarus Pits, and bodies in the present? A writer could make anything happen that is convenient for the story.) I think Dick will get a body to rise up and do something, but it won't be Bruce. The teaser title reinforces that: Blackest Knight. That sounds like, at best, Zombie Bruce, not "Hurray -- Bruce is back!"

Given that Squire appears in the promotional art for the next arc, I should add that in the Club of Heroes storyline way back in Batman #667-669 (where Mangrove Pierce first appeared, too), the story of the Knight resembled considerably what the Black Glove soon did to Batman -- he lost his fortune and was on drugs in the streets. If I were to interview Morrison, I would ask if that was the Black Glove practicing on a lesser superhero or was it foreshadowing on his part, or some subconscious expression of the larger plot that was coming. (The Musketeer also had a story that accurately foretold the final setting of RIP as a situation in which Batman faced two of his deadliest enemies in an insane asylum.)

There's a lot of uncertainty still out there, but I think the clues in #6 makes it likely that we know who most of the players are for this run. I think we'll see Dick Grayson try something with a Lazarus Pit that will one way or another fail to bring Bruce back. (Maybe one of the clones from Last Rites.) I think that will serve as our confirmation that Black Hand, indeed, has Bruce's actual skull in his hand. And we'll see the Black Glove's supporting cast move to the forefront when this story moves into the fourth arc.

In the meantime, we can scrutinize the clue-filled pages of Batman and Robin #6 as much as we want, looking for other possibilities -- the next issue of the series is two and a half months away.